(The Seahorse Story:) nest
by Betty Plotnick

Justin has a press conference six weeks after the hatching. Six weeks had always been the plan, even long before Justin realized what a good plan it was. It's almost six weeks before he can even think about doing anything at all besides having a nervous breakdown.

He imagined it would be easy for him. He didn't give birth; he's not all worn out. He's not nursing, and the house is full of other people who are just as able and willing as he is to come when they're called, to feed and rock and comfort. He's used to being surrounded by people who put demands on his time, used to eighteen-hour days and all-nighters and being tired and hassled and still saying, It's all right, no, I don't mind. He even knows when and how to be a jerk, just to get it out there so that it happens in a controlled way, and he doesn't feel guilty about it. "You're evil," he can say to his daughter, picking her up when she cries and waving her own small hand in front of her face to provide a distraction. "I'm selling you on eBay. I'm leaving you on Jane Carter's doorstep." He doesn't feel guilty because this is how it's always worked for him; he's not afraid to be a selfish asshole sometimes, because he knows it's a pretty small part of him, all things considered, and he trusts the people he loves to know it too. His children are only a few weeks old, but they look at him with their shiny, near-sighted, colorful eyes and he knows it's fine, knows he loves them, knows they get it already.

So it's good, and he's coping. But that thing about it being easy, that was stupid. It's hard, and he knows he's been living tired for years now, but this is the next level of tired. He's always hated learning new things, that twilight zone between something he's never tried and something he knows he can do, and every day of it with fatherhood is draining. Sometimes he's bitchy and resentful because it seems so fucking easy for everyone else. Not just his parents and Chris and Joey, who at least have the thin rationale of having done this or something like it at least once before, but Lance, who is as fundamentally unruffled by babies as he is by every fucking thing else, and Trace, who seems to be born for this. Sometimes Justin thinks he's just not stable enough to do this, and he retreats into things he knows. He's rewritten his press conference statement fifteen times, not because the earlier drafts weren't all right, but just because he finds working on it soothing. He's trying to write for the new album, but it's not really coming together yet, possibly because JC is too busy to talk it out with him, possibly just because he's distracted.

But overall, it's been a good experience. He's learning how to listen, which he knows he sucks at. He hasn't learned as much about delegating as maybe he would have hoped, and maybe deep down he still thinks he can do everything he wants all the time with no repercussions, but on the other hand, fuck, if that changed he wouldn't even recognize himself, so maybe it's all for the best. He's learned that all the love he's ever thought he felt for anyone in his life was just the beginning. If he's been humbled at all by the parenting thing, it's probably by that part.


Justin is pretty much the same as he always was, which pisses Trace off at first, because Trace feels like a totally different person, and he hates how he always seems to be the one who takes things that happen to them to heart, the one who adapts while Justin just forges onward. But then it becomes comforting.

He watches the press conference, or an edited version of it anyway, on MTV news. The adoption papers are a matter of public record, so it's not like there's any way they could have skipped this part even if they'd wanted to, and Trace thinks he was the only one who wanted to. Justin has never really accepted anything as real unless there are witnesses -- the more witnesses, the more real. Trace wonders sometimes what that's going to mean for their relationship, assuming they have one, but they can burn that bridge when they come to it.

So there's a press conference, and Justin reads the statement that he wouldn't let anyone help him with, about a distant relative (whose privacy he's sure everyone appreciates his desire to protect), about a pregnancy she wasn't ready for (which is a situation that millions of young people in this country are facing right now) and her choice to place her children for adoption (which is a really wonderful and responsible thing to do, and very brave, and the whole family is proud). He seems to start ignoring the paper at one point; Trace doesn't know if he's been over it so many times he has it memorized, or if he's improvising. He looks at the cameras with his serious, sincere eyes and says that he's lucky, he's so blessed, and even though he's always appreciated that, he's more grateful now than he's ever been, to be at this place in his life right when he needed to be.

And now Lauralynn and Janelle exist, officially. Justin answers a few questions about them -- four pounds eight ounces and four pounds ten, yes, it seems small, but the family has been assured that they're completely healthy -- and a few about himself -- tired, he says with a little smile, but happy. They ask about the group, and he manages to plug JC's album and his own November concert dates in the midst of assuring everybody that N Sync is looking forward to being in the studio again soon, very, very soon. They ask about family, and he looks even more tired, even more serious. He says he's always wanted this, didn't think it would be so soon, but things happen in life that you can't plan for. He says it's hard, but he doesn't feel like he's doing it himself. He says his mother is always there for him, he says everyone around him is so supportive. He fiddles with the edge of his podium when they ask where the girls are now, and he says at home.

He mentions Trace, calls him his assistant and his friend. Trace has always been there for me, he says, and he's great with kids. We're really lucky, Justin says. I'm really lucky, Justin says, to have him.


Trace buzzes up to Nick's new apartment, and when Nick answers the intercom, he identifies himself by saying, "Rubber nipple salesman."

"Don't need any," Nick says promptly. "But do you have any rubber walrus protectors?"

Trace grins at the wall and hitches Lauralynn up against his shoulder. Maybe his favorite thing about Nick, trivial as it sounds, is Nick's ability to remember stupid lines from stupid Ren & Stimpy episodes. It's one thing Justin can't do. He has a mind like a steel trap for the crucial things, choreography and lyrics and influential people's names, but he usually just looks at Trace blankly when Trace tries to quote something at him.

It occurs to him that Nick is maybe his best friend now. Now that Justin is...something else, maybe. That's startling, but not in a bad way, once Trace thinks about it.

It's murder getting the double-wide stroller and both diaper bags and both children into the building and into the elevator by himself. Nick is there at the top to help him off, saying, "What, he kick y'all out of the house?"

"Just came to see you. This a bad time?"

Nick shrugs and lets him into the apartment, which is much nicer than Trace expected it to be, with a big-screen tv and glass tables and a skylight. Trace remembers the apartment in Memphis that he had for a year after he graduated high school, where everything was stored in stackable Rubbermaid containers and he ate frozen dinners off the top of a steamer trunk and split the rent with two other guys from his job at the warehouse. He liked being on his own, but it never really felt like home; he was flying out almost every weekend to be with Justin, and when they fired him at the warehouse for refusing to give up the weekend of the Madison Square Garden concert for "mandatory overtime," Justin said, What are you even doing there, seriously? Point taken, I get it, you're independent. Now, Jesus, will you please just come stay with me?

"This is really nice," Trace says. "Justin pays for this?"

He doesn't mean anything by it -- Christ, how could he, from where he stands? But Nick kind of glares at him and says, "Yeah, but I didn't ask. I mean, I have money, I've been working a lot lately. Just modeling jobs, but I could afford a regular apartment, you know? But he kept saying it would be better for my career if -- I don't know, for giving parties, or just to have a nice address. I told him he didn't have to-- "

"No, I know, that's cool. And hey, don't be like, *just* modeling. It worked for Heath and Ashton, right?" Nick relaxes and smiles at that, holds his arms out for the baby. "I miss you," Trace finds himself saying as he hands her over. He rewinds that in his brain, trying to think of a way to make it sound more macho or whatever, but he just does, he misses Nick, who can beat Trace at pinball and do the Donald Duck voice and make his own caramel corn, and who never minds being woken up at two in the morning to sit up with Trace when he can't sleep and wants to watch Edward Scissorhands again.

"I know, but. It was time." Nick isn't much for kids, but even he can't help smiling down into Lauralynn's blue eyes. He catches her wrist and pushes it gently away as her hand comes up groping for his nose. "J's a daddy now, he can't be running Camp Timberlake forever. Is it weird for you?"

So many things are weird for Trace, not to mention all the things that Nick might think are weird but really aren't. Trace doesn't really know where to begin. "Weird how?"

Nick shrugs. He has those same blue eyes, Lauralynn's eyes. Trace isn't sure when he started thinking of them as Lauralynn's eyes instead of Justin's. "You know. Us. The family. I mean, you're like, the first new person I ever knew that knows about it. Does it seem really weird to you?"

"Not -- not really."

He can see Nick relax a little, and break out into a grin. "I think it's weird that it was Justin, you know? I mean, we have a lot of skanky cousins. If you asked me who I thought would wind up a single mom, I wouldn't have said Justin. He was always the one with the big future."

"I don't think his big future is totally out of the question now," Trace says. Janelle tries to chew on his fingers as he unfastens her from the stroller and picks her up, so she's probably hungry. It's not really time yet, but she was fussy that morning and wouldn't eat at the regular time. "And what's that supposed to mean, skanky cousins? It could happen to anybody. It happens to plenty of people. It's no crime to get laid, and accidents happen. God knows if you swung that way, you'd probably be barefoot and pregnant your whole damn life."

"Probably." Nick gives him a surprisingly keen look over the top of Lauralynn's head and says, "So when was the last time you got laid?"

Trace throws up one hand and gestures at the piled-up bags and the stroller at his feet. "I'm a little fucking busy, you know?"

"As long as it's that," Nick says, "and not that you're getting sucked even deeper into this Sam and Frodo thing that you two have going."

"Don't act like you've ever read a book." For a second it's mostly amusing and a tiny bit annoying, and then as the words repeat in Trace's head, those two things swap around. "I'm not the goddamn gardener," he says.

"No," Nick says, too blunt, like always. "You're the nanny."

Which isn't true, it's so not true. Trace opens his mouth to argue, then closes it again. Nobody else really knows yet about him and Justin. Well, Lynn does, but that doesn't count as telling people, that's just par for the course. He's not sure what he's supposed to say. Most of the time he's not even sure what he's supposed to think. "You don't know what you're talking about," he finally says.

"It just seems like, the last couple of years, everything falls more and more by the wayside except for Justin. You used to want to design stuff, you used to draw a lot more than you do now, you used to have girlfriends. It's like the you've decided the next best thing to Justin knowing about your crush on him is Justin letting you work for him, and it's not the same thing. It's not even close."

"Shove it up your ass, Chastain. You don't know what you're talking about, all right?" On so many different counts, because first of all, he doesn't have a crush. He's not some teenage girl with a picture of Justin taped up beside his bed. And he doesn't work for Justin -- well, he does, but it's not because -- it's not how Nick makes it sound. Also, Justin does know. Now he knows, and he kissed Trace before he left this morning, and if Trace thinks about it he can still feel the brief pressure on his lips, still smell Justin's toothpaste and the scent of fresh laundry, so it's at least as galling to realize how pathetically hopeless Nick is assuming that Trace's feelings are as it is to know that he's been that transparent for he hates to even think how long now.

Nick makes a comically shocked face and presses Lauralynn to his chest, one hand covering up the ear that isn't against his body. Trace laughs. It's pretty much impossible to hold a grudge against Nick. "Sam's the one who gets the girl, you know," he says.

Nick's eyes fly open wide, and he says, "Dude! Don't ruin the next movie for me." Then he looks down at Lauralynn for a second and offers her back to Trace. "Trade me for one that doesn't smell weird," he demands, and Trace rolls his eyes and complies.


"It's an opening," Justin says. "Kinda formal. Change of pace," he adds mischievously, batting at the cloth over Trace's shoulder, where Lauralynn spit up twenty minutes ago. He keeps getting sidetracked on the way to the laundry chute.

"Ties and shit?" Trace clarifies.

Justin takes it wrong. His head drops immediately, like he's ashamed for suggesting it, and he says, "We don't have to go."

Trace has to reach out and take his arm to keep him from backing down the hallway. All of Justin's sexual confidence, his whole player persona, it's nothing but studio technology. Really, he's useless at this. "Ties and shit," Trace tells him firmly. "Sounds fun. It's a date."

It's their third.


Justin has been awake for a couple of hours when Lonnie gets there, making phone calls, which is pretty much what he does for a living these days. JC's junket is almost over, and then they'll do a month on the album before Justin has to go back to Europe for a little bit, and it all fits together in Justin's head, he can visualize how it's all going to work out, even though it comes out garbled and impossible when he tries to explain it. It's going to work just fine.

His leg is cramping, but every time he quits bouncing it, Lauralynn starts to cry again. She's so high-maintenance, and plus, he doesn't think she likes him very much.

She seems to take all right to Lonnie, who can practically hold her in the palm of his hand, like Chris could hold the pugs when they were puppies. "Ready?" Lonnie says to him, while he's letting Lauralynn gnaw on his finger. Justin keeps being afraid that someone will mention how his children chew on things when ordinary babies are supposed to suck on things, but nobody ever does. Maybe it's just not something you say to a father, even if you do notice -- what's wrong with your weird kid?

"Yeah," Justin says, glancing at the stairs. "I guess." He thought Trace was going to come along, but he tried to wake Trace up twice, and it didn't seem to take.

Just then, though, Trace shows up. He's dressed, but he hasn't shaved, and he looks vaguely pissed off as he spins his keyring around the tip of his finger. Justin knows he must be in love, because Trace looks about two seconds away from bitching Justin out about anything and everything from what time he fed the girls last night to the air quality in California, and yet Justin is still happy to see him. "Morning, Cowboy," Lonnie says.

Trace summons up a smile from somewhere and says, "Hey."

"So, you're coming to the park?" Justin says.

"You were in my fucking room, fucker." He says it almost pleasantly, which Justin knows just means he's only getting started. "Don't move my shit, and certainly don't take my shit, I pretty much thought that should go without saying. You'd probably call the fucking cops on me if I so much as put blue shoes in the white closet. Give it back."

He's even holding out his hand, like he thinks Justin has the damn things on him, one, and like he's really going to give them back, two. "I'm sorry, I was just looking for, I ran out of contact solution, I was gonna bum some from you, but you were asleep, and I just found them, and."

"Whatever, you're a shit, don't go through my stuff, and give them back now."

"I can't. I ran them down the garbage disposal." Trace stares at him as if he's just admitted to chopping the heads off of live chickens in the bathtub. "Don't give me that look, dude. You promised me you were quitting."

"I am. I did. That was just -- that's my security pack. That's how I know that I've quit, because I can have them in the house and not smoke them."

Justin throws out his hands in front of him. "Congratulations. You quit. Now you know."

"Okay, I.... When I was done with that pack-- "

"Aha, see?"

"When I was done with that pack, I was going to-- "

"Well, now you're going to a little sooner, because you're done with that pack."

"Fuck you."

"Man, would you not?"

"They don't care, they don't understand me, and I'm only giving up one bad habit at a time for you, and now I'm thinking about not even doing that, since you're being such a pushy bitch about it."

"It's not for me. You know that."

Trace's indignation leaks out of him almost immediately, because he does know that. But he glares at Justin one last time anyway. "Are we taking the dogs?"

"We can if you're coming. I can't really transport everybody by myself."

"I said I was coming. Unless I'm not invited to your publicity stunt."

"You are invited. That's why I, you know, invited you. Though I don't know why you would even want to go, since you're so set against it."

For a second he thinks Trace is going to argue the point. He's never said he had a problem with any of this, but Justin's not stupid. But then he just shakes his head and says, "You used to hate giving them anything, and now you're calling them up. Is this how it's going to be now -- you, me, your mom, the kids, and the press? That's a pretty full house."

Justin can't help smiling at that. "Can I be John Stamos?"

"No, you're Bob Saget, so live with it," Trace snaps back, and Justin can see that he doesn't want to be smiling, either, but he is.

"There is a method to my madness, you know," Justin says, touching Trace's shoulder when he won't look up at him. "If we gorge them on stupid fluff stories about adorable park outings, they may be too busy to go looking for a better angle. Like their mother." He never paid much attention to tabloids before, but for some reason Justin finds himself buying up and saving the ones that claim to have uncovered which B-list celebrity or porn star or politician's daughter secretly gave birth to Justin's love children. He kind of likes them, because they're just so stupidly fake that they have this campy quality. It's the reporters who believe in research instead of just making shit up that keep Justin awake nights. "Trust me, okay?" Justin says, and he knows that he sounds bitter and exhausted, but he's only the second of those things, mostly. "I do this for a living, you know. Let me do it."

"Did you stop being a musician for a living at some point?"

"Years back," Justin says. "I think now I'm a celebrity full-time."

Trace looks at him for a minute, his eyes soft, and Justin wants to reach out and take his hand, but he doesn't. Finally Trace smiles sourly and says, "Cry me a fucking river. Your life is so hard. Do you want to be in charge of babies or dogs?"

Justin shoves his shoulder and says, "I'll take babies. They don't run as fast."

After Trace leaves the room, calling for Bella and Bear, Justin notices Lonnie smirking at him. He still has Lauralynn in his hands, and she's sleeping. She never seems to go to sleep for Justin; he worries that she doesn't feel safe around him for some reason. "Women, huh?" Lonnie says.

Justin opens his mouth, but he can't think of a single thing to say to that. Lonnie's eyes are twinkling. Lonnie has been seeing the same woman for almost five years now, a really nice lady named Carmen who's some kind of hospital technician and who can't be stopped from cleaning the buses when she visits on tour. Justin thinks they're not married only because Lonnie's life will never be settled and stable until all five of his employers are rooted permanently to the same spot, and that may never happen at all. Justin has always felt guilty about that. But he's not sure what it has to do with Trace.

"I know you think I'm paid to be big," Lonnie says, "but I'm actually paid to notice when things change. You're gonna fool a lot of people. But not me."

"We..." Justin begins, and then realizes he's pretty much said it all right there.

Lonnie shrugs his half-hearted protest away. "Anybody ever needed a wife, it's you."

He doesn't say anything about the conversation to Trace, but he keeps being amused by it all over again and laughing out loud and apparently nothing. He must look more than just amused, too, because he's on the swingset with Janelle on his lap, landlocked but swaying back and forth while fifteen photographers get their pictures, and Trace says, "Stop that."

"Stop what?" Justin says, using the same trick of talking under his breath and not quite looking directly at Trace so nobody will notice they're talking to each other at all.

"Making googly eyes at me."

Trace is still unshaven, with puffy eyes and wearing jeans and a t-shirt that probably needed a decent burial a year ago. All the jewelry he's wearing, Justin bought for him, including the diamonds. Justin throws his head back and laughs, and his daughter chews, quiet and apparently content, on the lapel of his leather jacket.

"Okay, we need some kind of chart," Justin says, when he comes downstairs in the morning. "I have zero concept anymore of who's living with me when."

Chris blows him a kiss. "See, some people just come to make a big, showy fuss over your cute babies, but I'm not faithless like that. I'm thinking about moving in."

That would be a little scary, if Justin believed him. Part of the reason he loves living with Chris on tour is because he knows there's always an end in sight. "You spent the night here?"

"Didn't think you'd mind." Chris is acting like this is all perfectly normal, just going through Justin's refrigerator and checking the expiration dates on all the dairy products like he just stopped over while he was in the neighborhood, even though he lives in Florida.

"Of course I don't mind. Hey," he adds in Trace's direction. Trace is feeding Lauralynn, or trying to. She seems determined to work on her motor skills by attempting to grab hold of the spoon instead.

Trace glances up at him and says, "Hey," back. His voice is just a little softer, a little huskier than it has to be, and his eyes linger just a little bit on the way the loosely tied drawstring on Justin's flannel pajama bottoms let them ride low on his hips. It's nothing much, but it feels revealing to Justin, and he flushes, looking back at Chris.

Oblivious, Chris surfaces from the refrigerator with a carton of eggs. "Hey, do you ever look at eggs and just go -- Augh! Gross! Like it's all cannibalistic and shit to you?"

"No, because I'm not crazy," Justin says, grabbing the eggs out of his hands. "There was never anything alive in there, and if there were anything alive in there, they'd be chickens. I have no problem eating chickens." Chris gives him his quirked-eyebrow, I-will-not-be-fooled look, and Justin relents and adds honestly, "I prefer cereal, okay? It's just a thing."

"Well, brace yourself, because I'm scrambling."

"Fine with me." Justin picks up Janelle, who lets out a thin whine. She sounds hungry; God knows how long she's been waiting for her more assertive sister to get sick of monopolizing Trace. "You could, if you're going to be crashing here randomly, help out a little, you know."

"I tried, smartass. They both hate me, wouldn't have a thing to do with me. That one cried until she had Trace waiting on her hand and foot again."

"Runs in the family," Trace says, and Justin makes a face at him.

"Hey! Oops." In his enthusiasm for whatever he just thought up, Chris seems to have dropped an egg on the floor. Justin glares at him and goes for a paper towel. "You know what had cool reptiles?" Chris continues, the broken egg no longer his problem. "V. Did you ever watch V? Are you even old enough to remember that show?"

"Yeah," Justin says vaguely. "They ate kittens. That's all I really remember."

"So did Alf. Was Alf the only really successful non-Muppet puppet in showbusiness?" For no real reason, except that Chris's random changes of topic should be punishable somehow, Justin throws the eggy paper towel at him. Chris grins and wipes his forehead with the back of his hand.

"Are you only counting puppets with their own shows?" Trace says, like establishing ground rules is really going to elevate this conversation into suddenly making sense. "I mean, there's Ed the Sock."

"And Triumph! Yes!"

"Shut up!" Justin says.

"Don't forget Yoda. He was a movie stahhh," Trace drawls. Justin would think he was being ignored, except Trace is grinning like he does when he's working Justin's nerves on purpose. Chris starts to sing the Weird Al song while he scrambles the eggs, and Trace hums along on the chorus.

Justin sits down with his cereal box in one hand and Janelle balanced against his other shoulder. "Yoda was a Muppet, anyway," he mutters. "Not that I'm participating in this. But he was a Muppet."

"There was that one very Triumph-like puppet," Trace muses. "He used to do dog-food commercials, or pet store commercials, or something like that. They were pretty big for a while. Can you technically be really successful if you only do commercials?"

"You can be famous from commercials," Justin says before he can think to stop himself, and now he's committed to defending his point. "Like the Where's the beef? lady. Or the Dude, you're getting a Dell guy."

"I want to see those two get it on," Chris says.

"Seriously, get out of my house."

"Can I call you Diana from now on?"

"Okay." Chris will call him Diana for maybe two hours, and then forget all about it. Justin mashes the Froot Loops against the bottom of his bowl, then stirs it all up until it's a stew of soggy, brightly colored fiber, and then he spoons it up for Janelle, who eats it greedily and then tries to keep the spoon in her mouth, gumming at it like she thinks it's food, too.

"Don't feed her that gross sugar mess," Trace says.

"Oh, Jesus, relax. I do this all the time. It doesn't hurt them any."

"Will they eat eggs?" Chris says. "Not in a weird way. That was actually meant to be an honest question."

"They'll eat anything," Justin tells him. They really will, as long as you can grind it up soft enough.

"So that's an excuse?" Trace grumbles.

"Blow me," Justin says pleasantly, and puts his heel up on seat of the chair he's sitting in, sliding forward into a pose that, if not quite obscene, is at least very...available.

Predictably, Trace won't look at him for the rest of breakfast.


They stay home for their first date, three weeks and some change after the hatching; it's everyone else who has to go. Lynn has her own nice evening out with her husband, and a Plaza suite for the weekend. The girls spend their first night away from Justin, at JC and Lance's. The plan is for low-key and romantic, Italian food and candles on the floor, a rented movie. Just peaceful, just them.

The movie is Shakespeare in Love, which Trace gives in to because Justin swears it will be funny, and actually it is. Trace has had kind of a crush on Gwyneth Paltrow for like forever, but he finds himself watching the Shakespeare guy during the love scenes, wondering if he's so sure he can handle this. Not the sex part, because he's got all that worked out and it doesn't really bother him to know that he can get turned on by men. But it's one thing to say that guys are on the table, are an option for him, and something else to say this, I choose only this. Only him, forever.

Trace never questions that part. It has to be forever or not at all. For him and Justin it does.

Justin leans on him all through the movie, and during the quiet music of the credits, Trace notices that he's running his fingers up and down Justin's arm. Justin is looking up at him, sleepy and pensive, and Trace knows he has to say something now, right now. They've both been waiting three and a half weeks to find a moment, and now they have one, this is it. "I want this," he says. It's painfully stupid, but he tells himself that the moment is more important than what's actually said. He unfolds his hand so that his palm instead of his fingers is on Justin's skin. "I want you. Just...so you know."

Justin brushes his fingers over Trace's knee. "I know. And I do, too, I want this. Us. But I think that we need to be careful, because...because we have all of this to worry about now. This family, our kids."

It's useless to try to do anything with this moment. It takes all of Trace's strength just to keep breathing through it. Justin has never called them that before. "Okay," he finally manages. "Slow, okay?"

By now, Justin is already asleep. He needs the rest, so Trace doesn't wake him up. They sleep the whole night straight through on the couch, just peaceful, just them.


In spite of ties and shit, Justin knows full well he won't wear a suit to the restaurant opening; he looks like a tool in suits, and tonight he has a lot more than cameras on his mind.

"It seems like leather used to be formal, but it's not anymore," he tells his mother, modeling his most recent outfit choice, the same sweater as earlier, but this time with brown leather pants. "Now it's just leather, right? I can't wear this, right?"

"You look nice," she says, eyeing him critically. "It is a little casual, but still classy."

Justin scowls in the mirror. He doesn't know, he hates this kind of stuff. Trace is better with clothes, but it seems stupid to hit up your date in advance to make him tell you what to wear. Justin has a stylist, but she's on vacation, like all his other non-essential personnel at this point. He's tempted to call and get the number for Lance's stylist, but then on the other hand, this is how he always wrecks things. Overthinking, trying too hard.

"It needs a necklace," she says. The sweater is a deep blue cashmere with a v-neck, ridiculously expensive, ridiculously touchable. It's new, and Justin loves it. She may be right about the necklace, although it probably means he'll have to choose a different watch, something simpler. It's supposed to be a simple outfit, clean. Classy.

"I really think I have to have sex with Trace," he says.

His mother laughs at him. Not like he's not used to that. "Oh, Justin, baby," she says, hugging him from behind. "You have the weirdest way of putting things. So who's making you have sex with Trace, you think?"

He smiles a little in spite of himself. "Okay, not that kind of have to. I just keep wanting to wait until I'm sure it won't be weird, and I just think I have to do it, and then we'll know if it's weird or not."

"Weird in what way?" she asks gently.

Justin shrugs. "Just, like. Sometimes if you're too good of friends with someone, it feels...weird." He realizes that he's not the best person to be making this argument. He doesn't remember anything weird about his first time with Britney, or with Lance. "Well, like I could never sleep with JC," he says, relieved to have thought of something that proves his point. "It would be weird."

"You're sure of that?"

"Of course I'm sure. JC? Come on."

"See, now at least you can tell who you don't want to sleep with, and that's more than halfway there."

He can't tell sometimes if she's making fun of him or not. "I still think we need to have sex to be sure."

"Well, I did figure that was the point of the fuck-me sweater."

"It's not a fuck-me sweater." He's almost affronted on behalf of the sweater, like she's implying he wouldn't have bought it if he weren't horny and lonely. It's a great sweater; he would have bought it no matter what. "There's not even such a thing as a fuck-me sweater," he grumbles. "Sweaters aren't even sexy." Although if they were, this one would be. It's soft, and it makes his eyes look even bluer, the same sapphire blue as Lauralynn's eyes.

His mother makes a noise like she doesn't believe him at all, but she only says, "Then you probably won't appreciate the fuck-me tie I helped Trace pick out, either. Men."

He can hardly ever tell if she's making fun of him or not.


On their second date, they sneak late into a matinee at the dollar theater. They sit in the back row and hold hands. It's some big-budget heist flick that Trace has been wanting to see, but he ends up barely paying attention. They don't kiss, before, during, or after, at the theater or at home.

It's a little intimidating -- the big milestone, the date kiss, the Real Kiss. Once it's done, it's done. And if it's good, then things get easier, maybe, but if it's awkward or hollow or just not a turn-on, then who knows what happens next?

They do kiss sometimes, mostly to prove that they can, a token gift to reaffirm that this is still going on, this dating-relationship thing. They kiss each other at breakfast or in the hallway, good morning and sorry about that and see you when I get back, quick and affectionate kisses like they've been married for ninety years already.

But they don't kiss when it might be scary. They don't kiss at night, and they don't kiss when they're alone -- not a problem, really, since they're hardly ever alone, with family and friends coming and going like it's a goddamn coffee house now, like Justin's kids are a twenty-four hour tourist attraction. Justin and Trace used to barge thoughtlessly in and out of each other's bedrooms all the time, but they don't do that anymore. Privacy is at a premium, and also, of course, there's that fear thing again.

Everything is different now. Justin tries to explain that to Chris, and he says, "Stop it, you're making homosexuality sound not fun anymore." Trace tries to explain it to Nick, who says, "So you're not like your normal best-friend selves anymore, and you're still not getting laid? Whose great plan was this?"


People take a lot of pictures of Justin outside the restaurant. Trace watches the familiar choreography with amusement, all those photographers angling deftly to get Trace out of the shot without even consciously noticing him there. He'll be visible in some of the pictures anyway, and still nobody will notice.

"Justin!" somebody calls out. They always call him by name, in that tone that implies they know him. "Where are the twins?"

"With their grandma," he shouts back, and smiles. "She won't hardly let us have them to ourselves at all, most days." Everybody laughs, including Trace, but for a different reason.

He just thinks it's funny, how nobody ever hears what's being said right out loud, the same way they only see what they'd rather see. The picture they want is the one they'll always get. If Trace had his tongue in Justin's fucking ear, they'd probably just airbrush him out and run the shot of Justin.

Who really does look amazing tonight.


Britney is at the opening too, and they hug each other while the world goes blindingly white with flashbulbs. Justin can't quite remember when they stopped having to worry the captions under the pictures would say they hated each other and start worrying they'd say they were sleeping together again, but that's how it is now. They hug with space between their bodies, not because it still hurts to hold each other, but just because they're sick of people asking if they're back together yet.

"Are you really selling the house?" he asks under his breath.

"Trying," she says. "The album's done, want me to send you a copy?"

"Depends. How do I come off?"

"Pretty bad," she laughs. She's cut her hair a little shorter, and she looks a little sharper, thinner maybe, than back when they were together. He wonders if there's something going on with her, if maybe that glint in her eyes is anger. Justin hopes so; he's been looking at her life for years and wondering why she wasn't angrier. She rubs his arm kindly and says, "Not that it matters. You're unbreakable."

"I'd love to hear it," he says. And then, because they promised way back at the beginning of the end that when something real came along, they wouldn't let each other find out about it in the papers, Justin says, "I'm here with -- I'm taking Trace to dinner." Not that, knock wood, he and Trace will be in the papers, but still. It's already well known by the kind of people who know these things, and she would hear it somewhere, fifth- or sixth-hand.

She glances over at Trace, who's talking to someone Justin doesn't know. "Good luck with that," she says, and shrugs in a way that suggests he'll need it.


They come home to the sound of a baby crying. Justin groans and stretches, but Trace, who can normally stay unfazed through hours of this kind of thing, frowns and seems tense. He follows the voice, and Justin grabs his wrist. "Come on, no," he pleads. "It's fine, Mom can handle it just fine. We should take the whole night off."

"I can't-- "

"We could get a room for the night," Justin tries, and Trace's head snaps around to look at him. Justin shifts his fingers against Trace's wrist, against his hand.

Slowly, Trace extricates his hand. "I can't," he says, his words a little slurred, nervous. "Janelle."

"Janelle, it can't be Janelle," Justin says, puzzled. "She never cries." She doesn't; she's very even-tempered, never throwing noisy fits like her sister, never really smiling and responding to games the same way, either. Janelle has two modes, curiously watchful and shy, hiding her face when too much attention is focused on her.

"Well, it's not Lauralynn," Trace says firmly, and Justin believes him, because Trace would know. He and Lauralynn have a bond, something that seemed to happen immediately and intensely. There's no way on earth Trace could be hearing Lauralynn cry without knowing it.

So that's weird, Janelle carrying on like that, and Justin and Trace follow the sound of it into the bathroom, where his mom is giving her an apparently highly unwelcome bath in the sink. "She hasn't been like this all night, has she?" Justin asks. His leather pants are tight enough that he has to shimmy a little bit to make it easier to get down on his knees and pick up Lauralynn off her blanket on the floor.

"Oh, for a little while," Lynn says, not too concerned. "Sometimes a person just needs to make some noise."

"The water isn't too hot?" Trace says, reaching out to dip his fingers in it.

Lynn slaps his wrist lightly. "No, I'm not boiling the baby. God, you're so neurotic sometimes. She's cranky, it happens to the best of us. You're making me cranky, for instance."

Trace sighs his defeat and kisses Lynn on the cheek, then Janelle on the top of her head. "Well, if you need any help-- "

"Not from you, I don't," she says crisply. "Anyway, you're not even here, you're on a date."

"Hi, we're home," Justin says.

His mother keeps talking to Trace. "And my dating advice to you is to make sure he walks you to your door, because-- " She pauses, and leans backwards to kiss Justin's jaw, and then continues, "that's what well-bred young men do."

"I like the ones who take me for granted and drive too fast and invite me to motels."

"Okay, well, I wasn't talking about the Super 8," Justin grumbles as he hands over Lauralynn for Trace to kiss goodnight. "She's really fine, you're sure she's fine?" he asks Lynn as he bends over to kiss Janelle.

"If I'm ever less than one hundred percent sure, honey, I won't hesitate to let you know. Goodnight, boys."

Trace puts Lauralynn back down, and Justin reaches down to help him up to his feet. He doesn't let go of Trace's hand, leading him out the door and up the stairs.

"So," he says, when they stop by the door of Trace's room, "this is where you live? Nice place."

"Well," Trace says, "at least it's rent-controlled."

"Do you want to...." Justin lifts up their entwined hands and brushes his lips over Trace's knuckles. "Are you gonna invite me in for coffee?"

"It's sad how all of your dating knowledge comes from sitcom reruns. I don't drink coffee, and neither do you at this time of night. I certainly don't have a coffee-maker in my bedroom."

"Don't be difficult."

"Make up your own dialogue."

"Can I spend the night?"

Trace curls his fingers into Justin's shoulders, crushing the cashmere against Justin's skin and making him shiver. "Justin," he whispers, a hint of reluctance in his voice, like he's getting ready to let Justin down easy. "I don't know if-- "

Justin kisses him. He cradles Trace's neck between his palms to keep him steady and closes his eyes, leaning down into the kiss until the steady pressure of his weight bearing down against Trace's mouth makes his lips part for Justin's tongue. It doesn't take very long.

He licks softly at the wet inner curve of Trace's lips, lets his fingertips draw soothing, circular patterns at the base of Trace's shorn hair. For a minute, Trace seems to melt against him, held up only by the way he's caught between Justin's body and the wall. Then he comes back to life, straining up into the kiss hungrily. His hands find Justin's waist and slide up his body, a rough, demanding touch that still feels smooth somehow, melodic, like just the right curve of music. Justin hooks one arm around the back of Trace's neck and slides the other hand down Trace's arm. He slips his pinky into the gap at the cuff of Trace's sleeve, pressing the sharp, decorative edge of a cufflink into the soft pad of his thumb. Trace groans, feeding the sound all the way through Justin's body.

Justin has only a moment to recognize and think about the fact that this is it, this is that perfect kiss that teen magazines have asked him about a hundred times, before it shifts into something else, something more chaotic and unruly, something that isn't perfect at all, but unsatisfying in the best way. Trace's fingers rake at his back and Justin shoves forward, pushing him harder against the wall. He bites Trace's lip and makes him whimper and gasp into the kiss as he works a hand between their bodies, curling his fingers deliberately around Trace's tie, just below the knot. "God, God," Trace hisses incoherently, locking his arms around Justin's neck and trying to arch against him with no room to do it right.

He draws back slowly, brushing tiny kisses over Trace's cheek and his chin to ease the transition. Trace ducks his head and kisses Justin's throat, and Justin cups one hand around the back of his head and lets his other hand glide down Trace's back between his shoulderblades. "It's not weird," Justin says, relieved. "It feels good."

Trace leans back against the wall, removing Justin's hand from his head and pulling it around to kiss Justin's fingers. "It feels good," he repeats roughly, but when Justin leans forward, chasing more kisses, the alfredo and cabernet taste of Trace's mouth, Trace puts his hand up to Justin's lips, tilting his face away. "No, not-- Justin. Not like this, not right now, okay?"

"Why, what did I do?"

Trace smiles helplessly and brushes his thumb over the curve of Justin's eyebrow. "It's nothing you did. Damn, am I really that critical?"

"Well, yeah, usually," Justin says. "I don't mind."

"You didn't do anything. You're -- you're good, great. Amazing. I just don't want to do this right now. I -- I had a lot of wine with dinner, and I sort of feel all groggy and kind of...."

"Are you telling me you have a headache?" Justin says in disbelief. Trace looks at him, even and stony, like he's not about to dignify that with a response. "That's such bullshit," he says, capturing Trace's hand again, pressing kisses into his palm while the pulse in Trace's wrist throbs between his fingers. "You feel fine, you're just scared."

Trace jerks his hand away. "I'm not scared."

"My first time, I-- "

"First of all, I don't want to hear about it. And secondly, it's not my first time."

That has never really occurred to Justin. He knows he'll be thinking about it, but he thinks he can defer that til later. "Tell me what's wrong. For real, dude."

"I'm just not sure about this," he says. "It's like -- I wanted you when I was sixteen, right? Well, I'm not sixteen anymore. I'm a grown man, we both are, we've got fucking kids to think about, like you said before. Maybe we can't be just -- falling into things. It doesn't seem very, like. Responsible."

"Responsible?" Justin can't quite believe he's hearing this. At some point, someone stole Justin's best friend and replaced him with some little old lady who thinks that everything Justin does is stupid or dangerous or hasty, and even though Justin, for some insane reason, is more in love with this new, irritating Trace than he ever remembers being with the old, fun one, this is still, this is too much. "Why? Why isn't it responsible? Why doesn't this feel right to you?"

"I'm not saying it doesn't. But people try -- they get married every day, thinking it feels right, thinking it's a stable kind of thing, and half the time they're not even right. More than half, probably. Probably a lot of people still just tough it out. You just never know, though, you never know when it feels right and when it really is right."

"So just never try? That's your solution? Even though we both want it?"

"Just because somebody wants something doesn't mean-- "

"No, fuck that, man! See, that's just something people tell you, they just tell you that to keep you from trying. The whole world is set up to make you think that only a few people get everything they want and everybody else just has to suck it up and take what they're given, and it's not true. We're supposed to have everything. We're born with everything we need to have whatever we want, if we're just willing to go for it."

"It doesn't work like that."

"It does for me. Look around you, look at where we are, and I've barely even started yet. What is it that you think I can't have if I want it bad enough?"


Sometimes there's no arguing with Trace, and not because he knows what he's talking about. Sometimes he's just that way. "Then what are we even doing?" he asks softly. Trace shrugs and, for once, doesn't seem to think he has all the answers.


Lance gets down to business; that's one thing Chris has always loved about him, the way he wants to talk nuts and bolts and fine print like other guys want blowjobs. Not, Chris thinks, mixing hazelnut and orange creamers in their little plastic containers and trying to judge from the color if he really wants the whole thing in his coffee or not, that Lance doesn't want blowjobs like that, too, because probably he does. Presumably he does. He dates JC, after all.

"Are you listening to me?" Lance says, tapping the end of his pen impatiently against Chris's saucer, which is underneath a coffee cup the size of the bowl Chris feeds his dog from.

"It's so fucking early," Chris whines. He's not leaving his shades on to look swank, or because he thinks the people who buy their iced mocha skinny latteccinos -- whatever, Chris drinks the kind of coffee you can whip up for yourself at the Circle K -- for eight dollars in Hollywood give a fuck who he is. He's leaving them on because the sun is, like, really out in the daytime lately. Just right out there, with the shininess and all that, and this is why Chris doesn't usually like to make plans before seven. At night.

Lance just looks at Chris until he can't take it anymore. "I'm listening," he says sulkily.

"Because it's important."

"I know it's important. You picked up the phone and called me, so it must be some kind of fucking emergency."

The silence makes Chris think he's being reined in again, until he glances up and sees Lance leaned back in the booth, fiddling with his pen, looking guilty. "I didn't really know if you wanted to hang out with me. You're more Justin's friend than mine-- "

"Oh, don't fucking lay that on me. I'm not more anything than I am your friend, you know that. And anyway, just because there's some weirdness between you guys doesn't mean Justin wouldn't want me to hang out with you, and even if it did mean that, which it doesn't, I'd tell him to hang it in his ear."

"Yeah. I know." Lance closes his leather-bound day planner and sets it deliberately aside. That's not a good sign, because the only thing that comes before business in Lance's world is family, and that's a whole sore area right now. Chris prefers to stay on the bench for this one even when he's feeling sharp, and right now it's still very morning "About Justin," Lance says slowly. "Can you -- I hate to ask you this. I really hate to put you in this position."

And that sounds like every lead-in to every conversation where anyone has ever asked him to make Justin see reason. Chris sighs. "Have you maybe just tried talking to him yourself?"

"He's irrational!" Lance snaps. Lance thinks Justin is irrational every time Justin disagrees with him. That doesn't mean he's wrong this time, of course. "He's all -- hormonal or something. I don't even know. He's-- "

"He's a nesting mother," Chris says. "And you want to take his children away from him."

"I don't, though. It's not like that."

It's not, and Chris understands that. But then, he's not a nesting mother. "Listen, I'll see what I can do to smooth things over for you. But it's going to have to be you and Justin who work things out -- not me, not JC, you two. That means that you will eventually have to talk to him, and maybe not tell him he's being irrational."

"I know."

Chris tries bypassing the coffee altogether and dipping his biscotti in the hazelnut-orange mixture. It turns into a huge mess. "This would have been easier if it happened sooner."

Lance hands over his napkin without being asked, since Chris has already used his to spit his chewing gum into. He's developing this ugly Orbit problem crashing at Justin's house, and if the stuff doesn't turn out to be carcinogenic the habit is still going to kill him, or rather, Trace is. It's not Chris's fault that Trace can't hide a little pack of gum any better than that. "Yeah, but I didn't know sooner. I mean, I thought...I thought I'd be okay with things like they are. But it's just different now. I know them now. They're not, like, hypothetical daughters. They're real, tiny little people, and I...." He can't seem to finish. It's still Lance, after all, who was in love with JC for two and a half years before he managed to say to Chris, I think it's more than friends, I think I have...feelings for him. Lance is the sweetest, warmest guy in the world, but he's for shit when it comes to saying he loves somebody, no matter how much he does.

"Okay," Chris says. "I'm gonna do my best for you, okay, man?" He's not sure he'll ever understand why people aren't dying to have adorable kids that they can give back to someone else at the end of a weekend. Chris himself thinks that the godfather thing is the greatest gig ever invented.

Parents, though. They're irrational.


Trace can't sleep, but not because of the storm. He's almost totally off the withdrawal thing, except at bedtime, when he used to have one last cigarette to settle him down for the night. The thunder is actually helping on that score. It's strangely calming in the distance, and Trace puts his face down in the pillow and listens to the dull, oceanic sound of the thunder and the light patter of rain on his window. They're only catching the edges of the storm, where they are.

Someone knocks on his door. Someone -- like it's not Justin. Who else would it be? It's a light tap, light enough that Trace could pretend he's sleeping through it, and he considers that seriously. His baby monitor is buzzing faintly beside him, so he knows the girls aren't awake, and anything else can wait.

Justin knocks again, just as light, and Trace sighs. "J, what do you need?" he says, trying to sound like Justin is keeping him awake.

He opens the door, and he has both of the girls in his arms. Trace sits up abruptly. "Everything's fine," Justin whispers, closing the door and coming closer. "I just didn't want them to get scared."

They don't look scared. They look asleep. But Trace moves to the side anyway, making room for Justin to put them down on top of the covers. They roll toward each other, like they always do. Trace has to clip their fingernails every day, or they leave little red scratches all over each other in their sleep. Justin flicks back the blankets and crawls into Trace's bed on the other side. Trace fingers one of Lauralynn's soft curls and tries not to think too hard about any of this.

Justin steals one of Trace's pillows for himself and folds his hands underneath it. The rain is starting to pick up outside, a quick, irregular rhythm behind the sound of the wind. "I used to. Uh. I used to have this awful fear of thunderstorms," he says, his voice hushed and a little raspy.

"You've had every fear in the book. It's like you went down some kind of checklist."

"Hey, I'm trying to tell you something, here."

"Like there's anything about you I don't know already?" Trace means to taunt him, but it comes out soft and kind. He gives in to it and says, "Look at them, J. They're fast asleep. They don't even care."

Justin is quiet for so long that Trace almost thinks he's fallen asleep. It doesn't look like his eyes are closed, but the bones of his face cast odd shadows in the darkness, and he's not sure. "I used to crawl into bed with my parents when there was a storm."

"I did, too, when I had nightmares. And, you know, we had much better thunderstorms in Tennessee. Remember that one that knocked a tree down in front of the high school? Wind pulled it right up by the roots. When was that? It was before you left."

"Yeah, that was right after Halloween one year. I think we were six."

"Older than that."

"Maybe. Do you remember, there was a big storm in '85? In the summer."

"Christ, we were four years old."

"I remember it," Justin says softly. His hand can still spread across both of the girls, when they're curled up like that. "I remember I wanted to go get in bed with Mom, but it was right -- it was not too long after Paul moved in, and I still didn't really know him, and everything was kind of weird. I just laid there in the hallway outside their door and cried myself to sleep. After he moved out, my dad did some traveling, visiting friends or something, and Mom would help me call him on the phone almost every night, but I still wasn't really sure where he was. I just remember lying there, thinking that. That I didn't know where he was."

Slowly, Trace moves his hand down, brushing his fingers over the back of Justin's hand. Justin is still wearing two rings and a watch; he's still in his clothes from that same day, but he's settling in like he intends to go to sleep here.

"They're not really afraid of storms," Justin admits. "I don't know why I thought they would be."

"It's these candy-ass L.A. thunderstorms. Wait until we're back on tour and they find out what real weather is like."

"Whose bed do you think they'll want to sleep in?" Justin asks moodily.

"Shh," Trace urges, and rubs his thumb softly along Justin's.

"Your skin is so hot," Justin whispers.

"Yours is always cold." Not that that doesn't make perfect sense. Justin is what he is.

Justin shifts up to his shoulder, rustling the blankets, tense and ready like he gets before a concert. "If you would just-- "

"Shh," Trace says again, sharper and more firmly. "Go to sleep, okay?"

After a reluctant pause, Justin settles back on his stomach. Trace spends the rest of the storm watching Justin sleep, or pretend to sleep.


Trace should probably stay in the car, but he won't sit still when he's drunk, and he's not focused enough to be persuaded by Justin's usual charm and diplomacy. As a last resort, Justin snaps out, "Just sit there, and I'll be right back."

Trace gets suddenly very serious and says, "I don't take orders from you. From anyone."

"Okay," Justin sighs. "I know, I'm sorry." By the time they get in the house, though, Trace has lapsed back into giggling. Justin hasn't seen him this drunk in a while.

"Hatchlings," he sings, and Lauralynn makes a singing sound back to him and reaches for his fingers, but JC backs away when Trace tries to take her out of his arms. "No, c'mon," Trace says. "She missed me tonight."

"You're drunk," JC says. "Maybe you guys should come pick them up in the morning."

"I'm not drunk," Justin says quickly, to override what it looks like Trace is about to say. "I had two drinks, three hours ago. I drove us here."

JC looks over at Lance, who's leaning in the doorway and not giving him any obvious cues. "Janelle just went to sleep," JC says. "You'll wake her up if you move her. Why can't you just come over in the morning and get them?"

"Because you can't have her!" Lauralynn starts to cry, and JC is too startled to resist as Trace pulls her into his own arms and sits down on the coffee table with her, rubbing his nose against her forehead and murmuring, "No, baby girl, no," until she quiets down.

"I'm gonna...." Justin gestures vaguely to the stairs. When no one pays any attention, he just goes.

She still hardly has any hair at all, just cool, silky-smooth skin all over, and Justin can't even see the shiny streak that was left behind when her scales fell off. He lifts her and her blanket out of the crib, and she opens sleepy eyes and kicks one foot idly.

When he turns around, he sees that Lance has followed him upstairs. "I'm sorry," Justin says. "He's...drunk. I don't know, he's been tense lately."

"Does it ever bother you that he has a favorite?"

"He doesn't have a favorite," Justin says before he's even considered the question. Lance lifts an eyebrow, and Justin sighs. "He loves Janelle. He does. It's just, she's not as much of a people person, she's harder to connect with. A lot of people think so."

"Trace can't stand that she looks like me."

"That's not true." Other people say that she looks like Lance; Justin has never been able to see it, personally. Except for the eyes, of course, but that's the only way.

"One night, Justin, one goddamn night. And Trace is so sick with jealousy he's taking it out on Janelle, and you're still so fucking pissed off at me for not spontaneously falling in love with you that you're still punishing me by trying to keep me away from them-- "

"I'm not. I'm not, that's insane."

"Yeah, if it were anyone else in the world, maybe, but it's you. You're a control freak, Justin, and this didn't work out the way you thought it was going to, and you need to be mad at somebody. It's exactly the same as in the studio-- "

"Fucking get over yourself. This is not about you, and it's sure as hell not about us."

"No, it's about you, exactly like everything else is, all the time. You're still fucking reeling from not having planned this, and now you're digging your heels in to prove that you can. It's just like with the music, it's just like with the job, you can't stand giving in even when you're wrong. Christ, you're even pushy in bed."

He would be angry, except that last bit is just so random, in the grand scheme of things, so pointless and pissy and Lance-like, in that way that Lance hangs onto things forever, that it's kind of funny. Justin holds Janelle up in front of his face and says, "Now, that's something you wanted to know about your parents, isn't it? Want me to go ahead and book the therapist in advance? We're early enough, we can get a really good one."

"That's not the worst idea you've ever had," Lance says, and he sounds amused, too. He steps forward, and he can't hug Justin without smothering the baby, so he stands to Justin's side and puts his arm around Justin's shoulders. "God, J. I don't want to fight with you."

"I know," Justin says, and leans his head against Lance's. "Me either. You just don't understand how complicated everything is. Do you really think I'm pushy in bed?"

Lance laughs. "Why? You getting complaints from Trace?"

"I'm not getting anything from Trace," Justin says, and he feels guilty for how whiny and bitter he sounds, but it's kind of a relief to say something to someone about it. "On the positive tip," he adds, "still no complaints from my right hand."

"I thought you and Trace were pretty solid."

"Yeah. No, we are. We're just...working out the kinks."

"I don't know how comfortable it makes me feel to know that you two are sorting out your little romantic dramas while you're supposed to be responsible for the girls."

That's pretty insufferable, coming from a guy whose little romantic dramas lasted four years before they got sorted out. Justin and Trace may not have the most functional relationship in the world, at the moment, but at least they're not Lance and JC. But he thinks it might be hitting a little below the belt to mention that, so instead he says, "Oh, the responsibility lecture. That means a lot to me, coming from the guy who forgot the condom."

"Hey, there were two guys who forgot the condom, and only one of us knew you could get pregnant." Lance sighs. "Which isn't really the point."

"I have to go," Justin says. He has three children to get home and in bed, all by himself. Justin is almost twenty-three years old and he's practically never had a single moment, literally not ten minutes on end, by himself since birth. There have always been people, wanting him, waiting for him. If he's pushy, it's just so he doesn't get trampled over, because the concert stage that's his life has festival seating. Impulsively, he turns his head and pecks at Lance's lips. "I'm sorry," he says. "You don't understand."

Lance's brief look of hurt and anger freezes up into his usual expression of displeasure, which is two parts bored to one part exasperated. "Go home, Justin," he says.


"You're killing me," Chris says, after Justin makes the fourth shot in a row that rocks the backboard and makes it hum and clatter loudly. "You're not usually this aggressive unless you're losing."

Justin catches the ball on the rebound. "Yeah, well, I had a rough night." Not quite as rough as Trace, who's still hung over so bad that all he could eat for lunch was bottled water and a handful of Cheez-Its. But still, Justin is all ruffled up with stress, and it's hard to concentrate at work and even harder to unwind.

"And now I'm having a rough day. You know, this is a lot of shit to go through, just for an excuse to come see your kids."

Justin grins and fires the ball at him. "Does that mean you forfeit?"

"Yeah, whatever," Chris grumbles. He pretends he's not competitive, but Justin has never fallen for that. He lets the ball roll uselessly across the court and sits down on the lawn beside his jacket. "You sounded good today, though."

"Don't sound so surprised," Justin says, lying down beside him. He knows what Chris is saying, though; normally he holds back a lot in these early sessions for a new album, only bothering to be on pitch so they can get an idea of what the song will sound like. He thinks of these as writing meetings, not singing ones, and those are two different modes, somehow, in Justin's head. Today he felt like singing. Singing takes him further outside himself than writing does.

Chris rolls a joint and passes it to Justin. He's annoyed with himself for hesitating before he takes it, for letting Trace yammer on in his head about responsibility, like he's supposed to be some kind of drone robot now, a boring '50s sitcom dad with a briefcase and a speech for every occasion. He's a fucking musician, dammit.

They're still lying there, not talking, just existing, at dusk when Joey comes out and prods Justin with his toe and tells him everyone else is inside eating. At the moment, Justin isn't hungry.

"Lance wants me to put the thumbscrews to you on this custody thing," Chris says.

Justin scowls up at the treetops. Private land usually means it's hard to see the sky from the ground, and vice versa. "I hope you told him to fuck off."

"Not exactly. I mean, that's more your smooth and charming style."

"So am I getting a lecture now?"

"No," Chris says mildly. "I don't know anything you don't already know."

"Let me mark this day on my calendar," Justin says wryly, and Chris knocks Justin's ankle with his heel.

"Anyway, I'm on your side," Chris says, which surprises the hell out of Justin. He didn't really think anyone was, except Trace. "Lance, Lance is very good people. But he doesn't come from where we came from. He doesn't always see things the way you and I do."

Justin thinks about that for a minute. "I don't really know what you-- "

"Sure you do," Chris says. "Lance can be all la-la-la and, what's it, all blase about wanting the girls to grow up with parents all over fucking town, because he's never done it. He doesn't really know what it feels like to live that way."

Something seems to be pricking and poking along Justin's skin, the sharp blades of grass, or something else. "No offense," he says, "but you and I don't, you know, like you said, we don't come from the same place, either. You had it a lot harder than I did."

"None taken. I know I did. But you're the sensitive one -- part of your appeal and all. I bet you hated it just as much as I did, just in a different way."

Justin sits upright. He thinks he's shaking, just a tiny bit. "I didn't hate -- what are you talking about? I love my family. They were always there for me, I love my mom-- "

Chris laughs and punches Justin in the forearm. "Oh, chill out, kid. I know you love your mom. Tibetan monks know you love your mom, aliens know you love your mom."

Justin scowls. Chris always does this, baits him and then acts like Justin is crazy for reacting to it. Sometimes he drives Justin so nuts. "I had a really good childhood," he says sullenly. "I always knew both my parents loved me, I never blamed myself for the divorce, I love my step- parents, my brothers, everybody supported me. I'm not traumatized, and that's not why I-- That's got nothing to do with why."

Chris doesn't say anything. Justin leans forward and wraps his arms around his knees. It's getting colder, cold enough to bother Justin when he's just wearing a tank top and shorts. "Okay, so it sucked when I was a kid, but just because I was too young to understand. I mean, now I can see. She wasn't happy with my dad. She fell in love with Paul. That wasn't planned or anything, sometimes things just happen. It's better like this, everybody's happier. It's just, you know, when you're four, you don't think about everybody. You think about you. But I'm not four years old anymore."

Chris doesn't say anything. Justin knows what he's trying to do, and it won't work. "I wouldn't have wanted them to be unhappy for me. I mean, I know you think I'm totally self-centered, but I'd never want that. Well. When I was four, yeah. But not really. Not -- like, now I understand. Now I would hate to think she was unhappy all those years just for me. Because of me. She had a total right to make the choices that were best for her and me both. Like I'm doing now. This is best, having all their real family in one place, that's what I think is best for me and my girls."

Chris doesn't say anything. He's just looking up at Justin with those dark, liquid eyes, and Justin has to look away. He looks at his big, expensive house with all the lights on inside, full of friends and family -- and Trace, who's both and neither. "I'm not better than them," he says, and he sounds vicious and desperate to his own ears. "They were great, they are great, I don't just love them, I respect them, too. My whole family. It's not like I'm saying -- not like I'm saying the way they raised me isn't good enough for my kids. I just want to do it different. I'm just a different person, my own person, and this is what I want."

Chris doesn't say anything.

"It's not like," Justin says, and he feels his eyes getting hot, a burning space in his cold body, the purple-grey shadows of trees on the grass blurring in his vision, "it's not like I think I should be able to get away with this, like there shouldn't be any consequences for what I do. I know I fucked up. I know I had these kids, and I don't hardly have time to take care of them, and I don't have a real family there to raise them like I always promised myself I would. But I love my kids, you know I do love them, and I don't see what's so fucking wrong about trying my best to fix things. Me and Lance, that was our mistake, and I don't care if we get hurt, I just don't want it to screw them up, I want things to be easier for them than they were for me. I'm not better than my mother was, that's not what I'm saying!" He doesn't know what he's saying now. He feels like he's caught in some kind of cage, and he can't quite see the walls but he knows they're there, too close. He thinks he's crying, and his throat feels as hot as his eyes.

Chris pulls him down, until Justin is lying beside him on his stomach while Chris lies on his back. Chris pulls and twists gently at his curls. "I know," he says. "I know what you mean."

Justin takes a few deep breaths. The wind stirs his tank top, making him shiver. He's back to normal, almost completely. His voice sounds normal when he says, "I'm not traumatized."

"No more than everyone is," Chris says. "Hell, Lance has his own problems, that's for sure."

"It's just, I used to have this fear of thunderstorms." He lets the story trail away, because it's stupid. If he cried one time when he was four, who does he think is supposed to fucking pity him for that? Chris? "I don't know what makes Lance and Jayce think they're going to be so great at this anyway," he grumbles. "They act like they're so stable, like they'd be such great parents. Which, you know, I actually know them, so that won't fly with me." Chris doesn't say anything, until Justin bursts out with, "No, though, the thing about my mom is, I don't blame-- "

"Justin, Christ. I know you don't. Do you think I'm just being polite, here? Do you think I haven't felt everything you just said? Shut up, already."

Justin laughs into the grass. He likes it when Chris takes care of him by acting like he doesn't want to listen. It's like a secret code they use, where Justin is on the inside and he knows that shut up means I get it.

He turns his head, resting his cheek on his hands to look at Chris with one eye. "But you think I'm making a mistake. You think Lance is right."

"I think...." Chris takes a deep breath and lets it out. "I think what you're saying is that you want to keep the girls from loving Lance, because sometimes love hurts like a bitch. And I can't really sit here and tell you that you're wrong. It's just...complicated. This is really fucking early, you know, to have to be letting go enough to let them maybe get hurt. I mean, everybody has to do it, but you always think it'll be way down the line somewhere."

Justin has always been a risk-taker. But this isn't the same thing at all. It doesn't feel the same at all.


The nursery is finally finished; Justin doesn't see why it should have taken almost a month, but maybe remodeling always takes this long. He's usually away from home when he has work done on one of his houses, because there's nothing that Justin hates more than the mess and noise of strangers clomping around his house.

It's nice, though. He had French doors and a balcony built onto the bedroom next to his, and an intercom system installed so that you can hear what goes on in this room from his bedroom, or Trace's, or the kitchen, or on a free-standing intercom that you can carry around with you. They have separate cribs now, which Justin's not sure if he likes, because they're so adorable when they curl up together, but obviously it has to happen sooner or later. The walls are painted with scenes from Bambi.

Justin keeps lingering in the nursery, assuming that any minute one or the other of them is going to wake up and want something. They don't seem to be in much need, though. Justin gives the mobile over Janelle's crib a little push, and it begins to revolve. Lauralynn's plays Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, but Janelle didn't seem to like the kind with music. That was part of the reason for getting her a separate bed already. She's a loner, he thinks, hovering over her, watching her sleep. She must get that from him, because it's certainly not Lance.

People call them the twins, and even Justin lapses into thinking that's what they are. Not really, though, not quite. They're clutch-mates, or something like that. Of course, that is kind of what fraternal twins are, so. Twins. Justin is an only child, but this is what he remembers of his childhood. Nick hatched the day before he did, and Trace's mother is human, could have had a baby any day of the year, but she did it just two months before the winter hatching season, the same year they were born. This is what Justin remembers, growing up in a clutch, in a nest, family and friends and not a moment's peace except in sleep, and he wonders if Janelle will resent the endless demands the way he does, and if she will crave the voice and the glances and the very sound of her sister's breath the way Justin craves Trace.

Justin goes out on the balcony and calls Trace's cell phone from his own. It's almost three in the morning, but he doesn't know, after all these years of late nights and all these weeks of stop-and- go, up-and-down, whether that's late or early or what. When Trace answers, he says, "You should come outside. It's a really beautiful night."

"You woke me up to tell me that? Where are you?"

"Balcony off the nursery." Justin sits down with his back to the dense iron scrollwork that he thought was safer than bars. "I'm being romantic. Are you breaking up with me? Is that what's going on?"


It is a beautiful night. In Justin's ideal world, he and Trace would be out walking right now. There's a fair amount of private land around the house; they could just walk together, hold hands and walk until Justin got chilly, and then Trace could keep him warm. He stands up and goes inside, closing the doors as quietly as he can, tiptoeing through the nursery and out into the hallway. "I feel like I've fucked up with you," Justin admits when the nursery door is closed behind him. "And I don't even really know how."

"I don't know, either, J. I don't know what I wanted you to do."

He leans on the wall by Trace's door, and the house is still pretty new, too new to have a lot of memories stored up in it yet, but the ones that are here are vivid and raw. The bed where his daughters were born. This wall, where he made Trace shake and claw at his back while they kissed. That was new, but Trace wasn't, and now it's gone but Trace isn't, so everything should feel familiar, back to the way it always was, but it all feels wrong instead.

"We're going to have to do something about Lance," Justin says. "I can't leave things like they are."

"Oh, well, feel free to do something about Lance. Who's stopping you?"

"He thinks you're jealous."

"Obviously I'm jealous. Has anyone not figured that out yet?"

"Not because of the girls," Justin says, because, yeah, that's clear enough, and he doesn't even know anyone who really blames Trace for that. "Jealous because of him and me."

Trace laughs scratchily. "I hate to spoil his catfight fantasy, but he never got anything from you that I couldn't have if I wanted it."

"I don't even think he had a good time," Justin says. "He told me I was pushy in bed."

"Yeah, it was probably a real chore for him."

Justin presses his hand flat to the door. He's not sure if Trace can hear his voice doubled, over the phone and through the wall both. The walls are fairly thick; privacy is important to Justin. He says, "Tell me what to do. He's their father, he wants to be in their lives. What am I supposed to say to that? No? Just...no?"

"I can't do this." Trace sounds a little wild, a little frightened, and Justin puts his hand on the dooorknob. "Don't -- just leave me alone, Justin, Jesus. It's the middle of the night. Don't make me stand here and tell you who their father is. I just want to go back to sleep."

He's caught by the image of Trace standing. He might be right there on the other side of the door, closer than arm's reach to Justin, maybe with his hand on the door just like Justin's is. He wonders if they used to curl up against each other, back when they were too young to know you aren't supposed to. "Okay," he says. "I'm sorry I woke you up. Get some rest."

"Justin!" Trace says quickly, to stop him from hanging up. "Wait."

"I'm here."

"I'm not...I'm not breaking up with you. I probably should, instead of just dragging you through this whole confusing thing, but I don't want to. I don't know what the hell I want, but it's not that."

"Okay," Justin says softly, tilting his forehead against the door and closing his eyes. "Well...okay."

So there's that, at least.


Jetlag would be like bliss right now, because at least you can see it coming. You tally up your timezones and work the math and you know much like torture the rest of your day is going to be, but there's no rhyme or reason to children. Right when Justin thinks they've started sleeping through the night for good, they pull a night like this, and it's just as bad as when they were two weeks old.

And Trace is in the kitchen, eating French toast sticks with apple jelly and reading the sports section, which kind of makes Justin want to grab him by the collar and force-feed him that newspaper. He could care less that he was the one who insisted Trace take off for the night. Isn't Trace's whole job to know when Justin is asking for more than he can handle?

Justin turns down the radio, because he likes "Hey Ya" as much as the next person, but he's had the granddaddy of all headaches since two this morning and he might snap at any second.

"Morning," Trace says, the first indication he knows Justin is in the room.

"Where'd you go last night?" Justin asks, trying to sound pleasantly curious.

Trace pauses for a minute, clearly not quite buying it. "Just out," he says, guardedly. "With Nick."

"Is that where you spent the night? At Nick's?"

"Yeah, it was a little bit lame. We hit a couple of bars and then ended up at an arcade. Can you believe they still have Time Crisis? Well, maybe you don't even remember Time Crisis, but trust me, Nick and I probably wasted enough on that game in high school to send us through college. We were gonna see a midnight show, but the one we wanted was sold out, and while we were standing there trying to decide what to do, we met these girls. They were total jailbait, you know, but they were kind of cool, and we ended up going to some diner with them and some of their friends. It was sort of fun. We went back to Nick's at, like, two and went to bed. I just got back in and grabbed a shower. How'd things go here?"

"Fine," Justin says shortly. Trace already thinks nobody does shit right except for him. He rubs his eyes, trying not to fixate on the part with the girls, the part that just reminds him of how if Trace's life were remotely normal, that would be his social life -- hanging out and drinking with his friends, and he'd probably have some feather-headed teenage girlfriend who was incredibly impressed with how he was older and funny and confident and a good listener. Justin is a freak, and everyone and everything around him gets pushed off course, turns out warped and freakish, too. Nobody who stays with him gets to have their normal life, not his parents, not his daughters, not his friends, nobody.

Justin turns the radio back up a little and goes to choose his cereal for the morning. He feels slow, like he's wading through honey, but in the back of his mind he still knows he's on a schedule, fussy babies who won't let him sleep or not. It's that Jason Mraz song, and Justin mumbles along with it because he only knows a few of the words -- na na na catastrophe, dance with me -- and there's nothing but crumbs rattling around the open box of Frosted Flakes, so he reaches up to the highest shelf where the unopened boxes are.

He's half-aware of Trace coming closer to him, figures he's putting his dish in the sink. But Trace doesn't have anything in his hands; they're open and warm and firm when they settle on Justin's waist, and Justin freezes automatically, not too sure what's going on. Trace leans closer, presses his face between Justin's shoulder blades, and inhales deeply as his fingers start to tug the hem of Justin's t-shirt free from his jeans. Justin officially doesn't care that he doesn't know what's going on, because he doesn't need to know. He just needs it to keep happening.

"Trace," he says, and he means to follow it up with some kind of question or possibly a statement, but all that comes out after is a soft sigh as Trace's fingers brush the skin of his stomach. He braces his wrists against the shelf and lets himself be pressed into the counter while Trace's chin jolts against his shoulder and his mouth finds Justin's neck.

"God, you smell so good," Trace says against his neck, and something about his rough voice is twice the turn-on that Trace's fingers are as they work the buckle on his belt open without the slightest bit of clumsiness or hesitation, and twice that is a whole lot of turn-on.

But there's still one small part of his brain that's rational, and unfortunately it's the part connected to his tongue. "We can't," he says, regretting it before it's out of his mouth. "My mother's upstairs."

"She went shopping twenty minutes ago. She said to tell you she'll meet you at the airport."

Airport. "I have to -- I have a plane." Trace's arm tightens around his chest as the heel of his other hand rubs hard over Justin's crotch, which is thoughtful. This way, if Justin's spine turns completely into liquid, he won't just topple, bent over the counter like the star of some horrible gay porno.

"Two hours from now." Trace grabs him by the back of the shirt and drags him back; Justin's fingers are stiff and hard to unbend when he peels them off the edge of the cereal shelf. Trace pushes him into a kitchen chair and straddles his lap, still kissing Justin's neck. "All the time in the world," Trace mumbles.

Justin knows it's not, since he didn't get any packing finished last night, but he would agree to practically anything right now. Trace's hips rocking, pressing his hard-on against Justin's over and over, is pretty much heaven, but a good thing has never been enough for Justin, and he tries to get his hand in between them, tries to get a grip on Trace's button-fly. He whines when Trace grabs both his wrists and pushes them down by his sides, literally whines like one of the dogs when they beg for food.

"Lance was right," Trace says dryly. "You are pushy."

It's so unfair, because he only came down here for cereal; it's Trace who made him feel this way, Trace who made him want, knowing that wanting makes Justin push. He's got no right to complain now. Justin presses his hips up as far as he can and says, as clearly and distinctly as humanly possible, "Fuck the foreplay, all right?"

Trace grins against his neck and doesn't let go of Justin's wrists. "Gonna miss you this week," he says, and it sounds oddly sweet, given the nasty things his tongue and his hips are doing.

"Come with me," Justin says spontaneously, because they weren't going to do this until the girls were a little older, but what's old enough, anyway? Travel is a broadening experience, everyone says so, and anyway Justin doesn't think he has a choice, he thinks maybe he can't function at all without Trace there to watch out for him. "You have to come with me."

"You'll be fine. I have to stay here with them." Trace's hand slides under Justin's shirt again, and this time it's oddly clinical, checking and measuring him. "You've lost an awful lot of weight," Trace says.

Wait until Lance hears that now he's getting complaints. "Were they pretty?" he says. "Those girls."

"Yeah," Trace chuckles, "because I'm gonna find chicks in the parking lot of the Beverly Center 13 who are in your league."

Justin doesn't know about that. There are a lot of pretty hot girls in L.A. "But...they were girls."

"Don't worry about that," Trace says softly in his ear. It makes Justin shiver. "I'm here." He cups Justin's face in one hand, and Justin's lips part on another little groan, almost just a breath, when Trace's thumb passes over them. "I came back here."

At first he can't place the coughing sound, but then it turns into crying, and that sound is scalded into Justin's brain. "No," he groans, his head falling back. Trace gets very still, listening to the intercom, and then he starts to move away. Justin grabs at his shirt and says, "No," again, not exactly sure what there is to say no to. Whether he admits it or not, Justin really doesn't have time for this right now anyway.

"I'll do it," Trace says, standing up. Justin can only nod, sprawled in the chair without the will or energy to move. His cock fucking hurts, and he rubs his fingertips over it through his jeans. He doesn't even realize he's doing it until he wonders why Trace is staring at him like that, all dark-eyed shock and heat. After a second, Trace shakes himself off and takes another step backwards. "I'll...." He gestures to the stairs.

"But we'll pick this up when I get back, right?" Justin says hoarsely.

Trace looks away. "Look, Justin..."

Lauralynn is still crying, and Janelle is starting in the background, sounding more aggravated with her sister than anything else. "Go," Justin says. "Just go."

"It's just that I don't think anything's really changed. I mean, yeah, you know I'm attracted to you, but-- "

"Go!" Justin says sharply, because he doesn't need to listen to this, not if Trace is going to twist everything around like this. The way he says it -- attracted to you -- makes it sound so bland and clinical, and it has nothing to do with the way they just now set each other on fire. If Trace can't even tell the real truth about that, then he's right. They're not ready.

Justin waits in the kitchen until he hears Trace's voice over the intercom, soothing the girls, before he goes upstairs to finish packing.


"I changed my mind," Lance says. She won't take pacifiers, neither of them will; Lance isn't sure why, but he's sure it's Justin's fault. "I don't want 'em."

Joey laughs, a familiar sound in his ear, soothing and warm against the constant drone of their crying. "Have I ever been there."

"Joey, tell me what to do." He doesn't remember this. Briahna was a little older, of course, when the three of them used to spend nights together on the bus, Lance working on his laptop while Joey laid in bed beside him, Briahna sitting on his chest and babbling while Joey sang "Those Summer Nights" quietly and deflected her pinching fingers every time they reached for his eyebrow piercing. The two of them would fall asleep while Lance was still working, Bri all nested up in Joey's arms, and it looked so easy, so enviable. Lance would reach down and stroke first Joey's hair, then Bri's, and tell himself that this was practically like having your own kids.

It was nothing like having your own kids.

"Run the vacuum," Joey says. "Have you tried that?"

Lance's mom said to put their carseats on top of the washing machine, and that hadn't worked. But he's willing to try, and he opens his mouth to say so when she tapers off into throaty snuffling, punctuated with a hissing little gurgling sound that seems irritated, but at least she's getting quieter. He can hear Lauralynn downstairs, still crying, but to hell with it, she can be JC's problem for just a couple of minutes more while Lance gets his bearings back. "Also," Joey laughs in his ear, "have you tried breathing?"

He'll never admit it, but he has kind of been holding his breath in. Lance exhales as quietly as he can. "This has been the most horrible night. They're usually not ever like this, Joey. You think they miss Justin?"

"Maybe. They're a little young for separation anxiety, but maybe."

"It gets easier, right?"

"Uh. Okay."

Lance sits down on the bed and pulls his knees up so that Janelle can rest on a slant, which seems to be the girls' favorite position. They fall asleep faster on their backs, but Justin throws a fit if he catches anyone doing that because somehow he thinks it's bad for them. Normally Lance wouldn't care, but all he needs is for Justin to hear about him putting the girls to sleep on their backs, and Lance might never see them again.

Janelle's eyes keep closing and then coming back open, as if she's fighting sleep. Her hair is starting to come in, finally, sparse and blonde. "Maybe they're not here often enough," Lance says. "Do you think that could be it?"

"Well...I don't know if that's why they're crying. I mean, they know you guys and all."

And they do. They're over here at least once a week, for the day or for the night. They make happy welcoming noises whenever they see Lance or JC, even Janelle, who only likes so many people in the world. Lauralynn does this thing where she tries to clap and can't quite make her hands connect, but it does its job, which is to prompt JC to clap for her. She loves to follow his rhythms with her eyes, can stay enraptured by it for what seems like hours.

"Have you talked to J?" Joey asks.

Lance lets Janelle hold onto his finger, and he strokes the fine skin of her tiny wrist. "Sort of."

"You yelled at him."

"I don't want to talk about it. But you know what? Everyone's like, talk to Justin, talk to Justin. But what good does that really do me? Say I get Justin to agree to everything I want. What if he changes his mind the next day, or next year, or ten years from now? Who cares what Justin says when I talk to him? It doesn't count for anything. It won't stand up in court or anything."

"You're seriously talking about suing Justin?"

"No," Lance sighs. He's just happier when there are contracts involved, legal teams, promises that are ironclad. He's been fucked over before by people he trusted when they said they'd look out for his interests. Justin is a good friend, a very good friend, but when it comes right down to it, Lance doesn't know if he would take anyone's word over whose rights could be enforced if everything changed tomorrow. It drives him crazy that if Justin were a girl, Lance's paternity would mean something, would have an effect, but the way things are, it can't. That just doesn't seem fair.

"I should go help JC."

"Call me back when they get settled down."

"Thanks, Joe. I know it's late."

"Nah, you're good. We have to stick together, now, right?" They always did stick together, him and Joey in particular, all five of them in general. But for Joey it seems to matter a lot that Lance is with him on this, that Joey isn't cut off anymore, alone in this whole world of long-term relationships and being a daddy. Joey doesn't like feeling alone. "Call me anytime."

"Kiss your girls for me."

"Only if you will for me."


The grown-ups outnumber the children, but then, the grown-ups have been working all day, and the children seem to have been resting up just for this. Lance is not sure that his side is winning.

"Lance, Lance, Lance!" Briahana chants, putting her arms over his shoulders and her knee in his back like she wants to climb him. He oofs, but then reaches back and gets hold of her under her arms, hoisting her up over his head while she squeals and then letting her back down into his lap. "Again!" she demands.

Kelly glances over from where she's talking to JC -- from their gestures, they're talking about hair -- and says, "Sweetheart, settle down, okay? It's late, it's almost bedtime."

Lance kisses her hair. He'd been planning to comply with the request for more; what's the point of being physically trained within an inch of your life if it doesn't make you one of the rare people on earth who can keep up with a toddler? But Momma's orders are never to be ignored, Lance is well aware of that. "Tomorrow, huh?" he says, and kisses her again.

Joey's sloppy tennis shoes show up in his field of vision. Lance looks up. "Trade you," Joey offers, and Lance lets Briahna off his lap and holds his arms up for the baby Joey is carrying. Briahna tries to bolt for it, and Joey bends down to catch her around the waist, swooping her up.

"Oh, you're wide awake," he tells Lauralynn. She babbles back at him, and he says, "Yes, you're right. You're very right." She likes to have conversations with him, has apparently already learned that even if you have nothing to say, if you pretend you're listening to people, they'll keep talking to you, which Lance thinks is a fine social skill to have. It works surprisingly well in Hollywood, too. "I think we better check and make sure you still have toes, huh? Don't want you to lose your toes." She says something back, and he says, "Well, I know! Exactly, toes!" and picks up her tiny foot in his palm, beginning to count them off.

Justin crouches down beside them and tries to pluck her right out of Lance's lap. "Do you mind?" Lance says. "Can you lay off me for two minutes?"

"No, come on," Justin says quietly. "I want to talk, and you want to talk to me."


"Aren't you going to go down there?" Chris asks. Justin and Lance are in one of their quiet periods; they should start yelling again in a few minutes.

Trace shrugs. Janelle is into mirrors lately; all he has to do is hold one up in front of her -- this one is sewn onto the bottom of a stuffed turtle whose feet make noises when somebody tugs on them -- and she's entertained for hours. It feels like it's been hours since Justin and Lance went downstairs. By Trace's watch, it's been thirty-five minutes.

Chris snaps his fingers in front of Trace's eyes to get his attention, and Trace shoves his hand away lazily. He's really not in the mood for Kirkpatrick tonight, but one of the first things he learned after Justin got into the 'N Sync thing is that he won't listen to anything bad about Chris, even the incontestible fact that he's annoying as hell sometimes. "You know, they're down there talking about the whole who's-your-daddy thing."

"I know."

"You should go down and-- "

"My invitation got lost in the mail. Whatever. I'm the fucking nanny anyway, so whatever. It's not like I have some kind of role here"

"I thought you were Justin's...." Chris makes a vague gesture, and Trace is just grateful that it's not overly obscene.

"Well, I'm not Justin's." Even though everybody thinks so, everybody always has. He's not anybody's. He follows Justin all over the world, keeps his schedule and his secrets, listens to him and makes himself the most reliable thing in Justin's life, but it's not because he doesn't have a choice, he's not Justin's property. Trace likes it. He's here because he likes his life, because it makes him happy. People never seem to get that.

Chris means more than just that, of course. He's trying to make things easy, give Trace a nice, clear-cut little role. He can be the step-father. He can be the one who sleeps with Justin, and therefore obviously, unarguably part of the family.

Trace shakes the turtle to make it jingle, and that's a little much for Janelle. She turns her head away, withdrawing her attention from overstimulation. She won't play with anyone now until she feels like it again. He wonders what a nine-week-old baby thinks about when she retreats into her own thoughts like that. Janelle is kind of hard to figure out, unlike Lauralynn, who is purely and simply a diva-to-be.

"I'm not Justin's," he says again, less defensively. It's just the truth. They haven't broken up, whatever the hell that means, but there's way too much distance between them right now for either of them to belong to the other. He could have been, could have been Justin's in the way that Chris means it. In spite of Justin's frustration with him, he could probably still be, if he asks for it. It's hard as hell not to ask for it.

But he doesn't want to make it too easy. If he has a place here at all, this time it can't be like before, like with 'N Sync or on tours or at clubs and parties and restaurant openings. He can't be here because he's with Justin, because Justin said it was okay to let him in. If Trace belongs with these girls, it needs to be because they love him, and he needs them, and it has to go beyond Justin in a way that really not too much in Trace's life ever has before.

"I have an idea," Chris says brightly. "You take one kid, Lance can have the other, and Justin can fuck off to some remote Carribean paradise and fritter away his fortune on booze and loose boys."

"Thanks." Trace isn't sure that's the appropriate response. But at least in Chris's scenario, Trace doesn't end up with nothing.


"Aren't you going to ask me anything?" Justin says.

"Justin, why is the sky blue?"

"You're not at all funny." He's starting to feel about Trace the way he feels about the girls: they're cuter when they're asleep. He's been lurking around half the night, waiting for Trace to wake up from his midnight nap on the couch, and now it looks like they're still not going to be able to talk to each other about this, so Justin might as well have gone to bed three hours ago. "I mean about Lance, about what we talked about."

"Okay," Trace says idly, getting to his feet. "Tell me what you talked about."

He hates this part of Trace, his sharp, angry silences and the way he acts like he doesn't care when Justin knows he does. It's so Mars. Justin finds himself trailing Trace up the stairs, talking without being able to tell if Trace is listening or not. "Well, it was pretty productive. I mean, at least we got a lot of things out in the open. And I can definitely see his point on some things, like about how he wants to tell his parents, and about not lying to the girls when they're old enough to understand. There was some other stuff, and I told him I'd have to talk to you."

"You're their father, Justin. This is your decision."

Justin grabs him by the shirt, surprising him enough that Trace turns around when Justin lets him, two steps above Justin and at eye-level. "That's how you want it?" Justin demands. "I mean, let me get this straight, this is actually how you want things to be. I just make decisions, and I tell you how it's gonna be. Because you sure as hell act like that's what you want."

"Yes," Trace says. "That's what I want."

He's lying, and Justin doesn't have the first clue why, but it's infuriating. "All right," Justin says, carefully not yelling. "My house, my kids, my rules. Right?"

"Right," Trace says, and Justin can see in his eyes that he's lying, and he knows Justin knows that he's lying, and it doesn't make any fucking sense. Not from Trace, who always kept him honest before, who never took orders or gave in to demands. He always gave in, but only when Justin was asking for the right things.

"Fine. Lance is their father. He wants them to know that, and they're going to know that. He's not going to be with them all the time, but he's their biological father, and in his heart, too, that's what he feels like, and they're going to know that, because I'm not going to be the one who tells my kids they're less wanted than they really are. He's going to have a say in the big decisions; schools and traveling and if they want to perform, anything like that is my decision to make, but I want to know how he feels about it before I choose, because he shouldn't have to hear about things like that after it's already too late. And they're going to stay with him part of the time. I don't know how much yet, I'm not sure, but not just a night or a weekend. Enough time that he and JC can do bedtimes and homework and make them clean up their room. Okay?"

"Okay," Trace says.

It's a good thing that Trace is standing above him, because Justin has never in his life wanted to push someone down a flight of stairs until now. It's not okay. Acting like he's leaving Justin and the girls, walking away without walking out on them, leaving Justin to do the hard parts alone. It's totally fucking unfair, because Trace has been there Justin's entire life, day after day and year after year, making Justin rely on him, being organized and practical and honest, making Justin laugh and making him feel like a real person, someone's real friend, underneath all the layers of fucked up and freak and fantasy that make up Justin's life. He respects Trace, he admires him, he listens to Trace when he can't stand to be near anybody else, and it's been like that forever, and it's too late now to take all that away. Trace can't just suddenly make him choose on his own. He doesn't even know if this is what alone is supposed to feel like.

"Don't fucking lie to me," Justin demands.

"Then don't bullshit me! Standing there going on about people's hearts, and about fucking biology. Biology, J? I devoted a year of my fucking life to those eggs, to checking their temperature and reading them Harry Potter and hiding them to protect them from the two thousand people on your tour who could never, ever know they existed. One of them died in my hands, and the other two are alive right now because someone watched out for them twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week to make sure they survived to hatch, and who the fuck do you think that was? Biology? You were never pregnant a day in your life, Justin. I was."

"I could -- I could never thank you enough-- " Justin begins.

He knows right away it's wrong. Trace doesn't look angry, but he looks suddenly defeated. "Don't thank me," he says, sounding tired. "Don't make it sound like I did you a favor."

Justin puts his hands flat on Trace's chest. It's strange, the way he looks so tall like this, tall enough that Justin could lean forward and just be kissing him. "I know why you did it. I know you love them."

"I thought that was supposed to make me...somebody," he says roughly. "I thought that was going to matter more than anything."

"Trace," he says, moving his hands in little circles until Trace's hands come up and touch his arms, a little gesture, but one that, for once, seems to mean stay and not stop. "Lance wants to be a father, the way he thinks being a father is all about. He wants to videotape their ballet recitals and teach them how to swim and say, 'Not in that outfit you're not.'" Trace cracks a smile at that, as well he should, because Justin has his Lance impression down to a fine art by now. "So we let him have it. Let's just let him have it. That's not what you care about anyway."

"It's not?"

"I see you with them. You love them so much, God, it kills me how hard you love them. And I can tell you from now until Judgement Day that they love you, and it won't keep you from being scared that they don't. Just give it a little time, okay? They're so tiny. They're just babies. They don't speak the same language we do now, but they will. And I swear to you, someday you won't be able to help believing it. They'll bug you and climb all over you and make fingerpaintings for you and force you to watch a thousand times when they learn to do cartwheels. If you can't just trust that they've loved you since you were just a voice on the other side of the egg keeping them safe and warm, then just, please, wait. Wait until they can tell you themselves."

Trace kisses his forehead, and then his eyelids. Justin's breathing is slow and a little noisy, rasping in and out as he wills Trace's lips to stay right where they are, lingering hot and just rough enough to sensitize his skin. "You're so fucking sweet sometimes," he breathes against Justin's face.

Justin pays him back exactly the same way, gentle little kisses on his face, pulling back after each one just far enough to see the stressed lines of Trace's expression soften into surrender. Just when it looks like he's going to lose himself in it, just melt against Justin, Trace pulls away. Justin panics for one second, and then he sees Trace's smile, that easy, joyful smile that could slide so easily into bright cackles of laughter. He hasn't seen as much of that smile lately as he wants to, not by a longshot. Trace opens his eyes to meet Justin's and says, "Come in for coffee."


Trace's first real girlfriend, the one he thought he was in love with when he was sixteen, was named Lauren Krueger, and she used to roll the condoms onto his cock without looking down, her sharp blue eyes under sticky black lashes just fixed with heavy, calm intensity on Trace's. She told him later on that she and her girlfriends practiced the move for hours on cucumbers, but at the time, he thought it made her sophisticated, knowing, all-powerful.

It was the sexiest thing that ever happened to Trace, until Justin stripping casually out of his clothes, tossing them onto Trace's bedroom floor, junk that can only be in the way. Trace's hands find Justin's sharp hipbones in the grey light of the dimmed overhead and there's nothing anywhere except skin, long highways of slick, cool skin, Justin's back, his sides, the backs of his thighs. Unlike Lauren Krueger, Justin can't quite meet his eyes; he watches Trace's hands instead, their slow, nighttime drive over his body.

They kiss awkwardly, open-mouthed but tentative, and Trace backs him carefully toward the bed. "Don't worry," he murmurs, bearing down on Justin's arms until Justin's knees bend and he drops to the foot of the bed. "Don't be nervous, okay? It'll be good."

"I'm not nervous." Trace pushes Justin's knees apart gently and can't stop looking at Justin, who's his to look at now. To look at like this. His thighs are trembling under Trace's fingertips. "It's just. It's been a while."

"It's not trigonometry. You haven't forgotten anything important."

Justin drifts back to the bed, graceful and controlled. The way the taut muscles in his stomach flex before Trace's eyes makes his throat go dry. "Just, let's go," he says. "We've waited for fucking ever; I just wanna do this."

Trace gets on his knees between Justin's legs, making Justin slither up higher onto the bed. He wants to taste Justin, but he doesn't know where to start. "Don't be all, let's just do this," Trace says. "Talk to me, tell me what you like." He runs his thumb down one side of Justin's face, temple to chin, and his tongue mirrors the motion on the other side. They kiss again, not as awkwardly, and when he pulls away, Trace's voice is husky and treacherous, saying, "Work with me, J, and I'll make it so good for you, so good you won't believe. C'mon."

Even in the darkness, Justin's smile is pure light. "Aren't you confident."

And it's stupid, maybe it's fucked-up and pathetic, but Trace is -- competitive about this, or something. For whatever it's worth -- and Trace knows it's not worth too much -- this is the one thing, the thing he's always had over Justin. "I am confident," he says, colder than he means to. "I know what the fuck I'm doing, I've fucked a lot more people than you have, and I don't care if you are the international stud of the decade or whatever people tell you you are."

Justin looks like Trace just bitch-slapped him. "I didn't -- what the hell, man? It was a compliment, Jesus. It's hot. Confident looks good on you."

Trace kisses him like he's a stranger, like there's nothing here to be afraid of, and it's not awkward at all, just hungry and demanding and raw. Justin shudders underneath him and raises his arms to lock possessively around Trace's neck.

"How many more?" Justin asks when Trace moves his mouth down toward his neck. Trace pretends he can't hear the question and draws his tongue in a wide arc from shoulder to shoulder, just below the hard ridge of his collar. Justin wraps his fingers around Trace's arm and repeats himself.

"I don't know," Trace says against his throat, sucking his way up under Justin's chin. His cock is lying heavy against Justin's stomach; if he pressed his legs together, Trace would have Justin's cock closed firmly between. "I don't keep count."

"Guess," Justin says. "Like, just roughly." He doesn't sound suspicious, just interested. Trace sighs.

"Forty-two, okay? Answer to everything."

Justin's eyes go wide, and for a moment, Trace wonders if that's way more than Justin imagined, or way less. "Hey, how -- Chris says that. Did you get that from Chris?"

He giggles against Justin's neck and says, "It's from a book, man."

"It...can't be. Chris doesn't read books."

"Yeah, well, it really is. I promise. I'll loan you the book sometime. Some other time."

"So, but, about forty-two, something like that?"

"Something like that."

"Did you just pick it because of that book? How many, for real?"

Trace rolls sideways a little, onto his elbow. "Dude, I don't know. I seriously don't keep score."

"But you could estimate."

He sighs again, more impatiently, and says, "All right, God. Okay, three girls in high school. After I graduated there were -- five or six? Five or six in Memphis, and then I started coming out with you, and I was nineteen then. That's been about three years, and there were, for girlfriends there was Jenny and Jill and Tara, kind of, and that's probably, what, like a year between the three of them, that I had just a girlfriend. So, what, twelve so far."

"Twice as many as me," Justin observes, less curious now, more reserved.

"Not quite," Trace says shortly, because six is the number that Justin cops to, but Lance's name isn't on that version of the list. Justin tells the truth, but not always the whole truth and nothing but. "Then for the rest, that's like two years or so, mostly on the road, and that's...." That's where he loses track.

"More than forty-two," Justin says dryly.

"Well, that's less than twice a month, man. I mean -- yeah, more than that, more than twice a month, I guess." More than twice a month, less than every night. He doesn't keep score. He lives it moment by moment, and it's maybe the only thing in Trace's life that's like that. Was like that.

"Once a week?" Justin suggests, and Trace shrugs his willingness to agree. He doesn't think, he's pretty sure he didn't literally get laid once a week for two years, but sometimes it was more, and it must all even out in there somewhere. "Once a week, two years or so. Plus twelve. Holy shit." Trace can't tell if he's impressed or just stunned.

"Okay, so, are we done now? Is that what you wanted to know?"

Justin laces his fingers together behind Trace and draws his head down. All Trace can see is his mouth, that smile, until it's too much and he has to close his eyes. "Damn well better be good," Justin says.

"You know it," Trace says, and kisses him.

They're getting better at this, much better. The kissing thing. Justin's mouth, still shy underneath his, but generous, giving back what Trace gives him. Trace runs his hand up Justin's side, and *I love you* yanks like a collar around his throat. He can't get it out, doesn't want to, wants to so much. He kisses instead, slow and thorough like there's nothing wrong, like the universe isn't spinning backwards now, everything changing between them on a cellular level. He wants to say it just once while he's still sure of it. He loves Justin this minute, has loved him for years. That's all he knows.

Gradually, Justin's kisses come slower and sloppier, his lips slack and his body sinking bonelessly into the mattress. "Trace," he mumbles, fingers sliding behind Trace's ear. "Trace. Dude. I need to move, okay? Let me up a second."

He rolls off of Justin. Justin's mouth shines softly in the low light, luminous with saliva, hot to the touch when Trace wipes it clean with his thumb. Justin's eyes flutter, barely open, and he moves just his wrist, his fingers stretching feebly toward Trace's hand. "Here," he says, and his voice is slurred. "I'm -- help me."

Trace doesn't know what Justin wants, not with his head, but he gives in to instinct, to a hundred million years of moving toward Justin when Justin needs. He reaches for Justin, curls against him, rolls them both to their sides, kisses him with his head cradled in Trace's palm. Justin laughs self-consciously and says, "Sorry, sorry about that. I have this thing, about being on my back? Can't lay like that very long."

"It's because your brain settles against your skull and you black out," Trace realizes out loud. He always just thought Justin was perpetually sleep-deprived, and any time he got a chance to lie down, he was dead to the world until someone shoved him out of bed.

Justin looks startled. "Yeah, how ?"

"Alligators. On the Mouse Club, there was this one episode with alligators."

"Oh, yeah," Justin says, vaguely, like he doesn't really remember. But Trace does. "Sorry," he says again. "We can, we can keep going and all. You want me to be on top?"

"Not really," Trace says against his ear. He lets Justin slip out of his arms and draws Justin between his legs, until he's holding himself up over Justin's back, sucking at the point where his neck curves down to his collarbone. Justin puts his face down in a pillow and makes a low, desperate sound that isn't as muffled as maybe he hoped it would be. Trace can hear it perfectly well. He strokes up the back of Justin's neck, crushing Justin's curls except where they spring up from between his fingers, and he laps at Justin's ear and the hinge of his jaw. "Do you want me?" he says thickly. All these things are deafening inside Trace's head, all the things he never meant to say to Justin, not for real. "Please, I lose my mind when it comes to you, like you're the only thing that matters in the world. J, please. Don't make me stop."

"Don't stop," Justin gasps. "Yes, want you, yes, don't -- stop, you're the one who made me stop."

He knows why, even now Trace can remember why it seemed like they had to stop. Even now, he's not immune to the sheer terror of what could happen if they turn the best friendship that anybody ever had into just another love affair. But it's all right now. He knows, now, that they can't be just another anything. Justin reaches for Trace's hand and slides it underneath himself, and Trace presses his forehead to Justin's back, hoping to get control of himself before he does this, but he can't, it's hopeless. He's not at all in control, but he wraps his hand loosely around the base of Justin's cock anyway and hopes for the best.

Justin bucks against him as he scrambles up to his elbows to give Trace room to move, making little starbursts go off behind Trace's eyes. Everything he sees is turning wavy and indistinct, as if all his perception is settling into his palm and his fingertips, his brand-new awareness of the shape and the velvety warmth of Justin's cock blotting out everything else. He looks down at Justin, his shoulderblades rising up like dragon wings and his head dipped low. The tattoo across his back has become abstract, just a dark design mapped across his dust-gold skin. Justin is that kind of guy, who would scorch and stain his feelings right over his skin, messy and unsubtle and fuck anyone who doesn't like it. Trace kisses the streaks of blue and feels Justin's muscles quiver underneath. He knows what it means if Justin has feelings for him. He knows it means blood and sweat, everything between them signed and sealed in permanent ink.

Trace is pretty proud of himself when it turns out to be not impossible to make himself stop, at least long enough to pull off his clothes and grab the lube that he's been keeping there on his nightstand for weeks, thrown into the clutter along with the stereo remote and the aspirin and the GameBoy cartridges and his keys and the scattering of diamonds. It's almost like the impossible part is starting again, the way his lubed palm glides up and down Justin's cock -- impossible because it can't be Justin squirming under him, panting like a dog, loving this. Trace bites down on the tendon in his neck, pushes his tongue lewdly into Justin's ear, and then bites him again harder, while Justin tries half-heartedly to evade him, gasping, "Tracedon'tohmygodoh."

"Shut up," Trace croons cheerfully against the back of his neck. "I already told you, you're gonna love everything I do to you. You trust me, right?"

"Yeah," Justin says, speaking in short, harsh gasps. "Yeah, don't stop, whatever you want."

What Trace wants is too much. There have been years and years of telling himself that, of reminding himself almost subconsciously every time he sees Justin's wicked smile or that particular way he arches his neck. What he wants is wrong, dumb, dangerous, unfair, more than he was offered and more than he deserves. There have been years, and it's taken weeks to begin undoing it, and even now Trace doesn't know what he believes.

Trace pauses, shifting his weight back to his knees so he can lift his hand and run his fingers down Justin's side. There's a strange hole in his head where the longing has lived all this time, abandoned property now, because now, all of a sudden, there's nothing left to long for. There's only Justin, ready and waiting on him. He's holding Justin between his hands, and what Trace thought he wanted is here now, along with a couple of very important things he never knew he wanted. Whatever Trace wants, now, is just the chance to stay with it, to make sure this doesn't slip through his fingers somehow, pass him by.

"You," he murmurs into Justin's ear. "You." He's looking down at Justin, naked and taut with desire, and it isn't more than Trace has been offered anymore. He thinks it isn't even more than he deserves. He slides his hand around, knuckles brushing Justin's cheek and chin; Justin's mouth drops open, and Trace can bite his lip to keep himself from groaning at that, but they're in too close quarters for Justin to miss the way his cock jerks where it's laying against Justin's ass.

"Do it, then," Justin rasps, and Trace's fist clenches where it's gone still and stupid on Justin's cock. "Please," he says, and Trace recognizes that mix of giddiness, guilt, and defiance. It's the way you get when you've wanted something so long that you've gone almost to the edge of knowing it's bad for you, almost over into not caring if it kills you. "Please," he says into the pillow, almost angry, almost broken. "I like it."

"It's okay," Trace says, kissing the parts of Justin's face that he can reach. He's warm under Trace's lips. "I know you do, it's okay, I don't care, nobody cares. You can like it. I want you to like it. For me, okay? Just -- you can like it for me, now, because you know it turns me on to see you like this."

"Fuck me," Justin says, and it's like God and porn at the same time. "Don't make me beg. Do it, fuck me."

Trace refrains from saying that he thinks Justin is already begging. He kisses the small of Justin's back while he fumbles with the bottle of lube again, and he's in a hurry and a little nervous in spite of his bragging, and soon it's everywhere, all over both his hands and on the bedspread. Trace grinds his teeth in frustration, because suddenly this feels all wrong, Justin with his ass in the air, Trace making a mess. He wants to do it like he does it with girls he cares about, snuggled up together under the covers, kissing slow and hungry with his fingers in their hair while they fuck, their smooth legs wrapped around him, their fingernails cool and sharp on his back. Tangled together, holding each other. Different from this.

He tries to say something to Justin -- different from this -- but Justin is pretty far gone, rocking back against Trace's hand so that it leaves a smear of lube across his ass and Trace's fingers slip into the crack without him even trying. And then it's right there; he can't help it, it's much too easy to press the tip of his finger against the ring of muscle there, just barely enough to feel it give way and let him inside Justin. Justin quits rocking back. He holds very still, breathing loudly, until Trace wants to say you okay, dude? He doesn't want to sound unsure, though. Justin is counting on him to be sure. So instead, Trace kisses the small of his back again and says, "You know, you know I'm not going to hurt you, but you have to help, okay, Justin? You've done this before, you know what you like." He's sliding his finger in slowly as he talks, up past the first knuckle, almost to the second. "Don't get all shy on me now. Tell me if you like this."

"I like it, yeah," he says immediately. "Keep going." So Trace does, until his finger is lost inside Justin and his palm is flush against Justin's skin, curving along his ass. Justin pants, grabbing hard at the sheets, but he says, "More."

Justin is tight around his fingers, and Trace chuckles because Justin has a personal trainer to look out for all his other muscles, but this better not be one that Blake has anything to do with. Justin's body seems to resist the third finger, but Justin's mouth says, "Don't stop, no, no, it's fine."

"Here," Trace says, because he just can't stand looking at that brittle curve through Justin's shoulders. It looks like it must be hurting his back, even though God knows Justin would never admit that. "C'mere." He draws Justin carefully up to his knees. Justin puts his hands on the wall to steady himself.

For a tall guy, Justin is surprisingly light, and Trace can gather him up and move him around. Justin leans into every touch. Easy, Trace thinks as Justin arches his neck and sighs and lets himself be pliant. He's so easy. Only he's really not -- seven lovers, Trace is the eighth, and there could have been eight hundred, if Justin could be had for a song. He's not always like this. For all Trace knows, he's never been like this before tonight, and while that's pretty unlikely, Trace's dick loves the idea anyway.

Trace sits against the headboard, Justin kneeling above him. His hands are still slick with lube, and they leave streaks behind when he slides them up Justin's chest and holds on to his shoulders while Justin kisses him. He draws one hand back down again and lets his thumb brush teasingly against the tip of Justin's cock, and then taking advantage of Justin's breathless distraction to push his fingers back where they need to go. He does it slowly, and all three fit just right, making pleasure instead of pain flicker in Justin's eyes. Trace grins at him, and twists.

"Oh, God, I love you," Justin gasps. Trace gets that a lot. He's really good at this. He smiles indulgently against Justin's neck and lets Justin writhe there on his slow-moving fingers, getting himself ready to need more.

Justin, whose hands aren't quite as much a mess, rips open the condom packet. He stares hard at Trace's dick while he rolls it on with quick, neat flicks of his wrist, and that's pretty hot, too. "The egg thing," he says, "that can only happen twice a year -- mid-October for the summer hatching season, mid-March for winter."

"Now you remember," Trace says, and Justin laughs and licks his neck roughly.

He's not all that easy, but he is good at taking directions, and Trace doesn't have to do much more than nudge his thighs and tug lightly at his hips to get Justin where he wants him, where Justin can sink down slowly onto Trace's cock. "Don't rush," he tells Justin, running his hands up and down Justin's long back.

It feels nastily self-indulgent, decadent really, to sit here like this, just nudging up idly ever now and then, while Justin fucks himself, but seriously, Justin was made for this. He's all lean muscle and control, his thighs flexing and his breath coming in hard, even bursts. Trace puts one hand on the small of his back and runs the fingers of his other hand over Justin's lips and just watches the show. Justin has everything -- strength, stamina, beauty, and he's so responsive that he shudders and writhes on Trace's dick when Trace licks his earlobe and bites gently behind his ear. "How's this?" Trace asks softly, just to tease.

"So good," Justin says immediately. Trace runs his hand over Justin's cock and draws a low, desperate noise from Justin. "God, I love this. So good."

Justin's eyes are closed now, but Trace watches him carefully, the flickers of tension over his face, the rhythm of his breathing, and he makes his hand move to match, stroking Justin slow and hard so that he's not overloading Justin, just keeping him that one notch higher than he was before.

When his breathing starts to take on shapes, becoming long, round exhalations of "Oh, oh," and "God, yes," Trace runs his hands hard over Justin's body and feels the tension, everything in him waiting. Justin makes a sharp, frightened sound when Trace pushes him away, but it all happens fast, and Trace has him on his stomach and is back inside before Justin can really gather himself to object.

He gets his hands wrapped tight around Justin's sharp hipbones and starts to fuck Justin the way he needs to, hard, almost as hard as he can. "Please," Justin says, squirming to get his knees under him so he can push back. Trace won't let him, although he pulls Justin's hips up harder to adjust the angle. It's been forever, it's been so fucking long since Trace could lose himself in this. He's a good lover, but he knows he's a selfish one, too, because it's always been for him, something he does for the power and the thrill and the way that when he's really into it, the whole world drops away, even Justin, especially Justin. Now Justin is here, so vividly here that Trace couldn't shut him out if he wanted to, but that feeling is still there -- selfish, predatory, nasty, sexy. It's like the best of both worlds, and he hates to stop but he can't slow down.

He does stop, when he feels Justin go rigid underneath him, digging his fingers into the mattress and saying, "Trace, please, please, please," in a desperate voice. Trace reaches around and takes hold of Justin's cock. That's all he really has to do, he barely has to stroke it at all, just hold it firmly in his hand and let it jerk and pulse, riding out the orgasm with Justin. There's not much lube left on Trace's hand, but it's slippery with sweat and Justin's come when he puts both his hands back on Justin's hips and holds him steady, thrusting sharp and hungry into him while Justin is boneless and gasping.

There's no feeling in the world like coming deep inside Justin -- it's not like sex, or love, or even the adrenaline energy of a crowd of people, which Trace can feel even when he's not the whole focus of it. Trace doesn't know what it feels like, except that it feels pure. He's shaking when he comes down from it, pressing kisses all over Justin's back.

It can't last forever, though, and eventually Trace has to worry about getting rid of the condom. As soon as he does, though, he turns over again and Justin is right there, rolled up on his side and snaking his arms around Trace. Trace settles onto his back and lets Justin wrap around him, languidly rubbing the back of Justin's neck while Justin finds a comfortable position with his head on Trace's shoulder. They're quiet like that for a minute, just taking it in. It almost doesn't seem real, still, like something could still come along and undo it, take it away and turn it into one more almost-but-not-quite.

"So," Justin says softly. "What do you think this means?"

"I think it means you're gay," Trace says, and laughs when Justin growls at him and lunges like they're going to wrestle.

Trace doesn't have the energy for that, though, so once he has Justin on top of him, he just folds his arms tightly around Justin and kisses his shoulder. Justin relaxes into that and nudges Trace's chin up to kiss his lips.

"Are you okay?" Trace asks, sliding his hands down to rest lightly on Justin's ass. "I didn't hurt you, did I?"

"No. Yeah, kind of, but it just feels like after a really long rehearsal. You know," he says flippantly, well aware how ridiculous it sounds, "like a long rehearsal in my ass."

Trace chuckles. "I know what you mean. You should take a hot shower."

"You trying to get rid of me?"

"Yes. Is it working?"


"Well, that's okay, too."

Justin rolls back to his side, running his fingernails lightly around Trace's nipples. Trace watches them, watches himself being touched. He doesn't have a lot of muscle definition, and his stomach isn't flat and hard. He waits to start feeling uncomfortable, but it doesn't happen. Maybe it's the afterglow, or maybe it's the way that Justin is looking at him, like he's something Justin could never get tired of looking at. "Really, though. Does this mean...are we for real now? Is this going to keep going on? Because I do love you, you know. Not just -- you know, before, when I said it. All the time, I love you."

"Yeah," Trace says, his throat suddenly dry. "Yeah, me, too, J. I love you, too. Mm, and that's not bad, either."

Justin smiles and rubs his nipple the same way again. "So, that's a yes?"

"Mm," Trace says again. He doesn't really remember the question, but he doesn't much care, either. "Yes."

Justin kisses him on the cheek. "I know you don't like it when I thank you," Justin whispers in his ear. "Gets your feathers all ruffled. Would it be a little easier for you to take if I did it on my knees next time?"

He has to try two or three times before he can get words out at all. "Might be," he says finally. Trace moves an arm underneath Justin's neck and pulls his head down so that Trace can put his lips against Justin's curls and murmur, "I do love you. So much."

Justin puts his hand over Trace's heart and settles closer to his side. They' curl up tight against each other, falling asleep with no room between them.


"Christmas is a state of mind," Trace tries to explain. There's something wrong with the buckle that's supposed to be keeping Janelle in her high chair, and Trace doesn't really have enough hands to talk on the phone, fix it, and keep the baby from sliding onto the floor at the same time.

"Christmas is December 25," his mother says firmly. "What's going to happen that's so terrible if Justin is home for Christmas? Actual Christmas."

"Mom, I don't even know right now. I can't remember where we're gonna be, but we'll be in Memphis at six-thirty in the morning on the 27th, which is what I called to tell you."

"And you'll have the babies?"

"Mama, where are we gonna leave the babies? At the orphanage? Yes, we're bringing them with us. Everyone's coming."

Justin appears on the scene in time to take over on the high chair thing. Trace mouths thank you at him, and Justin smiles. Trace smiles back at him, and it must show on his face how he's thinking about what Justin looks like under that t-shirt and those sweatpants, because he makes Justin blush a little without even trying. "Everyone's coming," Trace repeats. "Us, the kids, the dogs, security. The more the merrier, right?"

"I wouldn't even remember what the opposite of more is," his mother says fondly. "When I get you, I get Justin, and whoever gets Justin, you know how that goes."

"Yeah," Trace says, watching Justin crouch down to get a different angle on the high chair, settling Janelle on his leg. "I know how that goes."

"Esta bien," she says. "I know how it is. When Lynn and I were your age, we were just the same as you two."

"Yeah, I don't know about that, Mom." Trace isn't quite sure how to tell his mother he so doesn't want to have that idea in his head. She'll understand when he tells her everything, but he's waiting until he sees her in person for that.

"When I was six months pregnant -- did I ever tell you this story? -- when I was six months pregnant with you, Lynn almost miscarried Justin. Has she told you this?"

"No," Trace says, bemused. "No kidding?"

"She had strict orders to stay in bed. She had to go to Oklahoma where there was a cousin who didn't work and could take care of her. Honey, I cried and cried when she left. We went to college together, we lived together, we got married practically together, we were going to have our babies together. I had some crazy thought that I couldn't even go through with it if she wasn't there. I was six months pregnant, so what was I going to do? You have the baby, you don't have a choice. Can't exactly wait around. But I must have cried for weeks. I think your father thought I was worried about her and her baby, but it was really just because I missed her so much."

He doesn't really know what to say to that. It makes Trace feel kind of guilty, really. If Lynn felt like she had to lie even to someone who was going to love her for the rest of their lives, okay, but Trace still doesn't want to live his life that way, or even the next month and a half. "There's something I need to talk to you about, Mama, okay? Do you have a second?"

"Honey, sure. You don't have to ask me that."

"It's about Justin." Justin looks over at the sound of his name, and he looks surprised but not puzzled. Trace figures he knows what's coming next; Justin is never far behind him. "He's my boyfriend." The word doesn't quite sound right, about the man who's tying a bib around Trace's daughter's neck. The truth is that the right words really don't exist.

"You mean...?"

After a second, Trace realizes she needs rescuing and says, "Yeah. I mean like that. But you don't have to-- Nothing's really changed that much. I mean, I'm not asking you to treat him any different, or us any different. I just...thought you should know."

"Do you want to tell your father yourself?"

Trace has never claimed to be the brave one. "Not especially. I don't mind if you do it."

"Trace," she says gently. "This is a hard thing you're taking on. You know that."

"I know, Mom."

"You've thought this through?"

Has he thought this through? Trace hasn't had a lot of time for thinking lately. But he hates to make his mother worry, so he says, "Of course I have. It's a good idea. It is."

"You love him? That kind of love, you're sure?"

Justin is watching him seriously, his hand resting on the tray of Janelle's high chair. Trace doesn't know what he did to fix it, but she seems to be in there pretty securely now. She taps the back of his hand lightly with her palm to get his attention, and he stretches out a finger and lets her clutch it in her tiny fist. She does that sometimes to Trace, and he'd never realized until seeing it from this angle how affectionate it looks. Janelle is hard to read sometimes, but she gives out little signs. Justin is like that, too, except that Trace reads the signs so well that he forgets. "Really sure," Trace says.

"Well," she says, and sighs. It's not the most enthusiastic response in the world, but it's not too awful, either. "Then what choice do you have?"

Trace likes to think he still has a choice. He's always had a choice. He could be happy with Justin, or alone and miserable. Choices don't come much more clear than that. "So...we'll be there," he says. "On the 27th."

"You plan to talk to your parents again before that, I should hope."

"Of course I do. I love you."

Justin comes and stands by him when he hangs up the phone. "Hey. You okay?" he asks, touching one finger briefly to Trace's cheek, and then to his collarbone.

"I'm fine," Trace says. And he is. It was kind of an unexpected twist to his morning, but overall he feels good about it. Maybe he doesn't talk to his mother every day like some people, but this is something he wanted to tell her about without even knowing he wanted it until just now.

"So it's official, huh?" Trace can't figure out for a minute why Justin is smiling at him like that, until he remembers. Witnesses. It's real now.

Trace puts his hand on Justin's neck and pulls him down for a kiss. Lauralynn squalls for their attention; she knows breakfast time when she sees it. "This is why people don't do honeymoons and infants at the same time," Justin murmurs, close to his lips.

"Don't tell me you've finally found two things you can't fit into your schedule at the same time."

"Now, I didn't say that," Justin says, grinning. "Who do you think you're talking to?"

Justin never really changes, and that's fine. Trace runs his hands over Justin's arms; his skin was warm last night, from the exertion and from Trace's body heat, but now it's back to normal. Trace's alien sex slave; it figures that Justin would be all of Trace's twelve-year-old fantasies as well as most of his twenty-two-year-old ones. "Come on," he says. "Your kids want their morning cups of kitten."

Justin looks a little affronted that there's anything Trace wants to do other than stand here and make out with him, but the hatchlings need attention now, and Justin will be here forever. Besides, this part is kind of Trace's job, taking care of the nest while Justin goes out to conquer the world. Trace is sleepy and sick of the smell of mashed vegetables and the kids are making piercing, impatient noises that lodge like darts in Trace's head, and he wouldn't trade his life for anyone's.

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