(The Seahorse Story:) clutch
by Betty Plotnick

Justin is always the last one to leave any house or bus or hotel room, always checking locks and checking his pockets and convinced that he's forgotten something important. Whatever's caused him to bring them all to Tennessee ("You'll see, you'll see, just show up"), it hasn't caused much of a change in that respect.

He's shifting from side to side, rattling his hands in the pockets of his denim jacket. "Okay," he says to Trace for the twelfth time. "I've got my phone, so just call me, anytime you need to. I don't know, I don't know if I'll be home tonight. I might just stay out, you know, stay at the hotel with whoever, but just call. Also, you know where everything's written down, right? And you have Mom's number."

"J," he says, supremely patient. "J. I know. Just go, get out of the house, everything's fine here. It's just like tenth grade Health & Family Sciences."

Justin scowls at him. "Okay, it's not like that at all."

Trace shoves his shoulder and says, "Get out. Go." His voice softens then, and he says, "Dude, at some point, either you trust me or you don't."

"I do, of course I do," Justin says, and flashes his apology smile. "Okay, well. Call me if you-- "

"I won't, but thank you." Trace turns him around by the arms, points him toward his friends and addresses them. "Please take this man out and buy him drinks."

"No problem," Joey says, obviously relieved to have hit upon a topic he understands.


"I'd be willing to bet this violates Tennessee law," Chris says.

JC, who gets carsick in the backseat, is climbing over the seat while Joey walks around the car to take his place in the front. Chris hands him a beer, and Joey clinks his bottle against Chris'. "Well, we really need something to talk about on Behind the Music."

"Mm, parking," JC purrs, sliding his arm around Lance's neck and nuzzling, one foot carelessly resting on Justin's thigh. Lance makes a minor noise of discouragement, but then sinks down in the backseat and lets JC kiss him, deep and messy. His hand rakes up JC's back.

"Already this is not about me," Justin complains, leaning over Joey's shoulder to take fries from the McDonald's bag in the front seat. "And I have really exciting and interesting news, but fine, whatever, maybe I'll just wait until JC and Lance are done fucking."

"Cherry pie?" Chris says.

Justin makes a face. "Baked. You know they still sell the fried ones in Europe? I love Europe."

"You know what I love?" Joey says. "Restaurants."

"No, this is good," Justin assures him. "This is private, and" he reaches down to punch JC lightly in the side, "I really have to talk to you guys in private."

"Okay, we're sorry," JC says, settling back between Justin and Lance with his arm wrapped tightly around Lance's waist. He turns sweet, sincere eyes on Justin as his head rests on Lance's shoulder. "You can tell us anything, you know that."

Justin grabs another handful of fries and sits back in his own seat with them. "I know. I know. And -- okay, this isn't what you think it is. I mean, I don't know what you think it is, but it isn't that."

"Well, we all know there's a story here," Chris says. "You don't fake injuries to get out of work while you're in the middle of promos. You just...don't. I might, but that's me."

"Good choice, though, on the foot," Lance says. "Nothing so life-threatening that it gets to be a story all on its own, but serious enough that you can credibly call off most of your appearances."

"I appreciate your support," Justin says wryly. "But the thing is, I really did have a -- medical condition. I mean, it's not exhaustion or rehab or whatever you've all been thinking it was."

"Nobody thought you were in rehab," Joey assures him. Everybody joins in on the wide-eyed head-shaking, and it's not convincing, but the effort has been made.

"I was-- Wow, I don't even know how to start this sentence."

JC pats him on the knee. "We're all here for you. Take your time."

"You know how y'all are always joking about me being this big genetic freak? See, here's this about that. I'm, on my mother's side, I'm something sort of, sort of genetically...odd."

"You're not sick, are you?" JC says. "Like, some kind of hereditary disease thing?"

"No, nothing like that. I'm fine. I just -- had to come home to get through something. I've...I've laid a clutch of eggs. They're going to hatch at the end of the summer."


"You couldn't just be a regular inbred, backwoods hick and have a tail or something?" Chris says, and Justin drops a piece of ice down the collar of his shirt.

"It's not inbreeding, you dick. There's some, just, other stuff on one side of the family."

"When you say you laid these eggs," Joey says slowly, "how do you -- I mean, how does that happen? Where do they, you know...."

"Hey, when you came and told us you were reproducing, did I ask you a bunch of personal questions about the details and shit?"

"It's pretty damn far from the same situation," Lance says tightly. "Joey didn't tell us he was giving birth to his kid."

"I'm not giving birth. Jesus, I'm not fucking pregnant."

"No, because that would be weird," Chris says wisely, and then rolls his eyes. "Eggs? Eggs? That's not genetically odd, J, that's fucking inhuman."

"Only a little," Justin says sulkily. "On my mom's side."

"Wait," JC says, "wait, there, a minute. Are you saying that's true? You're really...not completely human? What -- what -- I mean, are you, like, an alien? Partially," he specifies quickly, holding up a hand to forestall the inevitable objection.

Justin leans against the window, plucking at the button on the sleeve of his jacket. "None of the family ever, you know, turned ourselves over to science or anything. We don't really know, except for old family stories. There's been so much breeding with humans that, you know, if we were ever really, really different, we aren't anymore. Just in a few ways. I mean, I get regular check-ups, I get my shots when I travel, all your standard drugs and stuff work the same way on me. The only thing is that our temperature varies more than, you know, than other people's do, and we...do this. With the eggs."

"Temperature," JC repeats. "You're...cold-blooded?"

"Were you hatched from an egg?" Chris sounds more horrified by that than by anything so far. "What the hell are you?"

A swift, sick look passes over Justin's face, then disappears. "I don't know, I already said that. Like, scientifically, there's no way to know, unless any of my relatives feel like being experimented on or something. Gramma says she always heard that it had something to do with dragons. I'm not saying -- I'm not saying dragon, that's just what -- I mean, stories. The truth is, nobody knows, but we seem to be sort of partially...reptilian. It's not as weird as it sounds."

"It's plenty weird," Lance says. "You have to admit, Justin."

"Look, we're totally getting away from the main point. I just want y'all to know, there are these eggs. It's a clutch of three, and most of the time they don't all hatch, but at least one of them should by the end of August. So, you know, nothing's changed, it won't affect you guys or anything. But now you know and everything, so."

There's a long silence. "Congratulations," Joey finally says. "Wow, man. Congratulations."

Justin smiles timidly. "Thanks."


"You're a girl," Chris says out of nowhere, the foam of his beer still clinging to his upper lip. "Dude, you're a girl. Shit!"

"I am not!" Justin looks scandalized. "God, what's the matter with you? I'm not a girl."

"Biologically speaking," JC says, "that's kind of the definition of a girl. I mean...egg-producing and all."

"I. Am not. A girl. I have a few -- a very few -- female reproductive organs. All of them internal, I'd like to add. I'm maybe at most, like, partially hermaphroditic. I am absolutely not a girl."

"It explains the bubble baths," Chris says.

"I'm not a girl!"

"But you are the mother," Lance says. "Of the...eggs. You're the mother."

"You're being way too mammalian about all this."

"Who's the-- " Chris begins, and then reconsiders and begins again. "Is there a father? I mean, if you're hermaphroditic, do you do this by yourself, or...what?"

Justin is curled away from all of them, his cheek tucked down against his shoulder so no one can see his face clearly. "I don't," he says softly, so softly it seems like it's being wrung out of him. "I don't do it by myself, no. I mean...we have dads. My dad is really my dad and all. This isn't, actually it isn't the first time I've -- done this. It's just the first time they were fertilized. The first ones that are gonna hatch."

JC strokes his arm. "It's okay, sweetie. You know, it might feel better to talk about it."

He rolls to his other side, against JC, tucking himself up against JC's side like he has a million times before. Suddenly, JC realizes that Justin may need that, may seek out body warmth to stabilize his temperature, like a lizard basking in the sun. It's hot and humid inside the car, the four of them generating body heat, Justin taking it in. He rubs Justin's arm; Justin feels warmer than usual. "I really don't -- I think I'm having enough personal share-time today already. It's not a big deal, it was just a fling. I was curious, and I wasn't -- wasn't thinking. I only ovulate twice a year, and it's just not something you think about all the time. I know y'all are dying to give me the big safe-sex lecture, but can we just skip over it for now, okay? I get it, I was stupid, it was stupid. It's not something I could really tell him anyway, so it doesn't matter. They're mine, I'm gonna take care of them myself, in my own family. Mom's going to help, Trace is going to help. I can do this. There was a father, but...but there's not anymore. There's just me."

"He might want to know," Lance says. "The father."

"Would you want to know?"

"Yes," Lance says. "If somebody were having my kids? Yes, I'd want to know."

"Well, it doesn't matter what you want," Justin says testily. "You're not him."


They're very drunk when they make it to the hotel. Very, very drunk, except for JC, who drove. JC and Lance have their own room, but they're making out on the recliner in Joey's room anyway, covered with a blanket, sucking each other's moans into their mouths while their hands stir the surface of the blanket, eloquent in their partial invisibility.

"Honeymooners." Joey speaks the word knowingly, and keeps flipping through channels. The bed is queen-sized, even though Joey hadn't been intending to share. It's nice, though. He's gotten used to sharing.

Justin is glassy-eyed, and lying flat on his back he looks knocked-out, like he couldn't get up if he wanted to. Maybe he can't. He looks like he's been hit with something that left deep bruises, somewhere inside. He's been tired before, but not quite like this.

Chris is fascinated with him, with this familiar body that he's suddenly seeing as unfamiliar, complex and full of secrets. He lies propped up on his elbow at Justin's side, and he can't stop touching, his hand running gently over Justin's shoulder and arm, over his chest, down to his flat stomach, his waist, his narrow hips, trying to make himself believe that something alive used to be in there, some part of Justin that also wasn't a part of Justin, also belonged to itself. To themselves.

Justin's eyelashes flutter. He's fighting exhaustion, and his skin is flushed. He feels feverish. He closes his eyes for a minute, and Joey looks down at him and thinks he's asleep. He wants to touch Justin, too, to brush his face and reassure himself that it's still Justin. He knows how Justin smiles, has seen it and felt it pressed to his shoulder or his cheek. He doesn't know if parenthood will change Justin. He doesn't even know for sure yet if it's changed him or not. Sometimes he thinks it hasn't as much as he wanted it to, but in Justin's case, Joey doesn't want him to change at all. It's Justin; he shouldn't change.

He opens his eyes and looks up into Chris' face. "Be the godfather," he says.

"Duh," Chris says. "I should hope."

Justin smiles. It's Justin. "Be like that, mister, and I'll ask JC instead. You're supposed to be all touched and humble."

"You like me," Chris says. "You really, really like me!"

"I love you, dipshit."

"Hey, quit. You're gonna have Joey thinking I'm the father."

His smile fades away. "I know it's kinda pointless to ask you not to tease me about something, but...I'm a little bit fucked-up about it. About him. It's weird. He didn't break my heart or anything, but it's weird, so could you maybe not...?"

"You know I'd beat the crap out of him if you wanted me to, right?"

Justin smiles again, faintly. It could be just the blue light from the tv flickering over his face. "I know you would. It's not like that. It's not that bad. It's just in the past, and I don't want to think about it any more than necessary."

"I'm not crazy about it either," Chris says, "but I'm thinking about it anyway. You really didn't tell me."

"I'm sorry. You don't know how bad I wanted to."

"It's okay. I mean -- you're a grown-up. You don't have to tell anyone anything if you don't want to."

"I did want to. I do want to. I can't, though, not right now. I just can't talk about it yet; it was hard enough telling Mom. When I can hack that again, you're the very next on my list. I love you so much, man."

Chris settles his hand against Justin's neck, tilting his head just right so that he looks straight up into Chris' eyes. His thumb rests on Justin's chin. "Just tell me he didn't hurt you. I'm gonna go crazy otherwise, so just, please, help me out, here."

"He didn't," Justin says, soft words almost lost underneath a commercial for fat-burning dietary supplements. "It was good. Really good."

Joey watches Chris' face for a minute, and then helps out by saying what he knows Chris, for whatever weird Chris reason, just plain can't. "He was rock stupid. He was the dumbest man in the world. Anyone with half a brain would have stapled himself to you first chance he got."

"It's better this way," Justin insists, but his eyes gleam with alcohol and with badly concealed happiness at Joey's implied praise. "And hey. First time out of the way. That's always a good thing, right?"

Neither Chris nor Joey answers that. Joey pulls his limp, heavy body backwards to slump against Joey's chest, and Chris lies down with his nose an inch from Justin's nose, the two of them sharing a pillow.


"It's the same bassinet Mom kept me in." Justin flips the blanket down, and there they are, the size of good, ripe tomatoes. They glisten slightly, opalescent. They are beautiful.

"We keep them between about a hundred and a hundred-two," Trace says, and jostles the cord of the electric blanket to draw their attention to it. "It's easy when they're here; tricky part is moving them. Lynn used hot water bottles, but of course you have to keep checking the temperature constantly and rotate new ones in, and it can be a big hassle. I'm jury-rigging something with a battery-pack, but it's kinda hard to keep the temperature real steady with batteries. Still a work in progress. And the one toward the middle is always warmer, so you end up changing them around pretty constantly, and turning them over. We're not sure how necessary that is, flipping them, but Lynn did it, and we figure it can't hurt. Also, this is all just when Justin's not here. He's running right about the right temperature, so whenever he lies down we just put them right on top of him. He's skinny and it's a big clutch, so if he's sleeping, someone else really needs to be there to make sure they don't roll off. Actually, they don't roll much right now, but I guess they're going to be a little more active as they get bigger. We watch them anyway, though, me or Lynn or Paul. If Justin's asleep."

Chris is staring owlishly at Trace, possibly not sure what to make of Trace as expert at anything.

"Can I touch one?" JC asks, looking at Justin. Justin doesn't seem to notice; he has his eyes closed, and he's leaning heavily against Joey.

"Sure," Trace says easily, and scoops up one of the eggs in both hands. JC glances again at Justin for permission, but Trace says, "Just let him rest. He's generating a lot of extra energy, you know, so he stays that warm. It wears him out."

"He still thinks he's going to tour?" Chris says dubiously.

"I'm adjusting," Justin says tersely, not bothering to open his eyes. "I can do it. The drinking depressed my system, is the only reason I'm this tired."

JC's eyes go wide as he lets Trace lower the egg carefully into his hands. "It's soft," he says. "Not like a bird egg. It feels like -- vinyl. Rubber."

"Yeah, they've got some growing to do, still." Trace sounds strangely unconcerned by the whole thing, as if they were talking about puppies, or something else familiar. "They should be about football-sized when they're ready to hatch. Don't be nervous or anything. I mean, you can just hold it. Not rough, but, you know. Like you would a baby."

Lance and Chris both put a hand into the bassinet, stroking the surface of the other eggs delicately. "I can feel -- is that -- a heartbeat?" Lance says, a little strangled.

Trace grins proudly. "Sure is. Cool, huh?"

"Here, let me," Joey says, and Lance puts an egg in his cupped palm. Joey shifts Justin around under his other arm, and his wrist dips sideways a bit as he moves.

"Jesus, Joey!" Chris barks. "You're gonna drop Justin's egg on its little embryonic head."

"Oh, I am not," Joey scoffs. "Hey, who here has done this already? The man said, just like a baby."

"Will they drink milk when they're born?" JC brings it up to the level of his eyes and gazes at it, rapt and attentive to the soft reflections of the light on its surface, the faint outline of something within.

"Gerber vegetables and mashed fish, right from hatching."

"I can't believe you're actually useful for something," Chris says. Trace shrugs, as unfazed by Chris' lack of tact as ever.

JC settles the egg back in one of the empty dents in the blanket and pets the other one briefly. When he turns around, Trace has hold of Justin's elbow. "Go to bed, dude," he says, his voice quiet and intimate. "I'll bring them in for you."

"Is it better for them to use Justin for heat?" JC can't believe he's said it, the second after it's out. Justin looks guilty and awkward. Trace looks tense.

"Dunno," Trace says, with forced lightness. "Can't hurt. Probably better for all of them."

"I'm bringing them with me," Justin says plaintively. "On tour, on the bus and all. They're okay with Trace, they're bonding with him. He's pretty much the, you know. Primary caretaker and all."

"We all know you're a good mom," Chris says. Sometimes, thankfully, it works out when Chris says everything that comes to mind. Justin makes a face, but relaxes into a smile.


Joey helps Trace carry the eggs into Justin's bedroom. Justin is already mostly asleep, and Trace has to poke and prod at him so he'll shift around enough for Trace to get the shirt off of him. The membrane of the eggs seem to mold comfortably to the contours of Justin's body as Trace lines them up along his torso. He brushes Justin's forehead absently as he draws back after positioning the third.

"They're yours?" Joey says. "I mean, are you the father?" He doesn't see how Trace could ever make Justin as sad as Justin sounded last night, but Trace holds the eggs just like he holds Briahna, and surely it can't be anything else.

Trace's head snaps up, and everything shifts around in Joey's brain. Oh. "No, of course not. Hell, he's not -- no. I don't know who the father is, but it sure ain't me."

Joey lays a hand on Trace's shoulder. "You don't have to say it like that."

"Justin... You know who Justin goes out with. People like Britney, Alyssa."

"Well, he went out with someone who sure as hell wasn't Britney or Alyssa," Joey reminds him.

Trace smiles humorlessly. "Whoever he was, I'm sure he was the guy version of Britney and Alyssa. But who cares, right? I mean, he ain't here now, and I am." Joey doesn't say anything. He's seen so much love in his life, so many different kinds, that he doesn't bother to make a lot of distinctions. It's not news that Trace loves Justin, and Joey maybe knows more than he used to, but he still doesn't kid himself that he understands. He doesn't understand his own heart, half the time, forget anyone else's.

Trace reaches down again, runs a fingertip over Justin's shoulder, strokes the egg that rests in the center of his chest. "That guy...he probably thinks he's something else. Probably thinks he got something pretty special. He doesn't know shit. I got all four of them. I know them in ways he never could, never will."

Joey remembers the one that thrummed softly in the palm of his hand. His hand still feels warm from it. "Yeah," he says, remembering how he held Briahna while the doctor cut her cord, terrified that he was going to drop this slick, squirming thing, and how he never wanted to give her back, not even to Kelly.

"All he got to do was come." Trace's eyes are half-closed, his hands half-curled into fists. He doesn't look like the kid that Joey's known for years. "I hold them, I talk to them, I get up ten times a night to check on them, I'm the one who's gonna bury the ones -- the one -- you know, if they don't all hatch. I'm gonna be there when they hatch; they're going to see me." Joey touches his back, but doesn't know what to say. After a moment, Trace shivers a little, and begins to relax under Joey's hand. "Whatever," he mutters. "I'd rather have the hard parts, anyway."

Joey is just as glad he doesn't have to learn how to think of anyone but Trace as the father. He doesn't think he could, now.


"You have to tell me the truth," Lance says.

Justin holds up one finger. "I don't have to do anything," he says, and then, raising a second finger, "I did tell you the truth."

"Then who was it?"

"None of your damn business."

Lance punches the refrigerator. Not hard. "I never in a million years thought I'd be having this conversation," he grumbles.

"This is not a conversation. This is you harassing me for no reason. I told you. It wasn't you. It happened after you."

"I don't believe you."

Justin shrugs. "Well, it don't matter what you believe. You can't prove shit."

Lance leans against the refrigerator and watches Justin grind the coffee beans by hand. There's sweat seeping through his thin t-shirt where it presses to the small of his back. "I just want to do the right thing."

Justin laughs harshly. "What, you think I need money or something? Look, Lance, seriously. Just don't think about this anymore. I don't need anything, I don't want anything, I got it covered from here. I'm telling you what you want to hear. Why can't you just accept it?"

"It's not what I want to hear." Justin snorts. "Not if it's not true," Lance clarifies. "I'm not -- I'm not that guy, Justin. If I have...something to do with this, then I want to-- "

"You have. Nothing. To do with this. Thank you for being all stand-up guy and everything, but I don't need it. I don't even want it."

"I didn't mean for it to happen like this," Lance says.

Justin turns around. "Well, neither the fuck did I, but this is how it happened."

Lance steps closer. He remembers Justin's raspy breathing, the cool skin of his back against the heat of Lance's mouth. It was never supposed to be like this. "Just tell me the truth."

The microwave beeps, and Justin twists to open it. He jostles the tea bag in the mug, then pulls it out and drops it in the sink. "Here," he says, passing the cup into Lance's hands. "Take this upstairs to your boyfriend."

Lance supposes that is the truth.

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