A Little Uncomplicated Hymn

by >>Jae

last song.

JC wasn't the first to know. JC was never the first to know. He could be pretty much defined as the one who was never the first to know. And anyway, in this case, they all knew at the same time. At the exact same moment, and it was pretty rare, JC thought, to be able to pinpoint the moment with such precision. Usually he only knew afterwards, when his life had changed, when he looked back and said, There, that was it. He'd always wished he'd been able to tell, right in the moment, right when it was happening.

Well, he'd gotten his wish.

Probably he could have seen the signs, if he'd been looking, but he hadn't. Or maybe he had, and they were too subtle for him. But no. Subtle, no. No, he just hadn't been looking. After all, he was the one who was never the first to know. At least he had the comfort of knowing the rest of the guys had been surprised too.

Except that, when he thought back, JC knew that wasn't true either. Justin knew. Well, obviously, Justin knew first. And Chris knew too, JC was sure of that now, although Chris would never say. But he remembered Chris' face that day, that moment, a little wary, a little sad, his smile pinned a little too perfectly into place, and JC was sure of it now. Chris knew. Well, that made sense. Chris was the one who was always the first to know. Justin too. Probably why they got along so well.

Joey hadn't known, though. JC was sure of that too. Joey wasn't a bad actor, but he wasn't good enough to cover something like that up. Besides, Joey was -- what was the best way to put it? Joey was simple. Yes, that was a good way to think of it. Simple. If Joey had been trying to cover up his knowledge, he would've looked surprised, maybe, wide-eyed, open-mouthed. And then happy. Yes, Joey would definitely have gone with happy. But Joey had been sitting next to Justin, and JC had seen him in that first moment, that exact moment, and he saw Joey's first reaction, before the surprise, before the joy. JC saw it, and he knew it for what it was.


Of all the emotions Joey might have pretended in that first moment, never in a million years would he have chosen that one. He probably didn't even know he'd felt it. Joey was -- what was the word? Yes. Joey was simple. And he was always the last to know.

Lance hadn't known, either, and he might have. Not that Justin would've told him -- Chris Justin would've told immediately, and maybe even Joey, eventually, if Justin were feeling guilty enough, but never Lance. Justin wouldn't have gotten what he wanted from Lance. Lance might have guessed, though. Lance was smart that way. Lance was rarely the first to know, because no one ever told Lance first, but he was rarely the last to know either. But JC had seen Lance, not in the first moment, the exact moment, but right after, and the anger and the fear in Lance's eyes were new. Of course they were. Lance wouldn't have let anyone see otherwise. No, Lance hadn't known.

So JC was the last to know. That was the way it always went. But at least he wasn't alone. That should have been some comfort, anyway.

It wasn't.

JC was the last to know, but he was the first to admit it to himself. That was the way it always went, too. With good news, none of them let themselves believe it until JC did, and with bad news, well. They might not believe it even after JC did. They didn't this time. JC did, though. He knew what it meant, and he didn't believe Joey when he said, "Well, we've all been wanting some time to ourselves. It'll just make us come back better than ever."

JC knew what it meant, and he didn't believe Lance when he said, "They say things are cooling down, anyway. Might be better for us to wait a while before we get back out there."

JC knew what it meant, and he almost believed Chris when he said, "You know we're not going to stop you if it's what you really want." He didn't believe it the way Chris meant it, though. At least not the way Chris thought he meant it.

Justin said, "You know, you know it won't change anything. Not anything between us. I promise."

"I believe you," JC said, and Justin turned to him and smiled, a wide easy relieved grin.

JC knew what it meant, and he believed Justin. This wasn't going to change anything between them. Things had changed between him and Justin a long time ago.

There were some things it wasn't worth wasting the time and energy to fight, and Justin had always been one of them. Another was the combined determination of four-fifths of *nsync to believe in the best of all possible worlds. Justin would release his album and it would be great, it would do great, and then he'd come back to his boys and they'd release their album and it would be great, it would do great, and until then Joey would star on Broadway and Lance would go to space and Chris would be relaxed and worry-free as he hit the open road because hadn't he been waiting for a vacation since he was eighteen years old? And JC would -- well, JC would do something. Of course he would. He would do something and it would be great and it would do great. Really, listening to the other four, JC got the impression that it was just a shame that they had to do the rest of the shows on the tour. Wasn't it a shame they had to spend this time together, when they couldn't wait to embark on all the adventures this brave new world held for them?

Really, JC could almost believe them. If he closed his eyes when they were talking. If he watched them, he could see the way Lance's fists clenched against his thighs, even after Joey caught Lance's eye and Lance caught Joey's smile. He could see the way Chris watched Justin and opened his mouth and closed it again and then bit his lip and looked out the window. He could see the way Justin watched the door. JC watched them, and he knew what it meant.

It was the end.

JC thought he'd be angrier, really. He knew better than to expect the others to be -- they'd have to admit they knew it, first, and that would take three solo albums and a year of unreturned calls, at the very least. JC thought he'd be angry at that, too. But he wasn't. He was sad. That was only to be expected, really, and he wasn't afraid to say it. Seven years of his life, of course he was sad.

And he was a little -- annoyed was the right word, probably. Annoyed with Justin, of course. Really, the whole thing could've been handled a lot better. And he was annoyed with the rest of the guys, too. It would have been nice if even one of them could admit it was the end. Then they could convince the others to face it, too, and they could mark the end somehow. Seven years of JC's life, seven years of all their lives, that deserved something.

But the more he thought about it, the more JC watched the others smile and smile at each other, the more he listened to the silence fall around them, JC just felt sorry for them. Deep inside, they each knew the truth. They ran so hard to hide from it. Wouldn't they be a lot happier if they could just accept it? JC knew he was.

But there was no point in arguing with them. They'd never admit to it. And even as he was annoyed by it, even as he pitied them for it, he felt absurdly, sentimentally fond of them in spite of it. Because of it. There was something natural, really, something beautiful, about the fact that they were themselves, right down to the end.

It was the end, though, and that deserved something. That deserved something, they deserved something, and JC was going to do something. He didn't have to tell them what he was doing. He didn't have anything to prove to anyone. It was just for himself, and for them. But he was going to mark it somehow, because it was the end. He thought about painting something, or even building something, maybe. He had seen beautiful painted towers made of wood and paper and feathers, set on fire on faraway beaches to mark a death. A death, and a rebirth. He thought about that, the joy of the work and the exhilaration of the flame. But in the end, it was the end, and JC was going to be himself, right down to the end.

He was going to write a song.

Songs, actually. One song wouldn't be enough -- wasn't that what all this was about in the first place? So there'd be songs, four of them, one for each of them. Something that said what they were to JC. Something that said what they were.

JC started with the hardest one because that was always the way he started. He ate his vegetables before his dessert, too. He started with the hardest one and that was Lance, because Lance had changed so much, because he'd known Lance the shortest time, because Lance was hard to know well. He started with Lance because he didn't want to.

It wasn't as hard as he'd expected, when he tried. Something low and slow as honey, slow as Lance's smile as Joey rubbed his shoulders loose after a long day of interviews. Low and slow with something tender running through it, something soft and sudden as the sound Lance made when he saw something beautiful, when he stopped in his tracks and put his hand to his mouth and didn't look around for where the cameras or the fans were hidden. Low and slow and sweet and when JC played it back he thought, Lance. Lance, but not quite.

Lance, but not quite, and JC watched Lance walk through a club, fast and bright, the right words for everyone, a drink in his hand whenever he needed one, a smile on his face whenever he needed one. JC watched and thought about Lance in a German club, silent in a corner, hands plucking at the seams of his jeans and a nervous smile lighting his face when JC found him. Lance, but not quite, and JC added a track, something with a bit of a stutter in it, moving quick and slick and sharp, and beneath it all something slow and low running through. Something tender, but you had to listen for it.

JC played it for Lance and knew it was right when Lance smiled in recognition. "C, man, it's amazing," Lance said, and JC knew what Lance recognized wasn't himself.

Chris next, and Chris was easier. Chris was always a sad song.

A sad song, and JC had lots of practice at that, notebooks and notebooks filled with songs he'd stopped showing anybody long ago. He flipped through them but there was nothing he could use. Chris had never been like anyone else. JC would have to start from scratch.

All the saddest songs JC knew had no words. JC started there. He remembered Chris in a three a.m. airport, voice echoing through the emptiness, and JC turned the track up. He remembered Chris in a four a.m. airport, half hidden behind a pillar with his head in his hands, and brought everything to an abrupt stop. Then he remembered Chris, and started it all back up again.

A sad song, and it sounded like just what it was. It was Chris, almost, not quite. JC remembered Chris' laugh, the night before, just a second later than it should have been, nothing anyone would notice if they weren't looking at Chris' face. No one was, only JC. By the time Justin turned, Chris' smile was wide and real and perfectly convincing. JC remembered, and he made the music bouncy, busy. He knew just what to do. He was used to writing songs that were misunderstood.

The words came next. They had to. All the saddest songs JC knew had no words, but Chris never ran out. Words and words, pouring over the music, around and over and through, bright brittle words that seemed like they made no sense but would have broken the heart of anyone who ever stopped to think about them, but the music was fast and loud and JC knew no one ever would.

A sad song, and JC made the last notation in his notebook and then tore the pages out carefully. Then he tore them again, and again, until the pieces were too small to be torn any more. He would never play it for Chris. Chris wasn't like Lance. Chris would know what he recognized.

Chris was always a sad song, but not one to be shared.

It was a relief to turn to Joey, and really, wasn't it always? JC laughed when he wrote JOY at the top of a brand new page, laughed and went back and squeezed the E in. He knew just what to write for Joey.

Simple, simple, and really, wasn't that what it was all about? Simple, sweet, a guitar, a melody, something warm and brown and soft and laughing, something like Joey, something that felt the way it felt to sink down against Joey's shoulder after a day of rehearsals. Something people would sing at night, humming to themselves as they made their way up to bed after a happy day.

Simple, simple, and that was always the best, wasn't it? Something with a swing to it, the way it felt to be picked up in Joey's arms, picked up and spun around and set back down to stagger in dizzy drunken circles until Joey's arms closed tight again. Something with a swerve to it, and a sway of the hips, the way it felt to watch Joey's door shut on his wink and his grin and his latest girl. Something people would sing at night, humming to each other as they went up the stairs.

Simple, simple, keep it simple, and JC stripped it down to the bare essentials, simple and sweet and sexy, and it was Joey, it was almost Joey. It was almost Joey, and JC didn't even know something was missing until he heard Briahna crow in the hallway outside his room. He took her to the studio and tickled her until she laughed and buried the sound deep at the end of the track. It was Joey.

It was a relief to play it for Joey, because for once JC could tell someone what he was doing. He watched Joey's face as the song played, watched Joey's face and it was a relief to see Joey's smile, his simple sweet sexy smile. "I love it," Joey said, and JC couldn't wait to tell him what it was.

"But all your songs," Joey said, "they're so sad, anymore." JC looked up, past Joey's smile, his simple sweet sexy smile that didn't reach his eyes, and shut his mouth. He didn't tell Joey who the song was for.

Justin was last, and that was a first right there, wasn't it? Justin was last, because he was the easiest. JC could almost hear the song in his head. It would be a hit, he knew even before he wrote it. It was for Justin. He'd let Justin have it for the album when Justin asked. He knew Justin would ask. Justin knew a hit when he heard one.

A strong beat, straightforward, something to get people dancing. All the bells and whistles JC could add, all the tricks he knew, layers and layers of them. Slick and smooth and on top of it all a catchy hook, something people could sing along with the second time they heard the song. Something almost familiar, something they'd want to like before they'd even heard it all the way through. Slick and smooth and beneath it all something uncomplicated. Not simple, never simple, but transparent, naked. Ambition and drive and talent, too, JC would never deny that, and a desperate desire to be loved. A desperate love too. JC would never deny that.

Justin was last, because JC knew him to the bone. As uncomplicated as a mirror, as easy to read as JC's palm. JC could almost hear the song in his head.


first song.

JC built it up and broke it back down, tore his notes up and started over again, working late into the night. No one questioned him about it. They were used to his odd hours, and besides, they all had their own plans to make, their own lives to sort out. They were thinking about the future. He was the only one thinking about the end.

It was the balance. That was what was off. Maybe, maybe he was thinking too much about the end. It was funny, JC thought, how music kept you honest, how it wouldn't let you off easy, the only thing that wouldn't let you lie to yourself. Justin's song was too much about the end. JC was forgetting about the beginning.

The beginning, and it's not that Justin was different then. One thing you could always say about Justin, he was what he was, had always been and would always be, world without end, amen. Whatever JC thought about what Justin was, he couldn't complain that Justin had ever hidden it. He doubted Justin was capable of hiding anything about himself from the people who were close to him. He doubted Justin would ever think of wanting to.

The beginning, and that's what JC was missing, of course. And it wasn't that Justin was different then, or JC either, really. All that was different was the context, and that made all the difference. What was endearing and amusing in a fifteen-year-old didn't seem quite the same in someone who was meant to be an adult, seemed a bit -- well, JC wasn't thinking about the end. He was thinking about the beginning.

The beginning, and that was what would restore the balance. JC pulled beats, basslines, snippets from the early songs, the earliest songs, the first songs they'd ever written together. They weren't so different from what he already had, still smooth and slick and danceable, a little less of all those things maybe, but still similar. JC smiled as he listened to them. They weren't as bad as he'd thought, all these years. There was something there, buried deep, something worth saving. It seemed right, somehow, that they'd end up getting used again, recycled, resurrected, for Justin's song.

It seemed right until JC listened to it. He listened to it twice, just in case he wasn't being fair, was still thinking too much about the end. But finally he had to admit defeat. He just couldn't do it. Maybe this was part of the end. Maybe this was part of why there was an end.

The next morning JC started over again.

He almost didn't want to. It had felt good, the night before, to see all his earnest attempts, his false starts, his abandoned endings, lying in a pile in the bottom of a hotel trash can. He had felt lighter, somehow, freer, leaving them there, walking away from them. He had thought it was what he needed. But JC woke up in the morning without music in his ears, the first time in years and years, and he knew that he needed to finish what he'd started. In the end, it was the end, and JC was going to be himself, right down to the end. He was going to write that song.

New day, new tactic, and JC didn't sit down at his keyboard or pull out his notebook. It was time to try something new.

He went down to breakfast and looked at Justin.

Looked at Justin, and even though he'd seen Justin every day for months and months, he tried to look at him with new eyes. Justin was on the phone when JC walked in, and JC knew he was talking to someone about the new CD, about his own CD, before he was close enough to hear what Justin was saying. Justin was smiling wide, phone cradled between his neck and shoulder, his hands moving gracefully through the air as if the person on the other end could see him. It was appealing and persuasive and JC had seen it hundreds of times, thousands, Justin's charm as practiced and polished as his dance steps. JC had wondered, sometimes, if Justin didn't have a choreographer hidden away for that too.

Practiced and polished and known, known, even with new eyes JC could only see what was there. Practiced and polished and JC had known it, had caught it in his song, and he was turning away when Justin laughed. Justin laughed, suddenly, his face stretching like a Halloween mask and it was, well, JC and his new eyes saw what it looked like and it wasn't pretty. And Justin was on the phone, no one could see but JC and his new eyes, but whoever was on the phone could hear, Justin's big loud braying laugh, big and loud and not the least bit graceful. JC had heard it before, of course he had, he must have, but it never sounded like that somehow when he thought about it. Maybe it was new, JC thought. It must have been new, because Justin looked up and caught JC's eye and blushed, just a little, before he turned away, murmuring into his phone.

That night JC thought about that laugh and thought about something dissonant, something raw. He reached for his notebook and then he thought about that blush and put his notebook away.

Bus day the next day, and that meant the chance to watch Justin for hours in his natural habitat. Lately JC had been spending the time trying not to avoid Justin, but to do his own thing unharassed. Staying clear of the relentless tide of jokes and teasing and wrestling and the ruthless determination that nothing was wrong, nothing was changing, nothing was changed, that drove Chris and Justin from one end of the bus to the other and back again. Now he sat on the couch in the midst of it, watching until Chris laughed and shrugged and gave up, heading for his bunk. Justin threw himself at the foot of the couch, hard enough to make JC pull his feet up under himself. Justin tipped his head back and smiled.

"Whatcha doing, C?" Justin said.

"Nothing," JC said.

"Nothing, huh?" Justin started to slide over towards JC, and JC put his feet back on the floor but not quite fast enough. He ended up with a knee on either side of Justin's shoulders, his legs spread wide and Justin pushed back between them. He pressed his legs against Justin's side, nudging him, hoping he'd get the hint, but Justin just slung an arm over JC's knee and bent his head forward.

JC knew what he wanted. Even if he hadn't known Justin all this time, known exactly what he wanted now and always, the slope of Justin's neck was a clear invitation. JC thought about refusing, thought about keeping his hands at his sides and at least making Justin ask for what he wanted, but before he was even done thinking his hands were on Justin's shoulders, fingers beneath Justin's shirt, his thumbs just meeting at the very tip of Justin's spine. That was okay, thought. He'd been thinking too much about the end, about the inevitable breaking of all their old patterns. This was something from the beginning, the very beginning, and maybe it was what he needed to remember. JC let his fingers dig into Justin's skin.

Justin made a soft, pleased noise, the way he always had, the way he always would, and dropped his head a little lower. Justin's skin felt the same as always, smooth and warm, a little warmer always than JC expected. Justin was always that way. Back in Germany, they'd all grumbled when Justin crawled all over them, wrapped himself around them to sleep, but secretly JC had never minded. Justin was like having your own private furnace, and it got cold, some of those nights. JC could remember Justin asleep in the van, draped half across his lap, his cheek on JC's shoulder, skin so warm it was almost feverish and still baby soft. JC rubbed Justin's back a little harder and Justin turned his face against JC's knee, the scratch of stubble not quite blunted by JC's thin pants.

Justin was tense under JC's hands, and that wasn't new, exactly, JC had soothed Justin's nerves before hundreds of shows and interviews and photo shoots. It was easier for all of them when Justin wasn't anxious. But something felt different about Justin's tension now. JC could feel energy surging beneath Justin's skin, a straining restless strum, and JC thought he recognized it. Maybe, JC thought, maybe he'd misjudged Justin a little. Maybe it was almost as hard on Justin, never getting to admit what he was really doing. Maybe Justin was a little angry, too, pretending it wasn't the end. JC's fingers pressed deeper into Justin's shoulders, and Justin grunted and flinched and pulled away.

"It's okay," Justin said, even though JC hadn't said sorry. He looked back over his shoulder at JC and started to smile, then stopped. "It's okay -- I just... I wasn't expecting it." JC watched as Justin stood up slowly and reached a hand back, fingers circling slowly at the base of his neck. "I'm kind of tired. I think I'm gonna go take a nap."

When Justin had gone, JC clasped his hands together. He could feel the edgy energy hidden below Justin's skin still pulsing in his own fingers. He pulled his hands up to his mouth and smiled against them. Now he knew what he'd been missing.

Alone in his room that night, JC was even more certain. He'd gotten it, he knew he had, he'd finally figured out what he needed for Justin's song. That anger, that energy, tamped down constantly day after day until finally it had to explode, and finally it did explode, soaring out of the music so hard it could knock you down. It was there, finally, finally, JC knew it was. It was right.


It was the headphones, JC thought, a song like this had to be heard loud, loose, had to take over a room. He tossed the headphones on the floor and turned the music up. He listened to it, once, twice, three times --

"You having a rave in here?" Chris said as the door burst open.

JC turned the music off. "You know how to knock?"

"I did," Chris said. "You just couldn't hear, what with your one-man Headbangers Ball going on."

"He did knock," Justin said, peering over Chris' shoulder. "We did knock. We could hear the music all the way down the hall."

"That all you wanted?" JC said.

"Yeah," Chris said. "I've turned into the old man who bangs on the ceiling with a broom during parties and hollers 'Turn that shit off!'"

"Well." JC shrugged. "It's off."

"Don't be an ass," Chris said. "We thought something might be going on in here. We came to check it out."

"Well." JC shrugged again. "Nothing's going on."

"So I see." Chris looked at JC and there was something in his eyes JC didn't like, something that reminded him that Chris was always the one who knew things first. "So what was that shit, anyway?"

"Chris," Justin said, tugging at Chris' arm. "Come on."

JC said, "Just something I wrote."

"Hmm," Chris said. Justin grabbed his arm again and Chris shoved him away without looking at him. "You writing for Trent Reznor now? Cause I hate to tell you this, but I think he might have his own people --"

"Chris, shut up," Justin said, and this time Chris let Justin yank him out of the room.

Justin reappeared in the doorway, alone this time. He reached for the door and then said, "It's real good, C, your thing."

"Thanks," JC said.

Justin closed the door halfway and then stopped. "But -- it sounded kind of -- well, kind of pissed off."

"Yeah, well, sometimes people are pissed off, but nobody sees it. At least, they think nobody sees it."

"Sure, yeah," Justin said, and flashed a smile that JC had seen a million times before, a fast careless smile. This time, though, it died at the end, trailing from his lips until Justin frowned a little, teeth biting into his bottom lip. "You, um, you okay, C?"

"Yeah," JC said, and Justin smiled again, a slower shakier smile. "Yeah, I'm fine."

"Good," Justin said. "Good." He hovered in the doorway for a moment, watching JC. Then he said, "Well, I'll leave you to it, I guess." He pulled the door shut and then pushed it open again quickly. "It was really good, though," Justin said, and then swung the door shut behind him.

JC walked over to where he'd left his headphones and picked them up, then put them away. He didn't listen to the song again. He knew he'd missed something.

Every day JC watched Justin. Every night he sat down at his keyboard or picked up his notebook. Every night he went to bed and knew something was missing.

One night after a show Justin climbed onto the bus with his hand clamped over his jaw. "Chris," he whined, slumping next to Chris on the floor, "my fucking tooth, man."

"If you're going to make that noise," Chris said, "you can just go to bed right now."

"It hurts," Justin said.

"Yeah, well, I'd have a lot more sympathy for you if I didn't know you had fifteen people on speed dial who could get a dentist in to see you in ten seconds."

"I don't want to see a dentist. I just want my fucking tooth to stop hurting."

"Okay, let me explain to you what dentists are for," Chris said, but when Justin started whimpering again Chris turned back toward the TV. "I got no sympathy for whiners."

Justin sat on the floor and watched him, his hand still holding his cheek. "It hurts," he said quietly, but JC didn't think anyone was meant to hear.

"C'mere," JC said, and Justin jumped at the sound, shoulders twitching and then settling, the way a bird will when it's been startled but not scared. "C'mere," JC said again, and Justin crawled across the floor toward him.

"I know who my friends are, JC," Justin said, kneeling in front of the couch. Chris just waved a hand behind him vaguely and didn't look around.

"Open your mouth," JC said, dipping one finger into the glass of Scotch he was holding.

"Why?" Justin said.

"Or don't," JC said, and Justin tipped his head back and opened his mouth.

JC slid a finger dripping with Scotch into Justin's mouth. Justin didn't close his mouth around JC's finger but left it open, his eyes watching JC carefully. JC traced the line of Justin's teeth, sharp scrape against his skin, until Justin flinched. "Shh," JC said, and pushed gently at the dark hidden place as Justin hissed. "Shh," JC said again, and rubbed in small light circles. He could feel where it was swollen, slick and spongy against his finger, strange, secret. "Shh," he said again, although Justin hadn't moved or made a sound. Justin still had a hand up to his face and JC could feel the pressure of Justin's fingers through the warm damp velvet of Justin's cheek.

"People used to do that to babies," Chris said. "When they were teething. Until they figured out maybe it wasn't such a good idea to give babies liquor." No one answered him. "Whatever," he said, and turned back to the TV.

JC stroked at the sore place harder, and Justin exhaled on a soft wet sound. There were tears in his eyes. "Bite down," JC said, and Justin closed his lips around JC's finger and let his teeth rest lightly. "No, bite down," JC said again, and felt Justin's teeth dig tentatively into his skin. JC pressed down hard and Justin bit him, hard, hard enough to make JC dig the nails of his free hand into his palm. "Told you," he said as he rubbed the alcohol deep into Justin's gum.

"There," JC said, and pulled his finger loose. There were small red marks from Justin's teeth. "Feel better?"

Justin nodded.

"It's the kind of thing you can't do for yourself," JC said. "You never rub as hard as you need to."

Justin rubbed at his cheek, then let his hand fall to his side. "Thanks," Justin said. He stood and looked down at JC. His mouth was open a little, and his chin trembled. JC could see a tiny ripple of movement across his cheek, and knew Justin's tongue was working at that hidden soreness again. "Leave it alone," JC said, and Justin shut his mouth. "You should go try to sleep before it starts to hurt again."

Justin nodded again and turned toward the bunks. JC watched him go. When he felt Chris' eyes on him, he got up and headed for his own bunk. He didn't even bother to open his notebook. He didn't know what he'd write.

The next morning at breakfast Chris asked if Justin was going to call the dentist. "No," Justin said, smiling a little, looking through his lashes at JC. "No, it doesn't hurt anymore."

JC kept watching Justin, so openly that he couldn't believe Justin didn't notice. He thought a few times that Justin might have, saw a dark flush at the base of Justin's neck once or twice when Justin almost caught his eye. But Justin was the same as he'd always been, holding hushed conferences on his phone, messing around with Chris, sprawling across the floor at JC's feet to watch TV. A few times Justin bent his head and offered his back to JC's hands again, and JC could feel the same energy still strumming there, restless and faster than before, almost frantic.

Justin didn't notice, but Chris did. JC felt himself flush a few times when Chris looked at him and raised his eyebrows. Finally Chris pushed him playfully against a wall and said, not playfully at all, "What are you up to, C?"

"Nothing," JC said, and Justin looked up from his phone conversation and smiled at them.

"Nothing, huh?" Chris said, and clapped JC on the shoulder like he was congratulating him. It stung. Justin laughed and turned toward the window.

"Nothing," JC said, and shoved Chris away. Chris bounced right back, though, letting his hands hit the wall on either side of JC and getting right in his face.

"Doesn't look like nothing to me," Chris said. He watched JC for a minute, then said in a softer voice, "Look, C, I just think you need to be --"

"I'm just trying --" JC said, and lowered his voice when Justin looked up again. "There's something -- I'm just trying to figure something out."

Chris let his hands drop to his sides. "Oh," he said. He sounded surprised.


"Nothing," Chris said. "I just -- I didn't think you knew."

"Knew what?"

"Knew what you were doing."

"Thanks," JC said. He was a little surprised himself, though, that Chris had guessed. But then, Chris was always the one who knew things first.

"No, I just --" Chris stepped back and let JC move past him. "Okay, then," he said. He smiled at JC. "Okay."

"What are y'all doing over here?" Justin said, smiling as he dropped his phone on the table. "Why do you always wait till I'm doing something before you start the fun?"

"Nothing fun here," Chris said, clapping JC on the back and propelling him toward Justin. It didn't sting this time. "Just me and C, having no fun at all."

"Mind if I join you?" Justin said.

"Nah, J, I was thinking of having a nap. You and C are just gonna have to have no fun all by yourselves."

"Old man," Justin said, and laughed as he dodged Chris' smack. JC looked back over his shoulder at Chris. Chris winked at him, then ran down the hallway. JC stood there looking after him until Justin grabbed his sleeve and pulled him toward the playstation.

JC didn't have a lot of time to waste thinking about Chris, though. For the first time in a while, his head was full of songs, swimming in them, fast frantic songs, slow simmering ones, all with a sharp strumming energy pulsing through them. It was a relief, after so long, to have them come so easily, so freely, faster than he could get them down. It was a relief, but not a release, because they were all Justin, all of them, but not quite.


He finished playing the latest one, which was the closest one, the closest he'd gotten so far, but still not quite, not quite. All the others had gone out clubbing and the floor was empty except for him and a few bodyguards. He hadn't bothered with headphones.

"Sexy song," Justin said, and JC jumped. "Sorry," Justin said, laughing a little. "I thought you knew I was here."

"No," JC said as he stood up. He put his hands in his pockets and then took them back out. "I thought you went out with the others."

"No," Justin said, walking into the room and shutting the door behind him. JC took a few steps back and sat on the bed like that was what he'd meant to do in the first place. "I like it, though."

"What?" JC said, and Justin laughed again.

"The song," Justin said. "It's sexy. I like it. You always could write a good love song."

"It's not a love song," JC said.

"No?" Justin said. He sat down on the bed next to JC. There was a smile on Justin's lips that JC had never seen before, but Justin's lips seemed comfortable with it, used to it, as if it were the smile they'd been made for.

"No," JC said.

"Oh," Justin said. "What's it called?"

JC thought fast. "Not a love song."

"Oh," Justin said again. "I don't like the title."

"I don't care," JC said.

Justin kissed him.

love song.

When JC first joined the band, he worried about spending so much time with four good-looking guys, worried about sleeping with one of them, falling in love, worried about all the messiness that would follow that. A few weeks in he stopped worrying. A few weeks was all it took to realize how closely they'd live together, work together, be together. Now they were so close that JC sometimes ordered Lance's lunch without even realizing it, so close that he could feel the heat of the others' bodies even when they weren't there. Not that that happened too often. They were so close JC knew the others as well as he knew himself.

They were so close, and JC had always liked distance.

Hidden things, secret things, things he wasn't meant to see or know. He thought sometimes it was because so much was offered to him, women and men opening themselves up to him before he even had to ask. He thought it might be some sort of strange defense mechanism he'd developed in response to fame, but when he told Tony that, Tony just laughed and said, "Then you developed it early on, cause as long as I've known you, you've always been the same."

The things beneath, the things beyond, the things that weren't revealed to everyone. The last time he was in a club he ignored the women dressed in next to nothing who tried to brush against him. He stood in the corner and watched one girl dance. She was beautiful, of course she was beautiful, what was the point of being famous otherwise, but there were lots of beautiful people there. She was wearing a necklace of diamonds on a transparent chain, designed to look as if sparkling drops had fallen like water on her skin. He didn't know why he was watching her until he saw her lift up her long black hair in one hand, pulling it up to the top of her head for a moment. Just before she let it fall again, a dark silky waterfall, JC saw a few silver links trailing down her back, the necklace's safety chain. JC walked across the room and lifted her hair up and put his mouth on the tiny silver circles, tasting metal and sweat. When he let the chain fall from his lips, the girl made a soft choked noise that sounded like it had been torn from her.

He never knew her name, or anything about her except that secret sound, the glimpse of silver against her neck, that sharp metallic taste. He never wanted to.

Now he had Justin pushing against him, kissing him, opening under his hands the way JC had always known he would, and he had never wanted Justin just for that reason. Because he'd known how Justin would be, how Justin was, how Justin had always been, world without end, amen. There was nothing for JC to want. He knew Justin.


Almost, but not quite. There was something hidden from him, something missing, and maybe it was this, this. Justin moved beneath him, making a low hard desperate sound, wrapping his legs eagerly, easily around JC's waist. JC pulled away and turned Justin onto his stomach. Justin's shirt was still on when JC pushed inside him, tangled halfway up his back, and JC ran his mouth over the cotton and tasted it like a ghost between them.

Later, when Justin was asleep, JC slid out from beneath him. He stripped Justin's shirt off carefully and studied Justin's body. Justin turned toward him without waking up, rolled onto his back and stretched his arms out over his head. The lights were still on. JC could see everything. This was the last thing, he thought, the last thing left for him to know about Justin. Now he knew everything.


Justin in his bed every night, any way JC wanted him, until JC knew Justin's body as well as his own, better. When JC lowered his mouth to Justin's hip and heard Justin moan, it sounded just the way JC knew it would. Every night JC watched Justin sleep and wondered what there was he still didn't know. Every day JC watched him, too, watched him scrap and bicker with Chris, watched him talk on the phone, watched him look dreamily out the bus window, tracing something with his finger on the glass. Every day JC watched him, until Justin caught him watching and came over and pushed JC onto his back and climbed on top of him while Chris laughed and covered his eyes. Every night and every day and it felt like there was nothing left for JC to know.

There was, though. JC knew there was. He knew there was because he still couldn't write Justin's song. He tried to forget about it, but it taunted him, an echo of something in his ears, something he should have known, something he couldn't remember the name of. It was always there, almost, not quite, something just beyond the edges of his memory. Something he'd heard before, or maybe not. Maybe something he should have. He didn't know.

JC didn't know, and every night and every day brought them closer to the end of the tour, closer to the end and he still didn't have his song. Closer to the end, and he still didn't know.

In the middle of the night he laid Justin out on the big hotel bed, turned the light on and watched Justin blink. Justin moved easily under his fingers, his skin sleep-warm as he let JC push him onto his back. JC crawled over him.

"Tell me something," JC said. "Something I don't know."

Justin looked up as JC crouched over him, palms and knees on the mattress on either side of Justin, lips so close to Justin's that he could swallow Justin's breath, Justin's words. "Okay," Justin said, and smiled, a long slow smile. He took a deep breath, and then said, "Okay," again, and his voice was different, still a little hoarse, a little rough from sleep, but serious.

Suddenly JC put his hand over Justin's mouth and said, "No. Tell me something you want."

Justin licked at JC's fingers until JC lifted his hand. "I want you," Justin said, and the smile was still there.

"No," JC said, "something you want that I don't know."

"I don't know what you mean."

"You do," JC said. "Something secret, something you've never told anybody."

"You know everything," Justin said. "Hell, you were there for most of it."

"There must be something. Something you want you've never told anyone."

"Well, there's this one thing," Justin said, but JC could tell from his grin that it wasn't what he wanted to know.

"No," JC said. "Something that you've never wanted to tell anyone."

"I don't know what you mean," Justin said again, but this time his voice was softer, shakier. JC dropped his lips until they rested against Justin's, not a kiss, not quite.

"Something you're not supposed to want," JC said, and Justin's eyes darted away. "Someone," JC said, and it was just a guess until Justin hissed and bucked against him. "Tell me how you want them," JC said.

"I don't --" Justin said, and then shut his mouth and pushed JC off him and rolled onto his side.

JC followed, curling around him like smoke. He put his mouth on the curve of Justin's shoulder and whispered, "Tell me."

Justin didn't answer.

JC pulled away and lay on his back, looking up at the ceiling. After a long moment he heard Justin say, softly, without turning around, "Who?"

"You know who," JC said. He didn't turn either.

"No," Justin said, his back still to JC. "I meant, who first?"

JC rolled back to his side and fit himself around Justin again. He snaked an arm around Justin's waist and Justin pushed back against him. JC put his mouth on Justin's shoulder again and felt Justin tremble. "Joey," JC said.

"Joey," Justin said. "Joey." He was quiet for a moment in JC's arms. "We're drunk," he said.

JC snorted. He leaned away from Justin a little. He didn't know why he'd thought this was a good idea. Had he really thought Justin would show him something new? Had he really thought Justin could?

"No," Justin said, his voice low, and paused again. Something in the heavy drag of his breath pulled JC back, coiled JC's body around his. "We're drunk," Justin said again, finally, "but he's more -- I'm not as drunk as he is. I didn't want to get as drunk as he is. I wanted -- we go home, to his place, cause we're gonna drink more, or something, I don't know, we don't really say. I just know it'd be just as easy to drop me off at my place and we don't. Joey knows that too, but he doesn't say anything. He's drunk, so, you know, he doesn't have to.

"We're drunk," Justin said, his voice riding low and slow on slightly jagged breaths, "and it's hard, getting into his place, getting his door open. I'm all falling against him, and my shirt's kind of twisted up from the seat belt, and he's got one arm around me trying to hold me up while he's unlocking the door, one arm around me with his hand on my waist where my shirt's rucked up. And he's swearing a little, real low, so I only hear it when I sway into him, these little rumbling curses, and I sway closer so I can hear them, and then closer. And then he gets the door open, and we walk inside, and he lets go of me.

"And I stumble and I fall, really fall, I mean I'm not that drunk but I fall anyway, for real, I didn't plan it. I fall and I hit the steps and Joey turns around too slow to catch me but too fast for how drunk he is, and he falls too and ends up half on top of me. Half on top of me, one leg between mine, and he's got a hand on either side of my head and he's laughing, you know the way Joey does when he's drunk, all softer and hoarser than usual, and he's looking at me. He's looking at me, and I tip my head back and close my eyes and just before I can't see anything else I see him looking at me and I can see just looking at him what I look like, and I can see that he wants me.

"Yeah," Justin said, "yeah. He wants me, yeah, and I keep my eyes closed and my head tipped back and I guess that, that's not that different with girls or guys cause even drunk, especially drunk, Joey can figure that out. And he kisses me. He kisses me, and he keeps kissing me, and I start moving backwards up the stairs, one step at a time, lifting myself up on my elbows, and Joey follows me. He's got my shirt all the way off now, and every step my pants get lower. His hands are all over me, and he's kissing me, and it's kind of rough because he's drunk, really drunk or he wouldn't even be doing this, but it's okay, you know, because it's Joey, you know, and he wouldn't -- you know, it's Joey.

"We hit the top of the steps and I fall back flat on my back because there's no more steps to lean on, and I fall on purpose that time and Joey follows me. He follows me, he's right on top of me, and somewhere along the way I lost my pants altogether and I'm naked, right there in the middle of Joey's hallway, flat on my back naked with Joey on top of me. I wrap my legs around Joey's waist and he starts talking to me, all these soft dirty sounds right in my ear, and I can't keep still, I'm moving under him and that just makes him grin and talk more. Except he's talking, but he's not talking to me, it's just all these words, these low dirty words that could be for anybody, all these words and they're not even dirty except for the way Joey says them, he was cursing worse when he couldn't get the key in the door. And at least then --"

Justin stopped, and the room was so quiet JC could hear Justin lick his lips. "I want him ... I want him to ... It's -- I can tell how it's going to be, and it'll be good, I know it will, because it's Joey, and he's drunk, really drunk, just drunk enough that he'll be almost out of control, almost but not quite, and I can tell -- God, you know how that good that would be? Joey, on top of me, wanting it so bad he can't slow down, drunk enough that he's rougher than he'd ever let himself be, pushing into me, so heavy and hot and I can tell how it's going to be, and it's going to be so good."

Justin stopped and licked his lips again. "And I can tell how it's going to be," Justin said, slower. "It's going to be good, and afterwards he'll try and pull me up from the floor and I won't get but halfway up cause I want him to carry me, and he will. He'll drop me in his bed and he'll make some joke about how heavy I am, how out of shape he is, and I'll laugh and he'll fall onto the bed next to me and I'll fall asleep with his arm around me. And I can tell how it's going to be, in the morning, and it'll be good, Joey won't be drunk anymore but it'll be good. He'll laugh and mess my hair up and say, 'Man, we were drunk last night,' and make some joke. And then he'll lean over and whisper, 'I would've done it anyway, though,' and it'll be good, cause it's Joey, you know? He'll make me breakfast and I'll go home and everything'll be the same, it'll be good, and a couple days later he'll pull me back when we're all leaving the studio or something, wait till you all leave and then sit down next to me and say, 'We're cool, right? We're cool,' and we will be. And it'll be just the same, everything'll be the same, and I can tell how it's going to be, because I know how it was with --"

Justin stopped, and the room was quiet again. No sound broke the silence until Justin said, "With everybody. I know how it was with everybody," and there was something tight in his voice. He took a deep breath and said, "So I push back from Joey, push out from underneath him," and his voice was low and slow again, his breathing a little broken, but there was still something tight there, something almost vicious somewhere deep inside. "And it's hard, because he's heavy, and he's drunk, but I push back and push him off and I say, 'No.' I say, 'No,' I say it twice, even though Joey's already stopped, just because I want to hear myself say it. And he's just lying there, looking at me, and he's drunk and he just looks -- he just looks stupid, for a minute, and I get up and I step around him and I walk down the stairs and pick my clothes up as I go and I put them on and I walk right out the door. And I can tell what it's like as I leave and I don't even have to look back. I know he wants me, right then he wants me, not anybody else, and this wasn't like everybody else, and he'll remember that, me, wanting me. Wanting me.

"And I'm glad," Justin said, and the tightness in his voice broke suddenly and he gasped. "I'm glad," he said, softly, and looked back over his shoulder. "C?" he said, and JC kissed the side of his mouth. The angle made JC's neck ache and Justin started to turn over. JC put his hand on Justin's arm and held him where he was. "C?" Justin said again, and JC eased him back onto his side, wrapped an arm around his waist again.

"Justin," JC said, and Justin relaxed against him.

"Lance," JC said.

"C?" Justin said, and JC ran his hand up Justin's chest until his palm was over Justin's heart.

"Shh," JC whispered, and Justin took a long shuddering breath. JC didn't move.

"Lance," Justin said, and JC opened his mouth against Justin's shoulder. "We're in the car," Justin said. "We're in the car," slow, low, "some car, any car, coming back from somewhere. Somewhere, anywhere, I don't know. An interview, something, a work thing. And Lance is, you know, he's the way he always is these days, a little pissy cause me and Chris were trying to have a little fun. So we get in the car, just me and him and Lonnie's driving, and Lance pulls his phone out and starts making calls. The way he always is these days."

Justin paused for a moment, and JC nudged his hand down a little, running his nails over Justin's chest, just sharply enough to sting. Justin arched back against him, and JC let his hand settle into a slow rhythm, circling just around Justin's nipple. "Yeah," Justin said, even slower this time, dragging the word out. "Yeah, Lance, taking care of business. And I sit there, and I even say something to him once or twice, but he's so busy. So busy, but I can hear his half of the conversations, and I know what they're saying on the other line. They don't need to talk to him. He just doesn't want to talk to me."

Justin stopped again, and JC pinched his nipple hard. When Justin threw his head back, JC whispered in his ear, "Hurry up."

"So I get on my knees," Justin said, his voice lower, breathier, his head still tipped back, cheek against JC's, and JC smiled and whispered, "Good boy."

"I get on my knees, in front of Lance, and he looks at me like he's gonna say something, but he can't, cause, you know, he's invested all this time in ignoring me. He doesn't even get off the phone. He just sits back and looks down at me, like he's daring me. Like he doesn't believe I'm gonna do it.

"And I put my hands on his knees and slide them up his thighs, and Lance kind of nods toward Lonnie with his chin, but he doesn't even hang up the phone, the bastard. He keeps talking, so I move in and open his pants and Lance is trying to pretend like he doesn't notice, like this is all happening to someone else, but he puts his hand over the phone when I pull down his zipper and I know he's caught. I laugh a little when I see that, and he knows I know he's caught and he sits back and starts talking extra loud on the phone.

"I lean in and pull his cock out, and he doesn't make a noise when I touch it, just holds his breath for a second, and I don't want to be but I'm impressed. And even surer that I'm gonna make him ... I'm gonna make him ..."

Justin's voice trailed off and JC let his teeth dig into Justin's skin. Justin gasped, open-mouthed, and flinched forward. "Tell me," JC said, and Justin sighed and fell back against him.

"Beg me," Justin mumbled, and then said it louder, clearer, when JC's teeth scraped again. "Beg me.

"So I lean in, I lean in," and Justin's voice was fast and breathless and a little broken, and JC rocked against him, pulled him back tight, rubbed his lips soothingly against Justin's shoulder. Justin sighed and started again.

"So I lean in, and I just lick, I just drag my tongue down his dick, slow as I can, but not light, hard, and Lance's hands are in my hair now, he drops that goddamned phone, and he's trying to push me away, but even when I'm on my knees Lance isn't that much stronger than me and then his dick's in my mouth and he's not really pushing me away anymore." Justin chuckled a little. "Not anymore he's not.

"And I push my mouth down on him, and his hands are still in my hair but they're not moving, he's not moving, he's not making any noise at all. And I want to go fast, take him deep and hard but he's big, you know he is, and I go almost too fast and I've gotta back up a little bit, but I think I make it seem, you know, natural, like I meant to do it like that, but then Lance is laughing a little, the bastard, and so, you know, take two, I try it again and all the way this time and he's not laughing anymore, he's gasping, and I'd be the one laughing if, you know, if my mouth wasn't full.

"And then I go slow, slow as I can, soft and slow like silk, and it's hard, because he's making these sounds, these low sounds just as soft and slow as I'm moving, and this was about making him beg for it and it still is but I'm starting to get turned on. But I keep going slow, slow as I can, and every once in a while I pull off and nip at the inside of his thigh, and I know that's the type of thing could get me killed and nobody'd even blame him, but he isn't in much shape to protest, you know?

"And I'm going slow, so slow, nice and slow, and he's coming apart nice right above me, and somehow my hand gets in my pants and everything's going according to plan. And his breathing's getting all raggedy, hitching all deep, and I know he's just about to break, and all of a sudden he grabs my hair, grabs me and I'm just like, oh, no, we're not playing that way, not today. But I've got one hand down my pants and my mouth full of dick and I'm not really in the best position to fight back, you know, so I just stop. Stop everything, and he stops too and looks down at me for a minute like he's all confused. And I lean back and let his dick fall out of my mouth and I'm still jerking off and he just looks at me and I say, 'Ask for it.' And he shakes his head and nods at Lonnie again, like that's the reason why he won't, like, he didn't have a problem with me sucking his dick with Lonnie two feet away, but that's why he can't ask for it. So I just sit back on my heels and wait, and he puts his hand on his dick like he doesn't care, like that's gonna fool me.

"So I just wait, and watch, and it feels like a long time goes by but it can't be much more than a few seconds, and he's looking back at me and I'm still jerking off and he's not, he's just looking at me, and I look back and I'm getting closer and I'm just starting to get a little worried about what the hell's gonna happen if I come and he's still waiting me out, when I see, I see right before he says it I see him break. He doesn't move, not at all, but I can see it in his eyes and I know, I know he's gonna do it and I'm leaning forward and I've got my mouth on his dick and he's gonna do it, he's gonna say it and he does, he says it, and he comes and I come and he says my name.

"And when it's over, when it's done, he's got his head tipped back and hands out at his sides and I don't clean him up at all, I don't button him back up, I just get up and sit down next to him and I don't even wipe my mouth off. I smile at him and he sits up and puts himself back together and picks up his phone, like nothing's happened, but I know and I can see it in his eyes he knows. I made him say it, and he knows I did."

Justin took a long ragged breath and JC slid his hand down Justin's stomach. "He knows I did," Justin said again. He bucked a little and JC smiled and moved his hand down further, brushing against Justin's cock and then pulling back.

"You know who now," JC said.

"Chris," Justin said, rocking back into JC. "Right. See, we're on the bus, just wrestling or something, and he says to me, you know, like he always does. Just joking around like he was yesterday, and he says --"

"No," JC said, and pushed at him. Justin froze.

"JC?" he said.

"Chris," JC said. "Tell me."

"I was," Justin said, his voice high and shaky. "I was, and you said --"

"That's not how you want him," JC said. Justin didn't say anything. "Tell me."

Justin closed his eyes and rolled forward, pulling one leg up under him. JC edged up behind him, but stopped just before he touched him. "Home," Justin said. His face was turned down, into the mattress, but JC could hear his voice clearly. "We're home," Justin said, "before, before we're so big, before Germany, before, before Lance even." Justin stopped and JC could see his shoulders shake a little. He put a hand out but Justin said, on a long shuddering exhalation, "Before," and JC's fingers curled into a fist and fell onto the bed.

"It's before," Justin said, "before everything. And he's -- even before everything, he's Chris, and he's cool, and he lets me hang out with him all the time, everywhere. Except, except it's not even that he lets me, he just, like, he wants me to. He's cool, he's so cool, and he thinks I'm cool, and we're, we're friends, we're best friends, better than anybody, even then. Even before everything. Even before everything, before everything, we are."

Justin stopped again and JC watched him, his body twisted against the sheets, his eyes squeezed tightly shut. JC reached out and touched him this time, just four fingers lightly on the curve of his waist, and Justin sighed and said, "Except. Except for one thing.

"One thing, and it's not a big thing, I mean it can't be, compared to everything else, it's just a thing but it's there, it's always there and ... It's just -- he looks at other people, sometimes. Other guys. Not a lot, not all the time but we'll be sitting around at his place or at rehearsal or just at, I don't know, at McDonald's or something, and I'll be talking to him and I'll be looking at him and he's looking at some guy on the street or in the next booth or ... or somewhere. And it's nothing, it's nothing, I tell myself it doesn't matter, it doesn't mean anything --"

Justin's voice got higher then, breathier, and JC's hand stroked gently over his skin. "Except I see him, one day, and then other days, every fucking day, I see him and he looks at Joey and he looks at JC," and JC's hand stopped moving. "He looks at them like that and not me. Not like that. He never ever looks at me.

"And it's not fair, it's not fucking fair, everybody else and not me and I want him to, I'm going to make him. And I can, I'm not some fucking kid, I know I'm, I know I can be, I know how. But he just -- he doesn't notice, he just won't notice, and I lean up against him and lean into him and he -- he doesn't laugh at me, but he makes it a joke and he's not laughing at me but he's laughing. He's laughing and he's not looking at me.

"It's not fair," Justin said, his voice small, and JC slid up against him, slipped his arm around Justin's waist and held him. "It's not fair," Justin said, and JC pressed his face against Justin's back, damp with sweat, and held him.

"If he won't play fair," Justin said, "then I don't have to. I tell myself that and I keep telling myself that and I don't know what it means. Not till Jason quits, not till we're thinking that it's all over, before everything, before anything. Not till Chris gets three calls from home three days in a row and he walks around looking like he believes it. Like he believes it's over, before everything, before anything. He looks like that but he won't look at me.

"He starts drinking one night," Justin said, "getting drunk on cheap beer, and everyone else goes out, half just to get away from him, but he doesn't and I don't, and he's drunk and I'm not because he wouldn't even let me have one. The phone rings again and he gets up to answer it and he takes it into the bathroom and shuts the door on me and there's yelling, I can hear it even through the door. And he comes back out looking gray and tired and he sits down and drinks the last beer real fast and then his arms just kind of fall down, just hang there at his sides and he's still got the bottle in one hand and he just looks -- he's looking straight in front of him and I don't know what he sees but I know what it's not and it's not me."

Justin was quiet for a moment and JC's hand crept down over Justin's stomach, holding him closer. Justin pushed back against him and threw his head back. "C," he said, "C," and he pulled one knee up further and rocked back against JC, still hot and slick from earlier that night but that wasn't what JC wanted.

"Shh," JC whispered as his hand crept down lower. Justin gasped when JC's hand circled his cock and JC whispered again.

"I climb onto his lap," Justin said, his voice low and ragged, his eyes still tightly shut. JC's hand was moving slowly, gently. "I climb onto his lap and he doesn't try to stop me, even though he's pushed me off every time since -- for a while now. But he's drunk and he's, he's, and I climb onto his lap and he just puts his head against my neck and he says, 'I'm so tired, J. I'm so tired.' And I just stay there, like that, for a while, and I stay like that --

"C," Justin said, "C." JC opened his mouth against Justin's back and his tongue moved in the same slow rhythm as his hand.

"And then I start -- I start moving. Just a little, just at first, like I can't get quite comfortable, and I'm wrapped around him, my legs up on the chair pressed all up against his sides, my arms around him, and I just start rocking a little. And he's drunk, and he's -- it makes him slow, and by the time he says, 'Hey,' by the time he reaches up to push me away I'm rocking, and I can, I can feel him, under me, and he's, he's, he's hard, and I just shake my head and hold on tighter and I don't, I don't move.

"And he -- he brings his hands up to my chest, like he's going to shove me away, but he's going to have to shove me because I'm not going, and he -- it feels for a minute like he's going to, I can feel it in his hands, that roughness, and I make, I cry out, just a little, and he just -- he shivers and he lets his hands fall to his sides again and his face is still smashed all into my neck. And he doesn't say anything, he doesn't do anything, but I can feel him, under me, and I start -- I've got my arms on his shoulders and I start pushing up a little, up and then rocking down and I can feel him, and I know, I know he wants me, I can feel him but he doesn't do anything, he doesn't say anything. And I'm still -- I am, but I'm getting -- I just want him to say my name, or, or something, or do something, but he doesn't. And I just start -- I'm not crying, I swear I'm not but I'm just -- I just really want him to.

"And then he just -- he grabs my hips, hard, I can feel his fingers right through my pants and they're biting in and I can't help it, I just, I make this noise and he does, too, he makes this noise and he jerks up hard against me and pulls me down and he -- and he comes, and then he just slumps back in the chair and tilts his head back.

"And I just sit there for a minute, and he doesn't say anything and he doesn't look at me. And then I just -- I just get up." Justin paused, panting, and JC's lips traced the line of his back up to his shoulder. JC hummed just below his ear, one hand still moving firmly over Justin's cock. "I get up, and I just look at him. And he's draped over the chair, his hands hanging down by his sides, his legs out in front of him. He's got his eyes closed. And I just -- I turn to walk to the bathroom, but I've been -- I was sitting weird, I guess, or something, but I'm kind of, my legs. And he -- I'm moving slow, slower than I usually, and he -- I look back and he opens his eyes, and he's looking at me, and it's not, it's not like that, it's not like, it's not what I thought, but he, he's looking at me and I know, I know. I know he's gonna, he's, he's gonna be looking at me, at me. All the time, only me. He's gonna look at me. For the rest of his life, he's gonna. He's gonna be looking at me.

"At me," Justin breathed, his eyes squeezed shut, his head rocked back onto the pillow. He sobbed when he came, "at me," gasping it, and when JC let him go he rolled forward, out of JC's hands. JC watched him, watched Justin's body twist in on itself, watched Justin's hands tangle tightly in the sheets and then let them go. Justin turned back to him suddenly, quickly, thrashing gracelessly as he threw his arms around JC. JC wrapped his arms around Justin, his hands rubbing soothingly over Justin's back as Justin mumbled into his chest, "I didn't, I wouldn't, I didn't."

"I know," JC said as Justin pressed against him, crooning softly, over and over.

"I know," JC said, "I know," over and over, until Justin fell asleep.

The next morning Justin kept his distance from everyone, slinking in for breakfast after everyone else was almost done, curling up in a corner of the bus with a magazine. JC kept his distance, too. Chris pulled JC aside halfway through the afternoon and said, "You know what's wrong with J?"

"I think he's just tired," JC said, and Justin looked up and smiled at him. He looked tired. "He's okay."

"If you say so," Chris said, and left him alone.

Justin looked up again, biting his lip like he was waiting for something, and then stood up and walked over to JC. "I am kind of tired," he said, and JC slid over in the chair to make room for him. Justin sat next to him, half in his lap, and buried his face against JC's shoulder. JC wrapped an arm around his waist. He watched Justin sleep and thought about all the things he knew about Justin.

All those things, and still no song. Every day and every night and still no song, and one night there was no Justin in his room, either, so JC went looking for him. He let himself into Justin's room and caught Justin shoving a notebook under his pillow.

"What's that?" JC said, holding his hand out for it. "Stuff for the new CD?"

"I didn't realize -- I didn't see how late it got." Justin put his hand in JC's and hauled himself to his feet. "Let's sleep in your room, okay?"

"What was that, Justin?" JC said. "Can I see?"

"Um," Justin said. He reached a hand back and rubbed the back of his neck. "No?"

"Are you asking me?"

"No," Justin said. He looked down at his shoes. "I mean, it's just -- it's not for people to see."

"So not for the CD?"

"Well, yes. I mean, eventually, probably."

"You know, the CD? Other people are going to hear what's on it. That's kind of the point of making one."

"I know," Justin said. He looked up quickly at JC and then looked back down at the floor. "It's just not -- it's not ready for people yet."

"Well, I'm not people, am I?" JC held his hand out for it again. "You're just nervous -- let me see."

"No," Justin said. When JC didn't say anything, Justin met his eyes and said, "It's -- it's private."

"Oh," JC said. He leaned against the wall and folded his arms. "Oh, I see."

"Okay?" Justin said nervously.

JC looked at him. "So you're not showing anyone?" he said slowly, and it was only a guess until Justin blushed and looked back down.

"Right," Justin said to the floor.

"But you showed Chris," and JC watched the smooth motion of Justin's throat as he swallowed and swallowed again.

"Yeah," Justin said.

"Oh," JC said, and headed for the door.

Justin grabbed his arm. "Wait," he said. "You don't understand."

"I understand," JC said. "Let go of me."

"No, no, you don't," Justin said, his fingers digging into JC's arm. "You don't -- it's -- wait," Justin said. He let go of JC and ran his hands through his hair. "Wait."

JC stood and watched Justin, face flushed, shoulders shaking, and wondered why he was still waiting. "I'm going," he said.

"C," Justin said. He looked JC in the face.

"Look, I'm going," JC said.

"I showed it to Chris," Justin said, and JC turned again to go. Justin said his name again, and JC turned back. "I showed it to Chris," Justin said, "because he -- his opinion. It doesn't matter as much as yours." Justin's voice was quiet and even, but JC could still see just what it cost him. Justin took a step toward him, and put his hand out. JC was tempted, just for a second. Then he thought of his song, all his abandoned songs, and whatever it cost Justin, JC knew it wasn't enough.

He left.

Of course, they were on tour, and there was only so far he could go. But the other end of the bus was far enough, he thought. He could still see Justin, sitting with his arms wrapped around his knees looking out the window. He didn't feel guilty, though. Why should he? Apparently Justin had been keeping his distance all along. His distance and his secrets.

Three days and Chris slammed JC into the wall. Justin didn't look up but JC knew there was no way he couldn't hear. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" Chris said.

"I'm walking down the hallway," JC said. "Or at least I was, until I was accosted by a lunatic."

"Don't fuck with me, JC," Chris said. "And don't fuck with him."

"Stop it, Chris," Justin said. "It's none of your business."

"Oh, is there something that's not Chris' business?" JC said. "I mean, I knew it wasn't my business, but --"

Justin got up and walked back toward the bunks. JC shoved Chris aside and followed.

Justin was sitting cross-legged on his bunk, his notebook in his hands. JC saw the way his eyes were shadowed and he felt a pang -- not of guilt, but something close. He leaned against the wall. "Justin," he said.

"Here," Justin said. He held his notebook out.

"Justin," JC said. He sat down on the bed. "Justin," he said again. He didn't know what else to say.

"No," Justin said. "No, I mean it. I was just -- I was being stupid."

"Justin," JC said. He didn't know what else to say, but that seemed to be working.

"Please," Justin said. JC took the notebook from Justin's hands, a small book bound in blue leather. He ran a finger over the marbled surface. "Just --"

"What?" JC said.

"Don't tell me, right away, what you think, okay? Tell me later."

"Justin, if you don't want me to --"

"No," Justin said. He looked at JC and smiled. "No, I want you to. I want you to know. I just -- just don't tell me what you think right away."

Justin stretched out on his bunk and reached back for JC. JC followed.

Justin fell asleep quickly, wrapping JC's arms around himself, smiling as he closed his eyes. For once JC didn't stay awake and watch him. He closed his eyes and followed.

JC woke up with his hand clasped around Justin's notebook. He eased himself out from under Justin, who rolled easily to his side without waking. JC locked himself in the bathroom, the only place on the bus he could be sure of privacy, and sat on the floor, the blue notebook in his lap. He looked down at it, opened his hand and spread it out over the cover. He didn't want to open it.

He went back to Justin's bed.

Night after night, day after day, and Chris watched him like he wanted to set him on fire and JC didn't care. Night after night, day after day, and the end of the tour was coming, JC could see it in sight, the end of the tour and he didn't care. He didn't have his song, he didn't have anything but Justin in his bed and a small blue notebook tucked unopened in the bottom of his bag.

Five nights left, four, three, and it was the end of the tour but it didn't feel like the end of everything. It was the end of something, though, and JC remembered, a death and a rebirth, he had known it from the beginning. This felt more like the birth of something, and that deserved something, too, as much as the ending. He thought of flames on a faraway beach, a perfect curl of smoke behind Justin's eyes. He wanted to mark it.

The last night, long after the others had gone off to sleep, drunk and laughing and happy, happy like it wasn't the end, JC sat Justin down on his bed. Justin sat obediently and looked up at him, drunk and laughing and happy, happy because it wasn't the end. "Surprise?" Justin said. "I want my surprise."

JC went to get it, drunk and laughing and happy, just happy, and he held his hands behind his back and made Justin pick. Justin picked wrong, but it didn't matter. JC gave it to him anyway.

Justin didn't take it.

"What?" Justin said, and he wasn't drunk and laughing and happy anymore.

"It's yours," JC said, stupidly, and when Justin just looked at him he said, "I didn't read it."

"What?" Justin said, and JC had heard that voice before.

"I didn't read it," JC said again. He didn't know what else to say.

"But -- I gave it to you." Justin's voice was quiet and even. "You said. Or -- no. No, you didn't. You just left. Until I gave it to you. That's how much you wanted to read it."

"But I didn't," JC said. "I didn't read it."

"Why?" Justin said. JC didn't answer. Justin said it again, and again. He seemed prepared to say it all night. All JC could think of to say was the truth.

"I didn't need to."

Justin made a little noise when JC said it, a sharp intake of breath. "So you were just -- Chris said you were fucking with me."

"No," JC said. "No, no."

"Then what?"

"I wanted -- I needed it."

"You just said you didn't read it. Why did you need it?"

"I needed you."

"You needed me to do what you wanted," Justin said, slowly, and JC could hear just what it cost him. Justin stood up and walked toward the door. JC followed after him, still holding the notebook out in front of him. "Keep it," Justin said. "I can't use them now. They don't -- they're not right now."

"Justin," JC said. JC thought about the song he was trying to write, thought about trying to explain it to Justin. He couldn't find any words. He said, "Justin."

"They don't mean anything now," Justin said, and walked out the door.

When Justin had left, JC locked himself in the bathroom and sat on the floor with Justin's notebook in his lap. For the first time he opened it. He read it cover to cover, read song after song about friendship, about love, about faith, about himself. JC's name was on the top of every page. He didn't recognize who he was reading about.

JC closed the notebook and sat with it in his lap, his hand stretched out over the cover. In his head he could almost hear the song he wanted to write, almost. Almost. He knew he would never write it.

It was a love song.

title & story summary from anne sexton's 'a little uncomplicated hymn.'
part of the yankee hotel foxtrot challenge.

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