Joey lost Justin somewhere over the Atlantic.
Justin was on the plane when they left, of course. Joey saw him buckle himself in next to JC, the way he always did when he was planning to sleep through the flight. He saw the two of them collapse together comfortably, JC's cheek against Justin's chest, Justin's nose in JC's hair. Joey leaned his head against the window and sipped his drink, the familiar sound of Lance's fingers on his keyboard lulling him into a delicious daze. When he looked up, Justin was gone.
At first he thought Justin was in the bathroom. But as the minutes passed and Justin didn't reappear, Joey started to get a little worried. He glanced over at Lance, who was absorbed in his email. He hadn't noticed anything. Joey got up and walked to the closed door. "Justin," he said, knocking lightly, "you okay in there?" When he received no reply, he knocked louder. He felt a hand on his arm and turned toward the smiling face of the flight attendant. "It's unoccupied, sir," she said.
Joey went back to his seat, thinking he must have missed Justin somehow. But JC was still sitting alone, twisted awkwardly into the empty seat beside him with his head bent forward, suspended in the air. Joey found it hard to believe that anyone could sleep that way, but it was JC, after all. Justin hadn't gotten restless and gone to hang out with Chris, because Chris was stretched out across a whole row, reading Rolling Stone and kicking idly at Lance's seat. Joey watched as Lance reached back without looking and batted Chris' foot away. Joey slid past Lance and sat down. He knew Justin knew better than to venture into the main cabin. This was really weird.
"Lance," Joey said, nudging him with his elbow.
Lance sighed and reached behind him to slap at Chris' leg again. "Why don't you go sit with Chris? I'm trying to do something here."
"Lance, do you think we should try to find Justin?"
Lance shot him a strange look. Chris hooted and stuck his head between Lance and Joey's seats.
"Dumbass," Chris said, "he's sitting right there."
"Where?" Joey said, looking around.
"In his seat." Chris' arm smacked Joey's face as he pointed at JC. "I know it's hard to see him under C's mop, but he's right there." Chris picked up Joey's glass and drained it. "Maybe you've had too much of this, baby."
Joey looked at Justin's empty seat, then blinked and looked again.
He didn't see a thing.
By the time the plane landed, Joey was convinced that it was an elaborate practical joke. He kept his mouth shut, knowing that as soon as he confessed his concern Justin would pop out from somewhere to laugh at him. But when they reached the hotel and Justin was still nowhere to be found, Joey didn't know what to think. Justin didn't have much of an attention span. He'd never carried on a joke this long.
The next morning Joey didn't see Justin at breakfast. Confusion rose in him as he watched Chris pepper an empty chair with torn-up bits of napkin. The makeshift confetti settled in midair before Joey's startled eyes, then fell in a brisk flutter to the ground. Joey's confusion turned to fear when he heard Justin's voice, sullen with sleep, tell Chris to fuck off. That voice sounded so familiar, and so far away. Joey saw JC lift a hand and rub it through the air, right over the place where Justin's head would have been. Was. Would have been.
This was more than weird.
Joey ran back to his room and dug his glasses out of his bag. He said he didn't wear them because management gave him shit when he did, but he was always secretly relieved when one of the press agents hissed at him to take them off. He was a little vain.
The world tightened and sharpened when he put them on. Colors grew more vivid, edges more severe. He walked back into breakfast and saw Chris, JC, and Lance, more clearly than he had before.
He still couldn't see Justin.
Joey called Johnny as soon as he was by himself and told him he was having trouble seeing, that his glasses were giving him a headache. Johnny got him an emergency appointment with an optometrist. Joey sat in the dark and reeled off letters, numbers, shapes and colors as they swam before him. The doctor bent over him with her odd instruments. Finally she straightened and turned on the lights.
"Your prescription seems fine, Joey," she said. "You just need to wear your glasses more often. When you don't, you squint, and that's what gives you headaches. It's not your glasses that are bothering you. It's what you can't see that's giving you trouble."
Joey was afraid she was right.
At the hotel, Joey thought he was alone in the elevator until he felt a warm ripple next to him and heard a sympathetic voice. "How headache Joey." Justin's voice cut in and out like a radio station as you drove out of range. Joey turned his head toward where the sound was coming from. He concentrated, and Justin's voice got clearer, stronger. "-lay down or something, take it easy," Justin said. "You want me to bring you anything?"
"No," Joey choked brusquely, "no." He felt the air rustle around him reproachfully.
That night Joey sat bolt upright out of a deep sleep, stung with the thought that this might happen to the rest of the guys, that each of them would flicker and fade away from him. The next morning he studied them carefully, until JC blushed and Chris smacked him on the back of the head. "Stop checking me out, Fatone." But they all stayed the same, solid and reassuringly visible. Joey just had a Justin-shaped blind spot.
He finally decided to talk to Lance about it. Lance would understand, because - well, he didn't really know why Lance would understand. But he told Lance everything. He sat Lance down and told him about Justin.
When he was finished, Lance stared at him solemnly. Joey was glad that Lance didn't laugh or scream for a psychiatrist. But as Lance's serious gaze didn't waver, Joey squirmed and looked down. "So, um. Do you think there might be something wrong with him? Or me. Or him. I mean, why do you think this is happening?"
Lance was silent until Joey looked up and met his eyes. "You see what you want to see, Joey," Lance said, and walked out.
Joey didn't know what Lance meant. Why wouldn't he want to see Justin?
Joey thought that as time went on, he'd get used to it. People adjusted to all kinds of crazy things. But Joey hadn't realized how often he'd looked at Justin. Without the tired slump of Justin's shoulders, he didn't have a reason to make the small jokes that cheered himself up too. He had a hard time keeping his voice happy and light on the phone with Brianna when Justin wasn't making faces at him, distracting him from all he was missing. After he dropped a step in the choreography, he had to train himself to look over at JC. But his eyes always darted first to the place where he knew Justin was, and wasn't.
The only thing that saved Joey's ass in interviews and shows was the fact that if he focused, he could still hear Justin's voice, although it was dimmed with a remote tinny echo, and feel a warm disturbance in the air when Justin was nearby. At first he was grateful for that. It comforted him. But as time passed and Joey's vision was still blocked, he was flooded with a mounting fury. He felt deprived of something that everyone else in the world had, every time they walked by a magazine stand. As more time passed, his anger gave way to a heavy dragging melancholy. He had grown so used to Justin's face that he hadn't even seen it anymore. Now he couldn't picture it when he closed his eyes. So many images, so many memories, and they all ran together into a strange blurry collage when he whispered Justin's name.
Joey's heart caught in his throat when they brought pictures in for the group to approve. He hung behind the rest of the guys, dreading yet another moment when he looked at Justin and didn't see him. But when Lance laid the proofs in front of him, Joey saw Justin's face, the same, the same, not as he remembered it, because he couldn't, but the same. He thought. He was almost sure it was the same. It was a little sharpened, by absence maybe, or by something else. And Justin's grin twisted in a way Joey didn't think he'd seen before. And Justin's curls had grown in a little since Joey last saw them. At least, he was pretty sure they had. They must have happened just recently, these changes, or else Joey wouldn't have missed them.
Joey put one hand over the photo and the other over his lips. He moved his hand and looked at the picture again. It was still the same. Joey's eyes slid from the sleek flat smile on the page to the empty air that floated beneath JC's outstretched arm. It was still the same. Joey pushed his chair back from the table and fled. At the door he ran into something solid and reached out for balance. His fingers twisted in something soft, and a flare of blue sparked between them.
"Joey," Justin's voice said, "are you all right?"
Joey shoved past him, past nothing, and went back to his room. He sat on his bed and thought for a long time about the feel of Justin's T-shirt, about the burst of blue in the blank space where Justin was.
When Joey left his room, night had fallen. He knocked on Justin's door, and when it swung open with ghostly precision, he stretched his arms out in front of him and pressed forward. His fingers slid over velvet and Justin's lips smiled at him. He ran a hand up over a warm smooth plane and the strong clean line of Justin's jaw was revealed.
Justin said, "Joey?" and Joey heard him, the sound full and clear. There were no echoes of the past in his ears.
Joey kissed him. He kept his eyes open to watch Justin's face shimmer into view as Joey breathed into him. He ran his hand over Justin's head and gasped to see the burnished curls that twined beneath his fingers. He traced gentle arcs over Justin's eyes and whispered, "Open them." He felt Justin's lashes flutter just before he was lost in another blaze of blue.
Joey felt the urgent pressure on his arms an instant before he saw Justin's hands curl around them. He followed blindly as he was tugged toward the bed. Justin's shirt and jeans flamed briefly, blue and blue, before they were shucked off to lie like petals on the floor.
Joey trailed a hand over Justin's chest, his back, his legs, and Justin bloomed beneath him like springtime. He dragged his mouth across Justin's abdomen, lips burning on the gold and the shadows that rippled out under them, and rested his cheek in the gleaming hollow of Justin's hip. He watched Justin's large hand swallow his and shape it around his cock.
In the morning, Joey felt the warm disruption that meant Justin before he opened his eyes. He had one everlasting moment of dislocation before he remembered and rolled onto his side, eager to drink in what he'd lost for so long. He looked.
The sheets were disarranged next to him, and the mattress dipped a little, as if bearing a familiar weight. Joey squeezed his eyes shut. He heard a dark ragged sound rumble up from somewhere deep in his chest. Just yesterday morning he had thought there could be nothing worse than never seeing Justin again.
Joey steeled himself and raised his hand. He kept his eyes shut to spare himself the sight of his fingers sliding over vanished flesh.
"Joey," Justin said, and Joey turned his head and opened his eyes.
Justin was standing in front of the window, naked, sunlight skimming over his body like a lover's hand.
"Justin," Joey said, and blinked, and blinked again. "I didn't see you there."
"I know," Justin said, and smiled at him.