Justin was trying to play it cool, but Chris could see from the sway of his shoulders that he was excited when he walked onto the bus with the advance copy of Vanity Fair. Chris was a little excited, too; they all were. They were used to appearing in magazines, but this was a step up from their usual coverage. This was adult attention. The big time.
"Well, hand it over, kid," Chris said. "Let's take a look at you."
"Only if you want to."
"Yeah, right," Lance said, but he was grinning. "We'll be hearing about it for the rest of our lives, so we might as well get started."
Justin tossed the magazine to Lance and flung himself onto the couch. He had his hand over his face, but he was watching them through his fingers.
"Um," Lance said. JC looked over his shoulder. "Wow."
"Give it here." Chris caught it when Lance threw it his way, and laid the magazine out flat on the table.
It was just a short article, a few facts about the tour, the new album, Justin's bio. The text was printed over a full-page photo.
They had dressed him in khakis, a white shirt open at the neck, a blue blazer. He was leaning against a brick building laced with ivy. He had one hand stretched over his head and braced against the wall, the other behind his neck. His head was bent a little, and he was looking up through long lashes. It was a look that should have worked better when Justin still had the curls, Chris thought. But something about the contrast made the shaven head look not butch and boot camp, but a little vulnerable. He looked a little lost in those college boy clothes. Somehow they had coaxed from Justin a private smile, one Chris knew very well as the wheedling look. His lips were curved just slightly, his mouth open just a little. He looked as if he were about to say please.
Across the top of the page ran the words, "N Sync's Lolita Grows Up."
"I don't know," Lance said. "Aren't you a little past your Lolita days?"
"Naw, he's not," Joey answered. "Don't you remember what's her face? Long Island Lolita? She was like 17, 18, not much younger than him. Amy Fisher, that was her name."
"I think Lance was referring to the original Lolita, Joey. It was a book," Chris said.
"Oh, you mean the one by Nabokov?" Joey shot him a dirty look. "Don't look so surprised. You're gonna make me think you doubt my intelligence."
"What are you talking about?" Justin asked.
"Lolita. You've never read it?" Chris said.
"I don't even know what you're talking about."
"You must have heard of it."
"We so should not have let you go to bus school, man. You're an ignoramus."
"It's a book." JC stepped in smoothly before Justin could get mad. "A famous book, about a man who falls in love with a really young girl. A really really young girl. Lolita."
"I'm not that young. Not really really young."
"People sometimes use it just to mean, like, jailbait."
"I'm not jailbait," Justin said, smiling.
"Not anymore," Joey mumbled.
"Barely," Lance said.
"Well, to the forty-five-year-old gay man who wrote that article, you probably looked a lot like jailbait," JC said.
"Yeah, especially in that picture," Chris said.
"'Lolita,'" Lance said, snapping out each syllable.
"'Light of my life,'" Joey said.
"'Fire of my loins,'" JC giggled.
"'My sin, my soul,'" Chris said.
"'Lo-lee-ta,'" four voices chorused.
Justin scowled. "What the hell are you talking about?"
He wasn't laughing the next day, when Lance started calling Justin Lo.
Lance kept it behind Justin's back at first. JC and Joey smiled the first few times he did it, and then didn't seem to notice. Chris wasn't sure why, but he found it really irritating.
When Lance walked into his room and asked if he'd seen Lo, Chris said, "Knock it off."
"Why? I think it's funny."
"Well, you're wrong." Lance gave him a long look, and shrugged. When he turned to go, Chris said, "You know you're going to slip in front of him one day, and it'll piss him off."
Lance turned back to him. "He's got lots of nicknames. Most of them were invented by you and most of them pissed him off at first. Why does this one bother you?"
"It doesn't bother me. I was just trying to, you know, look out for you."
"Thanks," Lance said, and left.
Of course he did slip up in front of Justin, and of course it pissed Justin off. It was especially unfortunate, Chris thought, that Lance did it in front of a journalist.
"What did he call you?" the woman asked Justin, leaning forward like a hawk that had sighted a mouse.
"Um, I'm not sure I heard," Justin said politely. He was too professional to show his anger in front of an outsider, but Chris could see it. Justin's body had always betrayed him to Chris, his fury clear in the set of his shoulders and the tilt of his chin.
"I thought he said Low," the writer said.
"I was just joking," Lance said. "I call Justin Lo, from an article someone wrote that called him Lolita."
"It was in Vanity Fair," Chris said. "Did you see it?"
"Oh, yes," the woman chirped. "It seems like you guys are getting a lot of attention in the press these days, in outlets that aren't focused on teenagers. Why do you think that is?"
Justin relaxed as JC launched into an extensive description of their new sound, and Chris felt his own tension dissipate. It returned, however, when the woman left and Justin turned to Lance. "What the fuck was that about?"
JC and Joey exchanged a look and left together. Chris threw an envious glance their way but stayed in his seat.
"It was a mistake, Justin. I forgot for a minute and slipped up."
"Oh, all right then. If it was just a mistake. Maybe I'll make a mistake next time we're in an interview. There are a few things I think you wouldn't like slipping out."
"Hey, all right," Chris said. "No big deal, kiddo, no harm done. Let it go."
Justin turned on him. "Oh, I'm supposed to let it go. He can mock me in front of other people, in an interview where I can't do anything about it, but I should let it go."
"I wasn't mocking you," Lance said. He wasn't looking at Justin.
"Well, it sounded like mocking to me."
"It wasn't you I was mocking," Lance said. Chris was staring steadily at the floor.
"Who was it, then?" Justin demanded.
"If you had read the book, you'd understand."
"Whatever." Justin slammed out of the room. After a moment, Chris looked up. Lance's eyes were still on him.
"That wasn't like you," Chris said slowly, "slipping up like that in front of a reporter."
"No," Lance said, "it wasn't."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Come on, you said it. What's it supposed to mean?"
"It's time for you to grow up, Chris. The rest of us have," Lance said, and stalked out.
Justin got on the bus the next day clutching a paperback copy of Lolita.
"Nobody bother me," he announced as he flopped down on the couch, "I'm reading."
"That's a pretty difficult book," JC said, and Chris winced. There was no way Justin wouldn't finish it now.
JC went off to his bunk, and Chris tried to occupy himself with the Playstation. He kept feeling a strange tingling on the back of his neck, though, like someone was watching him. But each time he looked over his shoulder, Justin was reading.
Finally Chris gave in and threw himself into a chair, picking up a magazine and watching Justin over the top of it. He was sprawled across the couch, wearing sweatpants and an old faded T-shirt. He was lying on his side, knees pulled up. One of the legs of his sweatpants was rucked up, revealing a few inches of golden calf above his sock. The book looked small in his large hands. He was frowning a little, his forehead wrinkled in an intense concentration that Chris recognized.
Justin looked up. "What?"
"Nothing. How's the book?"
Justin sighed. "It's kind of hard," he admitted.
"Yeah, I remember," Chris said sympathetically.
"But good," Justin said, and went back to it. The tip of his tongue protruded from the corner of his mouth.
Chris fled to his bunk.
For the first time, Chris wished that Justin had a shorter attention span. Every morning on the bus, he curled up with Lolita, reading slowly and carefully. Chris tried to use the unaccustomed quiet to catch up on his sleep, but every morning he found himself drawn to the lounge where Justin lay.
It was strange, Chris thought, how you could know someone so long and so well, and still be surprised by him. It was almost as if after a certain point, you ceased to see someone when you looked at him, instead seeing an image that had been burned into your brain early on. Then the light would strike in a certain way, and suddenly a familiar face would look newly angular, a remembered gesture startlingly out of place.
Chris had a peculiar sense of double vision as he watched Justin. He knew, couldn't help knowing that Justin had grown from a pretty boy into a handsome man, taller now and stronger than Chris. But Chris had known it abstractly. Now the sight of Justin's muscled arms, his close-cropped head, his large hands shocked Chris viscerally. With almost a sense of panic he searched the man in front of him for traces of the boy he knew.
Justin ran a hand over his head as if carding through the absent curls. Instead of comforting Chris with its familiarity, the movement seemed foreign. The emotion Chris felt was no longer panic, but something he had never associated with Justin before. It took him a moment to recognize it, and he caught his breath and shut his eyes against the new knowledge. When he opened his eyes, Justin was looking at him, blushing, one large hand still on the base of his scalp.
"I forget, sometimes, that the fro's gone," Justin said shamefacedly.
"Do you miss it?"
"Yeah, sometimes," Justin said. "Do you?"
"No," Chris said, and was surprised to find it was true.
It was lucky, Chris thought, that he had a reputation for constant and obnoxious action. Suddenly he couldn't stand to see Justin quietly reading, talking seriously on his cell phone, absorbed in a conversation about music with JC. Chris launched into an almost incessant frenzy, taunting Justin into all-night Playstation marathons, tackling him to the floor, tossing his book aside and tickling him until Justin was reduced to helpless giggles.
"Jesus, Chris," JC said after a half-read copy of Lolita struck him on the back of the head, "what's your problem lately? You always bounce off the walls, but you're, like, wild anymore." Chris didn't answer. He was devoting quite a lot of energy to not considering what his problem was.
He looked over and caught Justin watching him, a speculative look in his dark eyes. He stood up, towering over Chris, impossibly tall. He reached a hand down and hauled Chris easily to his feet. For a moment he didn't let go of Chris' hand. Chris was close enough to feel Justin's chest heaving a little from his earlier exertions. Justin's lips quirked upward, and Chris pulled his hand away.
In interviews Justin said, same as always, "Chris can't stand to be cooped up on the bus. He goes a little crazy." But as he spoke the words there was a new smile on his lips, dangerous and knowing. Chris couldn't look away from it.
Eventually Chris took to his bunk, desperate to avoid that new smile. He feigned sleep at first, worried that Justin would pursue him. He was not disappointed, he told himself, when Justin did not appear.
He tossed and turned, fighting boredom and nausea until the bus finally stopped. He staggered into the lounge, and Justin looked up from his book. His gaze flickered over Chris' body.
"Guess we're here," Chris said. His voice was shaking a little. Justin nodded and swung his legs off the couch. He followed Chris to the door, so close behind him that his sleeve brushed Chris' back. Chris stumbled, and Justin reached out smoothly and steadied him.
"Careful," he said, and Chris looked down and saw Lolita in his hand. He looked up, and Justin was smiling.
Chris turned down all offers of videos and clubbing and took refuge in the solitude of his room. So much time spent in the constant presence of the others had made him edgy and nervous, he thought. He needed some time alone to regroup.
He refused to think about why his heart leapt at the knock on his door.
Justin was leaning against the doorjamb, dangling a tattered book by its cover.
"So I finished my book."
"Yeah?" Chris said, shifting uncertainly. "You want to come in?"
"Sure." But Justin came only far enough into the room to close the door behind him and stand with his back to it. "It's kind of a sick book, though."
"Yeah?" Chris said again. He wasn't sure he liked where this was going.
"Yeah," Justin said. His voice was a little hoarse, as if he'd been smoking. "How that guy was so, like, reasonable about things, but at the same time, he was so crazy about that girl. Like, really crazy."
Chris was sure he didn't like where this was going. "Fascinating, Just. You wanna come in and watch a movie or something?"
Justin crossed his arms. Chris could see his biceps bulging through the thin cotton of his T-shirt. He looked at Chris, his eyes heavy-lidded but focused, marking every move Chris made. "And she was just a little girl, too. I mean, he made it sound like she knew what was going on, but she was really just a kid. Barely more than a baby."
Chris felt like he didn't know the calm, collected man standing in front of him, didn't know how he should react. Didn't know if he should confront his implication, or laugh it off, or brace himself for a punch. Nothing he could have done, however, would have prepared him for what Justin said next.
"Not like us."
A punch to the gut couldn't have winded Chris more. He actually swayed on his feet. Justin was still, watching him carefully. "What?"
"Not like us." Justin took a deliberate step toward Chris, his voice even, as if he were gentling a horse. "I'm not a little boy, and you're not a crazy old man."
"I don't know what you're talking about." Chris' voice rose and cracked on the words. He backed away as Justin eased toward him. Justin kept coming, though, moving like he was underwater, slow and graceful. Chris felt time stretch and double back on itself, the moment seeming to last forever as Justin approached and he retreated. He hit the wall hard and felt time snap back into place.
Justin was in front of him, so close that all Chris had to do was rock forward to press against him. Justin was tall, broad-shouldered, looming over Chris like fate. Chris could see the faint shadow of beard on his chin. He saw the muscles work in Justin's throat as he swallowed.
Justin kissed him.
Chris felt a dislocation so profound that he thought he would fall, except for the wall behind his back and Justin's lips against his. It must have been dislocation that made the room spin around him, whirling frantically around the epicenter that was Justin's hot mouth, Chris' pounding heart. It must have been dislocation that made the air around them ripple and distort like the desert in July. It must have been dislocation that made him gasp at the shock of Justin's tongue, that made him moan as Justin's rough fingers slid up his jaw to cup his head in Justin's large hand.
Justin raised his other hand to Chris' chest. Chris watched the book drop from Justin's fingers for an endless moment, drop through countries and continents, through ages of history and memory, fluttering to lie between them on the floor.
Chris reached for the light switch next to him and turned off the lights.
"Baby," Justin said, lifting his mouth from Chris', his voice a rasp of desire that Chris had never heard before.
This wasn't Justin. The thought sawed like a dull blade through the blaze of light and heat that popped and sparked in Chris' mind. This wasn't Justin, this tall man pulling Chris relentlessly toward the bed, stopping suddenly to dip his mouth to Chris' collarbone, teeth closing on it firmly. This wasn't Justin, Chris thought as deft fingers unbuttoned his pants, as soft lips followed their trail until Chris bucked and groaned. Not Justin, as the silken column of vertebrae slid through Chris' hands, as hot breath and wet tongue painted Chris from groin to nape and back again. Not Justin, as strong arms spread Chris' legs. Not - oh God - not Justin, as Chris threw his head back and pushed against the heat thrusting inside him.
Not Justin, not Justin, not Justin. Not.
"Chris," the man above him gasped. Chris had heard his name in that voice a million times, in happiness, in hurt, in irritation, in love. He would know it anywhere.
"Justin," he said, and came.
Chris lay on his side, watching Justin beside him. Justin was on his back, his chest heaving, eyes closed. On his lips was a smile Chris knew as well as he knew his own name.
Justin reached out without opening his eyes and grabbed Chris' hand, dragging Chris' fingers across the stubble on Justin's chin and down through the hair on his chest. Chris spread his fingers, feeling the hard muscle and the beating heart beneath his palm. Justin covered Chris' hand with both of his large ones.
When Chris awoke, Justin had left. The lights were still off as Chris stumbled into the other room.
The book was gone.
They slept together.
Every night Chris turned out the lights and waited for Justin's knock. When he opened the door, Justin would push Chris into the bedroom, kiss him furiously, grab Chris by the waist and lift him onto the bed. Chris would let his hands span the width of Justin's shoulders, wrap his fingers around Justin's biceps, run his mouth along the strong line of Justin's jaw. Every night they were wordless until Justin gasped, "Chris" and came.
After the first night, Chris never said Justin's name.
The days on the bus were strange and strained, each giving the other a wide berth. JC moved between them as cautiously as a tightrope walker.
But every night Justin came to Chris' room. Every night Chris had Justin's hands sliding roughly up the backs of his thighs, Justin's breath harsh in his ear, Justin's body heavy on top of his. Every night Chris slipped into sleep with his palm over Justin's heart, Justin's fingers rubbing lightly against his wrist.
Then they had a three day stretch of night driving, the lights along the interstate casting a constant gleam through the bus. Chris didn't want Justin in his bunk, but didn't trust himself to send him away. He stayed up all night, watching the road spin out like a silvery thread beneath their wheels. During the day he huddled under the covers, in a dreamless sleep that left him feeling drugged and dazed.
Just before dawn on the third night, Justin came to him as he sat staring dully out the window, his mind blessedly blank. Justin sat next to him, a hand's width between their bodies. The light was clear and alien, throwing desolate shadows on Justin's face. The signs along the highway sent neon spars of green and gold arching through the room. Chris could see the sharp slice of Justin's cheekbone but not the smooth skin beneath it, the square chin but not the curve of lip above. He could see Justin's eyes.
Chris didn't know how long they sat there, silent, the light brightening minutely around them. "This reminds me of something," Justin said, voice low, and left. He returned with Lolita in his hands. Chris turned back to the window, watching as the endless plains of Nebraska passed him by.
"'Some way further across the street," Justin read, "neon lights flickered twice slower than my heart: the outline of a restaurant sign, a large coffee-pot, kept bursting, every full second or so, into emerald life, and every time it went out, pink letters saying Fine Foods relayed it, but the pot could still be made out as a latent shadow teasing the eye before its next emerald resurrection. We made shadowgraphs. This furtive burg was not far from The Enchanted Hunters. I was weeping again, drunk on the impossible past.'"
Chris bent his head, felt the cool glass beneath his forehead. "Oh beautiful," he said, "beautiful." His breath left tiny patches of clarity against the dew on the window. He closed his eyes. "Beautiful."
When he opened his eyes, the sun was high and Justin was gone.
The bus arrived at their hotel. As they walked toward the door, Justin fell back slightly to let Chris pass without touching him, the movement as smooth and automatic as their choreography.
It was easy to avoid Justin in the crush and clamor of their pre-show preparations, easy to let the chatter of the makeup girl or the sound guy drown out the sound of any other voice, easy to keep his eyes focused always on the place Justin was not.
Chris looked primly at the floor as they changed between songs. Justin said, "Damn," and Chris turned toward the sting of pain in that voice, as he always, always would.
Justin's foot was on the dressing table, his pant leg pulled up to the knee to reveal a long scratch on his calf, red drops already welling to the surface.
"Need a hand, Jup?" Chris said, and dabbed at it with a tissue. He blinked and saw Justin's leg skinnier and shorter, covered in fine down instead of coarse hair. He pulled his hand away. Justin caught his glance, and put his foot abruptly on the floor. He turned and walked out.
Chris dropped the tissue on the floor. There was blood on his fingers.
Back in his room, Chris turned off the lights and waited.
He opened the door to Justin's knock as usual, but Justin walked past him into the bedroom. Chris closed the door and followed, dread rising in his body like heat.
There was a lamp on a low table by the door. Justin flicked it on as he passed. Chris reached out to turn it off, and suddenly Justin's hands were on his wrist and his shoulder, slamming him back into the wall. Justin stepped back, eyes on him. Chris slid his arm down along the wall to his side.
They studied each other. Then Justin grasped the hem of his T-shirt and pulled it over his head. He unbuttoned his jeans and kicked them aside. He had come to Chris barefoot. Chris' glance moved over him, the small hollow at the base of his neck, the ridges of his abdomen, the long, long legs. There was a strange lump in Chris' throat, and his breath was coming in quick shallow gasps. Justin was panting in the same fast pattern. Chris met his eyes, and they breathed together for a long moment.
"Fuck me," Justin said, and it was not the hoarse rasp that Chris had heard in his ear every night since the first. His voice was needier, deeper, and there was an echo in it that loosened the knot in Chris' throat. "Fuck me," and his voice was rising, almost keening, "fuck me do it do it do it -"
Chris grabbed him by the shoulders and spun them around so Justin hit the wall, biting his tongue as his head cracked against it. Chris tasted metal when he kissed him.
Chris broke away and turned Justin to face the wall before he could see his eyes. In the lamplight Justin's skin gleamed tawny. Chris could see everything clearly, Justin's cheek pressed against the white paint, his lips wet and parted, his long neck exposed. He ran the heel of his hand from the top of Justin's back to the curve of his ass. Justin spread his legs.
Open-mouthed, Chris traced the same path down Justin's back, feeling the muscles ripple against his tongue. Justin moaned, and Chris froze. Despite the heat of Justin's skin under his mouth, he was shuddering. He crouched there until Justin's voice cut off abruptly. Chris looked up and saw that Justin had stuffed his hand into his mouth.
In the silence Chris resumed his progress, dropping to his knees and cupping Justin's ass in his hands. His thumbs moved to hover just over the muscle at the center. Justin whimpered, and it stopped Chris in his tracks. The sound faded. Chris breathed once, twice. Then he spread Justin and pushed his tongue inside.
He was hot, hot and so tight, God, and Justin's hips were rolling wildly, and Chris could feel that warmth opening against his tongue. Justin bucked, and Chris could feel Justin's struggle to maintain even a wisp of control in the muscles beneath his hands. He slid his hands up to grip Justin's hips, fingers digging in hard, and Justin stilled for a moment. His legs were shaking.
Chris got his feet under him and stood, as slowly as he could manage, dragging his tongue along the satin expanse of Justin's back. When he reached the curve of Justin's shoulder, he bit down hard. Justin squeezed his eyes shut. Chris pulled Justin's hand away from his mouth and replaced it with his own, shoving two fingers inside.
Chris dropped his hand back down to Justin's ass and slid one finger in. Justin gasped and bit his lip, bracing his hands against the wall. Another finger, and Justin rolled his shoulders. The movement seemed to vibrate in his torso for an eternity before reaching his hips. Chris opened his pants. His cock skated against Justin's ass for a moment, and Chris closed his eyes against the friction. He wrapped his hands around Justin's waist and pushed inside.
Justin inhaled, a long shuddery breath, and exhaled, rocking his head back against Chris. Chris put a hand against Justin's shaven head and pushed gently until his forehead rested against the wall. Justin's hips pressed back against him, then worked in short needy jabs, and Chris sank further inside.
Justin was gasping, moving with him, and Chris was plastered against him, both hands on his hips, mouth against his shoulder blade. Justin was hot and tight around him, and he was so deep inside, and then Justin yanked his leg up to rest his foot on the low table beside them. The angle made Chris toss his head and growl. He was still for a second, then thrust in hard. He ran his hand down the curve of Justin's ass to the taut muscle of his thigh, pulling Justin's leg higher, holding Justin splayed against the wall like he was trying to climb it.
Justin had both hands clasped over his mouth now, but breathy whimpers spilled out from behind them. Chris felt the sounds rather than heard them, little pricks of ice along his flesh, but he was too far gone to stop, too far gone to care. He snapped his hips and something inside Justin shimmered and tightened. Sparks popped behind his eyelids, and Chris came.
He dropped Justin's leg and put his hands against the wall, breathing hard. Justin turned between his arms and looked down at him. He bent his head and kissed him. Chris kept his mouth closed against Justin's tongue. Justin ducked beneath his arm and moved away.
Chris stood there, dazed, braced on his palms. He didn't know how much time had passed when he turned around.
Justin was lying on his side in the bed, knees pulled up toward his chest, eyes closed. Chris stretched out beside him, still in his clothes, and watched him. It was easier to look at him, Chris thought, when Justin was asleep, his mobile face relaxed and unguarded. Easier, when there were no expressions, no words to banish the ghosts of a younger Justin from this man's face. His hand an inch away, Chris traced the familiar features, then closed his eyes and saw a smaller nose, fuller cheeks, a softer chin. He felt a violent rush of shame.
"Stop it." Justin's voice was sharp in the quiet room. His eyes were still closed. "I know what you're doing. Stop it."
"I can't," Chris said.
"You can so." Justin opened his eyes and looked at him. "You can so."
Chris got up blindly and stumbled toward the door. The glare of the hallway was brighter than the room. A guard looked up, then quickly dropped his eyes. Chris looked at the doors lining the hall. Lance, JC, Joey, Justin. He turned and walked toward the stairwell at the other end of the hallway. He opened the door and leaned against the wall, sliding down to sit on the hard floor. He tilted his head back and shut his eyes. Justin's accusing gaze burned back at him.
Chris spent the night in the stairwell, staring at the gray wall across from him until his eyes were gritty and sore.
It was Justin's turn to hide in his bunk. When Chris boarded the bus, Justin had already disappeared. Chris listened dully as JC told him about Justin's cold, fussed about their concert that night. Chris didn't notice that JC had fallen silent until he felt tentative fingers on his arm.
"I hope you know what you're doing," JC said.
There was no knock on his door that night. Chris lay awake until very late, starting every time he heard a noise in the hallway. The next morning, Justin was again ensconced in his bunk before Chris arrived. Chris spent the day avoiding JC's eyes.
After four nights alone, Chris relaxed a little, going out one evening with Joey, falling asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. He was returning from breakfast when he walked in and found Justin sitting cross-legged on his bed.
Chris leaned against the wall.
"You want me," Justin said. "I could take it if you didn't want me, but you do. I'm not a little boy anymore, Chris. I'm grown up."
Chris walked to stand in front of Justin. He ran his thumb over Justin's lower lip. Justin looked up at him eagerly.
"You didn't want me then, but you want me now. So why can't we?"
"Justin," Chris said. He turned away from Justin's plaintive gaze.
There was a mirror hanging on the wall across from the bed. Chris could see Justin's miserable face, his own shadowed eyes. He took a step toward it. He watched Justin get up to stand behind him.
"Don't," Chris said.
"Listen, Chris." Justin's voice was low and urgent. "I heard somewhere that every seven years, your body replaces every single cell. It's all new, every cell, every tiny piece. So that little boy you remember, that little boy you're so afraid of, he's not even in me anymore. There's none of him left. It's just me."
"Justin, you are him."
"No, I'm not. Not anymore," Justin whispered in his ear. "Look. You can see."
Chris looked in the mirror. It was as if a translucent veil hung over Justin's face, blurring his strong features with the past.
"It's just me," Justin said. "If you try, you can see. Look. It's just me."
Chris reached out to push the veil away. He felt the cool glass beneath his fingertips. "I can't," he said.
"You can." Chris was silent. "Look, Chris. You can. If you want to, you can."
"I can't," Chris said again.
"You can," Justin shouted, near tears. "Look at me. You can." He slammed a fist into the mirror. Chris flinched back as shards of glass flew. Justin was staring at the shattered mirror. He raised a bleeding hand to his face. Chris put a hand out to touch the wound, and Justin jerked back. He stumbled and fell backward to the floor.
The connecting door burst open. Chris looked up and then away from JC and Joey's shocked faces. His eyes flickered down and he saw what they saw. His fists clenched. The broken mirror. Justin crumpled motionless on the floor, a bloody hand over his face.
"I didn't hit him," Chris said, and wondered why it felt like a lie.
JC was kneeling next to Justin, whispering soothingly and trying to pry his hand from his face. Joey looked at Chris. "Out."
"It's my room," Chris said.
"Get out. Now," Joey said, picking up the phone. Chris walked out and leaned against the wall next to the door. Tiny slivers of glass glinted in his palms.
Within a few minutes the hallway was bustling with people, security and maids and tour crew. Chris looked steadily down at his hands. He felt eyes slide over his body and then move on.
Joey came out and grasped Chris firmly by the arm. He walked him into a room and left, closing the door behind him. Chris stayed where Joey had put him. The glass splinters in his palms sparkled and burnt. In a little while Joey returned and took Chris' arm again, depositing him back in his room. Chris heard the door click shut. He was alone.
The room had been cleaned, the sheets changed, the broken glass swept up. There was a small, damp patch of darkness on the rug where the blood had been washed out. Chris sat on the bed and stared at it for a long time.
Chris expected an emissary, one of the guys demanding explanations. But as the hours passed and the late afternoon sun slanted through the windows, he imagined that they had left without him, had left him to crouch alone forever in the artificial chill of the hotel room.
When Lance finally walked through the door, Chris felt a wave of relief that was quickly banished by the look on Lance's face.
"I've been sent to find out what exactly your problem is, Kirkpatrick."
"Why'd they stick you with the shitwork?" Chris asked.
"C's with Justin. And you may have been too busy fucking with Justin's head to notice, but Joey's kind of angry right now. Hitting people angry. And we thought we'd like to at least hear your excuses before he killed you. So that left me or Johnny, and Johnny doesn't get paid enough to deal with your shit."
"It's none of your business."
"You don't know how much I wish that were true. I'd like nothing better than to leave you alone with your absurd little issues, but when you started involving Justin in them you made it my business."
"You can't make me talk to you," Chris said defiantly.
"Yeah, well, you can't make me leave." Lance sat in an armchair. Chris looked balefully at him. Finally Lance sighed and moved to sit next to Chris on the bed. "Look, Chris. You can't be doing this. What's your problem? I mean, this is Justin."
"That's my problem," Chris said softly. "He's Justin."
"See, I can't really take that back to the guys." Chris was silent, and Lance sighed again. "Come on, Chris, can't you tell me? Please. We've known each other a long time."
Chris laughed bitterly. "Yeah, we've all known each other a long time."
"What is it, Chris?"
"Lance, it's. He's Justin. I've known him since he was a kid. I can't -" Chris put his hand to his mouth and took a shuddering breath.
"Maybe you could have thought about that before you started fucking him," Lance said sharply.
"Look, fine. I didn't want to talk about this with you -"
Lance put a hand on his arm. "No, no, wait. Listen. It's just it was kind of upsetting, you know? His hand's all cut up, and he's crying, and saying you don't want to see him. And there was all that blood "
"Yeah, I know," Chris said. He eyed the damp patch on the floor.
"So what is it, Chris?" Lance said softly. "Cause, see, he's loved you, like, forever, and it's clear that you have a thing for him, and I'm not really seeing the problem here."
"I've known him since he was a little boy, Lance. That doesn't bother you at all?"
"He's twenty years old, Chris. He's all grown up now. You didn't want him when he was a kid, now he's not a kid and you do. What's the problem?"
"You sure I didn't want him when he was a kid?"
"Chris," Lance said in exasperation, "I'm in a boy band. I've spent the last five years surrounded by people who want little boys. I think I'd know. Get over it."
"I just can't stop thinking of when he was a kid."
"Oh, that's great advice." Lance stared back at him, waiting. "It's just. We were happy, we were friends, when he was a kid. I don't see why it has to get so complicated. I just want things to be the way they were. I don't see why everything has to change."
"Chris," Lance said, "did you really think you could do what you did, and nothing would change?"
"I didn't start it," Chris said quickly, and Lance shot him a withering glance.
"Yeah, I'm sure Justin forced you to sleep with him. Many, many times."
"No, I just mean. No one forced anyone. It was just something that happened."
"That's how you think about it?" Lance said. Chris nodded, and Lance closed his eyes, ran his fingers through his hair.
"I just don't want everything to change because of it," Chris said helplessly.
"Everything changes, Chris. We've all changed," Lance said. Lance's voice was flat, stripped of the accent he'd lost a long time ago. Like Justin, he'd spent too much time away from the South to keep his drawl, but while Justin's surfaced only intermittently, when he was angry or drunk or trying to charm someone, Lance put his on unfailingly whenever they were in public. Chris studied him for a moment, the leather pants, the newly flat stomach, the cool stare.
"I haven't changed," Chris said.
Lance looked at him. Chris shifted uneasily under his gaze.
"Yeah, maybe not." Lance got up to leave.
"What are you going to tell them?" Chris asked.
"That you haven't changed," Lance said.
They spent an extra, unscheduled day in the hotel. Chris holed up in his room, ordering room service and thinking about Dani and about Justin and about all the ways he hadn't changed. At last, sick to death of himself, he wandered out into the hallway. He saw JC's door slightly ajar and thought he'd go start to make amends. As he approached, he heard Justin's voice.
"If he didn't love me, I could deal with it, C. But he does, he does, I know he does."
"Oh, honey," JC said, "the hardest part of being grown-up is knowing that someone can love you, completely and truly, and still fuck you up in spite of it. Because of it."
Chris turned on his heel and went back to his room. He lay on his bed in the dark. When he closed his eyes, he could see Justin's face.
The next morning Chris waited for Joey's knock before he went downstairs. His things had been moved to the other bus. He got on and sat by the window, feeling much older than he ever had before.
He didn't see Justin until they were changing before the show. Justin's arm was bandaged tightly, and Chris reached out almost unconsciously to touch it. Justin pulled back, and then slowly met his eyes. Chris stared back, not allowing himself to look away. He thought that he had broken something in Justin, something that had been broken in himself long ago, or maybe it was something that Chris had never had. Then JC moved smoothly between them, putting his arm around Justin's waist and guiding him away.
Justin moved through the rest of the tour like a sleepwalker, coming alive only when he was onstage. When the tour was over, Chris was not surprised to find himself in a room with the other four, listening to Justin stammer something about solo projects and time off. Justin kept his eyes down, running his thumb over the tiny new scars on his right hand. Chris didn't speak as his bandmates reassured Justin, wishing him luck and smiling gently at him. Chris felt their eyes turn on him, full of contempt and blame. Chris watched Justin's hands twist and tasted guilt, bitter and familiar on his tongue.
They forgave him, of course. At least, Joey, Lance and JC did. He never heard from Justin, but as he followed his progress in the papers and on MTV, he doubted that Justin was wasting his time thinking of Chris at all. But he knew the others had forgiven him, more easily than he had expected. That was because they had moved on, Chris thought, and he had not.
He spoke to Joey and Lance occasionally, hearing about their families and their projects, receiving and never sending Christmas and birthday cards. JC called him regularly, once a week on Sunday night. JC had learned soon enough not to ask Chris what he was up to, but instead talked about the groups he was producing. Every once in a while he spoke shyly about a man. At the end of every conversation, JC said, "Try to take care of yourself, Chris."
Chris called JC only rarely, and then in the middle of the night. When JC picked up the phone sleepily and heard Chris' voice, he would sigh, and then he would talk about Justin. Chris would listen silently to the news of record deals and pop star girlfriends until he couldn't bear it anymore, and then he would hang up the phone without saying goodbye.
On the late nights after listening to JC's quiet voice, Chris would lie on his bed with the lights out. When he closed his eyes, he saw his own hand reaching out to pull aside a veil. Justin's face gazed back at him, his features strong and clear, Chris' name forever on his lips.