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Certain Mercies

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JC arrived in London late last night. Justin's driving down from Scotland today, and it's gonna be off the hook tomorrow, much tighter than his own 23rd birthday party was. But today, JC just wants to bum around town, hang out, decompress. The album drops soon, but it can’t be soon enough for him. He's been ill at ease lately. The little club tour went really well, and "Some Girls" airplay has been decent, but the reception isn't going to be anything like - well, but he doesn't care. He really doesn't.

Right.

Wandering around London in relative obscurity seems like a good way to shift and sort through his ungenerous anxiety, so he shrugs into an inconspicuous coat and leaves the hotel with Lonnie's dubious blessing. He doesn't put on the Yankees hat and shades until he reaches the tube station, and, even then, it's just to be safe. He's always been lucky with that kind of thing here.

He rides the line to Covent Garden and disembarks. He enjoys the press of people around him as he heads up the stairs and out into the overcast mid-morning. There are a lot of good little restaurants and cafés in this area, and he's suddenly really feeling like a cappuccino and a cigarette. He picked up the habit of introspective smoking from Justin, just one of several potentially voice-destroying habits that Justin has left imprinted on him, like a brand on his psyche. For all he misses him, JC's glad that he's been out of Justin's immediate sphere of influence for awhile. JC loses himself around Justin, even with the hard-earned knowledge that his glamour is a siren song - beautiful to listen to and equally as lethal. JC muses on his love/hate relationship with unhealthiness as he scans the street for a smoke shop.

Soft strains of string music distract him, and he cocks his head to listen. It's a quartet, playing a skillfully-adapted Paganini piece, and the violin is so purely passionate that JC finds himself walking towards the sound before he knows he's moving. Siren songs, huh. He smiles to himself.

He crosses the street, still approaching the music, and pauses momentarily when he sees a fairly sizable group of people circled around a square railing, overlooking the sunken courtyard where the quartet is presumably playing. Everyone's looking down at the musicians, though, so JC pulls his hat down a little tighter, and casually walks over. He comes to a halt on the outskirts of the crowd, not too close to anyone, but close enough to see the players if he cranes his neck. The violinist is energetic; all four of them are, their bows flying across the strings with joyous enthusiasm, wide smiles on their faces as they catch each other’s eyes. JC can tell they're enjoying themselves tremendously. He recognizes the translation of power to the audience. For a moment, he feels a surging sense of kinship, proud and full in his chest, nearly lifting him to his toes with the swell of it.

A young girl walking by, bookended by her parents, turns her head and stares. And tugs at her father's jacket, and stares. And looks over her shoulder, and stares. JC's shoulders hunch under the weight of her regard, the downward motion sending him spiraling back down towards earth, where he's just a pop singer, and kinship is a laughable two-syllable word, and it's his face that's memorized, and not his intent.

The Paganini comes to a triumphant end, and JC applauds with everyone else as the musicians grin and bow with gusto. The cellist and violist sit back down, and, as they ease into the opening of a lovely adagio, the smell of cloves tickles JC's nose. The thin, sweet smoke instantly transports him back to New Orleans, four years past - late nights at jazz clubs, exhausted from rehearsal, draped in a booth with a vintage snifter of bourbon in his hand, watching the shapes of Justin's words fall from his mouth like magnolia petals. Justin would take a drag and savor the taste before letting the smoke lazily cloud over his head, passing the clove over to JC, who would wrap his lips around the cigarette just where Justin's lips had been.

He looks around to see who's smoking and spots two men a few feet away, leaning on the railing and conversing softly as they listen to the music. One is tall, the other short, and it's the short one who has the cigarette between two fingers. He holds it the way Justin did, like you'd hold a joint, between his thumb and forefinger. JC appraises them quickly, like he's learned to do with strangers, and is amused when he realizes that they're both wearing Yankees hats too, shielding their faces from view. He decides that the likelihood of a misencounter is slim to none and edges towards the pair.

"Excuse me." He addresses their backs.

The taller man turns halfway around to peer at him. He looks vaguely familiar, and he nods with a wearied smile towards JC. "Nice hat." He's British. JC can't remember how he might know him.

"You too. Um, I'm sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if I could possibly, like, buy one of those cloves off you."

"You can just have one," the shorter guy says. Nice voice, high tenor. American. And famous. When the guy turns around, hand digging in his jacket pocket, JC laughs softly. He's even more amused by the hat choice now because it looks like he's bumming a cigarette from Elijah Wood. He looks again at the taller man, pictures blue eyes in the pointed face, long, blond hair instead of a ball cap. Jesus. He shakes his head, mildly astounded, and removes his sunglasses.

They don't recognize him, that's obvious, and when he introduces himself, it takes actually saying "NSYNC" to make their eyes widen and their heads nod slowly. He tells them what a fan he is, and he's neither surprised nor offended when they don't respond in kind.

"Here." Elijah is holding out a long clove to him, and, by the time JC's raised it to his lips, Orlando has a struck match guttering in the shallow cup of his hand. JC dips his head to touch the end of the cigarette to the flame, inhales, and the rough breath of smoke scrapes into his lungs with visceral sense-memory. The Justin lounging on a barstool in his head smirks at his impulse to repress the coughs that crowd his throat, and, after a choked moment, he gives it up and turns his head, but not far enough to miss the look that the other two men exchange.

"Can't be good for you," Elijah says, shaking out another clove from the pack. "Your voice, I mean," he adds, as he plucks the matchbook from Orlando's fingers, "it's your livelihood, right?"

"Yeah, well," JC's throat has relaxed enough for him to attempt another drag, and this one goes down smooth and rich, honey rolling over his tongue. "Only the good die young, y'know."

Elijah huffs a short laugh, mild surprise coloring his face. Orlando simply looks confused, and JC has the sudden desire to blow out a ring à la Gandalf, watch the smoke wreathe and circle the bewilderment creasing the sharply angled face. When he does so, Orlando blinks through the grey wisps and lets out a laugh of his own.

"This one does it all the time," he explains, jerking his thumb at Elijah, "always blows it at my face. Bastard knows it'll sour my skin prematurely, yeah? And then where will my blossoming movie career be?"

Elijah smiles. "But you're so pretty with smoke in your hair." He speaks to Orlando, but his eyes cut to JC, blue eyes deep with something indecipherable. Orlando complains that that doesn't make any sense, that his hair is hidden by his hat, but Elijah doesn't respond. JC draws in steady breaths as he returns the inscrutable gaze, and wonders why blue-eyed boys have black-ice hearts. He's got secrets too, but he doesn't keep them reflected in his eyes for anyone to guess at.

 

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They shouldn't have coffee together, JC thinks, because two is company, but three might make the cover of the Sun.

 

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They have coffee together, and they even sit outside, at Elijah's insistence. JC finds that he doesn't mind; he's not going to be singing for anyone but himself for awhile yet, so he accepts every one of the cloves that Elijah offers him. He's waiting for the smoke to grow heavy and bitter on his tongue, but as he sips his espresso and listens to the easy banter flowing in front of him, his mouth feels sweeter than it has in a long time. Sweet and stale and curiously unused.

He barely joins the conversation, and the other two seem content to let him drift on the rise and fall of their words, the stories they offer up between them. They're still riding the heady high of success - neither of them says as much, but he can tell. He used to do the memory thing too.

 

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The talk turns to the Oscars, less than a month away. Orlando says that he's not going, and Elijah's protests sound weeks old. JC watches with a pang of recognition as Elijah falls into the role so easily; the pleading, the cajoling, the pouting, the threatening, all with a vibrant undercurrent of affection that resonates inside him when Orlando plays his part, indulgent smiles and teasing tones. JC didn't come to London for familiarity though. He swallows his coffee to wash the taste of it away.

"But you're still coming for the Monday thing, right?" Elijah rolls his eyes at Orlando's patient assurances. "That's important, man. The ceremony, whatever, but Monday? Yeah." He nods firmly.

"Y'all feel pretty good about your chances?" They turn to look at JC as if they'd forgotten that he was sitting with them. "It's your year, everyone says."

"Yeah, everyone says." Elijah shrugs. "I don't really care."

"We don't so much care, no," Orlando echoes him, shaking his head. "None of us, really."

"Yeah, no, for the most part, we couldn't give a rat's ass." Elijah cuffs the back of Orlando's head gently, eyes still on JC. "Aren't you going to ask why?"

JC's pretty sure he knows why. He's played with the same deck of cards, if not the same game. But there are less than ten people in the world who really understand that about him, and Elijah Wood isn't one of them, so he asks.

"It's like-" Elijah pauses. His hand is resting on the nape of Orlando's neck, and his fingertips move in little circles. It looks like unconscious movement, but JC doesn't think it is. "It's like - it'd be nice or whatever, yeah, to be sure. Recognition for Peter, especially, definitely. But what we made together, what we all shared - I mean, I'm never going to be the same, you know? And I don't need any more validation that the effect it's had on my life, the effect it's going to keep having. It's done now, the experience is over, but it's never really. And it's fuckin' trite to say that we've sorta already won, but-" he shrugs again, and Orlando tips his head back into Elijah's hand. They share a smile, comfortable and quiet, and JC remembers doing that too.

The difference being, of course, that they really are going to win. If that difference matters.

He watches Elijah wriggle his fingers through the dark curls poking out from under Orlando's hat, and doesn't look away when Elijah notices him watching. He doesn't ask anything when Elijah's eyes narrow and grow thoughtful. His head hurts.

 

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The talk turns to him, and he lets it, although he was happy to play the attentive listener, the polite third wheel. It's not like he mingles with this crowd all the time, after all.

They ask him why he's in town, and when he tells him, they couldn't be less enthused, which is the most refreshing thing he's experienced since their non-recognition of him earlier.

"Tomorrow night?" Elijah asks, clearly counting in his head.

"Yeah, tomorrow," JC confirms, and Orlando looks amused.

"Younger than you, then."

"By, like, a second." Elijah rolls his yes.

"These whelps, eh?" Orlando's grin washes over JC, blindingly inclusive. "Takin' over, before we blink. Make sure to put him in his place, give him a good spanking, like I did this one."

"I . . ." JC swallows. It's like strangers have invaded his life and distorted it, a gross parody of could-have-been and should-still-be. "I don't think that'd go over too well these days." JC holds his hand out for another cigarette as a puddle of long-past regret begins to ripple in his stomach. He's trained his face, but when Elijah slowly tucks the clove and the matchbox into the curl of his fingers, he lets his thumb linger on the underside of JC's wrist and won't let him look away. There's that look again, sudden and sharp in the kid's smooth face, and he remembers why he forgets how much younger Justin is than he.

The silence grows heavy and heavier, bordering on uncomfortable, even for JC, so he tilts his chin stubbornly up in the face of it. His pulse beats steadily under Elijah's light touch. Elijah arches an eyebrow. It's a question, and a pointed one, and JC shakes his head, opens his mouth, closes it again. The kid is looking too deep for whatever answer he expects to hear, that's for sure, but when JC tries to glare him down, he winds up caught in the bright blue, distracted and disoriented. His body doesn't shift under the penetrating gaze, but his thoughts swirl muddily in an attempt to escape it.

Elijah presses into the bone of his wrist, and he blinks, because other people get his attention that way too.

"He's my best friend," JC says - funny, though, it comes out as more of a gasp, like the fact of Justin's friendship, and not the cigarette smoke, has been what's massing like rain clouds in his chest.

"Is he?" Elijah's fingers curve slowly around JC's wrist, and he looks down at them - thin fingers, short, with bitten nails. Regular hands, not made of iron at all. He tries to nod firmly, tries to respond to Elijah's question still echoing in his ears, but his head won't cooperate, and in the end, it's just his chin trembling as Elijah continues to stare.

"He is, or he was. It's different though, yeah?" Orlando asks thoughtfully, like watching JC disintegrate is an experiment he's conducting. "It's different now."

If JC could talk, he could tell them how different it is. He could tell them that as well as he knows Justin, it's almost like he doesn't know him at all, and he almost can't bring himself to care, and that almost frightens him. He could tell them how a history with someone can become something bordering on creation myth if you let it, but histories get written by the winner anyway, and he isn't even sure that the fight is over, much less who the loser might be, or if loss is the right word to use at all.

He opens his mouth to try to push the words out, but the bitterness hits him now, sudden like a punch in the gut, and he doubles over, coughing and hacking, bile rising in his throat. Through watering eyes and blurred vision, he sees Orlando lean over to Elijah, whispering something in his ear. Elijah nods, his eyes on JC, and JC wants to frown, but he wants to breathe first.

It's five minutes before he can sit up straight again, before the urge to scratch out that look out of Elijah's eyes full subsides into acceptance.

 

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Back at the hotel - Elijah's, not his - they keep all the lights but one off. Elijah insists on keeping the bedside lamp on its dimmest setting, and Elijah's clearly running the show from here on out. JC stands in the middle of the room, his arms crossed, clutching at his shoulder bones. He feels vulnerable, and when Elijah reclines against the headboard with an almost feline grace, it doesn’t set him at ease at all.

"Sit him down. Get rid of the shirt," Elijah says softly, with half-lidded eyes, and Orlando immediately guides JC to the bed, firm pressure on his shoulders pushing him to sit on the mattress, shoving him back a few feet.

Orlando kneels on the bed in the stretched vee of JC's legs, and puts his hands to JC's ribs, sliding the fabric of his shirt up along his skin, fingers pressing firm into the flesh between the bones. JC shivers, giving up any control he might have had over the situation, and allows the shirt to be pulled off his head. Orlando hums in approval, twists the bulk of the material around JC's hands, stretching his arms upwards, extending the line of his torso in a slight burn. JC sniffs in a sharp flash of air. Elijah smiles lazily. "You look alike, you two," he half-croons.

"We do?" JC's voice isn't wavering because his voice is trained and strong, his voice is his instrument.

"Yeah. Your bodies. Long, like. You're tall, but you're so fucking little." Elijah reaches out, runs an idle hand along the length of Orlando's denim-clad thigh, curving his palm to the ridge of his hipbone, just as Orlando bends to drag the rough tip of his tongue along JC's inner arm, down his bicep and over to his shoulder-bone, where Orlando sinks his teeth in ever so slightly. JC doesn't jump at all, just shuts his eyes and feels his throat work, his mouth tightening, his body relaxing into the familiar pushing surge of low-grade heat.

Orlando holds JC's arms up with one hand; the other is in the small of JC's back, pressing firm and steady as Orlando bites his way over to JC's neck, soothing the stings with laps of his tongue, and licking a long, painfully slow stripe up to JC's jaw. JC arches forward involuntarily, and Orlando pulls the shirt off his hands, freeing them as he sucks fiercely at the hollow below JC's ear, his arm curving around JC's back, causing the muscles there to jump and flex as JC trembles with the effort to stay still.

Elijah's hand slips from the smooth surface of Orlando's thigh and reaches over to the nightstand. JC watches as he picks up his cigarettes and the matchbox, puts a clove between his lips, strikes a match to light it, and sets both back down, all without lifting his eyes from where Orlando's mouth works against JC's neck. JC is fascinated by Elijah's fascination - it's bright and intense, and it's almost comforting to feel so immediate to someone again.

"Take off your shirt, Orli," Elijah says, and Orlando complies, curving down and darting out his tongue to lick along JC's ribs as he does so. The smoke from Elijah's clove wafts lazily over them as Orlando straightens and leans forward, warm skin on skin, and plays his hands smoothly, possessively down JC's back, then running one hand up into JC's hair, tugging at the curls to expose and nuzzle at his throat. JC can't suppress his rising moan, and suddenly Elijah's right there in front of him, eyes darkened and intent, and he fills JC's mouth with smoke when he pulls JC's tongue into his own mouth.

The kiss isn't frantic, but it's deep and it's hard, and it tastes like something JC had forgotten. He finds himself returning it with a nameless sort of need, hungry and craving, desperate for the familiar feel of lips beneath his. He would reach for Elijah if he could, but Orlando is holding his arms still, lapping at the base of his collarbone, and he feels helpless, and he doesn't mind.

When Elijah releases him at last, it's with a satisfied smile, eyes brushing languidly over JC's face. JC stares at him, slightly breathless, and Elijah pushes at his shoulder gently until he's lying flat on his back. "We're going to do you, Orli and I," he tells JC, and JC feels himself harden, the sensation pooling low and heated in the pit of his stomach, his fingers curling involuntarily.

"Up for it, are you, love?" Orlando murmurs, sliding a silken hand down JC's stomach and into the waistband of his jeans. JC sucks in a breath as long, clever fingers wrap around his dick and squeeze, lightly but firmly. Elijah eases out of his clothes, pale skin and smooth young muscle, and JC instinctively lifts a hand - Justin loved to be touched as he revealed his body like a gift - but pauses in the second before his palm touches Elijah's chest. He looks up in time to catch the flicker of amusement across Elijah's face.

"Good." Elijah moves away, out of reach, and there's nothing that could make the frustrated whimper that JC represses come out of his mouth. He has no control here, no illusions about that, but there's no need to make this any more than what it is. Whatever it is. If he wanted to think about it, he might be able to determine his own motivations. He might be able to determine theirs. If he wanted to think about it.

Elijah's behind him now, behind his head, lifting his head actually, into the cushion of his crossed legs, and his erection pushes against the back of JC's hair, and a simple turn of his head would send Elijah's cock skittering over JC's cheek, but JC lies there unmoving. He can feel Elijah's fingers begin to thread through his hair, working their way up to his temples, as his jeans and shorts are pulled down in one quick slide, and Orlando's hand is on his hip, pushing down against the natural helpful arch.

"Still, man. Just stay still."

JC obeys, letting Orlando strip him. He's naked, stretched out between them, and he can feel them looking, their eyes on him. What do they see, that they wanted this enough to make it happen? He tilts his head back in Elijah's lap, closing his eyes against the judgment of their gaze. He isn't too worried about it, though. He knows what he looks like when he's wanting and unashamed of it.

"God," Orlando breathes.

"I know," Elijah answers, and JC feels the faint flush of acceptance spread over his body despite himself. "He's pretty, isn't he?"

"As pretty as me?"

"Maybe prettier."

Orlando hums, and the faint wisp of air and sound brush over JC's cock, and he hums in response, in the back of his throat, just a third higher, unconscious harmony, that much he can't help himself from. He keeps it quiet, keeps it low, even when he's engulfed smoothly by Orlando's mouth. Elijah grunts softly behind him, but his fingers keep moving in small circles of pressure over JC's temples.

Orlando's mouth is warm, so warm, and when that mouth tightens and sucks, sliding down down down to take him in all the way, JC's eyes open involuntarily at the sheer godwonderful sensation. Elijah's looking down at him, right at his face, and JC's caught again by that intense blue.

"He's good, isn't he?"

JC stares up, his hands fisting in the blankets with the effort of staying still.

"You can answer."

JC licks his lips, opens his mouth to speak, but nothing comes out. Elijah bends his head down to whisper against JC's forehead, and his eyes slip closed again, as his cock slides and thrusts up into the silken cavern of Orlando's mouth, and Orlando's hands stroke up his sides, not gripping, just caressing, and it's the care that surrounds him that brings the saltwater to the corners of his eyes, and he trembles when Elijah's tongue, soft little cat tongue, licks the tears up and away.

He's close to coming when Orlando pulls off and Elijah moves away to take his place, forearms resting against JC's body, fingertips stroking lightly around his balls, that tongue flicking delicately, keeping him on edge. He's pulsing and aware, his skin tingles like it's too close to a fire. Again, he won't whimper, he won't moan, he won't beg, even if they ask it, even if they demand it. He can't hide everything, he doesn't want to, but he's not going to give himself away anymore, not like this. The last time he did that, he almost didn't get himself back.

He keeps himself aware, even when Orlando's lifting his legs and wrapping them around his body. He keeps himself apart, even when a fierce push sends sparks flying behind his eyelids just as Elijah's gentle mouth firms nastily at the base of his cock. Roughened feeling, everywhere, but he's not lost in it, and he's not remembering, can't remember, won't remember what it felt like the last time Justin was inside him like this, because Justin is not the end of everything, dammit.

Orlando fucks him, and Elijah sucks him, and he tells his spinning mind that he's nothing but energy, no baggage or history, as he clenches uncontrollably around the solid pressure of Orlando's cock and his hips arch up into Elijah's mouth.

"Yeah," Orlando sighs raggedly, his breath coming in short gasps. One hand steals down to caress Elijah's back, and Elijah reaches around, to where Orlando enters JC, and good Christ, his finger slides in, and JC's so full, just feeling, just sensation, and it's the closest he's felt to beautiful since the end of everything.

He wants nothing more, when he comes silently, face tight and tears leaking, than to let this be more than what it is.

 

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Orlando falls asleep almost immediately afterwards, and as JC dresses, Elijah toys with the short, dark strands that fall over Orlando's forehead.

"He always does that." Elijah's eyes don't rise to follow JC when he crosses the room to find his shoes. "Nineteen hours shoots without sitting down once, but something like this, he falls asleep like a worn-out kid. Cute, huh?"

"He trusts you." The sound of his own voice surprises JC. He hadn't meant to say much of anything; he had meant to end this with the half-hearted ease with which it had begun.

"I know he does. He should, after everything."

"It's not always going to be like that," JC bursts out, before he can stop himself. "You think it will. Right now, you think so. But it changes."

"Of course it changes." Elijah's eyebrows are raised, but he's still not looking at JC. "That's sorta how it goes, you know?"

"I know." Now it's his bitterness that surprises him, and he spares a glare for the boy on the bed, who has no right to sit there so comfortably, so casually, acting like he already knows everything JC's struggled to learn. "You don't understand. You won't. Not until it happens to you."

Elijah nods slowly. "Maybe. But it never has to be like that, not really. Not even for you."

JC laces his shoes, tying off the knots with harsh, jerky movements. He'll leave optimism to the movie stars, he thinks. He glances up when he's done, but Elijah's not focused on him at all. "Like you know, like you can even say. You don't know me. Like, at all, man."

"I know you a little." Elijah's smile is crooked as he gazes at Orlando's face. "I know you enough to feel sorry for you."

"You what?" JC feels his face burn. "Listen, this . . . if this was about pity-"

"No, it wasn't, you're right."

"Well then?"

Elijah looks up then, and the expression on his face is completely inscrutable, calm and assured and unreadable. It reminds JC of Justin's face when he told him about Britney's infidelity, when he told him about Jive's go-ahead on his solo record, when he told him about Cameron. He remembers wanting to smash that expression to bits with his fist. He remembers wanting to kiss that face until it tensed into something moving and alive. Sometimes, it's like all he's made of is memories, even with all this forward momentum in his life.

They look at each other, across the room, and JC feels his anger subside as quickly as it rose, muting into a yearning sort of curiosity. What is it these kids know that he doesn't? Where did they learn it? And why won't they teach him?

"Well?" he asks again, and Elijah's smile is gentle and patient, like a benediction.

"Have fun at the birthday party. Take a clove before you go, if you want."

JC looks to the nightstand, at the slim cardboard case of Sampoernas, lying innocuously next to the green-glass ashtray. He can almost smell the acrid spice, can almost taste the thin, rich tang in his mouth, can almost feel the delicate roll of paper and tobacco between his fingers. He can almost see himself asking to stay.

He shakes his head. "No thanks, man. My livelihood, you know."

The look in Elijah's eyes softens into something even kinder than his smile. "I know." He bends back down to Orlando, and JC turns and walks out the door.

 

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He's not halfway back to the tube station before his cell phone rings in his pocket. He doesn't need to look at the display before he answers it with a quiet "Hey, J."