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Ever Something

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June 2016

Justin stared out the kitchen windows, watching his kids on the swings. Joy, the oldest, was pushing the twins as they pumped their legs. Peals of laughter rang through the open screen door. Justin was always getting after them about that, his own mother’s voice echoing in his head about air conditioning the outdoors every time he said something. They still forgot, just like he had.

The twins, Sylvia and Stevie, were just old enough to climb up and down on the swings by themselves. Justin had raised the seats up himself the weekend before, climbing up on top of the swing set to shorten the ropes so that his babies could swing like their big sister. They were such great kids, he thought. He was so lucky he had such great kids.

They’d grown up so fast. Justin had tried to be there, as much as he could, but they’d just kept growing while he was on tour for an album or shooting a movie up in Canada or wherever. He watched Joy, almost ten years old, pushing her six-year-old siblings higher into the sky and felt the tears welling up in his eyes.

With a deep breath, he left the window and walked out onto the deck into the sunshine, to do the hardest thing he’d ever have to do.

**

The funeral was small, as small as possible in the industry. Cameron hadn’t made a movie in six years, since she’d started to show her pregnancy with the twins, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t still adored. She’d graced the covers of Good Housekeeping and all those other stay-at-home moms’ magazines, talking about having it all. She’d kept up her environmental work, too, so all of those people came as well. Her older sister gave the eulogy, talking about how much Cam had loved her children, her husband, her causes.

For Justin, the day passed in a fog. There was nothing he could do or say that would change anything that had happened, so he went silent, holding his mom’s hand in the pew of the huge church in Long Beach, where Cameron had grown up and where they’d moved their family home after Joy was born. There was music, he knew, because Joey sang and it brought tears to his eyes because he just felt so much that it couldn’t all stay inside.

Of it all, the one thing he remembered most clearly was Sylvia tugging on his coat as they left the church. He picked her up and she smelled like strawberry shampoo. As he walked down the front steps, he clung to her as his last grasp on life.

**

Two weeks later, Justin’s mom came over and kicked him and the kids out of the house so that it could be cleaned and aired out. She started picking up the clean laundry that littered the living room, abandoned there half-folded when Stevie had fallen down the stairs and started to scream three days earlier.

“You’ve been locked up in here for days,” she said. “It’s not good for those kids, Justin. Take them out, get them some sunshine. Make them laugh.”

“For God’s sake, Mom. Their mother just died.” Justin grabbed two tiny pink socks and started to roll them together, just to have something to do with his hands.

His mom walked up close and folded his hands in hers. They were just a little bit wrinkled now, her hands, skin a little thinner despite the expensive creams he always bought for her. “Justin. You need to get out of the house. They need to know that life is going to go on.”

He took a deep breath, one that made his shoulders shake, but he gave up the socks and called for the kids.

They went to the beach, because it was easy and close, and there was plenty to do there that didn’t require thinking ahead. There had always been a stash of pails and towels in the back of Cameron’s car. The steering wheel felt weird under his hands, awkward like it too knew that Justin wasn’t the one who belonged here.

Stevie was bouncing in the backseat, kicking Justin over and over again. He had the energy of about five kids his age, and Justin didn’t quite know what to do with him. He’d never been like that as a kid. He’d been focused, almost professional, even as a six-year-old. He didn’t want his kids to be just like him, but it would be nice if he had a clue what to do to keep his son from jumping around like a cracked-out karate kid for 23 hours a day. As soon as they hit the sand, Stevie took off running toward the water, not stopping until Justin had grabbed him around the waist and wrangled him back to the blankets for a liberal application of sunscreen.

Joy was his quiet girl, ready with a book to sit and read on the beach. She loved her brothers and sister, Justin knew, but she preferred to be in her own world. Already, she had headphones wrapped around her ears. Of all his children, Joy had inherited his love of music. It was a bond between them, one that felt more and more tentative as she closed herself away with looming adolescence.

“Hey,” he said, smoothing sunscreen on her back. “You wanna go swim for a while, then come back and build some sand castles?”

She looked up, faux diamonds in her sunglasses glittering. “I’m just gonna read here, if that’s okay. I won’t lose sight of you.”

Justin sighed, but didn’t want to push. If she wanted to read, she could read. He turned his attention to Sylvia, who was sitting with her legs drawn up, drawing swirls in the sand.

“Ready to swim?” he asked, holding out a hand. She fit her tiny fingers into his and let him lead her to the water.

They jumped waves, one on each side of him holding his hands, and soon he heard the laughter that had been absent from their lives for the past two weeks. At the first giggle after Stevie had gotten drenched, he suddenly realized how much he’d missed that sound. He’d never had a lot of time with the kids, but when he was there, they had always been happy times. He was so shocked by the simple laugh that he missed the next wave, leaving him dripping and sputtering, surrounded by the laughter of his children.

**

When they got home, the house was clean and his mom was gone. There was lasagna cooking in the oven, and a note that said half of it was “eggplant free,” since Joy hated eggplant. Justin tried to remember if he’d known that.

Together, they set the table, and as an afterthought, Justin flipped the radio on. The Oldies station played, and the sounds of the Beatles filtered into the kitchen. The kids all knew the words, so they sang along to “Can’t Buy Me Love,” as they set the table together. It felt good, he thought, that they could be a family again.

The song switched to “My Girl,” and immediately, Joy froze halfway to the table. In seemingly slow motion, the glasses in her hands fell and shattered on the floor, scaring Sylvia, who started to cry. Joy’s lower lip quivered and she darted out of the room, feet pounding up the stairs. A moment later, the slamming of her bedroom door made pictures rattle on the walls throughout the house.

With a sigh, Justin turned off the radio. “Hey, baby girl,” he said, picking up Sylvia and setting her on the counter. “It’s just a little broken glass.”

“It s-s-scared me,” she wailed, and Justin held her head to his chest, rocking back and forth, quietly murmuring “everything’s okay.”

When her sobbing stopped, and Stevie had swept up the glass as best he could without coming too close to it, Justin grabbed a bag of baby carrots from the fridge and sat the twins down at the table to munch while he headed upstairs to check on Joy.

He knocked, ignored the harsh “Don’t come in!” and entered. Joy was stretched out on her bed on her stomach, legs splayed so there was no place for Justin to sit. He nudged her over anyway, and stroked her back.

“That was your song with mom, huh?” he asked, rubbing gentle circles. She was so tense.

“It’s just stupid song,” she wailed into the pillow. “Just. Leave me alone!”

Justin’s heart broke to be shut out that way. He brushed a piece of hair back from her cheek. “It’s okay to miss your mom, sweetie. I miss her too. And it’s okay to cry about it.”

She didn’t answer him, and Justin looked out the window. He wanted to be somewhere else, anywhere but here, with a daughter he couldn’t help and two more kids downstairs who were still trying to figure out why everyone was crying all of the time. He was dreading the day that they realized mom wasn’t just off exploring Heaven like she went to the Rainforest every year.

“Do you want to come down for some dinner?” Justin finally asked, once her sobs had quieted to hiccups. She looked tiny. Usually his bright, happy daughter seemed older than her years, but she looked more Sylvia’s age here. He wanted to pull her into his lap, but knew she wouldn’t have it.

“No. I just wanna stay here,” she mumbled. He pressed a kiss to the top of her head and promised to save some lasagna for her if she got hungry later.

Downstairs, the twins were talking in their made-up language and eating carrots. Actually, Stevie was sticking carrots up his nose, but Justin didn’t have the energy to stop him. He turned off the oven, swept up the glass, and poured three glasses of milk. The lasagna was a little bit dried out, but he wasn’t worried about it and cut small slices for the kids and a bigger one for himself.

“Why’s Joy crying?” Stevie asked with his mouth full of cheesy pasta.

“She misses mom. It’s okay to cry if you miss her,” Justin promised. The kids were all seeing a therapist, but Justin didn’t know if it was helping.

Stevie made a face. “I miss mommy too. But boys don’t cry.”

“Who told you that?” Justin asked. He reached across the table and cut Sylvia’s lasagna into tiny bites, since she was just picking at it. “Eat, it’s grandma’s favorite,” he promised, satisfied when she took a bite.

“Saviour Cruise said so. Jimmy Poland said boys who cry are sissies.”

“Saviour Cruise is a pea brain,” Justin said, making both of the kids laugh. For months they’d been hearing about Saviour Cruise, the illustrious classmate in kindergarten who was the son of Hollywood’s resident psycho actor and seemed to know everything about the world. “It’s okay to cry if you’re sad or lonely or if you get hurt.”

“If you say so,” Stevie answered, clearly still doubtful, but he dropped the subject and went back to dinner. They ate the rest of the meal in relative silence.

**

Justin had gotten the phone call just after noon in early June, while he was driving from his agent’s office to the sound studio for some voice over scenes. He’d only been home a week since they’d wrapped production in Vancouver for another romantic thriller, the hot new genre in Hollywood.

When he’d gotten to the hospital, it had already been too late. They’d tried to explain to him what had happened, but ever time he had images of the car careening toward Cameron, he had to stop whoever was talking from finishing the sentence before the collision happened in his brain. It hadn’t helped, and every night he was haunted by the dream. The doctors had been kind and sympathetic, but Justin had been too numb to do or say anything.

By the time he was done, it was time to pick up the kids from school, then take them home and tell them that their mother had died in a head-on collision, and wouldn’t be coming home again.

Since that day, he’d jumped every time the phone rang, suspicious of who was on the other end. He’d eventually shut off the ringer to avoid having to answer the calls.

Once the kids were in bed after the lasagna disaster, Justin pulled out his phone and began to listen to his messages. There were many of condolence, but it wasn’t until JC’s voice came through the phone that Justin’s throat closed up with grief.

“Hey. I don’t really know what to say, I just felt like I needed to say something. Actually, no, I don’t really need to say something, but just in case you’re doubting, I’m here for you. I always will be, so anytime you need anything, J. I’m here.”

Justin took a deep breath. He’d been doing okay with this, he’d been surviving well enough. Just hearing JC’s voice, though, pulled him toward his old friend, and with shaking fingers, he keyed up JC’s number in his phone and dialed.

“Hey, C? Yeah. Yeah, it’s. It’s okay, but. It’s not okay. Where are you?”

**

JC arrived without fanfare or spectacle, just a black Mercedes pulling into the driveway around noon the next day, carrying his bags on his shoulder as he walked up to the front door. Justin was there waiting before JC could even ring the bell, and pulled him into such a hug, clawing at JC’s shirt. He felt the damn break and the tears began to fall.

“Hey,” was all JC said. “Hey, Justin.” He held Justin, one hand on his head, letting him cry it out. Justin knew it was embarrassing, really, and tried to compose himself, but every time he thought he might have a handle on things, it was right back there again and the tears returned.

“Sorry,” he mustered, finally, pulling back a bit, though JC didn’t take his hands off of Justin. That alone, Justin thought, was unspeakably comforting.

“It’s fine, J. Don’t apologize.” Justin took one of JC’s bags and together they carried the luggage into the house, through the foyer into the great room with its deep blue sofas and thick creamy carpets. Cameron had wanted the room to look like a beach house, with the tan walls and blue and white everywhere else.

“So, I um. I didn’t really mean to drag you out here,” Justin said, not sure what to do or say now that JC was here. “Do you want something to drink or anything?”

“Actually, I’m gonna run to the bathroom and then, yeah. A soda or something would be great.” Justin watched to make sure he took the right hallway to the bathroom before going into the kitchen and taking a couple of Cokes out of the fridge.

JC jogged in a few minutes late, hair wet like he’d run his hands through it after washing them, looking much more awake. “Thanks, man,” he said, taking the soda and sliding onto one of the high chairs by the island. “How’re the kids doing?”

“They’re okay. School, you know. It’s the last week before summer vacation, so we’ll see how things go once they’re home.”

“It must be so hard for them.” JC fiddled with the tab on the top of his soda can aimlessly. When he looked up at Justin, there was so much emotion in his face that Justin couldn’t handle it all.

“Look, um. You’ve gotta get settled and everything, so um. The guest room is upstairs, it’s pretty obvious which one, and um. I’m gonna go, just.”

“Yeah, sure.” Justin let JC go and drifted into the family room, where he sat down at the piano. A few minor chords, a melancholy little trickle of the keys, and he had something of a song pouring out of him. He played and played until he hit a sour note, then banged his fists against the keys in a shattering cacophony that echoed through the empty house over and over again.

**

JC unpacked slowly, listening to the angry loud music filtering upstairs. He’d known Justin for over twenty years and only once before heard him take out his emotion in such awful sounds, when he’d broken up with Britney way back in the day. Justin couldn’t handle clashing music, the terrible chords all banged out together until he thought his ears might bleed.

Tactfully, JC avoided the music room and left his soda can rinsed out by the sink. He grabbed the book he’d been reading on the plane and ducked out to the wide front porch. It was warm, but not overbearingly hot, and the angry piano music only scarcely reached his ears. Justin’s house was incredibly soundproof.

A bus pulled up out front and JC smiled to see Justin’s kids climbing down. They walked slowly up the long drive, pausing when Joy looked up to see JC sitting there. Once they’d recognized this man on their front steps, the little ones dropped their bags on the lawn and ran up, tackling him onto his back, laughing and hugging. JC grabbed one in each arm and hugged tight, letting them burrow into his embrace. Over their heads he watched Joy pick up the discarded bags and carry them up to the porch.

“Hey, Sunshine.” JC reached out a hand and pulled her down next to them. “Got a smile for me?”

Slowly, a bashful smile peaked across her lips. “Hi, JC. I didn’t know you were coming.”

“Yeah, it was kind of a spur of the moment thing. I missed you guys.” And was worried about you, he thought.

“Did you bring us presents?” Stevie asked, scooting out of JC’s embrace to stand staunch, hands on his hips.

“Presents? Why would I bring you presents?” JC scratched his head and hitched up Sylvia so she sat on his knee.

“You always bring us presents!” Stevie announced loudly, despite Joy’s hissing of “be polite.” JC laughed.

“How about we go out and get some ice cream, and then presents?” JC wanted to give Justin a little more time to cool off before he had to put on a brave face for the kids.

“Ice cream!” They cheered, even Joy.

“Let me go tell your dad that we’re going,” JC said.

“He can come too!” Sylvia protested as JC set her on her feet and grabbed the kids backpack.

“He’s kinda busy, doing work stuff. We’ll catch up with him for dinner,” JC promised. He snuck inside only to find Justin standing in the hall.

“We’re gonna--“

“I heard. Thanks. Um, you know Stevie’s allergic to strawberries, so you know. He forgets and tries to order them sometimes.”

JC smiled. “Got it.” He passed the bags over to Justin. “You look all tense.”

“I’m gonna go run on the treadmill for a while or something. I’ve got this energy that won’t let me rest.”

JC let his hand linger on Justin’s before letting the backpacks go. “See you in a while, then,” he promised, and ran back into the sunshine with a smile for the kids.

**

JC loved the kids and had a nice afternoon with them at the ice cream parlor and the park. Justin had made BLT sandwiches for dinner when they got home, and everything seemed pretty normal to JC, looking at the happy faces around the table.

“Homework time.” Justin’s announcement was met with groans all around, even from JC.

“What’s your issue?” Justin laughed.

Wounded, JC pressed a hand to his chest. “I sympathize with the plight of the overburdened student.”

“Well, than you can help them while I clean up.”

The kids brought their backpacks to the table and pulled out worksheets. Since it was so close to summer vacation there wasn’t much work to be done.

“I need to find words that rhyme with cat.” Sylvia’s pencil was hot pink, and she rolled it around on the table singing “Cat, bat, cat, bat.”

JC helped her find a few others, then wrangled Stevie into his seat to make his own list. Joy worked away independently, occasionally stopping to scrub the eraser across her page of math problems. She sighed dramatically each time.

“Do you need help?” JC offered. He wasn’t used to the parenting thing, not sure when to step in and when to let her find the answer on her own.

“It’s just extra credit. I’ve already done the whole workbook so the teacher said I could do extra credit.”

“You know, I was pretty good at math in school.” JC tried to see what she was working on.

Joy looked at him skeptically, one eyebrow raised. “You were?” There was such disbelief in her voice that JC had to smile. No one ever believed that the spacey musician was a math geek.

“Let him help you,” Justin urged, coming around the kitchen island, wiping his hands on a dish towel. JC marveled at how Justin still moved like a dancer, long and lanky, even though it’d been years since he’d done any serious dance work. “He used to help me with my homework all the time.”

Joy shrugged and turned the page toward JC. Exponents, he realized. Advanced stuff for a fifth grader. He noted her mistake quickly, and together, they got the rest of the problems done.

When the kids were in bed, Justin and JC sat on the screen porch in the backyard, sipping beers. “So,” JC said cautiously. “The kids seem to be doing okay.”

“Some days are better than others,” Justin said. “I think they like having you here to visit.”

“I can stay for a while.” He didn’t have anything scheduled until the fall, having planned to spend the summer writing new material.

Justin looked over, lips twitched in a half smile. “That’d be really great.”

JC reached across the space between the chairs and grabbed Justin’s hand. Justin latched on and held it like a life support cable, keeping him going through one more night.

**

The kids had one more week of school, just enough time for Justin and JC to set up some kind of normal routine before all hell broke loose over summer vacation. The three of them ran wild around the house as soon as they were free, leaving a mess everywhere they touched down like a wild tornado, destined to stir up everything in its path.

“How the hell did this get up here?” Justin asked, jumping to pull one of the fun noodles from the pool down from the basketball hoop. Lynn had volunteered to take the kids to the beach for the day, giving them a few minutes to clean things up and get the house back together.

JC laughed, righting a lounge chair that had been overturned. “You gotta admit, these are not the same kids I met last week. Stevie, oh my God. I don’t think he stopped yesterday from the time he got up until you threatened to tie him to the bed.” Bedtime had been a bit of a struggle the previous night.

JC had never felt the urge to procreate, having never found any one person he particularly wanted to settle down with. When his friends had talked about wanting to be a father and settle down, JC could see the appeal but had never felt it was a step worthy of “settling” with someone for the sake of having children. Instead, he’d kept dating a series of pretty actresses, the kind he’d break up with when they got just a little too serious or a little too famous, and then bouncing back to beautiful boys who seemed to be everywhere in L.A. He hadn’t had a typical long-term relationship in over a decade, and was content with that.

Justin’s kids were fun, though. He loved all of it, holding them in his lap to read a story or chasing them around in the pool. He didn’t mind helping with homework or supervising chores, either, because they were Justin’s kids, and that alone meant that he would love them with all of his heart and soul.

Justin, meanwhile, turned on the pool filter and locked the gate as he headed back into the yard. “I swear, these kids have too many toys. No more toys until Christmas,” he vowed.

JC laughed. “You know that’ll never happen,” he said. “Besides, your kids are about the least spoiled ones in this entire county.”

“Yeah,” Justin agreed, dropping the pool toys in a cedar box by the back door. “Cam was really good about that.”

JC cursed himself for bringing up those thoughts. “She was a great mom,” he agreed carefully. “They kids know that. They’ll remember that.”

Justin didn’t answer, but went back inside. The air conditioning hit JC hard when he followed, sliding the glass door shut behind him.

“You know, the thing is. She was a great mom, and she was a really great person and she did all of this great stuff, and I loved her. A lot, I really did. But there was also a lot of other stuff that was going on, and it’s like. She died so none of it mattered, but it did.” Justin was rambling, pacing through the great room from the kitchen island to the dining room table and back. “So yeah, you know, we all miss her and stuff, but fuck, there’s stuff that I want to be mad at her about and it’s like, I can’t because she’s dead.”

Something was going on. JC folded his arms, shivering, because he was standing under a vent but didn’t want to move because he might set Justin off. The conversation had turned volatile, and he didn’t want it to implode. Justin clearly had something he wanted to say. He only babbled when it was really important.

Finally Justin stopped at the sink and washed the dirt from his hands, lathering and rinsing with water so hot it steamed up from the sink. He turned and reached for a towel, looking at his hands and not at JC. “She was cheating on me,” he mumbled.

JC’s heart sank, because no, not Cameron. Not the one who’d promised to never ever break his heart the way every other woman had. “J,” he said plaintively, stepping forward, reaching out but not touching.

“For months. Like, the guy she met at the rainforest thing last year. She told me, fucking told me on Valentine’s Day, the night before I left for Vancouver.” He threw the towel in the sink. “We were supposed to figure out what we were going to do when I got back, and then she died, and shit, I can’t even be mad at her because she’s dead and how can I be mad at my kids' mom who’s just died, you know?”

JC just shook his head and pulled Justin into a hug. His shirt pulled across his neck where Justin grabbed on tight in the back, and JC tried to stand tall to comfort Justin, who was still just that much bigger. “It’s not fair,” he said, because that’s all he could think.

“It’s not,” Justin snuffled. His shoulder shook with silent sobs, but no tears came. Maybe, JC thought, they were all used up by now.

Eventually, Justin pulled away, wiping his nose with the back of his hand. “Sorry. I just. It couldn’t stay inside any more, and it’s like. I can’t tell my mom, you know?”

“Did you tell Trace?” JC asked, because all of his life he’d been Justin’s second best friend, and sometimes, that was a blessing. If Trace had given Justin advice, JC could piggy back on that and not be the one to say the things that Justin didn’t really want to hear.

“Yeah, back when she told me. I went over there that night, left straight for the airport. I didn’t even say goodbye to the kids, I was so just. Foggy, like, in my head.”

“What did he say?”

Justin laughed, a short bark that echoed from the corners of the cavernous room. “He told me to walk on the spot, take the kids and leave. But you know, he’s always dramatic like that. I was going for the movie, the kids were in school and happy. She was always such a great mom. I couldn’t do that. It was easier to put it off, pretend she’d never told me.”

JC could understand that. Justin had always had an amazing ability to suppress negative emotions. It got to the point where they’d all worried about him so much on tour that they’d eventually corral him onto a bus during a long drive and pour liquor down his throat until he would spill and cry about everything that he’d bottled up over the past few months. When he’d gone out on his own and left the group, they’d all made a pact that one of them would find him every so often, just to make sure that he wasn’t on the verge of a breakdown.

“But then I got back and she was so happy to see me. She came to the airport, which she never does, and she was so damned happy. We had a cookout and made plans to go down to San Diego for a few days, to the zoo and Sea World because Joy loves dolphins. I tried to bring it up that night, but she just avoided, and kept avoiding, and three days later…” his voice trailed off.

“J, it’s okay to feel angry with her. Just cause she’s not here doesn’t mean that what she did was any less wrong. I mean, fuck. She, of all people, should have known.”

Justin sighed. “If I’d been around more, if I hadn’t been on the road or doing so many movies…”

“You can’t do that. You can’t play ‘what if.’ She made a decision,” and JC didn’t have anything else to say without know the details of that, but it wasn’t the time to ask. “You got a raw deal out of the whole thing. That’s really all it is. One big fat ‘life is not fair’ moment.”

The words hung in the air for a minute, long enough for JC to replay them several times in his head. They sounded stupider each time. What was he thinking, trying to give Justin advice on something like that? He was so far out of his league on this one.

Finally, Justin pushed off from the counter and left the room, patting JC on the shoulder as he went. “Thanks man. You know. You always have like, exactly the right thing to say.”

At first, JC thought Justin was being sarcastic, but the tone of his voice was soft and sweet. Baffled at his own insightfulness, JC went back to picking up the house, tossing toys in their bins in the closet under the stairs.

**

Joy was supposed to go to summer camp that year, a place up in the mountains for famous people's children to get back to nature. She had a new sleeping bag, a flashlight, a gallon of bug spray, and the determined Timberlake resolve not to go.

“Someone’s gotta help you here,” she begged, all pleading eyes and pouting lips. “and Sylvie doesn’t wanna be the only girl!”

Beside her, a silent comrade, Sylvia shook her head fiercely and pouted.

Justin looked to JC for help. Joy had been so excited about this when he’d talked to her on the phone last spring. He sat down on the couch and tried to pull her onto his lap, but she wouldn’t budge. “Sweetie, it’s just for one week. If you get there and you don’t like it, you can call us and we’ll come get you.”

“You know,” JC said, “I used to love camp. We’d go out in the canoes and have camp-outs in the woods- it was fun.”

“I know it’s fun,” she said, quiet now. “I just don’t wanna go, that’s all.” She folded her arms and stared at the floor miserably. “Please don’t make me.”

Justin sighed. “No one’s gonna make you go anywhere, sweetie. We just don’t want you to miss out on a good time. It might help to get away for a while. You’ve been cooped up here all summer.”

She shook her head again. Sylvia snuck up to her side and gave her sister a hug. “I just wanna hang out here this summer. Please, Daddy?”

Justin’s heart broke. It’d been ‘Dad’ since the day she’d entered third grade. “Ok, Joy. Okay.” He hugged her close and caught JC’s eyes over her head. JC just shrugged.

“Why don’t you go put your clothes away,” Justin suggested, dreading the crawl back into the attic to store the duffle suitcase. She left, Sylvia close at her heels.

“What do you think?” Justin asked JC once the kids had left.

JC thought for a minute. “She’s probably afraid of being away from you,” he offered. “Or of leaving the twins. She’s turned into a little mom lately.”

“Yeah?” Justin cocked his head, thinking. He hadn’t really seen that, but then again, he’d been studying them so hard that maybe he’d missed the forest for the trees.

“She’s always tying Stevie’s shoes, and getting after them to clean up. She was teaching Sylvia to swim underwater in the pool the other day, remember? It’s nothing, like, overt, but I wonder if she’s worried what they’d do without her.”

Justin sighed again. “She doesn’t have a lot of faith in me, I know that.” It broke his heart a little bit, but he knew that she had good reason. “She heard Cam and I fighting, the night she told me about it. I don’t know how much, but I know she heard some of it.”

“Damn.”

“Yeah. Then I left, and I just. I wonder what she knows, but I really don’t want to ask.”

JC shook his head. “You’ve got to talk to her, or find someone she can talk to. You can’t just let this eat her up inside.”

“I know.” Justin stood, grabbing Sylvia’s bunny from where she’d dropped him on the floor and propped him up on the couch. He flopped over sideways, sadly. “We’ll wait until the camp thing has died down and then I’ll talk to her about it.”

“Since you’ve got all that stuff out, what do you think about camping in the back yard tonight?” JC offered. “We could make s’mores out on the fire pit, do a little night swimming…”

Justin smiled. “You are like, a walking encyclopedia of useful activities for children. Why don’t you have them, again?” he asked.

“Because then I’d have no time to entertain yours,” JC answered.

“Fine, but you’re setting up the tent,” Justin insisted. It was a good idea, and would give the kids something to do rather than watch TV all night long. He wouldn’t push the camp thing, but he wasn’t going to let his kids turn away from the world, either. There was too much out there to live for.

**

JC finally broke out of the house the weekend after Fourth of July, after spending a late night with the kids watching fireworks, eating hot dogs, and singing patriotic songs. He just needed a little bit of grown-up time.

It took him a couple hours to drive home, even though he didn’t live very far away. He’d never moved from the first house he’d bought, so after 20 years, it was more a home than any place else he’d ever lived before. The cleaning service had taken in the mail for him, so he weeded through the stack of letters, tossing the junk. Most of his important correspondence was done by email.

He tossing his suitcase into the laundry room and grabbed clean clothes from the bedroom. He’d been at Justin’s for a month and was ready for a different T-shirt from the 10 he’d been wearing over and over again.

He flipped on the radio while he jumped in the shower, loving his rain ceiling as he washed the sticky smell of cheerios off of his arms, left when Stevie had tipped his bowl while trying to steal the box out of Sylvia’s hands. The kid was out of control. JC wondered if there was a summer sports team they could find for him, something where he could run off some of his energy.

He paused, loofa stopped at his elbow. Since when had he started to think of himself as part of a parenting unit? He shook the idea out of his head. He had to remember that it was only a temporary visit, just until the kids were feeling a little bit better and everyone was back on their feet. Once Justin had figured out what he was going to do, long term, JC would be back to his house permanently.

He stepped out of the shower and dried off quickly, changing into clean work-out pants. He dumped his suitcase-load of dirty clothes into the washer, and after adding soap, stuck the bottle into the suitcase to take back to Justin’s. It was silly, but he’d missed his own laundry detergent.

He’d head back over to Justin’s that night, he thought, after spending some time in the studio. He’d written a little bit over the past few weeks and wanted to lay down at least some basic tracks before the songs left his head.

With that in mind, he heated up a can of soup while waiting for the washer to finish, then locked himself in his studio as his clothes tumble dried.

**

When JC got back to Justin’s house, it was late and the kids were asleep. The smell of microwave popcorn filled the house, so JC followed his nose to the kitchen, where Justin was emptying the bag into a bowl.

“Hey,” he said, smiling to see JC. “I didn’t know how late you were gonna be. I was just gonna watch a movie, if you wanna join me.” He held out the bowl of popcorn, jiggling it invitingly. JC grinned and took a piece.

“Sure.” He headed toward the den, but Justin was going the other direction, toward the stairs.

“I’ve got the fireplace going and stuff upstairs. I was just gonna watch in bed.”

“Oh.” JC paused, not sure whether it would be kosher to sit in Justin’s bed. They were well beyond the age where people shared intimate spaces like that with their friends.

“Come on,” Justin said. “It’s all ready to go.”

JC followed, climbing onto the pristine white comforter, kicking off his shoes and leaning back against a mountain of pillows as Justin pressed a button on the remote.

“Star Wars?” JC asked, amused. Justin just smiled.

“I was in the mood for a classic,” he answered. The scrolling text filled the screen and JC sank in, grabbing for popcorn, ready for a journey to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

**

JC woke up to a small finger poking him in the face. He blinked, and the poking stopped. Slowly, Sylvia came into focus.

“Hi,” he whispered, smiling at her. She had her bunny tucked under one arm, her blankie wrapped around her shoulders like a shawl.

“Can I come up?” she asked, and JC scooted back, letting her climb up and under the covers. He realized hazily that he was still in Justin’s bed, had fallen asleep sometime during the movie. He stretched back a foot and bumped into Justin’s leg.

“There you go,” he said, wrapping her up, giving her some pillow. “What’s wrong with your bed?” Sylvia’s bunny ticked JC’s nose as she tried to fit him into the embrace too.

“Joy’s in it. She kicks.”

That was weird. “Yeah? Why’s Joy in your bed?”

“She always sleeps in my bed. She sneaks in when Daddy goes to bed and then goes back to her room really early. It’s a secret,” she whispered, clearly something she was not supposed to tell.

Interesting, JC thought. He would have suspected that one of the younger kids would be seeking comfort at night, not Joy. “Is this a new thing?”

“Since Mommy went to Heaven. Joy says that she doesn’t like her bed anymore.”

Very interesting. “Do you like your bed?”

She giggled. “I’ve got a princess bed!” Indeed, she had a ruffly pink canopy. Her room kind of reminded JC of a cotton candy explosion.

“Why are you in Daddy’s bed?” she asked curiously, a shift in topic that caught JC off guard.

“Because I fell asleep.” Awake now, and realizing that he wouldn’t be going back to sleep, JC leaned up over Sylvia’s head to check the clock. 7:30. “How about we go get dressed and go get some donuts?” he asked.

“Can Stevie come?”

JC smiled. Justin would kill him for giving Stevie sugar. “Sure. Go wake him up, okay? We’ll bring them home and surprise Daddy with breakfast.”

Off she scampered, and JC heard the bang of Stevie’s door. Justin slept on. JC looked at him, troubled even in sleep. Six months ago he hadn’t looked a day over thirty. Cameron’s death had aged him.

“Hey,” he whispered, leaning in close and gently shaking Justin’s shoulder. “I’m gonna take the twins out for a bit. Don’t freak when you wake up, okay?”

“Mmmm, okay,” Justin mumbled back, turning. JC paused, and figured he’d better write a note anyway. Poor Justin. He pressed a soft kiss to Justin’s forehead and drew back.

Where had that come from?

In the hall, he saw Joy’s door just closing and shook his head. There was so much hurt here, so much he wanted to fix and couldn’t. JC felt himself growing attached and he didn’t know what to do to stop it.

That wasn’t true, he realized, as he changed his clothes. He could walk away. He just didn’t want to.

**

They took the kids to the park, watching as they ran around on the swings.

“Maybe we should get tire swings,” Justin thought out loud. “We could probably hang them from the deck, since we really don’t have any good trees.”

JC looked at him quizzically. “I thought you said no more toys.”

“Oh, right.” Justin paused. “Is a swing a toy?”

“That’s like asking ‘Is ice cream a sweet’ because it technically is a dairy product,” JC countered. “Yes.”

“Damnit.” Justin grinned. His skin was getting tan from being outside with the kids so much. “I was thinking that Stevie might want to play in this summer soccer league that’s going on around here.”

“Yeah?” JC smiled. “I was thinking the same thing. Not specifically, but something like that.” He felt good that they were on the same wavelength, since had didn’t exactly have any experience with parenting.

“He seems to be doing okay, I mean. Of the three. Sylvia’s clingy, Joy’s just weird. Stevie’s well. Normal.”

“I don’t think it’s really hit him yet, you know? He’s more concerned about six year old boy things.”

“True.” Justin watched as Stevie hunted for bugs under rocks. “He’s gonna make some woman very happy someday.”

JC laughed. “Or man, don’t forget.”

“Right, yeah.” Justin looked at his son. “I don’t know, though. I don’t think so.”

JC shook his head. “Neither do I. You just can’t really tell, you know?”

“I know, but he’s so, like. The stereotypical boy.”

“Are we seriously sitting here discussing your six year old son’s sexual orientation?” JC asked with a laugh. The lady on the bench nearby shot them a deadly glare, only making it harder for him not to double over with laughter.

“Sorry,” Justin said. “See, those are the things they never tell you about when you find out you’re going to have a baby. Make sure they eat vegetables, don’t let them bite people, sure, but they never tell you how to size up your kid’s sexuality.”

“We should teach a class,” JC suggested.

“Right, definitely. Become college professors, you and me. Ex-Mousketeers, group and solo recording superstars, one an actor, one a producer, and both experts on pre-pubescent sexuality.”

JC lost it at that, doubling over. “Oh my God, when you say it that way, it’s like, Michael Jackson could guest lecture.”

“I’m just saying, man.” Justin laughed a bit and shook his head. “These are like, the conversations that I’ve never had with anyone else. I forgot about the way you make my mind work.”

“I’m sick and twisted, what can I say,” JC replied. He watched as Sylvia ran back from the swings, hair bouncing in pigtails. She jumped into Justin’s lap and smiled.

“Can we have pita pockets for lunch?” she asked.

“Mmmm, with spicy tuna and mayonnaise?” Justin asked. She screwed up her face.

“Eeeeewwww! Lettuce and tomatoes and peppers! And carrots!”

JC shook his head. “You’ve ruined these children with vegetables. Where’s the peanut butter and jelly?”

“We can have peanut butter and jelly in pita pockets,” Sylvia offered generously.

“That sounds good to me,” Justin answered. “Are you ready to go home for lunch?”

“One more slide?” she asked happily, and Justin nodded, letting her run back to the playground.

“Hey, I talked to Joey last week. He thinks he’s gonna fly the family out sometime later this month. Apparently Briahna thinks it’s a crime that her baby brother’s never been to Disneyland.”

Justin nodded. “Cool, yeah. I haven’t seen him in ages.” Since the funeral, he realized, though that whole time was still a fog.

“I know, right? It’s so hard when you people all settle down with families. Damn kids.” JC ducked as Justin hit him playfully, for the idea, even though he knew JC was kidding.

They packed up the kids and journeyed back to the house for lunch. Stevie seemed excited about the soccer league, and Sylvia shocked them all by wanting to play too, so Justin took them off to register after lunch. JC spent the afternoon in the pool with Joy, teaching her how to back flip off the diving board without landing flat on her back in the water. He was exhausted by the end of the day and all but rolled into bed.

It wasn’t until he’d almost fallen asleep that he realized he hadn’t told Justin about Joy sneaking into Sylvia’s room at night. Tomorrow, he thought. He had to remember to mention it tomorrow.

True to his word, Joey brought the family to California in mid-August. Joy adored Briahna, and Justin smiled to see his baby girl emulating Joey’s teenage daughter. He even allowed her to wear a little makeup the day that they took the whole brood of kids to Disneyland.

With Little Joe and Stevie paired off, and Joy and Briahna together, Justin rode most of the rides with Sylvie as they worked their way through Fantasyland. JC sat with Joey and Kelly drinking ice coffee outside It’s a Small World, waiting for the rest of them to get off of the ride.

“How’s he really doing?” Joey asked.

“I think he’s okay.” JC thought back to Justin that morning, when he couldn’t find a new bar of soap in the linen closet. He’d stopped just short of dumping everything on the floor before closing the door and looking in the medicine cabinet, where three new bars were neatly stacked. “I think there’s a lot he’s not dealing with, which is probably going to explode at some point, but I don’t know that anyone else would do anything better.”

“The kids seem good,” Kelly said. “Joy, she’s worried over something, but she doesn’t look too, well. Out of it, or something.”

“She’s not sleeping well.” They’d talked about her sneaking into Sylvie’s bedroom, and Justin had promised to take care of it. JC hadn’t mentioned it again, but he’d noticed an extra bed and appeared in Sylvia’s bedroom a few days later. It seemed like the best solution all around, and JC slept easier knowing Joy wasn’t waking up alone at night. “I think she’s trying to step in and be the mom a little bit, and as much as we try to tell her that’s not her role, she’s not getting it.”

Joey glanced at Kelly, who raised her eyebrows.

“What?” JC asked, catching the look.

“How about you? You seeing anyone?” Joey finished his drink and tossed the can toward a nearby garbage can, sinking the shot on the first try.

JC tried to remember the last time he’d had a date. The beginning of the summer, and that wasn’t really a date, it was a guy he’d met at a party and brought home. They’d had breakfast in the morning, so he supposed it counted. “I’m just hanging this summer, you know. Nothing serious.” He hadn’t had anything serious in a few years, as his mother liked to keep reminding him. As if he needed reminding, when all of his friends were married with children.

“You and J seem awfully homey,” Joey said cautiously.

JC took another sip of coffee, chewing on the straw. “I’m just helping him out, giving him some grown up conversation, someone to talk things out. He’s putting so much into keeping the kids going, that, I dunno. I’ve got nothing going on, I love those kids, you know, and J needs friends right now. A lot of people are staying away, like, not really knowing how to treat him.”

“It’s not bad,” Kelly said. “It just seems like you guys are, I don’t know. Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t want you to get hurt when Justin decides he doesn’t need help anymore.”

“It’s not like that,” JC promised. He spotted the kids coming off of the ride, glad to have the interruption, and opened his arms as Sylvie ran into them.

“That ride’s BORING!” she pronounced. “Will you go on Space Mountain with me?”

“Are you big enough for that?” he asked skeptically. He looked at Justin over her head.

Justin laughed. “You take her. She’s an inch taller than the line. I’m gonna sit here with the grown ups for a while.”

“Okay.” Leaving the boys with Justin, JC wrapped Sylvie’s hand in his and headed off with the girls. Briahna was telling Joy about seeing some teen movie star on her dad’s last set, and Joy was just eating it up.

“Boys are gross,” Sylvie declared, and JC mocked hurt. Laughing at JC’s pouting face, she assured him. “Not you. You’re a grown up. You’re my favorite grown up.”

“Thanks,” he grinned back at her. “You’re my favorite kid.”

The line was long, but JC didn’t mind the wait. He thought about what Joey and Kelly had said and tried to convince himself that his response had been truthful. He’d be able to walk away, sure, no problem.

Right.

**

Summer was winding down. The kids were going to have to go back to school soon and Justin realized that except for short stints with JC or their grandparents, the kids had been by his side all summer long. He worried about how they’d deal with being on their own in school all day. They’d been mostly numb in June, but the summer had brought all of the wounds caused by Cameron’s death to the surface. The kids had become very clingy. Attempting to deal with problems before they arose, Justin started scheduling play dates with the kids friends, shipping them off to other people’s houses for an afternoon here or there, letting them get used to some distance. So far, there hadn’t been any problems, although Joy insisted that she carry a cell phone with her at all times, and would sometimes call him just to make sure he was okay.

The therapist assured him that it was perfectly normal and would wane as she got more comfortable with the fact that he wasn’t going to vanish like her mom. Knowing that separation was likely to cause anxiety for a while, Justin pulled out of the next two films he had lined up, gulping at the insurance fees that came in because of it, yet knowing the money was nothing compared to his children’s security.

Justin hadn’t touched most of Cameron’s stuff in the house, and he still didn’t want to tackle that. They’d had their own closets in the master bedroom, his and hers, so whenever he found a stray piece of clothing or a letter that was hers, he would carefully place it in her closet and close the door again. He knew there was stuff in there that should go to Goodwill, but he didn’t want to deal with that just yet. Instead, the closet slowly became the catchall as he removed bits and pieces of his wife from his life.

One afternoon, the kids were all gone at the same time, and he found himself with a few hours before Stevie’s soccer camp ended and the girls came home from a friend’s house. JC was playing music on the piano in the front room, and Justin drifted in aimlessly, not quite sure what he should be doing.

JC looked up with a big beautiful smile and kept playing, just comping away at a few different chords that sounded vaguely Oriental. “Hi. Bored?”

Justin grimaced a little as he sat down in one of the club chairs. “A little. You can tell?”

“Usually you’re all, run here, run there. Today you’re walking.” JC switched to a slower melody with a pretty moving baseline. Justin wondered if it was stuff for a new song or something he’d just made up on the spot. It had been three years since Justin’s last album, and he had a whole hard drive full of music just waiting to be mixed and remastered. Right now, none of it appealed to him at all. Something had changed inside of him, and the idea of going out on stage and singing happy stoned music was, well. Repugnant.

“Wanna play?” JC asked sliding over, making room. Justin sat down next to him and started picking out a little accompaniment to JC’s chords.

“I think I need to get back to work when the kids start school,” Justin finally said. He hummed a little bit, and immediately JC harmonized, coming in third lower and adjusting his chords to match. “I don’t think I’ll be doing any movies for a while, but I could do some studio stuff, get a new record together.”

“Something to get your mind off of things,” JC added. Justin watched his fingers move over the keys with a gracefulness he’d never had. Justin attacked the piano- JC caressed it.

“Do you think, I mean. I feel like I’m dealing with this pretty well, but sometimes I wonder.” He held his breath, afraid of what the answer might be.

JC took a long time before speaking, so long that Justin couldn’t keep his breath in and it came out in one long sigh. When JC finally did answer, he said “I think you’re doing fine, Justin. It’s not going to be easy.”

“I just keep thinking about the kids. I’m waiting for them to like, go back to normal, you know? And I realized the other day, that was never gonna happen. It’s never gonna be like it was before.” The loss of their innocence hurt him more than anything else ever had.

“Ok, first,” JC said, stopping the music and turning to face Justin, “Your kids are the children of one of the biggest movie stars and one of the biggest musical stars on the planet. They’ve had security guards since they were born, attend fancy rich-kid school, and have seen more of the world in ten years than most people ever do. So, frankly, they were never ‘normal’.”

Justin started to protest, but JC was right, to an extent. “You know what I mean,” he replied instead.

“I know. And you’re right- it’s not going to be like it was before. But that doesn’t mean that it’s going to be this awful existence for them, you know? A lot of people grow up and never know their parents, or one of their parents. Your kids had a mom who loved them, and they’ll remember that. They’ll miss her, but they’re going to keep growing without her.”

Justin didn’t answer, but hoped that JC was right. “It seems like it’s going to go on forever,” he finally said.

“Wait until school starts. I think once they have something else to focus on, things will seem a lot more, well. Normal.”

Justin smiled at the play on the word. “I’ve never done the stay at home dad thing. Making lunches the night before, helping with homework. I’m kinda looking forward to it. Is that awful of me to say? If Cam hadn’t died, I wouldn’t have gotten that chance.”

“Nah. It’s actually pretty sweet.” JC swiveled on the bench and began to play again. This time, it was Billy Joel, and Justin couldn’t help but sing along. It wasn’t all worked out in his head just yet, but he wasn’t quite as restless as before. He decided then that he would call a few people about lining up producers for some new songs.

**

The MTV Video Music Awards were being broadcast from LA that year, which JC didn’t mind one bit. Justin had been invited too, but decided not to attend. He was still weird about being out in public, as if people might judge him for having a good time after such a tragedy. JC wished the public could see that if anyone deserved some fun and excitement for a night, it was Justin.

The day of the show, the kids got a kick out of seeing JC’s picture in the paper, next to a prediction that he would lose the category to some 17 year old high school dropout rap prodigy. JC didn’t disagree.

“JC Chasez, formerly of the band *Nsync, is up for best soundtrack video, against some tough- and much younger- competition,” Stevie read. “How come they always talk about *Nsync when they interview you, but not dad? You guys were both in the band.”

JC glanced at Justin, who had a ghost of a smile on his face. “Cause your dad was the baby, and we only let him in the group cause we needed someone to be a basketball net when we went two-on-two.”

Stevie laugh, and Justin scowled like a two-year-old. “I can’t believe you remember that shi- stuff.”

“How could I forget? That was back when your dad was shorter than the rest of us,” JC continued telling Stevie. “He thought he was this big hot-shot basketball player, but he wasn’t really that good.”

“Please,” Justin scoffed, getting up to clear the table. “Don’t listen to him, Steve-O. JC’s just jealous cause he hasn’t won a round of one-on-one with me since he was 20.”

“Liar.” JC winked back at Stevie, who laughed. He had a milk moustache. JC handed him a napkin. “Wipe your chin and we can head out to the beach this morning.”

“Yes!” He jumped down from his chair and took off, probably to scrounge up ever beach toy he could find.

“Are you sure you want to go with us?” Justin asked. “You’ve got to be out to the venue by five.”

JC carried the last of the plates to the dishwasher. He was still barefoot and the tile in the kitchen was cool. His mom always said that was a sign that summer was coming to an end, when you started to notice cold feet. “Plenty of time.”

There was an awkward moment when they both tried to maneuver between the sink and the dishwasher, until JC finally slid back so Justin could go by. Justin paused there, turning, close to JC.

“Thank you,” he said quietly, so soft it was almost a whisper. “I don’t say it enough, but. Thank you.”

JC watched him, curious. “You’re welcome, J,” was his only reply, before Stevie came flying back in with Frisbees and snorkels, ready to roll.

**

There was music playing when JC got home, later than he’d expected and much too late for anyone to be awake. The soft sounds of a very old folk song drifted down the stairs, charming him into finding the source, in Sylvia’s room. Justin sat at the edge of her bed, the nightlight warming the dark corners of the room. His voice carried above the CD, pure and sweet.

Today while the blossoms still cling to the vine
I’ll taste your strawberries, I’ll drink your sweet wine.
A million tomorrows will all pass away
Ere I forget and the joy that was ours, today.

JC leaned against the door jam as Justin let the music fade, tucking the covers up over his daughter’s shoulder to keep the chill away during the night. When he turned, he smiled at JC and switched off the stereo before leaving the room.

“Bad dreams,” he said in a stage whisper, pulling JC down the hall to his room. “She’ll be okay.”

“That song was pretty. I’d never heard it before.” JC had loosened his tie in the car on the way home, and now tugged it off completely, draping it on the back of a chair. His jacket followed as Justin turned on the fireplace in the corner of the bedroom.

“My mom used to sing it to me. I didn’t even remember it until Joy was born and I heard Mom singing it. I went out and found the track. It’s Sylvie’s favorite.”

“Strawberries,” JC smiled. Sylvia adored them.

“Yeah.” Justin fell back onto the bed, bouncing one of the throw pillows to the floor. In the corner above the fireplace, the TV still showed interviews with award winners.

“Congratulations, by the way,” Justin added, lifting his head to smile at JC. “VMA, pretty fucking cool.”

JC rolled his eyes. “The only reason that song was even in the movie in the first place was because no one else dared to have their song in a flick about a gay teenager at summer camp.”

“And you won the fucking award for theme song, so be thankful none of them did. Even if they had, that song, man. You know it’s fucking awesome.”

JC smiled. “I liked it. I’m a little bummed it got so tied into the movie, though, cause like, it fits, but that’s not what it was originally at all, you know?”

Justin grinned. “Hello, I wrote ‘What Goes Around’ about Trace’s psycho ex, and do you think anyone ever believed it wasn’t about Britney?”

JC didn’t answer, because he still didn’t really believe that was true, no matter how much Justin had claimed that he wasn’t completely bitter and jaded about his first girlfriend and her fucked up life. He let it go, though.

“Seriously,” Justin said, standing up again. “I know we don’t, like, talk about that shit, but I’m really proud of you, and really happy when stuff like this happens because, you know, I know how great you are, and I want other people to know that too.”

JC grinned, and blushed a bit. “Thanks, mom.”

“Alright. Sleep, man.” Justin yawned, and walked to JC, opening his arms for a hug. “You did good, C.”

“Thanks.” JC hugged Justin back, hooking his chin over Justin’s shoulder. He pulled back a little bit, and Justin paused, just there, cheeks almost brushing, Justin’s breath warm on his ear.

“J?” JC licked his lips, unsure what had happened. Something had changed.

He didn’t get to think about it, didn’t get to analyze because Justin kissed him. His lips were there, and open, and JC kissed back. It was instinct, nothing more, and when sanity returned, he pulled back, but Justin dove in again.

“J,” he said, not a question this time but a warning. His body was already steering him down a dangerous path. This wasn’t good.

“No,” Justin said, mouth not letting up, and JC inhaled the word. It wasn’t a command to stop- it was a command not to.

“You don’t want this,” JC managed to gasp as Justin’s mouth traveled to his throat, leaving a trail of sweet kisses the flashed from hot to cold when the air conditioning blew across his skin.

“Please,” Justin begged, and he was up against JC, hard, and JC realized he was too. His hands landed on Justin’s back, where the clung as they kissed again.

Justin’s fingers tiptoed up under JC’s dress shirt, digging it out from the waistband of his pants. He grunted in frustration at the soft cotton undershirt JC had on, and when he finally found skin, he moaned beautifully.

JC’s mind knew that it was wrong, but Justin was wrapped around him, confusing his brain. They’d done this before, once, right before *NSync had broken up, and JC never thought it would happen again.

“Justin,” he said, trying again to pull away but Justin would have none of it, hooking one ankle behind JC’s leg and holding him close.

“Please,” he begged again. “Please, JC, I just. I feel so alone, all the time. I just can’t be that alone anymore. I need this, I need you.”

“Justin, you don’t need me,” he began, but was cut off with another kiss. Justin’s hands were sliding into the back of his pants and JC couldn’t control himself. How could he control himself when this was Justin?

Somehow, they got to the bed, naked, clothes thrown to the floor carelessly along the way. It was slow, the way they moved together, but intense nonetheless. JC let out soft sighs as Justin’s hands explored his body, letting Justin steer their movements. He tried to keep an ear out for the kids, panicky that one of them might have another bad dream, but Justin kept pulling his mind away from everything else except what was happening to his body.

The room spun in glorious circles when Justin stretched out on top of him, so he closed his eyes and kissed Justin again. Long, lazy kisses found rhythm with Justin’s thrusts against his body. His hips pulsed instinctively until they could move in tandem, glory streaking through his body with each tiny movement.

There was a connection here, JC thought. It was the piece that had been missing and it completed him on a distant level that he hadn’t been able to reach before. Realizing it, perhaps more subconsciously than consciously, he threw out the caution and reached for Justin, holding him close, arms flailing to keep Justin there with him as he went over the edge.

When he’d gathered his bearings again, eyelids fluttering open to see Justin still there above him, bottom lip caught in his perfect teeth, JC jumped right back in. Justin thrust down against JC’s now sticky stomach, mouth captured by JC’s in a fury of kisses. When he came, it was with a breathy moan of relief and a sticky burst on JC’s chest. JC didn’t mind, just held Justin until he was through, then cradled his head to his shoulder so they could rest.

**

When JC woke up, Justin was lying on his back on the other side of the bed, staring at the ceiling. As JC shifted, Justin’s head lolled to the side and he stared at JC with wide blue eyes. Frustratingly, JC couldn’t read Justin’s expression.

“That was, um.” Justin sniffled and looked at the ceiling again.

A clench of guilt began to roll in JC’s stomach, snowballing bigger and bigger with each second that passed. “We shouldn’t have done that.”

“Maybe.” Justin looked at him again, then rolled up to his side, one big hand landing on the bed between them. “It wasn’t, I mean. I don’t want you think I was using you or anything.”

“I don’t,” JC said, though it was a bit of a lie. Just a bit.

“JC,” Justin started. He paused, fingers drumming on the sheets as he thought. “You’re my best friend. This. It’s just a part of that, you know?”

He didn’t answer, because it was just what he was thinking. He knew, and Justin knew that he knew. But it wasn’t right, just the same.

“Can we talk about it in the morning?” Justin asked finally, when JC didn’t say anything else.

He nodded, lump rising in his throat. He rolled to his side, back to Justin. It was quite possibly the worst thing that could have happened between them. Now that he’d had a taste, he knew he’d never be able to resist Justin. Every moment they were together that wasn’t everything would be little more than nothing.

He’d gone and fallen in love, and Justin was just rebounding.

Justin’s arm snaked around him from behind and pulled him close. He let him, because he knew that Justin couldn’t see his expression that way.

He’d come to help Justin and his family grieve and move beyond the most tragic blow a family could face. Instead, he’d ended up causing more trauma and possibly alienated himself from his best friend, and now, from the man he loved.

**

When Justin woke up the next morning, alone, he knew that JC was gone. Not out-for-breakfast gone or getting-stuff-from-his-house gone, but permanently gone. He checked JC’s bedroom knowing that he wouldn’t find his bags there, and in the kitchen, knowing that no one was making breakfast.

Alone again, he sat in the living room with a cup of coffee and pretended to watch the morning news on TV. His head was clearer that day than it had been in a long time. He just wished JC hadn’t left before they’d gotten to talk it all through.

He’d been up for less than a half hour when Joy wandered down, pink pajama top rising up as she yawned and stretched her arms. He held out an arm and she crawled up into his lap.

“Morning.” She smelled like fruity shampoo and toothpaste, and curled into him sleepily. “Want some coffee?”

It was an old routine, as she took a sip and made a face. “Why does it smell so good and taste so bad?”

“You’ll get used to it, when you’re a grown up.” Justin reached around her back and turned off the TV with the remote on the end table. “I thought we might go up to the mountains today.”

It took a moment for her to realize what he’d meant, and her lower lip started to quiver. “I don’t want to.”

“I know, baby. But it’s time to say goodbye.” Cameron, always the environmentalist had directed that her ashes be cremated and scattered in the Sierra Nevada, where they’d spent many happy family vacations, skiing or hiking or camping.

He’d expected Joy to fight him, somehow. After all, it’d only been three months since the funeral- maybe it was too soon. He watched, though, as Joy steeled her expression and straightened her back. She was so very brave, he thought. Even though she was still young enough to crawl up into his lap in this unguarded moment, she was growing up.

“Can we take the canoe? I think Mom would like it if we did it on that lake where we had the cabin last summer.”

“Sure,” Justin thought. It’d be interesting getting three kids to sit still in a canoe, and he hoped it wasn’t overly windy, but it was a nice idea. “She’d like that.”

They sat in silence for a little while, Joy picking at the ruffled hem of her shirt, Justin moving his fingers through her hair. “Where’s JC?” she finally asked.

“He had to go home,” Justin said. “He’d been here with us an awfully long time, and it was time for him to go.”

“Oh,” she said simply, but the expression on her face looked like there was more.

“What?”

“I thought that maybe he was gonna live here now, like Lance and Reichen live together. You know.” She looked up at him with big blue eyes. “I thought you were in love with him.”

“Baby,” he said, stroking her head, trying to smile. “I love JC very much. But I’m still missing your mom an awful lot, you know?”

“Yeah.” She squirmed a little bit. “I know that you guys were fighting. I know that she cheated on you.”

“Baby.” Justin pulled her close. He should have known that she would have picked up on that. She was so smart, so very smart, and observant. “We both made some mistakes along the way, and we’ll never know what would have happened beyond that. But I loved your mom, so much, and she loved me, and you guys. You were her whole world.”

She wouldn’t look at him, which worried him. Oh, the burden his daughter had been carrying. “Do you think that’s why she died? Because she did something bad?”

Oh, ohhhhh. Justin’s heart broke into a million pieces as he wrapped his arms around Joy and held her as tightly as he could. “It was an accident, Joy. There was no reason for it, and nothing she did, or anyone else did, made it happen. It was just God’s time to bring her home.”

“It just seemed to add up. She did something really bad, and she had to die. I thought that if I did something bad I’d have to die too, and.” Her face lost its brave façade and she was just a little girl again. “I didn’t want that to happen so I’m trying to be really really good all the time and it’s so hard, and I don’t think I can do it anymore.”

Justin twisted her on his lap so that she could face him directly. This was just one of those things that they never taught you how to deal with in the parenting classes he’d taken before she was born. He couldn’t believe it’d been a decade and that this mature girl was the same baby he’d held in the hospital. He wished, fervently, that JC was there, to back him up, tell him what to say. That alone was a surprise, but he filed it away because right now, it was just him and Joy, and somehow they’d have to figure this thing out together.

“No one can be good 100% of the time,” he began, but that didn’t sound right. “I mean, you should try to be good, but you should never worry that if something goes wrong, or you make a mistake, that you’re going to be hurt or die or anything like that. That’s not the way the world works, okay?”

“Okay,” she sniffled, but it didn’t sound like she believed it.

“If that were the case, then we wouldn’t need prisons because everyone who made a mistake would be dead, right? And that’s not what happens, so don’t you go thinking that. And don’t think those things about your mom, either. She made a mistake, but that doesn’t mean she was a bad person.”

They talked for a little bit longer, and Justin even elicited a smile from Joy before she reluctantly climbed off of his lap to get dressed. “Do you think Mom’s watching over us?” she asked

“I think so.” Justin didn’t think that Cameron would ever truly abandon her kids. He’d never really believed in angels, but he knew that somewhere, she was guarding over Joy, Stevie, and Sylvia.

“I think she’d be happy that JC’s been here to help us. Do you think he’ll come back soon?”

“I don’t know, baby. Go wake up your brother and sister,” he said, changing the subject. “We’ve gotta get going if we wanna have time to get up and back before dark.”

They had PopTarts for breakfast, something Justin didn’t often allow but it was a day for special concessions. After packing up juice boxes, bundling into lightweight jackets, and buckling everyone into the car, Justin dashed back into the house. He lifted the heavy black box from over his mantle.

“We’re not getting rid of you,” he said, holding it in his hands. “We’re always gonna remember you and you’re always gonna have a place here. But it’s time to go.”

Then, he wrapped the box in one of Cameron’s favorite scarves from the closet and headed back downstairs.

**

They got home early, but it had been an emotional day for all of them that left the Timberlake family exhausted. Justin oversaw a quick bath for the twins while Joy used his shower, and put them to be before the sun was even down. All three kids fell asleep without a song or a story.

Feeling the pull of his own bed, Justin ignored it for a moment, instead trudging downstairs to empty out the cooler and get a load of wash started- all three kids clothes were damp with river water thanks to an unfortunately tippy canoe. Once the washer was churning, Justin sank down on the couch. He’d wait until the clothes were in the drier and then head up to bed.

The empty box was on the living room bookcase. He’d stuck it there on the way in. What was he going to do with that? Keep it out on display, or hide it away? He wouldn’t be able to get rid of it. Justin’s chest was heavy, and a lump pressed up at his throat.

He thought of the first time he’d seen Cameron. Well, maybe not the first time but the first time that counted. It had been her smile that drew him in. Somehow, when she smiled, she seemed happier than anyone Justin had ever met. No matter what had happened between them, Justin still thought of her with that smile on her face.

Bile rushed up into his throat, and he made it to the bathroom just in time. Sitting on the floor, he counted back the days. Cameron had been gone for two months- even during the worst of their fighting, they hadn’t gone more than a week without talking. There was always something that had to be talked about with the kids or the house, their schedules or their finances. Realizing that it had been so long since he’d heard her voice (and the clips on TV that the entertainment shows kept airing did not count) made him sick with missing her.

He threw up again, the last of the French fries they’d grabbed on the way home, and flushed. On his knees, still shaky, Justin rinsed out his mouth. His head ached, so he grabbed some Advil, and stayed close until he was sure they would stay down. Outside, he heard the washer click and settle.

Justin switched the load into the dryer, and clicked off the light. Instead of heading upstairs, though, he went down to the basement, where half the room had been turned into a recording studio.

He needed to work out this emotion, to get his head back on straight. Love and loathing were in the midst of a raging battle in his heart, and nothing made sense anymore. Cameron was gone, he had three kids to raise, and then there was JC, who was like this amazingly calm island oasis in the middle of the hurricane that was his life. Pain turned to rage and impulsively, Justin slammd his fist into the wall. Shockwaves reverberated into his arm, and he knew he had to do something before he tore himself apart.

Half walking, half stumbling into the booth, Justin pulled the door closed and turned up the music. His own voice filled his ears, and he sank to the floor, head to his knees. It wasn’t a surprise at all when, for the first time since the beginning of the summer, tears began to fall.

**

JC had never thought his house was too big before, but since getting back from Justin’s it just seemed cavernous. He was supposed to be setting up his tour, and knew that it made sense to get away for a while. Promo and touring would get his mind off of the kids and Justin. It had to be better than spending his day wondering how they were doing, one hand on the phone but never brave enough to call.

He shouldn’t have left the previous morning. It had been completely spineless, but there wasn’t enough courage left in him to face Justin. Sex had left him raw and emotional, wanting more than he should.

Justin was on the rebound. From Cameron’s death or what would have been their impending divorce, he was in no place to make huge life decisions. Plus, there were the kids to think about- how would they react to their mom’s place in bed being taken over by JC? He didn’t think gender would be an issue, but timing.

It was just so wrong. The last thing those kids needed was something to take away their father’s attention. Even if Justin wasn’t rebounding, he needed to focus on the kids, not romance.

He was sitting at the kitchen table trying to convince himself of just how wrong it was when his phone rang.

“JC?”

“Joy? What’s going on sweetie?” There was a note of alarm in her voice that had JC’s blood running cold.

“We can’t find Dad. We think that he’s in his studio cause the light’s on, you know, the ‘in progress’ one, but he’s not answering even though Stevie karate kicked the door, and Sylvie’s crying and I don’t know if he’s hurt or…”

JC cut her off. “I’ll be right there.” He grabbed his keys and shoes, not bothering to put them on, and drove barefoot down the mountain, as fast as he dared.

**

Justin woke up to a pounding that he first thought was a hangover, but the longer he thought about it, he realized that he hadn’t been drinking the night before. It took him a minute to realize why he was in the studio, and longer to stretch out all of the kinks in his neck and back from sleeping on the floor.

The tapping stopped, and the door was ripped off of the hinges. The first person he saw was Stevie, who charged at him and buried his face in Justin’s shoulder.

“Hey guys. Good morning.” Justin tried to stand. He wanted a hot shower, desperately.

“Are you okay?” Joy asked. Justin tried to smile at her, still waking up, then looked over her head. The person holding the door was JC, and his heart raced.

“I’m okay. I just fell asleep down here.” He couldn’t take his eyes from JC. “Hi. What are you doing here?” Oh, God, that was awful. Why did he say that? Justin’s mind raced.

“We thought something had happened to you!” Joy yelled, throwing Justin off guard. “We called JC cause we thought you were hurt and we banged and banged and you didn’t come out!”

Justin reached out a hand for her but she pulled back, dragging Sylvie with her. Stevie clung to him tighter, and Justin rested his hand on his son’s head. “I’m sorry. I’m really okay, I just fell asleep and this booth is soundproof. I didn’t hear you banging.”

“Well you should have! We need you! You can’t go away where we can’t find you, cause we need you!”

JC touched her arm gently, and she turned her face to him. “That’s enough, Joy. Your dad didn’t do it on purpose, and he won’t make that mistake again.” Looking at Justin he suggested that the kids all learn how to work the soundboard intercom to the booth.

“Yeah, definitely. Right after breakfast.” Justin looked back and forth, watching Joy with JC. His kids had come to rely on JC almost more than Justin himself. It made his heart ache to realize it, and forced him to ask “Do you want to stay?”

“I’ve already eaten,” JC said. “I’ll come by to see you guys again soon, though, alright? We’ll hang.” He hugged the girls and gave Stevie a High Five before going, jumping the stairs two at a time. No one moved until they’d heard the front door open and close.

Justin looked down at his kids. “I think,” he said gravely, “we need to talk.”

**

JC didn’t really know what to do after leaving Justin’s house, so he got coffee and drove down the coast to Lance’s place. He left the top down, letting the rush of wind wake him up, the sounds of the road keeping his brain from thinking into overdrive. The sky was cloudy, and looked like it might rain. It suited his mood perfectly.

Reichen answered the door in paint-splattered clothes. Surprised to see JC, he just stood back and let JC in, offering a hand rather than a hug so JC could stay clean.

“What brings you down here?” he asked.

JC shrugged. “Out for a drive. I’ve been staying at J’s, you know, and. I needed to talk to someone who knows the history there, get some advice.”

“Okay.” What JC had always loved most about Reichen was his simple acceptance between the five of them. More than anyone else except Kelly, he never questioned that there was something deeper than a normal friendship there.

“He wanted me to hire someone,” Reichen explained as he led JC back through the pristine living room to the den, where Lance was up on a ladder cutting in around the ceiling, “but seriously, it’s one room, we had nothing else to do, and every time we hire someone to do some work, some picture of the kids ends up on the internet.”

JC understood completely. The room smelled like pain even though the windows were all open, and he felt bad about interrupting. “Do you guys have a sec or are you in the middle of something?”

Reichen eyed him suspiciously. “How much do you love those clothes?”

JC laughed and backed away, holding up his hands in protest. “Too much to paint in them.”

Lance laughed at that, and put down the brush. “You take over,” he told Reichen. “I’m taking a break.”

“You’ve only been working 20 minutes,” Reichen protested, but he held the ladder so Lance could climb down. Lance kissed him sweetly as he passed.

“I’ve got a good union.”

JC smiled at them. They were so cute, even after 10 years together.

Lance led them to the kitchen, and made JC check his butt for wet paint before sitting down. It was too early to drink, so Lance brought out a pitcher of iced tea and poured them each a glass.

“So. This is about Justin, isn’t it?”

That was all it took for the whole story to come pouring out, from the desperate phone call at the beginning of the summer to the months spent together to the sex. JC blushed when he told Lance, because they’d been lovers once and no matter how long ago it had been it was still weird to talk about sex with his ex-boyfriend. Lance seemed nonplussed, just nodding and letting JC continue.

He finished with the story of that morning, and the strange look that had passed between him and Justin. He’d been so afraid when Joy had called, a raw fear that still twisted in his stomach painfully. What if something did happen to Justin? JC didn’t think he’d be able to deal with that.

Lance didn’t say anything when he finished, and JC started to feel guilty. The stuff about Cameron wasn’t really his secret to tell, but it was so vital to the story that he hadn’t left it out. He knew Lance wouldn’t ever let on to Justin that he knew. Lance could keep a secret better than anyone.

Leaning back in his chair, one elbow hooked over the back, Lance hummed. “That’s… complex,” he finally offered.

JC snorted in agreement. The understatement of the century, right there.

“But,” Lance added, “it’s not like it isn’t something that’s out of the realm of believability, you know? I mean, you and Justin, you’ve always had this thing between you.”

“We’ve never…” JC started, but Lance cut him off again.

“I didn’t mean a sexual thing. Just this, like. I’m gonna say vibe, but that’s not really right. More like a connection. You guys have clicked much more than most friends.”

“True.” JC strummed his fingers on the table and thought about it. Lance was right, of course. Despite the distance and time apart over the past decade, he and Justin had remained much closer than most friends who saw each other regularly.

“The timing of it sucks, I mean. Clearly. But C, honestly- when have you ever known Justin to do anything that he didn’t mean to do?”

He hadn’t. Justin was nothing if not purposeful, from a trip to the grocery store to a night out on the town. Every move was clearly calculated, a habit formed from decades of perfecting a public image while doing exactly what he wanted in life. When JC thought of it that way, some of the guilt about taking advantage of his friend slipped away.

“I’m worried about the kids,” JC admitted. “I mean, they’ve just lost their mom. They don’t need someone else stepping in, you know, another drastic family restructuring.”

“How would it be a restructuring? From what you’ve said, you’ve been with them for months already and they seem okay with it. They’ve known you since they were born, C. It’s not like Justin just picked up some person at a bar and brought him home.” Lance leaned forward. “I think you need to go back and call him.”

JC bit his lip and focused on picking at a hangnail. He’d figured that, but it was nice to have some confirmation. “This is really serious, Lance.”

Lance reached across the table and took his hand, squeezing reassuringly. “I wouldn’t send you back to him if I thought it wasn’t.”

JC took a deep breath, his heart beating inside his chest. Outside, the sun came out from behind the clouds, and the world was flooded with light.

**

On the way home, JC’s phone rang, and he answered without looking at the call ID.

“JC?”

“Hi Joy.” JC smiled into the phone and eased off the gas pedal a little bit as he talked. “Everything better now?”

“Yeah. We talked to dad and learned how to talk into the booth from the control table. Then we had to help him put the door back on.”

JC smiled, picturing Justin and the kids attempting a home repair project, even something simple. “I’m glad everything’s okay,” he told her, his heart aching for the poor girl.

“Dad said we were smart to call you. Well, first he said that we should have called Grandma, but when we told him we thought he’d fallen and Grandma couldn’t lift him, so we called you, he said we were smart.”

“You can call me any time, Joy, you know that. Even if you just want to talk, you or the twins, you call me any time.”

“Dad told us that too. He said that we can still talk to you even though you’re not living here anymore.”

JC turned off of the highway into his neighborhood. “Anytime,” he promised.

Joy was quiet for a minute before adding, “I wish you were still here. We miss you.”

“I miss you guys too, you know, but it was time for me to get home. I’d been with you guys for a long time.” He missed them so much it ached, oh, God.

“I thought, maybe. I mean. I shouldn’t tell you this, cause Dad said we had to let you go home, but me ‘n Stevie ‘n Sylvie thought that you might stay here, you know, like move in forever. Or we could move into your house, but you don’t have pool, so this would probably be better.”

JC smiled. “I wish that was possible, honey, but your Dad needs his space, you know? He doesn’t need me hanging around.”

“He misses you too,” Joy said. “He told me. I think he misses you more than he misses mom, cause they were fighting a lot and stuff. You guys didn’t fight.”

JC parked in his driveway and switched his phone to the other ear. “I miss your dad, too, and you guys, tons. Listen, Joy, I’ve gotta go now. Call again whenever you want, okay?” He had to end the conversation before he ended up revealing way too much about his feelings to a nine-year-old.

“Okay. Thank you for coming today, that’s what I was really calling to say. And JC?”

“Yeah?”

“Just. Come home soon.” She said goodbye and hung up. JC flipped his phone closed and paused, not getting out of the car.

He needed to talk to Justin. He just didn’t know where to start.

**

The first day of school went smoother than Justin could have ever imagined. He drove the twins, but Joy took the bus. He waved as she climbed the steps, and before the doors closed, she turned and smiled.

“Ready?” he turned to the twins, both buckled into the backseat and waiting for him. The sang along with the radio during the drive and left him with hugs at the door, Sylvie eagerly, Stevie reluctantly. After all, there were other boys around and it just wasn’t cool for a first grader to hug his dad at the door. He supposed he had Saviour Cruise to thank for that one.

It seemed that things, despite everything Justin had thought would be the case, were finally getting back to normal.

Once they were gone, Justin drove home and cleaned up a bit. He worked on the computer for a while, emailing some clips he had been playing around with to a few friends for thoughts. He worked out with the music blaring, then showered until the bathroom was so full of steam that he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face.

He felt refreshed. Alive. Clean and ready to face the world outside. He paused as he dressed, looking at the picture of him and Cameron on the dresser.

“You sure knew how to make things interesting,” he said. He thought back to the fights and the bickering, the good and the bad. The three beautiful, wonderful children they’d created. “I forgive you,” he told the picture, reaching out to touch her face. “It was stupid and dumb, but I forgive you, and I’m moving on.”

He was only sorry that he’d never been able to tell her that to her face.

Justin put on his favorite sneakers and grabbed lunch from a deli by the beach. The kids wouldn’t be home for another few hours, but instead of driving back to the house, he turned the car west.

There was a pretty good chanced that JC wouldn’t even be home, and he probably should have called first, but Justin just pulled into JC’s driveway. His car was there; that was a good sign.

JC didn’t even look surprised to see him. Justin nervously wiped his hands on his pants legs and offered a lame “Hi.”

“Hey.” Standing back so Justin could come in, JC looked absolutely fantastic, hair messy like he’d been napping, T-shirt soft and rumpled. “What brings you up here?”

“Kids started school today.” Justin didn’t know what to do with his hands so he stuffed them into his pockets. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you, but the whole back to school thing was rather time-consuming.” He smiled. “I’d always loved shoe shopping until I had to do it with three kids at the same time as the rest of the greater Los Angeles vicinity.”

JC smiled. “Must have been challenging.”

Remembering, Justin shuddered. “Anyway, I was gonna come by sooner, but I was swamped with that, and then today, it just all went so smoothly that I figured it was a sign, you know?”

JC didn’t answer, but he closed the door. “Do you want something to drink?”

“No. I’m fine. JC, listen. We never talked about that night. About what it meant.”

JC sucked in his breath and leaned back against the doorframe between the hall and the living room. “Okay.”

Justin had always hated, hated heart-to-hearts. It was so much easier to say what he wanted in song, with gestures. Words were just so difficult, and so damn necessary. “It wasn’t a rebound thing. I’m not getting over Cameron. I wasn’t using you to fulfill any sort of urge. I just gotta say that, you know, right up front.”

JC nodded, but didn’t answer, so Justin kept talking.

“It was you, JC. It’s like, there’s been something there for a long time, you know, and it’s still there, but it’s more now. These past few months have made it more. You were there for me in a way that no one else could be, you know? You knew what to do, and I really don’t think that I could have made it through all of this without you.”

“I didn’t do anything,” JC said quietly, looking at the floor.

“Yes, you did.” Frustrated that words weren’t working, Justin went for Plan B and leaned up close and kissed JC, hard and fast and desperate for him to understand. “You made me whole again,” he whispered. “In my whole life there have only ever been three people who have never let me down: my mom, my dad, and you. Not Cameron, but you. Don’t let me down now.”

He kissed JC again, and this time, JC kissed him back, letting on hand rest on Justin’s hip tentatively. “Are you done?” JC finally asked, close enough for Justin to feel JC’s breath on his cheek.

“I think so.” He hadn’t asked a question, but still held his breath waiting for an answer.

“I hope you’re serious about this.”

Justin felt a smile spread across his face, his heart filling with happiness. “How soon can you pack?”

“Justin, really. Are you sure you’re okay with this? It’s gonna be huge, for the kids. The implications, you know. Have you really thought about all of that?”

“I have. I promise. They know, and I don’t know that the twins really get it, but they want you back. That’s all that matters, C. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think that it wasn’t the best thing, for all of us. We need you.”

JC tipped his head back against the wall and thought for a moment. Justin’s heart beat frantically with every second that he didn’t speak, praying that he wasn’t going to change his mind.

“This is gonna be forever, huh?” JC said. “That’s just. Wow. I’ve never really been at a forever moment before. It’s pretty fucking scary.”

“If it’s not something you want…” Justin began, but JC silenced him with a gentle kiss.

“There is nothing I’ve ever wanted more.” JC stroked Justin’s cheek softly, carefully. His eyes were glimmering with hope.

“Okay then.” Justin glanced at his watch. “We’ve gotta get going.”

“Where are we going?” JC asked, as Justin handed him his wallet and keys that had been sitting on the front hall table.

“We’ve gotta pick up the kids from school. Then they’ll probably be more stuff they need to buy, so we’ll go to Staples, and then get some dinner to celebrate the fact that they survived one day. They’ll complain about having to go to bed early, and then we’ll just get used to being alone when someone will have a nightmare or forget they were supposed to make a list of all the countries they’ve visited for social studies class, and we’ll deal with that and crash.”

“And then we’ll do it all again tomorrow?” JC asked as he locked up the house.

“Yup. Exciting life, huh?”

JC smiled, and the whole world lit up. It was a new beginning, but it felt like Justin was finally back home, like things were finally the way they should be. “It may not be exciting, but it’s going to be great.”

They kissed across the console of the car, and it was perfect.

Chapter Text

JC shifted in his seat, trying to get comfortable. The auditorium chairs were thickly padded, but his knees bumped the person in front of him, earning glares of annoyance at regular intervals.

He leaned over Justin’s arm, trying to read the program. “How many groups are there?”

“Four,” Justin whispered as the house lights dimmed. “Band, chorus, orchestra, and combined.”

JC grimaced. “And what are the chances that this is going to be even remotely good?”

“Slim to none.” Justin folded up the program and stuck it into the pocket of his jacket. He took JC’s hand and squeezed it between them. “You didn’t have to come tonight.”

“Yeah, I did.” On stage, the curtain lifted and the elementary school band filed into their seats. Joy was right in line with the clarinets, so mature looking in her black skirt and white shirt.

Sylvie reached over from the other side and grabbed for the camera. “Can I take the pictures?”

“Sure.” He turned off the flash and handed it to her. “Go nuts.” Justin had the video camera ready to go. They’d buy the school’s DVD of the concert too, but Justin wanted to be able to zoom in on Joy.

As the conductor called for a tuning note, Stevie covered his ears with his hands. “They’re so BAD,” he said, a little too loudly, earning more disapproving remarks from the people in front of them. Justin leaned down to hush his son, probably pledging a reward for good behavior.

JC sat back as the show began, keeping an eye on Sylvie as she snapped pictures of Joy. The simple march the band played wasn’t as terrible as he’d expected. Halfway through the first song, Sylvie climbed up into his lap so she could see better, and he let her settle back against his chest.

Justin kept holding his hand.

At intermission, he checked his messages and there was a call from his latest producers to hit some club downtown. At the same time, Stevie was bouncing up and down clambering for the ice cream sundae celebration that Justin had promised the kids after the show. JC texted back that he wouldn’t make the club and bought a rose from the parent group’s table to give to Joy at the end of the night.

An hour later, her eyes lit up when she saw it. She hugged him tightly, her pretty hair done up in a fancy barrette for the special night. JC had twisted the curls into place himself. He was getting good at the bizarre workings of hair accessories.

“I’m so glad you came,” she smiled up at him. It’d been six months since he’d moved into their house, nine since he’d come into their lives again. In less than a year the entire center of his universe had changed.

“We’re family,” he said, taking the clarinet from her so she could hold her flower. Justin took a twin by each hand and together they left the school. “Now, who wants ice cream?”