The adrenaline was still buzzing through Joey's body when he finished changing. They were so practiced and polished at this point that he doubted they could put on anything other than a good show, but there were good shows, there were great shows, and then there was tonight. For the third night in a row Justin had been better than Joey'd ever seen him, completely on, every second, his smile dazzling and huge, his eyes bright and focused. When Joey looked at him he could almost see the glamour radiating off his body. He wouldn't have been surprised to see Justin levitating a few inches above the stage.
Joey grinned briefly as he left the dressing room. If he could still feel the high from the performance, Justin must be flying, too wired to sleep for hours. Joey was looking forward to helping Justin fill those hours. As he passed behind the stage, he could hear fans still screaming, shrieking Justin's name like crazed birds. Joey shivered a little, then shook himself like a dog. That wasn't fair. Ever since their scare a few days ago, he'd caught himself more than once thinking of the fans as predators, of Justin as prey. It was natural, he guessed. He had been shaken up more than he'd believed possible by those few frantic seconds, seeing Justin go down, the bodyguards shoving and shouting, not knowing what was happening, just that there was no way it could be good. But it had been nothing more than a scare, an overexcited little girl, a distracted security guard, and a lucky jump. Joey thought that he and the rest of the guys were more upset by it than Justin, who had swayed on his feet for a few minutes, rubbing his arm and blinking blankly at the men gathered around him, then laughed and said, "You should see your faces."
Joey wandered down the hall, sticking his head into random doorways, looking for Justin. He finally found him in a deserted room far from the stage. Justin had changed already, into jeans and a T-shirt. He was sitting on a table in the middle of the room, his legs hanging over the side, one hand clasping the bicep of his injured arm. He was staring down at the floor, his lips moving a little as if he were singing to himself. Joey couldn't hear what he was saying. The room was lit by fluorescent lights, and in the bright artificial glare, perched on the steel table, Justin looked strange and perfect, the result of some successful mad experiment.
"Hey, your arm bothering you?" Joey said, stepping into the room.
"What? No." Justin let go of his arm and rubbed his hands down his thighs. He smiled at Joey. "I'm fine."
Joey studied him. He did look fine. Sitting on the table, swinging his legs a little, Justin's smile broadened and he reached out to grab Joey's collar. "C'mere," he said, and drew Joey to stand between his legs. "I'm fine, really. Everyone's been treating me like I'm made of glass. You don't need to do that, too."
"Hmm," Joey said, putting his hands on Justin's waist. Justin hooked a leg over Joey's hip and pulled him closer. "How would you like me to treat you?"
Justin tilted his head till his forehead touched Joey's. "You know," he breathed. Joey kissed him, and Justin sighed against his mouth.
Chris banged on the open door. "Break it up, you two. Time to move out."
Justin made a little disappointed noise and stood. "I'll show you tonight," he whispered, and slid past Joey.
But he didn't show Joey anything right away. In the car, he tugged at Joey's sleeve a few times like he was fluffing a pillow, then laid his head on Joey's shoulder. "We'll be there in a few minutes," Joey grumbled, but he put his arm around Justin.
"Sleepy now," Justin muttered and closed his eyes.
"You're wearing that kid out, Fatone," Chris said, but his voice was soft. For the rest of the ride, the only sounds were the low hum of the engine and Justin's even breathing.
When they arrived, Joey had to shake Justin a little until he woke with a start, gasping and sitting up straight. "Easy," Joey said, running a hand down his back. Justin leaned back into him.
Lonnie stuck his head inside the door. "Hold on a few minutes, okay? There's a lot of fans in the lobby, so we can take you in through the back."
"Hey, wait," Justin said. "It's all right. We can sign a few autographs."
"Aren't you tired, Just?" Joey said.
"Naw, I'm cool," Justin said, and got out of the car.
It was worth a little delay, Joey thought, grinning and writing his name over and over again, to see the happiness glinting off the girls that were waiting for them, to see that glow reflected in Justin's eyes. Even the fans seemed slightly tired, their voices a little muted and their hands a little shy. It made it easier to actually see them, to notice a pair of redheaded twins who couldn't have been more than twelve, to hear a woman tell him she'd had a baby girl in April. Joey was glad they'd stopped.
He was less glad twenty minutes later, when Justin was still signing autographs. Chris had disappeared long ago, waving brightly and whispering to Joey, "Sorry, man. I'm beat." Joey had retreated a little later to a couch two of their guards had staked out. Lonnie had gone over to Justin twice already, but each time Justin had shrugged him off. Joey watched Lonnie walk over again and back off in defeat. Joey didn't understand. Justin was usually the one who wanted to leave first. He said he got bored, but Joey thought that he was still made a little uneasy by the adoration offered him so easily, even after all this time.
Lonnie sat down next to Joey. "This could go on all night," he said, not looking Joey in the face. Joey knew what he wanted, and knew why he wouldn't ask. Joey hated talking to Justin, touching him, in places like this - hotel lobbies, green rooms, VIP areas in clubs. Of course Joey knew how to behave in public, onstage, in interviews. But something about these halfway spaces, not quite public, not quite private, made him edgy. He could never keep his mask on properly. He never let it slip completely, but something always spilled out, a hand resting a little too low on Justin's waist, a look lingering a little too long on Justin's face. Joey's carelessness had infuriated Justin more than once. It was easier to just avoid Justin at these times.
Joey sighed, and looked over at the crowd. Justin's smile was fixed perfectly in place, but Joey could see his exhaustion in the way he gripped his pen a little too tightly, in the determined stiffness of his shoulders. He got up.
Justin didn't look up when Joey came over, even though the calls of the fans must have alerted him to Joey's presence. Joey put a hand carefully on the middle of his back. "I think we better head off, Justin. We've got an early day tomorrow, and I'm sure these lovely ladies will forgive us."
Justin shook him off. "There's still people here," he said. "They've been waiting a long time."
"Just -" Joey said, and Justin turned to him. Joey stepped back from the look in Justin's eyes. He sat down on the couch. He made sure he was screened from the fans, and put his head in his hands. It looked like they might be here all night. He heard Lonnie get up again.
A few minutes later, a small commotion behind him drew his attention. JC was standing there, looking like he'd just woken up, with Lonnie shadowing him. He was talking to an older, officious man in a suit. The man walked over to Justin and cleared his throat. In a voice loud enough to carry through the crowd, he said, "I'm sorry, Mr. Timberlake, but we really need to clear this area. It's getting late, and some of our guests have complained. They'd like to get to sleep."
Joey whispered to JC, "Have people really complained?"
JC smiled. "Well, I'm a guest, and so is Lonnie, and we'd really like to get to sleep." Joey laughed, then stopped as Justin approached. Lonnie stared at him stonily, and Justin flushed. "Sorry," he said. Lonnie spun on his heel and walked toward the elevators, and Justin followed obediently.
Justin slouched against Joey in the elevator, then sat limply on the bed and let Joey undress him.
"Something hit you hard, kiddo," Joey said and patted Justin's stomach.
"Sorry." Justin yawned and curled up beneath the blankets. By the time Joey got into bed, Justin was sound asleep.
Deep in the night, Joey felt something knocking against him. He groaned and rolled over, but he was hit again, on the back and on the leg. He struggled blearily toward consciousness.
Justin was thrashing next to him, eyes tightly shut, an incomprehensible mumble spilling from his lips. Joey watched uncertainly. He'd heard that you shouldn't wake people up during nightmares, but Justin looked like he was in pain. The decision was made for him when Justin kicked him hard, making Joey yelp. Justin froze for a moment, completely still, then took a long shuddering breath.
Joey stroked his arm gently. Justin turned toward him, opened his eyes. "Nightmare?"
"No," Justin said hoarsely. "Just. Weird dreams. Not bad."
"It looked kind of bad." Justin shrugged. "Think you can go back to sleep?"
"Maybe in a minute," Justin said, and put his mouth on Joey's stomach.
"Just, wait." Joey reached down and touched Justin's cheek. Justin turned his head and licked Joey's palm. He dragged his lips across Joey's fingers, murmuring "please." Joey dropped his hand to the bed, and Justin resumed his progress down Joey's abdomen.
Justin's lips traveled lower, and Joey closed his eyes. He was dazed, still more asleep than awake. He felt blanketed by the warm velvet of his drowsiness and the hot velvet of Justin's mouth. He was breathing deeply, steadily, a small catch in his throat at the top of every inhalation. Justin set a sleepy, even rhythm in time with the movement of Joey's chest. Justin's tongue flickered, and Joey gasped and came.
Justin slid up the sheets, resting his head on Joey's shoulder. Joey fumbled dully for his cock. "Too tired," Justin said, and pressed his lips to Joey's skin.
Joey woke up in an uncommonly good mood. Justin was still tucked tightly against him, flushed and warm with sleep. Joey eased out from under him and headed for the shower.
When he returned, Justin was standing in front of the window in just his boxers, one hand on the glass. Rain slanted down, casting strange shadows on his face. He looked pale in the gray light. "It's pouring, and they're still out there," he said.
"Always are," Joey said, and Justin jumped. He looked at Joey and his face lit up. That look had never failed to elicit an answering smile from Joey, and today was no different. But as Justin walked toward him and put a hand on his chest, Joey saw something flash in Justin's eyes, too quickly for him to identify. He remembered the previous night and frowned. Joey thought there was something artificial in Justin's kiss, something forced in the easy curve of his lips. It made him angry. He put a hand on Justin's arm and pushed him away, not roughly but firmly. Justin fell back a step in a confusion that struck Joey as unfeigned.
"I'm not dumb, Justin," Joey said. That flicker jumped in Justin's eyes again, but this time Joey was watching for it. He thought it looked like fear.
"What's wrong, Just?" Joey asked softly. The fear faded from Justin's eyes, and his face settled into unfamiliar lines. Joey thought he looked - resigned.
"Nothing, Joe," Justin said. He smiled again and ran his hand over his head nervously. Joey didn't believe him.
"Take a shower, Justin. I'll see you at breakfast," Joey said, and left.
Joey leaned against the wall in the hallway and considered. He wasn't stupid, he knew, but he was simple. He was good at the big feelings - love, hate, anger, joy. While watching yet another array of emotions play over Justin's face, Joey often thought of the catalogues that used to litter Kelly's tables, shiny slender books full of colors Joey couldn't distinguish - teal, cerulean, pool. He only saw blue. Joey felt too coarse to discern Justin's finely calibrated moods, too clumsy to maneuver the delicate landscape of Justin's passions. He sometimes felt he had only kept Justin this long through habit, through instinct and luck. Dumb luck.
He glanced at the doors along the corridor. Chris might know, was probably the best bet if Justin had decided to talk to someone. But Chris would never breach that confidence, not even for Joey. Besides, Joey thought, while Chris would never tell Justin's secret, he was no good at acting. Joey would have noticed something unnatural in Chris' behavior if he were hiding something.
Lance was observant, but Joey doubted his ability to read Justin. And Lance was too nice. Even if he did know, he would spend ages working up to telling Joey, and then whatever he said would be so full of hedges and euphemism that Joey would end up more ignorant than he'd begun.
He'd try JC, Joey decided. JC had known Justin forever, and while the whole band often spoke about being brothers, only JC and Justin truly approached the careless unconditional bond of family. Joey, Lance and Chris all had boundaries, with each other and with the other two, rare but carefully observed. The distance they could go with each other was far, farther than with anyone else on the planet, but there were lines they would not cross for fear of what was on the other side.
For JC and Justin, there were no limits. They would sleep tangled together in a way that had once made Joey simmer and taste jealousy, hot and acrid in his mouth. They would yell at each other, words that had Joey wincing and stammering ineffectually, only to curl companionably on the couch together half an hour later. JC had been the first one to realize Justin and Joey were sleeping together. He'd watched Joey lean in to whisper to Justin while playing a video game, a move that Joey was certain was no different than the thousand other times he'd done the same thing, and JC had leapt up and dragged Justin by the hand into the other room. When they emerged, Justin was blushing furiously, but both of them were gleaming with a happiness that made Joey catch his breath. JC had said, "Oh, Joey, good. Good for you," and laughed at the inadequacy of his remark. If JC knew what was wrong with Justin, Joey thought, he would tell.
He walked into JC's room without knocking. As he'd expected, JC was still asleep, twisted in the sheets with his face turned up toward the window. Joey shook his shoulder impatiently and then sat cross-legged at the foot of the bed, watching as JC blinked and scrubbed at his eyes.
"What is it, Joe?" JC said finally.
"Do you think there's something up with Justin?" JC paused mid-yawn and shot Joey an appraising look. "He's been talking to you, hasn't he, JC? God damn it."
"No, no," JC said. "He hasn't said anything to me."
"Then what's with the look?"
"I just. I thought. I thought maybe you hadn't noticed."
"What, you saying I'm a bad boyfriend?" Joey said lightly. He felt the smile drop from his face as JC blushed and sat up.
"No, no, I'm not saying -"
"Oh my God, you are saying I'm a bad boyfriend. What the hell, C?"
JC's eyes narrowed. "Maybe I am. Do I think there's something up with Justin? He's been freaking out in slow motion for a week now. I'd kind of given up on you ever opening your eyes."
Joey took a deep breath and reminded himself that this blunt honesty was the reason he'd surprised JC out of slumber. JC was the sweetest man in the world except for the ten minutes after he woke up. Joey had to use this brief period to his advantage.
"What's wrong with him, C?"
JC sighed. "I'm not sure, Joe. He won't talk about it. But there's been something wrong ever since that girl ..." He trailed off and looked down at the sheets.
"But he said that didn't bother him," Joey said.
"Well, if he said it then it must be true. Jesus, Joey. Don't you know him at all?" JC snapped.
Joey exhaled and said carefully, "Maybe not as well as you, C, but I know him. I love him."
"That's doing him a hell of a lot of good right now, isn't it?" JC said, and Joey felt the force of the words physically almost before he heard them. He squeezed his eyes shut and rode the wave of pain the way he'd ride out a punch to the gut. When he opened his eyes, JC was watching him, one hand pressed to his mouth, his face pale and miserable. He looked like the one who'd been hit.
"Joe, I'm so sorry, I didn't mean it. God, I wish I could take it back, I'm so sorry -" Joey put a hand on JC's arm and he stilled, instantly. Joey closed his eyes again. He knew that JC was growing guiltier with every moment that passed, but the words on his tongue were too heavy for him to say. Finally he sighed.
"It's all right, C. I know, it's true. He's beyond me sometimes."
JC met his eyes. His voice was soft. "Don't let him be."
"I don't know if I can," Joey said, low, like if no one heard the words they wouldn't be true.
"I know you can," JC said, and Joey knew the brutally honest part of JC's day was over.
Justin wasn't at breakfast, and when Joey went back to their room it was empty. He asked Lonnie for the keycard for the room registered to Justin but never used. Sure enough, Justin was inside. He was sitting on the floor at the foot of the bed.
"Moving out on me, Just?" Joey said, sitting down beside him. Justin looked up at him through his lashes, then leaned over and kissed him. Joey pulled back. If he hadn't seen that fear flash in Justin's eyes, he would be very, very angry.
"What do you think you're doing, Justin? Do you think you're going to distract me?" Justin looked down at his hands, and Joey thought with a pang, It worked before. He said gently, "I know something's wrong, Justin. Why won't you tell me?" Justin didn't look up. "You're thinking about that girl, aren't you?"
Justin's head jerked up, and for one brief bitter second Joey thought, Didn't think I had it in me, huh. Then he saw Justin's face.
"Sweetheart," Joey said, and stopped. Justin hated endearments; it was one of the few things they fought about, because Joey used them almost reflexively. "You don't have to do that. I'm not a girl," Justin had snarled at him one day when Joey called him "beautiful" in front of the others. "Yeah, I figured that out when I had your cock in my mouth," Joey had shouted back, and Justin stormed off to his bunk. Joey had let him sulk all day, determined not to play up to whatever ridiculous masculine insecurities Justin was indulging. Justin was wrong; let him apologize. His resolve had lasted until Justin snuck into his room that night, sliding into Joey's bed naked and murmuring, "just let me."
Afterward Joey had run a fingertip over Justin's drowsy smile. "Why did it bother you, Just? You are beautiful, and," he said, wrapping his hand loosely around Justin's cock, "no one's likely to mistake you for a girl."
"Not that," Justin had whispered. "It's just. All the time, people call me things. Smile for the camera, gorgeous. Just one more take, baby. Or, you know, the other people. You're on now, LanceJCNick whichever one you are. I just need." An emotion Joey couldn't identify passed over Justin's face. "I like to hear my name sometimes."
Joey had watched Justin's features relax into familiar lines of sleep, cursing himself and swearing he wouldn't do it again, ever, wouldn't slip. He did, of course, all the time, pet names and sweet words spilling recklessly from his lips. He couldn't seem to help himself. Sometimes he didn't even realize what he'd done until he saw Justin's eyes, saw a quick mysterious spark and then anger. He tried, but he kept forgetting. It was the way he was made.
This time, though, Justin didn't seem to mind. He laid his head on Joey's shoulder, briefly, then sat up straight again. "Joey. It's nothing. Nothing's wrong."
"Despite my reputation, Justin, I'm not as stupid as I look. I know something's going on, and I want to know."
"Well, I don't want to tell you."
"I don't care. Justin," Joey said, "nothing can be as bad as what all this weirdness is making me imagine."
Justin laughed, harshly. "You sure about that, Joe?" he said, and Joey stared at him.
There was a loud knock on the door, and Lonnie said, "We gotta go, guys. Right now. You're already late."
Justin stood up quickly, but Joey grabbed his hand and pulled him back. "You're telling me, Justin. Tonight. I mean it."
"Joey, I don't -"
"Tonight," Joey said, and let go.
Justin kept his distance all day. Joey watched him tackle Chris to the ground and scream with laughter, and marveled. It didn't surprise him when strangers couldn't tell that Justin was upset; after all, they were all paid to be the perfect pop stars, entertaining and polite and completely happy twenty-four hours a day. He was surprised, though, at how Justin could fool his friends, even, Joey thought, even him. If he hadn't been a part of that strange strained conversation that morning, he wouldn't believe it had happened. Watching Justin roll on the floor, still laughing, a part of him doubted that it had.
JC stood behind him and looped an arm around his neck. "He's had a lot of years of practice, Joe," he breathed in Joey's ear.
"Yeah," Joey said. "Yeah."
"He didn't tell you anything?"
"No," Joey said. "But he's going to tell me tonight. He doesn't want to, but I don't care. He's going to."
JC was quiet for a moment, then said, "What if he doesn't?"
"You think he won't?"
"I think maybe he can't."
"Well, what the hell do you want me to do, JC? Pretend nothing's wrong, let him keep pretending nothing's wrong. If he's going to lie and say he's all right, at least he'll have to look at me and know I know he's lying. I'm not going to let him believe he's fooling me."
"I don't think he's." JC sighed. "I don't know, Joe. You're probably right. I don't know what to tell you."
"Weren't you the one telling me this morning that I had to find out what was going on with him?"
"I know, I know," JC said softly. "I was. It's just. When he thinks nobody's looking, he looks so sad. I feel bad for him."
"You're a pushover for him, C."
"I am, I know I am," JC said and put his chin on Joey's shoulder.
"For me too," Joey said.
JC laughed. "All I want is for everybody to be totally happy all the time. Is that so much to ask?" Joey laughed too, and the sound made Justin turn toward them, a wide smile on his face. When his eyes met Joey's, the smile faltered, just for a second. Joey was glad.
After the show that night, Justin and Joey went back to the hotel in separate cars. In the elevator, Chris quirked an eyebrow and said, "Trouble in paradise, Joe?"
Joey tried to laugh, but all that came out was a strange painful "hah." Chris leaned in and said, "Know he's been all fucked up about something. Fix him, all right?"
"Thanks, Kirkpatrick. That's real helpful."
"I do what I can," Chris said, and patted him on the back.
Justin was waiting in Joey's room. He was sitting on the end of the bed, arms crossed over his chest, staring fixedly at the mirror across from him. He looked scared and young, and Joey's voice was gentle when he spoke to him. "Start talking, kiddo."
Justin looked at him and said, "Joey, I don't."
Joey leaned against the wall. "Justin, whatever it is, it's not the end of the world, okay? It's probably something you've blown all out of proportion. I'm not saying I won't be mad at you, or upset, but it's not like I'm going to kill you or something. We'll work it out, you know?"
"I know," Justin said, but it didn't sound like he did.
"Whatever it is, it's not going to change anything. Not really. I'm still me, you're still the same Justin you've always been."
Justin looked down, then got up and walked to Joey. He stood in front of him, not touching him. He licked his lips and said carefully, "Joey, not tonight. Please? I promise - tomorrow, I promise, first thing in the morning. Just not tonight."
"I'm just. I'm tired, and I don't want. I just want to. Just this one night, okay? Just one more night."
"Are you sick?" Joey asked levelly.
"What? No, of course not," Justin said.
"Is everyone in your family all right?"
"Yeah, they're fine."
"Is it drugs?"
"Are you - are you good?"
Justin's eyes widened a little, and he said, "What does that. What do you mean?"
Idiot, Joey told himself, of course he's good, he's great, that's why you're going through all this. "I mean, are you in any kind of trouble?" Oh, that's clearer, Joey thought bitterly.
Justin smiled, just a little. "Not the way you mean." Justin's hand moved toward the hem of Joey's shirt, but dropped to his side before reaching it. "Please, Joey? Just one more night. Please?"
Justin was actually pleading, and the eyes he raised to Joey's were full of desperate hope. Joey sighed. He couldn't bring himself to deny Justin anything he wanted so badly. It was the way he was made.
"All right. I'll wait one more night. But you're telling me tomorrow, you hear? First thing - before breakfast, before anything. If you don't, I'm going to be really, really mad at you. You understand me, Justin?"
"Yes, I promise, tomorrow, I will," and Justin pressed against him, grabbing Joey's wrists and wrapping Joey's arms around his own waist. Joey sighed, closed his eyes, ran his hands up Justin's back. Justin kissed him, hard, his tongue eager in Joey's mouth. When Joey pulled away, Justin rocked up against him.
"I thought you were tired," Joey said.
"I am, I am," Justin said, nodding his head vigorously. His fists were clenched in Joey's shirt, and Joey could feel his knuckles rubbing lightly through the thin fabric.
"Then maybe we should go to bed." Justin started to pout until Joey squeezed his ass. Then he giggled, and kissed Joey quickly. "Definitely let's go to bed. Maybe not to sleep right away though."
"Maybe not," Joey said, and let Justin push him down onto the bed. Justin stripped, fast and efficient, and crawled onto the bed over Joey.
The good thing about being on tour, Joey thought as Justin dropped slow delicate kisses along the line of his jaw, was that they were together all the time. The downside was that they spent most of that time either insanely busy or completely exhausted. Joey had adjusted. He could see the virtues of hard and fast, moments snatched from their schedule with greedy hands. Watching Justin stuff his fist desperately in his mouth because he could never, never stay quiet, not even when Joey was sucking him off in a closet at MTV, or listening to the soft choked grunts his cock worked out of Justin when he fucked him over a dressing room table, keeping perfect time with Lonnie's impatient knocks, Joey didn't take much convincing.
And there was something comfortable, domestic, perversely sweet, in the way they could fall into bed at the end of a long day, and fall at the same time into the path of least resistance. Justin's chin lifted so Joey's mouth could find his throat, Joey murmured low and dirty in Justin's ear as he grasped Justin's cock. They knew each other's bodies so well.
But sometimes Joey longed for the lost luxury of time. For the nights when they could fuck for hours, without sleeping, without stopping to worry about how they'd look at the next morning's interviews. For the days when they could laze in bed, bickering over who'd get up to forage for food, without disrupting the schedules of a hundred and fifty people and the print deadlines of three magazines. Those times seemed to become fewer and farther apart with every record they sold. He had asked Justin once if he felt the same way. Justin had looked at him in confusion and said, "But we have to go on the road, Joe. We always do." Joey forgot sometimes how young Justin was, how long he'd been doing this. Joey forgot that Justin's relationship with him was his first not largely conducted over telephone lines.
But tonight, as Justin crouched over him, his tongue retracing the trail of kisses his lips had left, Joey thought that Justin did understand. That for just one night, he wanted to linger. It wasn't that Justin wasn't eager for him. Joey could feel his tension, fervent and fluid, in the muscles of his back, and when Joey ran a hand over his ass, Justin threw back his head and moaned. But Justin returned immediately to his careful work along Joey's jaw, mumbling, "just let me, okay, just let me." Joey thought maybe Justin was right; maybe what they needed was to forget the secret that lay between them, the strangeness, for just one night, to learn each other again, slowly and thoroughly. He smiled, and Justin kissed the corner of his mouth, said, "your smile, Joey, your smile."
Justin ran two fingers down the curve of Joey's jaw, and Joey's head fell back and his shoulders lifted. He could feel Justin's touch thrumming beneath his skin. He thought about rolling Justin over, returning the favor, but Justin kissed the top of his throat and then licked over the kiss, like he was sealing it in, and Joey thought about how his whole body would feel when Justin was done and he lay back quietly. He felt Justin smile against his throat.
"Wait," Joey gasped. "My clothes."
Justin lifted his head. "You said, you said. Let me do it my way."
"Yeah," Joey said. "But now."
"Now," Joey said. "Don't tell me what to do," Justin muttered, but he slid down Joey's body and took the hem of Joey's shirt in his teeth. Joey chewed his lip and concentrated on not embarrassing himself as Justin slowly, slowly stripped him.
Justin settled back over Joey, his thighs pressed warm against Joey's sides, his palms braced just below Joey's shoulders. "Happy now?" he said as he licked lightly down the center of Joey's throat. Joey tilted his head back.
"Yeah, oh yeah."
"Good," Justin said. "Good."
Joey tried to wait him out, but Justin spent what seemed like hours poring over his body, mouthing him, memorizing him, until Joey felt golden and glowing and like if he didn't fuck something soon he was going to die. Justin was straddling Joey's hips, holding Joey's wrist up to his mouth and tracing each vein with painstaking attention.
Joey moaned, "Justin, Justin," but Justin just smiled and licked a steady slow line down to Joey's elbow. Joey pulled his hand down to his chest, and Justin followed. "I'm not going to last much longer, Just," Joey gasped. Justin gnawed on his wrist. "Seriously," Joey said as his back arched off the mattress.
Justin whined a little and let Joey's wrist fall from his mouth. Still perched above Joey, he leaned over to the bedside table, a long slow golden glide. Joey yanked Justin down over him and kissed him. "Thought you were in a hurry," Justin said into his mouth.
"I am," Joey said. Justin's tongue circled slowly in his mouth.
Justin pulled away. "Give me your fingers," he said, and Joey held out his hand.
Justin dropped his head to the pillow, his lips next to Joey's ear. Joey ran a hand down Justin's side, over the curve of his ass. He slid a finger inside and Justin lurched toward him, whimpering. Joey slid another finger in and Justin shimmied against him and moaned. He thought he'd take his time, let Justin writhe helplessly under his fingers for a while, but Justin was making soft needy noises directly into his ear, an ear Justin had just spent what seemed like half forever kissing and licking and nipping and suddenly Joey was tired of waiting.
He pulled his fingers out and Justin rocked back up. Joey stroked his own cock, once, twice, then put his hands on Justin's hips. Justin lifted Joey's hands, gently but insistently, and pressed them into the sheets. He wrapped one hand around Joey's cock and knelt up. Joey closed his eyes at the sensation but then opened them to watch Justin lower himself onto him, slowly, his lips parted and his eyes wide open.
Joey reached out a hand to touch Justin's face but Justin had swayed backward, just a little, just out of Joey's reach. Justin rocked forward and his cheek slipped into Joey's palm. He turned his head into Joey's hand, then pulled two of Joey's fingers into his mouth. Justin's tongue swirled around them. Joey let his fingers trail down Justin's lips, over his throat, his chest, just to see Justin shiver and sway back toward him. He let his hands rest loosely around Justin's waist and felt Justin's skin slip restlessly between his fingers.
Joey dropped one hand to Justin's cock and Justin groaned, then started to work his hips in a private rhythm that Joey could only follow helplessly. He watched Justin above him, long golden chest, long elegant line of throat, head tipped back, lips crooning something Joey wasn't meant to understand. He was beautiful. As Joey watched him, words he had half-heard somewhere but couldn't define slid through his mind. Quicksilver. Evanescent. Fey.
Justin's hips were moving faster, and Joey thrust up to meet him. Justin bent down over him, pressed hot and trembling against his chest, his lips next to Joey's ear. "Say my name," he whispered, and then said it again. On another night Joey would have laughed, rolled over on top of him, accused him of watching bad porn, asked if he'd learned that from Beyonce. But tonight, with Justin quivering beneath his hands and begging, Joey just said, "Justin. Justin. Justin," while Justin moaned and sighed and then slumped against him. Joey kissed his mouth and his closed eyes and came.
Justin curled up next to Joey and clung to him almost frantically. Joey ran a gentle hand down his back and said, "Go to sleep, Justin. I'm not going anywhere."
"I know," Justin said, and laid his head obediently on Joey's chest. He didn't let go of Joey. Joey rubbed light circles on his hip until Justin's breath finally slowed into the deep even pattern of slumber. In sleep, Justin's grip on Joey relaxed gradually, and he sank slowly back into the mattress. Joey lay in the dark and watched Justin slip away.
When Joey woke up, Justin was gone. Wait, he told himself sternly, feeling his fury rise, he could be in the bathroom or something. Just wait. When Joey was sure Justin was no longer there, he punched the wall, hard, and was gratified to see the plaster split and crumble. Justin could pay for it. He put on his pants and stormed into the hallway.
He pushed his way past two of their guards, summoned by the sound of his fist hitting the wall, and found Lonnie. "Where is he?"
Lonnie said clearly, "You know I can't tell you that, Joey," and jerked his head toward JC's room.
Joey banged on JC's door. He heard JC say, "your dirty work for you," and then something slammed loudly. JC yelled, "You're a fucking coward, Timberlake," and the door swung open.
"He's all yours, Joe," JC said. "And you won't believe this, but he's locked himself in the bathroom. Like a fucking girl!" he shouted over his shoulder, and left.
Joey shut the door behind him and sat on the bed. "You know what, Justin? I dated a lot of girls. I know how to handle this shit. You think I can't wait you out?" There was no answer.
Joey lay back on the bed and tried to calm himself. But the more he thought about it, the angrier he got. The worst part about it, he thought, was that Justin had tricked him. That Justin had thought that he could trick him. Joey didn't know why he wouldn't tell him what was bothering him. But if he had just said he wouldn't talk, if he had just said he thought Joey was too dumb to understand or that it was none of Joey's business, and then taken the consequences, at least Joey could respect him. But now he was just acting like a
"Spoiled little bitch," Joey yelled, striding toward the bathroom door. "I'm not dealing with this any more, Justin. You want to keep secrets and lie and fuck with people's heads, you go right ahead. If you ever want me, you know where I am." He left, leaving the door to JC's room open behind him. He wasn't going to slam it.
In the hallway JC caught up to him. "What's going on, Joe?"
Joey didn't even slow down. "Not now, C."
"I just wanted to know when I'd have my room back."
"You can work it out with the diva. It's not my job any more."
"I said not now, C," Joey said, and shut his door in JC's face. He sat in his room all day, ignoring Lance's knocking and JC's tentative calls. When night fell, he was still sitting in the armchair facing the door. Justin would probably sneak in soon, letting himself in with a keycard he'd begged from Lonnie, thinking that he'd find Joey drowsy and pliant. Well, he was in for a surprise.
Justin didn't come. Joey spent the night in the chair, watching the door.
The next morning there was a light knock, and then JC stood in the doorway. "Hey, Joey," he said gently, "you doing all right?"
"Been better, C," Joey said hoarsely. "Did you need something?"
"Yeah. Um." JC shifted uneasily. "He said he left his bag here."
Joey looked at him sharply. "I thought you weren't going to do his dirty work."
JC sighed and put a hand over his mouth. "I know, I'm sorry," he said, the words muffled by his fingers.
"It's okay," Joey said. JC walked into the room and found Justin's duffel, shoved in a corner next to the dresser. "It's good that someone's looking out for him, I guess."
JC put a careful hand on his shoulder. "Why don't you come talk to him, Joey? He's pretty miserable, and I'm sure -"
"No, JC," Joey said flatly. "I'm not playing any more. He's going to tell me, he's not going to tell me, he fucks me so he won't have to tell me. I'm done. If he wants me, he can come find me."
"I know he wants you, Joe. But what if he can't come find you?"
"You know what, C? One of these days, you're gonna have to stop doing this for him."
"Yeah," JC said softly. "One of these days."
He left Joey alone.
When Joey had started with Justin, one of the things he had worried about was breaking up, worried that it would end the band and hurt the other guys. He thought it would be a wrenching, jagged thing, tearing all five of them apart. He didn't realize how easy it would be.
Chris and Lance seemed to have come to some kind of agreement. While both of them were perfectly friendly to him, Chris was apparently assigned to Justin, hanging out with him during the days, keeping an easy eye on him during interviews and shows. Lance was on Joey detail, swinging by Joey's room in the morning, sitting up drinking with him late at night. It was almost like the old days.
Justin was scrupulously polite to Joey, deferential, pausing and waiting for Joey's shrug before he entered a room, laughing happily when Joey cracked a joke during an interview. Joey matched his courtesy, for once grateful for his long experience in masking his emotions. At least he still had his dignity. Things went so smoothly between them that during one soundcheck Justin bumped into him casually and slung an arm around his waist. Joey didn't do anything; after all, he was a professional.
After the show, he pulled Justin into an empty room. Justin looked up through his lashes at him and his lips curved in a small smile. That confident smile made it easier for Joey to do it.
"Listen, you can't touch me like that. Not any more. You're not allowed."
"Oh," Justin said. "Oh." The smile slid off his lips. He looked down. "Of course. I mean. I'm sorry. That was really inconsiderate of me. I'm really sorry, Joe."
Joey sighed. He knew he'd regret it, even before he said it. He couldn't seem to help it. "I don't mean. It's not a punishment, Justin. I just can't take it."
"Oh," Justin said again. He didn't look up. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay, Justin. It's just. When you do that now. It's not good for me."
Justin looked at him, an unreadable expression on his face. "I know," he said, and walked out. The next day he smiled as brightly as ever at Joey and said good morning. His hands rubbed restlessly against his thighs.
Any outsider would have thought that it was JC who had broken up with Justin. JC was furious with him, sharp and nasty in a way that only Justin ever brought out of him. Joey walked into the lounge one day and heard JC snarling into his phone, "I don't care. You're staying on that bus. It's Chris' turn to babysit you." There was a pause, and JC said, "You heard what I said." Another pause, and then, "Stop acting like it and I'll stop saying it." Finally JC rocked back against the couch angrily and said, "Because I'm tired of looking at your face, that's why." He snapped his phone shut and muttered, "stupid little bitch."
Joey smiled and sat down next to him. JC blushed a little and said, "Sorry about that."
"It's okay." Joey put an arm around JC's shoulders and JC leaned into him easily. "You know, you don't have to do that for me."
"'S not for you," JC said. "I'm sick of his shit."
"Sure you are," Joey said.
"I am," JC said. "He's wrong, and I hate that he's pretending to be all adult and okay about it. Like he even has a side."
"Well, I don't know about that."
"I do, and he doesn't. And even if he did have a side, I'd still be on yours," JC said vehemently, and Joey smiled. JC loved all of them, but he liked Joey best. His eyes sought Joey out when he got tangled up in a tangent during an interview, and he'd press up flushed and drowsy against Joey's shoulder when he was tired, even if Justin was curled into Joey's other side. He worried and fussed on the rare occasions when Joey was sick, and had taken such good care of him when he had hurt his leg. A warm happy feeling fluttered in Joey when he thought about JC's obvious affection for him, even though he told himself he was acting like a high school girl.
Joey ran a hand through JC's hair and JC sighed happily. "I know he's sleeping in your room at night, C," Joey said gently, and JC stiffened.
"We're not - you can't think -"
"Of course not. I know how you two are," Joey said.
"It's just. He says he can't sleep. And he's so." JC closed his eyes. "I'm sorry, Joe."
"It's all right. Like I said, I know how you two are." And Joey did. It was true, JC liked him best, but it didn't matter whether JC liked Justin best or least or at all. Justin belonged to JC.
"Is he okay, C?"
"No," JC said, "no, he's not." He took a deep breath and said, "And I know you're not, either, Joey. And I know he's the one who should, but maybe if you talked to him -"
"No," Joey said. "No." JC looked at him, his eyes sympathetic, and Joey said, "I wouldn't know what to say. I don't understand what happened. I don't understand him, C."
"I know," JC said quietly. "I know you think that."
Joey closed his eyes and let himself feel miserable for the first time in days. That was the problem, he knew. He didn't understand Justin, never had. It was always going to end up like this, it had just been a matter of time. It was because of the way he loved Justin, the way he'd kept him. Because habits could be kicked, and instinct could fail, and luck always, always gave out.
"It's okay, Joey," JC said, and put a soft hand on his cheek. Joey turned and looked at him. "Love you," JC said, and Joey closed his eyes. He knew what JC meant. He always knew what JC meant. He wondered what it would be like to love someone like JC, someone simple and easy, someone like himself.
He opened his eyes and kissed JC.
JC's lips were soft and cool against his. When Joey pulled away, JC looked at him and said, "Oh, Joey." Joey leaned back against the couch and closed his eyes again. He knew what JC meant.
"I'm sorry," Joey said. "I didn't mean. I know it was stupid. It was a mistake."
"It was also," JC said, an edge to his voice that Joey had thought only Justin could sharpen in him, "the surest way in the world to hurt him."
Joey sat up and opened his eyes. "I didn't - God, JC, I swear I wasn't thinking that."
JC put a hand on his arm. "Okay, Joey. I believe you. I just had to. You know, check."
"I know. I really didn't think about that. I was thinking. Something else."
"I know," JC said again. Joey knew he did.
"You won't tell him, will you?"
"Of course not," JC said. "And I won't tell Bobbie either. She's who you should worry about. She'd kick your ass."
"Thanks, man," Joey said. "So. What do we do now?"
"I believe this is where we stare at the floor and slink awkwardly out of the room and know that nothing will ever be the same again," JC said. He didn't move. Joey's arm was still around his shoulders. They sat together on the couch. When the bus pulled up to the hotel, nothing had changed.
That night, Lance walked Joey back to his room after the show and asked if he wanted to do anything. Joey said no. He saw Justin duck into JC's room. He went to bed alone. Nothing had changed.
Joey thought that soon this would become a habit. Soon he'd forget how it had felt when things were different. Something about that thought hurt him worse than anything that had happened before.
Then he got sick.
He missed the worst part, the scariest part, because he was out of it, out of his head, first with fever and then with drugs. At the beginning he felt lousy, hot and cold at the same time, uncomfortable in his skin, but he imagined it was just his body catching up with his mind. That was possibly the fever talking, he thought.
The next few days were a haze, every now and then a lucid quiet moment standing out in the pain and delirium like the eye of a storm. It seemed like every time he woke up JC was sitting next to him, a hand resting on top of Joey's, his voice murmuring something soft and soothing. He knew JC must have left, knew they had shows, and he knew too that the other guys were there sometimes, remembered Chris' high voice cracking through his drugged daze. But somehow he thought JC was only there, always there, with him, smoothing his hair back and comforting him. He wondered dully if he was concentrating on JC's presence to distract himself from another absence. That was the fever talking as well, he thought. But he knew it wasn't.
Joey surfaced groggily again, and that was what it was like, surfacing, like struggling through a thick slow watery world and coming up gasping at the clarity, at the light. He saw someone sitting in the chair beside his bed, head in his hands. "Hey, C," he said. "I'm back."
"It's me, Joey," Justin said.
"Oh," Joey said. He didn't know what else to say. "What time is it?"
"It's late. Middle of the night."
"How come they let you stay?"
"Your nurse is a fan." Justin sat up straight. He put his hand over Joey's and then took it away. Joey could still feel the pressure of his fingers, cool against Joey's hot skin. "How you feeling, Joe?"
"Yeah, you had me worried. Us worried. But they say you're gonna be okay real soon."
"Easy to say," Joey said, and Justin flinched.
"Yeah, well, maybe I should go. You should sleep."
"No," Joey said, and Justin sat back in his chair. Joey wanted to tell him that he hadn't meant it like that, hadn't meant anything, but his tongue was heavy and leaden in his mouth. "Justin."
"I'm still here, Joey."
"What do you mean, Joey?" Justin asked. "You got sick. It was rainy that night, and -"
"Not that. You know."
He heard Justin's breath hitch. "Joey, I can't. I should go."
Justin got up and Joey said, "C'mere." Justin bent down toward him and said, "Did you want something?"
"C'mere," Joey said. "Up here. With me."
"Joey, I don't know. Are you sure?" Justin hesitated. "Do you want -"
"Yes," Joey said. "Yes." Justin started to climb into the bed with him and Joey said, "Wait." Justin froze. His eyes gleamed in the dim room. Joey was glad for the darkness. He knew he wouldn't have been able to read the expression on Justin's face even in broad daylight.
"Shoes. Take them off," Joey mumbled, and he heard Justin give a shaky little laugh.
Justin clambered over the railing and lay down carefully, his head next to Joey's on the pillow. Neither of them were small men, and it was a tight fit. Justin ended up lying half on top of Joey. He put his hand on Joey's stomach, and after a few moments slid it down to his hip. "Justin," Joey said.
Justin sighed. His breath fluttered against Joey's cheek. "Am I taking up too much room?"
"No," Joey said. Justin's weight was warm and familiar against him. "Tell me." He felt Justin stiffen. "Justin," he said again.
"Please," Justin said. "Joey, please don't."
"You owe me," Joey said. He was grateful for the heavy daze he floated in. It blunted the panicked edge in Justin's voice, blurred the pained lines in his face. "You know."
"I do," Justin said. "You want. You mean now?"
Joey shook his head. "Can't think. When I'm better. Promise."
"I do," Justin said.
"For real. No more tricks," Joey said.
Justin's breath hitched again. "No," he said. Joey closed his eyes, and Justin whispered, "You want to go back to sleep? Want me to leave?"
"No," Joey said. "Stay." Justin curled closer to him, his nose in Joey's hair, his arm wrapped tightly around Joey.
Joey woke up alone. He thought he'd be used to it by now. A nagging ache ran along the side of his body, where Justin had been pressed against him. That was the fever too, he thought, and fell back asleep before he could think any more about it.
When they let him out of the hospital, JC was waiting for him in his room. "Joey," he said, "oh, you look so much better." JC put his arms around him and kissed him on the forehead.
"Feeling better, C," Joey said.
JC bustled around the room for a few minutes, showing Joey where they'd stowed his medicine and putting extra blankets on the bed and making Joey a cup of tea, a beverage JC loved and Joey never drank. Joey sat in the armchair and basked in JC's attention. He was glad to be home. He looked around the hotel room and laughed. But he was.
JC brought him the tea and sat on the arm of Joey's chair, watching him drink it. It was hot and sweet and flooded with milk. "Joey," JC said softly, "be careful with him."
"I'll try, C." JC leaned against him gently and Joey felt his weight, as familiar as Justin's but so different. JC never left an ache behind when he got up.
There was a knock at the door. JC went to answer it. Joey heard him say, "I don't know, J. I think he's kind of tired."
"It's all right, C," Joey said, and Justin walked in, JC right behind him.
"You sure?" JC asked, and Justin muttered something rude. JC smacked him on the arm and said, "Be careful. He's been really sick." Justin rolled his eyes, and Joey laughed. JC smiled at him and left.
When the door clicked shut, they were silent. Justin leaned against the dresser and crossed his arms.
"You're going to tell me, right?" Joey said. "No more bullshit."
"Yeah," Justin said. "Just. Give me a minute, okay?"
"Sure," Joey said. "Come here, though." Justin came toward him, and Joey pulled him down into his lap. "Too heavy," Justin mumbled, and Joey shook his head. He wrapped a hand around Justin's waist.
"Listen a minute, Just," Joey said. "It'll be all right, you hear? What could be worse than what's already happened?"
Justin tensed under Joey's hand. "Lots of things," he said. "I have to stand up. I can't do this touching you." Justin walked back over to the dresser and Joey told himself that Justin had always been dramatic, had had too much time alone to obsess over things, was feeling guilty and bad because of Joey's illness. It was probably nothing. Joey wasn't frightened.
Then he saw Justin's face.
Justin took a shuddery breath, then another. He squared his shoulders and met Joey's eyes. Joey saw a desolate doomed courage in his face and shivered.
"I thought maybe you wouldn't have to know," Justin whispered. "But it's not fair. I owe you."
Joey was completely still. He was starting to get frightened.
"That night, when that girl," Justin said. "I know she was only a little girl, but there was a minute there when I didn't. And I went down hard, and I couldn't. I thought."
Joey nodded. For one endless moment of terror, he'd thought too. "I know, Justin. It was scary. It's okay to be scared."
"I wasn't scared, Joey," Justin said. "Do you know what I thought, that minute when it happened?"
Joey shook his head.
There was a note of dispassionate horror in Justin's voice. "I thought, it's worth it."
"I didn't care. As long as I had had it. People looking at me, loving me, wanting me, wanting to climb inside me. Everything. I thought I hated it, always said I hated it, but that second, I knew. I love it. Even if it was. Even if I died. It's worth it."
Joey had heard people talk about being at sea before, but he'd never known what it meant, not until this moment, looking into Justin's eyes and feeling himself surrounded by bleak barren blue, below him, above him, around him, miles and miles of deserted sea and sky.
Joey was lost.
He wished desperately that JC was here to help him handle this, thought wildly of grabbing Justin's wrist and dragging him to JC's room for solace. Justin's mouth twitched, and he moved away. Joey realized he must have glanced involuntarily at the door, and Justin thought he was looking for a way out. Justin watched him, defeat hanging heavy in the lines of his body. Joey knew he had to say something.
"Justin," he said. "It's not." He stopped. He didn't know what to say.
"What, Joey?" Justin said. "What isn't it?" Joey forced himself not to look away from his eyes. "I love it - being famous. More than anything. More than everything. We bitch about it, and we joke about loving it, but I really do. God," Justin shuddered, "it's like I'm not even a person anymore. I don't know what I am."
"Justin, it's -" Joey knew, a little, what Justin was talking about. He had felt it, they all had, the rush of power when a man three times his age, with a powerful record company under his control, called him "Mr. Fatone," when a woman who wouldn't have spit on him in high school ran a hand up his thigh. His name ringing from the rafters, chanted by thousands of voices. He liked it, of course he did, how could you not, but he always kept it in perspective, remembered his life before and knew he'd have a life after. He thought suddenly about what it would have been like if he had known that rush at sixteen. He struggled to find the words for what he was feeling. "Justin, it's natural to -"
"Natural?" Justin snapped. "It's natural, to love it more than anything. More than my life?"
Joey bit his lip. He had no words. He never did. He looked at Justin, saw that face distorted in self-loathing and something else. Not exactly fear, not really betrayal, not quite abandonment. Something else. Justin's body twisted in on itself, his arms clutching each other tightly across his chest, his torso rocking down toward his knees. Joey had seen Justin do the same thing hundreds of times, and suddenly it didn't matter that he didn't know precisely what Justin was feeling. Joey recognized pain, and he had to do something about it. It was the way he was made.
"Justin, don't," Joey said. "Baby, don't." The words barely registered with Justin, and Joey stood up and walked toward him. Justin pulled away. "I love it more than you," he said, and Joey winced before he could stop himself. He knew Justin saw.
Joey opened his mouth, and Justin shook his head violently. Joey shut his mouth and nodded once. He leaned against the dresser next to Justin. Justin took another long shaky breath. It sounded like a sob, but Justin's eyes were dry. "What's wrong with me, Joey?"
"Justin, nothing's wrong - " Joey said, then stopped. Justin was shaking, wrapped tightly around himself, flinching from Joey's touch. Of course something was wrong with him. "I don't know what to say," Joey said quietly.
"It's okay to hate me, Joey," Justin said. "I hate me too."
"I don't. I would never -"
"Don't," Justin said. "Let me say it all just this once, and then I'll go away." Joey nodded again, carefully, and watched Justin's face. He didn't know else to do. He longed for JC with a vivid, physical urgency. He closed his eyes and tried to summon JC with the power of his mind. He opened his eyes. Nothing happened. He knew he shouldn't depend on the power of his mind.
Justin's ragged breathing was the only sound in Joey's ears. Joey slid a hand along the edge of the dresser, slowly, inch by inch, until it was just next to Justin, almost touching.
Justin turned and looked at him. "See, the thing is. I used to not be like this. I remember, I'm almost sure I remember. Right? Performing was the most important thing to me. And you guys. And you. It was. I think I remember. Wasn't it?"
"Yes," Joey said slowly. "You always loved the music. And the guys. And me. I remember."
"I did," Justin said. "I remember. More than anything. And now I'm." Justin shuddered again. "I used to be a good person. I remember being a better person." Justin rubbed his hands down his thighs and the familiar gesture triggered something in Joey. It was like a spark was struck in his mind, a way out, but it was so deep down he could barely make it out. He struggled toward it, seeing the light, dim and far away, but he knew instinctively he could get to it if only he had enough time. He saw Justin's face, deadening, growing grayer by the instant, and knew that time was one thing he didn't have.
"Justin," he said, not knowing what would follow it, just knowing he had to say something.
Justin looked up at the sound of his name, and there was hope in his eyes. It reminded Joey of the old days, before they were famous, before Justin had gone so far beyond him, when Justin would look to him hopefully when a video game was broken, when he twisted an ankle or hurt Lance's feelings. Back then Joey could fix anything. It looked like somewhere deep down Justin still believed that. Old habits died hard. No one knew that better than Joey.
"Joey?" Justin said. He looked for a moment like his younger self, but that younger self had never looked at Joey with such desperation. Joey closed his eyes for a minute. Then light flared in his brain and he knew what it was, knew what he had been struggling toward.
"You didn't used to be a better person, Just," Joey said, and saw Justin flinch. He wished he had said it better, but he was in it now, and it was better to go forward than to turn back. "You used to be fifteen years old."
Justin watched him closely, hungrily, and Joey spoke slowly, trying to find the words that had always eluded him. "You used to be a kid, and everything's easier then. Purer. You love things simpler then, but that doesn't mean it's better. Or that you're better. Sometimes it's because you don't know what more there is. It's easy not to love fame when you don't know what it's like. It's not that you love music less, it's that there's other things along with it that you didn't know about before."
Justin was still studying him, almost holding his breath. Joey slid his hand down a little on the dresser, so it touched Justin's side. Justin didn't move away. "Some of the things are worse, yeah. But not all. It's better, too, sometimes, the things that you didn't know when you were a kid. I mean, you used to love me, but you didn't used to want to crawl on top of me and do wonderful dirty things with your tongue." Justin smiled at him a little, and Joey smiled back. "Maybe it was simpler then, but I'm pretty glad things are the way they are now." Justin looked down, nodded, smiled a little more broadly.
"You just grew up, baby. Justin," Joey said. "It happens to the best of us."
Justin looked over at him again, and Joey held his gaze, thinking, Please. Please. Then Justin looked back down at his hands, and sighed. "I wish it was. But it's. It's not just that I love it. It's that it's too much, Joey. I love it too much." Joey started to interrupt, and Justin said fiercely, "You're not in my head, Joe. You don't know. You don't."
No, Joey thought. I never do. He put a hand on Justin's arm. Justin tried to pull away but Joey wouldn't let go. To break Joey's grip Justin would have to shove him away or pry his fingers off, and Justin wouldn't do that to him. Justin sagged back against the dresser, letting Joey hold him. It was lucky, Joey thought, that he had grabbed Justin just then. Now he knew what he wanted to say.
"Justin, you're right, I'm not in your head, I don't know. Maybe you do love it too much, lots of people do, you won't be the first or the last. But I know you don't love it more than everything."
"How can you know, Joe?"
"Because I know something you love more."
"What?" Justin looked at him, genuinely curious.
"Joe." Justin licked his lips, twisted as much as he could under Joey's restraining hand. "Joey, I wish -"
"Shut up a minute," Joey said. "I can prove it. If you loved being famous more than anything, more than me, then you never would have been with me. It's a huge risk, Justin, a dangerous risk, as Johnny tells us just about every day. You'd never do it if you were the monster you're trying to believe you are."
Justin was quiet for a few minutes. Joey watched him. He wished he knew what Justin was thinking. Justin said, "It is a big risk, isn't it?"
"Terribly big," Joey said.
"I could lose it all."
"Everything," Joey agreed gravely.
"If word got out. I mean, people like their pop stars straight, right? It wouldn't be good for record sales."
"No," Joey said. "Your career might be over."
"And lots of people don't like gay people at all. Some people would hate me." Justin was smiling again, just a little.
"Viciously," Joey said. "Booing. Nasty names. Protests."
Justin grinned. "It would be awful." He slid a little closer to Joey. "I guess there is one thing," he said. "More than anything." He was still looking at the floor. His grin had subsided into a small smile that Joey had seen so many times before. He had never known what it meant. "Joey," Justin said.
"It's either me or the great sex," Joey said, and Justin laughed. Joey looked at him and said softly, "Don't go away like that again when you're in trouble, Justin. It fucks me up too."
"I know," Justin said. "I'll try."
Joey put an arm around him, like he had so many times before. Justin sighed and leaned in, like he had so many times before.
Joey felt Justin's lips against his shoulder, like he had so many times before, and he thought that habit was just another word for love, experienced over and over again until it had sunk in deeper than muscle memory, right through to the bone. He thought that instinct was simply knowledge, so complete, so engrained and so old that he couldn't remember ever having to learn it. And luck? Well, luck was a gift, like so many others Joey had received. All he could do was try his best to deserve it.