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Happy Now

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Happy Now

By Kaelie

Written for SleepyBeth as part of the 2005 JuC Story Swap

~ ~ ~ ~

A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.
George Moore, The Brook Kerith

~ ~ ~ ~

There’s an abruptly escalating crescendo of raised voices and the whir of cameras when he climbs out of his car, and the sound makes him flinch even after years of living full time in Los Angeles. Justin keeps his head down and feels his face fall automatically into the blank, expressionless lines that he always tries to wear when there are photographers around. He barely notices the valet taking his keys or the doorman opening the lobby doors for him as he dives into the darkness of the office building.

On the other side of the tinted lobby doors it feels cold, a drastic contrast to the warmth and humidity outside, and he feels goose bumps rise on his arms as he makes his way to the elevator that will take him to his agents’ office. An attendant murmurs something polite and holds the elevator door for him; when it swishes closed he is blessedly alone. He allows his face to relax, heaves a sigh and slumps against the wall for a moment as the elevator shoots dizzily upwards. He glances at his watch.

He’s only a little late, despite the nightmare that is Los Angeles traffic in the mid-afternoon. He’d had a session with the acting coach that afternoon -- the series of sessions had been Cameron’s birthday gift to him -- which had run overtime because the coach had been late, and Justin had skipped showering and changing his clothes before attending this meeting so he wouldn’t be too tardy. But then he hadn’t been able to find the keys to the dark, sedate BMW that he preferred to use for business appointments, and when he’d finally located them on his dining room table the CD case that he remembered placing beside the keys had been missing. There was something that he’d been looking forward to listening to inside, and he’d lost precious minutes searching for it. He’d finally found it on his living room table, and he’d grabbed it and jogged to his car without bothering to double-check that what he wanted was inside. Then traffic had been so heavy and he’d started to stress about being late, and that was not the frame of mind he wanted to be in when he listened to new music.

He sighs with impatience as he enters the cool, elegant office of his agents and apologizes for his tardiness although the clock on the wall says he’s only two minutes late. The receptionist gives him a tight smile and pretends like she doesn’t know who he is, making him give her his name and directing him to a seat before picking up a phone and announcing his arrival. They make him wait exactly five minutes -- just to show him where he really stands on the totem pole, he supposes. It’s a petty little game they play in Hollywood -- everyone seems to do it to some extent, from the super-powered management teams to the high-gloss entertainers to the workers in the service industries that catered to them. Time is money, and it seems essential to prove that yours is more valuable than anyone else’s.

Inwardly, Justin shrugs. To him it’s just plain poor manners, but Cameron keeps advising him that he’d better get used to it. She’s never, ever on time, and she never apologizes for it to anybody. But of course she’s been at this particular game a lot longer than he has.

Today he was meeting with one of his main agent’s assistants, and she comes out to greet him warmly but brusquely, as if she doesn’t have a great deal of time. He thinks her name starts with an A -- Annalee, or Annalisa or something similar, but he can’t quite remember and she doesn’t have a sign on her door or on her desk. He’s just about given up remembering any of his agents’ assistants’ names; there’s an entire team of them and they seemed to change often, but she doesn’t seem to notice his hesitation as she ushers him into her office and sits behind the desk to face him.

Things are much as he’d expected: the two movies he’s already finished are essentially done but held up in post-production with no firm release date set yet. She informs him that the agency is firmly advising him against the smallish independent film he’d been interested in, but that there is a possibility of a part for him in the latest splashy blockbuster being shopped around town. She drops names with an arched eyebrow and a high, overly energetic tone of voice, trying to force him into an enthusiasm he just doesn’t feel. It reminds him of Cameron’s tone just before she transitions into unhidden and biting sarcasm, and that thought sends him bolting to his feet. He walks across the office to look out the window, his eyes blank on the busy streets far below as an uncomfortable silence descends on the room.

“Justin,” Annabeth or Annalee finally says, “I have to tell you that this is a tremendous opportunity. I can’t wait for you to take a look at the script; I just know that it’s going to be everything you hope it will be. We’re all very excited about the possibilities this role will bring to you.”

“Like what?” he asks quietly. He can feel her staring at the back of his head, and his heart is starting to pound heavily in his chest.

“Excuse me?” She sounds honestly puzzled and even a little irritated; clearly he’s not responding in a way she deems appropriate. Justin draws in a long, slow breath.

“Like, what sort of possibilities are you -- should I be -- excited about?”

“Well,” she begins slowly and distinctly, as if she’s talking to a rather slow child. “Like the chance for more real industry people to see what you can do. Better roles, with better actors. More money. An overall higher profile, so to speak, as well as a solid career with some staying power. Much better than what you can get in the music industry. And,” here she pauses and he can almost hear her mouth stretch into a big, alligator-type of smile, “did I mention more money?”

A higher profile. Justin places his fingertips against the cool glass and thinks about the paparazzi flashbulbs exploding in his face, about the award-winning actors who speak kindly to him in person and then make fun of him to the media. He thinks about seven years of concerts played to sold-out, screaming crowds. He thinks about his multi-million dollar house and its surrounding acreage, and how he has to have full-time security to keep people from peering over the walls and creeping through his shrubbery with cameras, which pretty much eliminates his dream of quiet and privacy and space. He says nothing.

“C’mon, Justin,” she says, her voice loud with false joviality. “You know that’s what you want! Respect, and recognition, and the monetary rewards that go along with smart choices like this. You know that’s what’s going to make you happy!”

The windows stretch from floor to ceiling but they don’t open, not up this high. Despite the dimensions of the room, Justin realizes that he feels stifled and closed in. He turns to look at her, dimly aware that his heart is still pounding rapidly, and that his palms are starting to sweat.

“Will it?” he asks quietly. “You’re sure about that?”

She stares back at him for a moment, and as he watches, a dull flush spreads across her face. Obviously this was not going according to her plan; and he wonders distantly what she will do next. Scold him for not agreeing that they knew what was best for him? Assure him that yes, of course, their plan for the next stage of his entertainment career would provide ultimate happiness? Or will she be honest?

“Of course I’m sure!” she exclaims, her voice full of energy and enthusiasm and conviction, and he has to admire that even though it makes him suddenly feel exhausted.

“That’s what I thought,” he says tiredly, and instead of taking his seat in front of her desk he realizes that he’s turning toward the door. Judging by the blink of surprise on Annalisa or Annabeth’s face, she’s not expecting that either.

He hesitates. He knows he should stay, that he needs to discuss this potential blockbuster with her, is expected to give her the time she needs to convince him that this is the correct career path. He needs to ask for a copy of the script, to promise to look it over and give it careful consideration, maybe even to make a joke about getting some advice from his girlfriend, who is represented by the same agency and many of the same people. But the desire to leave is all but screaming through his veins now, and Justin feels a sudden urge to run, to get out of this bright office with its huge windows and stale air and go somewhere where he can be alone to think. He covers his confusion and sense of urgency with a wide, charming smile, sees her react automatically to it even as her eyebrows draw together in displeasure.

“Justin, you know that we have your best interests at heart,” she says earnestly. “We only want what’s best for you. We only want what will make you happy.”

Justin stares at her for a moment and chokes back the response just begging to be made. He pulls his game face back on with an effort and goes through the leave-taking song and dance: air-kiss on the left side of her face, the hug that’s careful not to be too close or too long, the promise to be in touch. The urge to flee is overwhelming now; he lunges out the door and blows past the haughty receptionist, only barely restraining himself from running to the elevator. In the lobby he asks the attendant quietly if there is somewhere else he can pick up his car from valet and is directed to another elevator that takes him underground into the parking garage and to the main valet office. He fidgets in agitation while he waits for his car, and slides into the cool interior behind the dark tinted windows with a sigh of relief that sounds almost like a moan.

Justin locks his doors and takes a deep, deep breath, letting it out slowly. He hesitates before pulling out of the parking garage, trying to pinpoint the source of the almost-panic that’s driven him from the office. His heart is still pounding and he feels warm despite the coolness of his car’s incredibly efficient air conditioning system.  There’s an SUV behind him waiting to get out and it honks impatiently, the sound reverberating through the underground garage like a jet engine and causing Justin to jump and curse. He stomps on the gas pedal and his car leaps out of the parking garage and into the brightness of the afternoon sun.

He takes another series of deep breaths as he eases into traffic. With one hand he pulls his cell phone out of the pocket of his jeans, turns it on and tosses it onto the passenger seat. It beeps almost immediately and at the next stoplight he keys through the menu to check his missed calls.

There are five. The first one is from Cameron’s home phone. The next two are from her cell phone, and the last two are from his own home telephone. A burning tension curls through his stomach as he brings the phone to his ear and listens to the messages.

The first one is a hang up. The second one is five seconds of silence, with traffic noises in the background, and then a hang up. The third one had come in less than a minute later.

“Hey there,” she’d said, her voice elaborately breezy and a little high-pitched, as if she didn’t have a care in the world, as if their last exchange hadn’t ended in angry words and her flouncing off in a huff. “Just checking in to see how your session went this morning! I’m, uh, heading to your place so I can hear all about it after your meeting. I’ll see you there!”

Justin erases it, and then listens to the next one, which was from his own home phone and another hang up. The traffic light turns green as the final message begins to play, and he narrows his eyes when he hears that the time stamp was only five minutes earlier. “Hi,” she says, and this time her voice was clipped and much less cheerful. “I’m, uh, at your house now and I know I just left a message and didn’t say anything about it, but I don’t want you to think that what we, uh, talked about yesterday isn’t a subject that isn’t still on the table. Because I feel like we’re not done with this particular topic, Justin, and I want to make sure that there are no misunderstandings between us on this.”

Justin utters a curse that surprises him a little with its viciousness, erases the message, turns the telephone off and throws it back onto the passenger seat as he turns on to South Figueroa. Suddenly his home is the very last place he wants to be. Without thinking he turns toward the freeway. He’ll take a drive first.

~ ~ ~ ~

There had been a time, after Paul and Lynn had gotten married and before all of Justin’s weekends and school vacations had meant traveling to competitions and pageants, when family vacations meant road trips. They’d get up early in the morning, stock Paul’s sedan with snacks and a little cooler full of cold drinks, and hit the road just as the sun came up. Usually the time on the road meant laughter, jokes, telling stories and often singing songs; other times Justin would doze off in the back seat to the low tones of his parents’ voices and the soothing white noise of the radio, thinking his own thoughts and coming to when the sun was high just in time to help unpack the car for a day at the beach or an amusement park, or a weekend at a cabin in the forest, or once at a hotel just outside of Disney World.

Times had changed, and the ensuing years of endless traveling should have beaten the joy of road trips out of him. But there was a part of Justin that still viewed long drives as a pleasure rather than a chore; inside, there were still vestiges of the kid who thought that at the end of the road something really wonderful would be waiting for him.

These days Justin’s schedule doesn’t really permit him to drive anywhere unless it was a short trip; for all else there was the private jet. Right now he can’t remember the last time he’s actually been alone in a car for any amount of time. When his cell phone vibrates furiously before chiming the Charlie’s Angels theme he’d loaded on as a joke to announce calls from his girlfriend’s phone, he reaches over and keys it off without looking at it. The agitation that had driven him from his agents’ offices is slowly ebbing, soothed by the muffled sound of the road. The quiet feels good. The solitude feels good. He reaches automatically for the radio and then pauses, leaves it off, and for long miles he thinks about nothing at all.

There are no real outskirts to Los Angeles, but the narrow streets lined with pricey boutiques and trendy restaurants have long given way to strip malls and large discount stores with large parking lots when he glances at his fuel gauge and decides that rather than turning back, he’ll stop for gas. He chooses a station a block off the main drag and reaches over to grab a hat from the floor of his back seat. He fills up his car without incident, uses cash instead of his credit card, and risks going in to the attached convenience store to buy chips, trail mix, a bottle of water and a can of soda. When he hits the freeway, he hesitates, takes a deep breath, and points his car east.

~ ~ ~ ~

The previous day had been another in a series of long, stressful days. There’d been another session with Cameron’s acting coach, who sniffed and said Justin was “improving somewhat,” along with a teleconference with his manager in New York City, a meeting with the stylist who was choosing clothing for a premiere he was attending later in the week, his usual daily workout, and time studying the script for a movie he was hoping to get a part in. He’d had to cancel the basketball game he’d planned with Marty when Cameron had come over unexpectedly with a script that she was reviewing, cheerful and exuberant, talking about “studying together, you know, just like we were in college or something.” Justin had laughed, because she didn’t know any more about what being in college was like than he did, but he’d talked to her about the script, appreciating her interest, her enthusiasm and encouragement.

She’d settled down in a chair across from the couch he was sitting on, flipped open her script and frowned intently on it, her eyebrows drawn tightly together and her lips moving silently as she read the words. Her intensity always impressed him and made him smile -- he knew what it was like to immerse himself in something and let it completely absorb him; it was one of the things he’d loved most about music and the creative process. Before the pressures of recording a second solo album and the resulting fears of the sophomore jinx had set in, a day working on music had seemed more like a vacation than actual work.

He’d been attempting to focus on his own script, hoping the story would absorb him, and not letting himself be distracted by how he would deliver certain lines, or anticipate the instructions the acting coach would give him, when Cameron’s voice, flat and a little loud, like it always was when she was displeased by something, made him look up.

“What’s this?” she’d said. She was frowning at a blank CD she’d picked up from the table. It was labeled “JC – new stuff” with the date, and she removed it from its case and twirled it on one long finger, slanting him a narrow glance.

“Just what it says. I talked with JC yesterday,” Justin had replied. “He sent me some stuff to listen to.” He’d paused watching her carefully. “I downloaded them and burned ‘em on to that CD all by myself,” he’d joked. “Didn’t even have to call a geek to walk me through it.” He waited for a smile but her wide mouth was tight and when she looked over at him she suddenly looked every bit her age.

“I had no idea that you were working with him,” she’d said shortly, and Justin had tightened up a little at the emphasis on that last word.

“I’m not,” he’d replied, keeping his voice very even. “I just asked him what he was up to on his album, and he sent me some clips. It’s no big deal.”

“Oh, really,” she’d said, drawing the word out with painful slowness. “Well, put it on. Let’s hear what he’s planning to astonish the world with this time.”

Justin had felt a flash of irritation at her tone. “Not a good idea.” he’d said firmly. “JC’s still in the early stages on some of these; he wouldn’t want them to be heard yet.”

She’d shot him a long, cool look out of the corner of her eye. “Oh, that’s lame. Why would he send you stuff that he doesn’t want you to listen to?”

“No,” Justin had replied, and then sighed. “He wants me to listen to it, he just wouldn’t like it if other people heard it at this stage.”

“Ah. Other people,” she’d said with a roll of her eyes. “I see.” She’d pulled the CD off her index finger and flicked it disdainfully on to the table. "You know,” she’d continued, picking up her script and turning a page. “It’s kind of sleazy and underhanded to use your friend’s name to sell more CDs.” She’d pushed her hair behind her ear and stared stonily at the page in front of her.

Justin felt his stomach start to burn. “It’s not like that,” he’d said flatly. “It’s not -- he’s not. JC isn’t like that.”

She’d rolled her eyes again and snorted. “Oh, Justin. Everyone is like that.”

“Not JC,” he’d said, striving to keep his tone level and uninterested. “Of all people, JC is the last one to be using someone for his name. That’s just not the way he thinks. Not at all.”

“Yeah, I’m sure he’s not,” she’d said skeptically. “That’s why he’s sending you stuff, trying to get you involved.”

“It’s not like that,” Justin had insisted. “I’m the one that called him, I’m the one that asked how he was doing and what he was working on. We were just talking music, and he’s working on some stuff he’s excited about and . . .” He’d stopped and taken a deep breath, forcing himself to be calm. “And, you know, I was curious and interested, so he sent me the clips.”

She’d shot him another cold glance. “Oh, you called him?”

“Yeah,” he’d said, and had wondered why the fuck he sounded so defensive. “I called him. I talk to all of them, you know. It’s not a big thing.”

She’d raised both eyebrows but still didn’t look up from her script. “I’m not the one making it a big thing,” she’d said in that snide, sing-song tone that he hated.

“Fine. Then don’t.”

“It just seems like you’d have better -- more productive -- ways to spend your time lately, that’s all.”

“Since when is talking to my friend a waste of my time?”

She’d huffed with exasperation and slapped her script down into her lap, leveling a hard look at him. “Look, Justin. You have to know that it doesn’t do you any good to associate with people like that. He can’t do anything for you, and it would only be -- uh -- detrimental to your career for you to do anything for him.”

Justin had put his own script down and stared at her. “Look, it doesn’t have anything to do with my career. JC’s my friend. We’ve been friends for a really long time, and I don’t see any reason not to keep in touch with him.”

“Well, I understand that you’ve known him since you were twelve or whatever. But that’s no reason to hang on to someone like that when you don’t have anything in common with him. It’s not like you’re interested in making music anymore.”

“Who said I’m not interested in making music anymore?”

Her eyes had narrowed. “You did.”

“I never said that.”

“What are you talking about? You said it every time you met with your acting coach,” she’d said, her voice rising. “You said it every time you turned down an opportunity to do something with your little music buddies. You said it when you stopped touring, and every time you told the record company ‘not now.’” She’d gestured wildly. “You said it every time you told me that you were serious about wanting to be an actor; that you wanted to focus on being an actor and only on being an actor.”

His heart had been pounding hard as he’d weighed possible responses in his mind. He disliked confrontations in general and he really tried to avoid confrontations with her. She was a dirty fighter. The wrong phrasing could set her right off.

“I said that I needed to take a break from making music, and that I’d like to try acting. There’s a difference,” he’d said quietly, and had hoped his low tone would keep her from blowing up.

She’d stared at him silently for a long, tension-filled moment. There were bright splotches of ugly red across her cheeks. “Look,” she’d said finally, her voice tightly controlled. “I never liked him, and you know that, and I guess you’re not stupid enough to be cheating on me. But I also know what used to go on between you and him, and I’m telling you right now that I’m not going to stand for any of that sort of bullshit going on now.”

The silence had stretched thickly between them and Justin had looked down at the script on his lap, feeling his face burn. He’d be damned if he denied it. “That was a long time ago,” he’d said shortly. And it’s none of your business, he’d added silently.

She’d hissed with irritation and lunged to her feet. “Yeah, right,” she’d said, the sarcasm she was so good at dripping heavily from her voice. “A long time ago, yeah, I heard all about it. On, and then off, and then on again and then Britney and then on again during Britney and then off again, except for once in awhile.” She’d been shoving her feet into her flip-flops and stuffing the script back into her straw carrying bag. “Years and years of it, like a goddamn soap opera.”

“It’s not like that,” Justin had managed through the thickness in his throat, the pounding of his heart making his voice unsteady. “It’s -- we’re, we’re not like that anymore. Not in a long time.”

She’d slung her bag over her shoulder and turned to face him once more, shoving her sunglasses on to her face and them snatching them back off again. “Well, good,” she’d said shortly. “I’m really glad to hear that, because I’m not sure I could be responsible for my actions if I had to listen to nasty comments about my boyfriend’s sexual preferences again.” She’d put her sunglasses back on and taken a deep breath, obviously trying to calm her agitation. “I guess we can talk about this more tomorrow,” she’d said tightly, “but I know I’m not wrong about you wanting to be an actor. We talked about it a hundred times, Justin, we talked about how you were tired of traveling and tired of being on the road, and it was fun for awhile but you know I can’t be taking all that time to travel with you if you tour again.” She’d taken a few steps toward the door and then swung back, her mouth wide and tense. “You know this is what you want, Justin. You know that this is the road you need to take if you want to be happy. Don’t fuck it up.”

With that she’d swiveled on her heel and strode down the hall and out of sight. A moment later the front door had slammed hard enough to make the picture on the wall rattle. Queen of the dramatic exit, Justin had thought nastily, and only then did he realize that he wasn’t irritated or hurt; he was furious.

He’d thrown the script aside and picked up the CD, examining it carefully for scratches before placing it carefully into the plastic holder. He’d debated for a minute, then set it aside because he was angry and upset, and he wanted to listen to JC’s work with a clear head.

~ ~ ~ ~

Darkness is falling and traffic thinning considerably when Justin turns his cell phone back on. It beeps immediately, informing him of missed calls and pending messages, and he ignores them all, keying in the speed dial to Trace’s cell phone.

“J,” Trace greets him. “What’s up, man?”

“Not much,” he replies, which is Justin’s standard and automatic response, but then he laughs a little. “Actually,” he amends, “I guess that’s not really true.”

“Yeah, no kidding,” Trace says with some energy. “What’s going on? Cameron’s called here twice looking for you and she is not happy. You turn your cell off again?”

Justin’s accent always gets thicker when he talks to Trace, when he talks to anyone from home. “Yeah, for a while,” he says, keeping his eyes steady on the dark road ahead of him.

“So, you’re fighting again?” Trace asks cautiously, and then snickers. “Or is that a stupid question?”

Justin shrugs, forgetting for a moment that Trace can’t see him. “Yeah, we got into it last night about something stupid, but . . .” he trails off, frowning at the road in front of him. He doesn’t even want to think about it; it’s even more of an effort to speak about it. “I don’t know, man. She said something last night, and then the agent said something today, and it got me thinking.”

“You sure you want to be doing that?” Trace jokes. “You sure that’s good for you?”

Justin forces a laugh, but the tension that had caused him to bolt from Los Angeles earlier in the day is back; a thick, dark pressure that’s squeezing the air out of his lungs. “Yeah, no kidding,” he says bleakly, and Trace stops laughing.

“Seriously, dude,” he says quietly, and in the background Justin can hear a screen door close as Trace walks outside. “Are you okay? What’s going on?”

Justin takes a deep painful breath, feeling his heart beat heavily in his chest. “Let me just ask you this, okay? Honestly. Are you happy?”

There’s a long and thick silence. “You’re kidding, right?”

Justin’s hands tighten on his steering wheel. “No, I don’t think I am.”

“Well,” Trace says slowly. “Let me think about that. I’m sitting in the back yard of a nice house in Beverly Hills, I’m driving a fucking nice Mercedes, and I have a fucking hot blonde fiancé who’s also a great girl. Oh, and I also have a fat, regular paycheck.” He pauses, but Justin says nothing. “Okay. So, yeah. I guess I am.” There’s another painful silence as he waits for Justin to laugh. “Um, aren’t you?” Trace finally asks cautiously.

“Yeah,” Justin replies automatically, but even to himself he sounds tentative, unsure.

“Well, dude. Don’t you think you oughtta be?” Trace asks quietly. “I mean, everything we ever said we wanted, all our lives. And now we got it. Isn’t that right?”

“Yeah. We do,” Justin says, and it’s all true. Every outrageous and over-the-top adolescent dream he’d shared with Trace was now a reality. The random thought that it isn’t enough flickers in the back of his mind but he immediately jerks his attention away, refusing to acknowledge it.

“Hey,” Trace says. “You just sound really fucked up. You want to come over or something? Meet up for dinner?”

Justin glances around him, the long cool stretches of desert, the highway stretching east, the moon beginning to rise, red and bloated on the horizon. “Naw, that’s okay,” he says quietly. “I’m just going to take a drive.”

“A drive?” Trace asks slowly, carefully. “Like, what kind of a drive? Where are you going?”

Justin laughs a little. “Well, I don’t really know. But I bought snacks at a convenience store and filled up my gas tank, and I’m not feeling like I want to go home. I just want -- I don’t know.”

“Huh. J, that’s not good. Hey, listen -- are you mad at Elisha? For what she told Cameron?”

Justin pauses and thinks about it. “No, dude. I’m fucking pissed off at you, for telling Elisha in the first place,” he says, and he’s only half-joking.

Trace is silent for a long time. “Yeah, I know, it was really wrong of me to tell her,” he says finally, subdued. “I’m really sorry. It just kind of slipped out.”

“It slipped out?” Justin asks incredulously. “How the fuck did that happen?”

“Well, you know, you were talking on the phone to JC, and E just said something about how you sounded funny, like you were talking in code,” Trace says a shade defensively. “And I said you two always talked that way, and then she said it reminded her of a long-time old married couple but without the sex, and then I said . . .”

“Yeah, yeah, I get the picture,” Justin interrupts, and Trace finally stops. “It’s just, you know, it was a long time ago,” he continues quietly. “Along with the part about it being none of her business. Or anyone else’s for that matter.”

Trace sighs. “Fuck, J. I really am sorry. I hope that’s not why you’re fighting with Cameron. E said that she didn’t seem real pleased when she found out.”

“Whatever,” Justin says wearily. “Honestly, I’m not mad about that, not really. It doesn’t really have anything to do with anything that’s going on today,” he says, and that feels like a brand new thought. He wonders dimly if it’s true.

“I think it only came up because E thought Cameron already knew. And, you know.”

“No, man. It’s okay,” Justin says, and now he just wants to get off the phone, to get back to the silence and the solitude. “No big deal.”

“All right then,” Trace replies and now he’s all business; he knows how to read Justin’s tone. “Call me later, okay?”

“Yeah,” Justin says, and as soon as he disconnects the call he turns his phone off again.

~ ~ ~ ~

“So, I’m thinking that when we’re done with the next tour, when we take that time off? I might like to work on a solo record.”

Justin had held his breath after making this announcement. The idea had been lurking in the back of his mind for weeks, months if he was honest with himself, but he never expected to blurt it out like this. Not without any sort of preparation or lead up. Not now, when the pressures of recording the new album and getting ready for a tour had everyone’s nerves on edge. Not when he’d spent this entire, endless day wishing that he could be right where he was now -- tangled up in JC’s bed, with JC warm and heavy against him.

He’d expected some sort of immediate response. But JC hadn’t even twitched, his sharp cheekbone digging into Justin’s shoulder, his body slack where it rested against Justin’s side. His arm was slung low across Justin’s abdomen and his palm never stopped its smooth path up and down Justin’s right thigh. Justin had lifted his head and craned his neck to see JC’s face, but JC hadn’t even opened his eyes.

“I’m guessing from the way your heart just jumped that you’re expecting me to be upset,” JC had said in that mild, amused voice that almost always made Justin smile. Justin had let his head drop back to the pillow with a sigh.

“I’ve been thinking about it, but I didn’t really expect to just explode it on you like that,” he’d confessed softly.

“Well, it’s not like it’s any sort of big-ass surprise,” JC had mumbled and jesus, was he falling asleep? Unbelievable. “It’ll be a good time to do it.”

Justin had jostled his shoulder and JC grunted in protest. “So, does that mean you’re not upset?” he’d asked, and JC had raised his head and blinked at him.

“Upset? What do you mean, upset?” he’d asked, and that had been honest puzzlement Justin saw on his face. He knew JC too well to be fooled.

“You know, upset. Like, I’m betraying the group or something,” he’d said, and for some reason it sounded lame even to his own ears. He’d felt his cheeks turn red even before JC had started to laugh.

“Oh no,” JC had said with mock drama. “Please don’t explore your creativity and stretch your artistic wings and do something you’ve always wanted to do and leave all us poor, pathetic mortals in the dust. Like, none of us could survive without you, dude.”

“All right, all right,” Justin had muttered, and shoved JC away as he continued to laugh. “There’s no need to make fun of me here,” he’d said defensively. “I was trying to be all sensitive and shit.”

JC had stopped laughing but his smile had been huge. He’d slid his hand across Justin’s belly, soothing, caressing. “I know,” he’d said softly. “You’re a good guy, J. That’s part of why we love you.”

Justin had relaxed back against the pillow, letting JC’s hands and words smooth away his tension. “You don’t think the other guys’ll be upset?” he’d asked quietly.

JC had slid his head back into its place on Justin’s shoulder. “They might be, at first,” he’d said casually. “But they’ll understand, man, seriously. You gotta do what’s going to make you happy, you know? Life’s too short for anything else.” His hand had circled lower and Justin had let his eyes drift close, squirming to give JC better access. “Don’t you think?”

Justin hadn’t moved but he’d felt lighter, more relaxed. “Yeah,” he’d said softly. He’d curved his left arm under JC’s neck so his hand could stroke down his smooth, naked back. “Yeah, I do think.”

JC had shifted closer, pressing his abdomen slowly against Justin’s hip as his hand stroked a pattern down to Justin’s groin. “So, what do you have planned? Who do you want to work with? Have you talked to anybody yet?”

“Uh,” Justin had managed. “I have some ideas, actually.” He’d paused and gulped as JC had nudged him easily to his side and spooned up behind him. A second later JC’s lips were on the back of his neck, and Justin had hissed a little, arching his back as JC moved closer.

“Mmm, what kind of ideas?” JC had asked but Justin could tell he didn’t really care about the answer, not right now. The soft lips and warm tongue had been replaced with teeth and Justin had felt the sting of it all the way down his spine. He’d gasped and twisted right into JC’s hand, and then back against his body.

One of JC’s legs had slid between his and kneed them apart. “Um, maybe we can talk about this later,” Justin had suggested, and he would’ve been embarrassed at how breathless his voice sounded if he hadn’t been so distracted by the way JC was angling his hips against Justin’s, at the steady and purposeful movements of his free hand.

“Oh, are you sure?” JC had teased. His breath had skated over Justin’s ear and made him shiver. “Such an exciting project, so many plans, and you were all excited to tell me about it. Maybe it’d make you happy . . .” his hand gave a wicked twist and Justin had groaned, “happier, I mean, if you talked about it right now.”

“Yeah,” Justin breathed, and he’d already been trying to get his elbows and knees underneath him, had already been searching for that perfect angle. “I mean, um, no. No, not now, later.” JC’s weight had prevented him from rolling over and he’d squirmed desperately, caught between dizzying sensations in front and behind.

“Later? Sure,” JC had murmured in his ear, his hands pulling Justin’s hips toward him. “Gotta do what works for you, J.”

“God, then do it,” Justin had muttered, and he’d felt JC’s smile against his skin.

~ ~ ~ ~

The desert is gorgeous in the moonlight, silvery and mysterious as it stretches cleanly toward the distant mountains and buttes etched against the horizon. There is very little traffic. Justin opens all his windows and lets the silence seep into him.

He sees the glow in the distance long before he can make out the lights of Las Vegas’s huge casinos. The stars disappear as he draws closer and for the first time in hours Justin glances at the clock. He’s been driving for almost five hours and he needs to stop, get a meal, use the restroom. He could have Rachel call someone and have the fanciest suite ready for his arrival by the time he pulls into town: the famous Real World Suite, a penthouse at the Palms, high roller accommodations at any one of the big, extravagant casinos, along with the obsequious behavior of whatever owner was around. Offers of dinner, of drinks, of drugs, of whoever and whatever he wants.

There would also be the blinding brightness of the lights, the noise, the traffic. There would be stares even if he used the private VIP entrances, and in this day and age of camera phones and wireless, there would certainly be pictures and reports. After the dark and peace of the last few hours everything within him recoils at these thoughts. It’s too much; he can’t face it.

He ignores the inner voice that reminds him that the only reason he has this peace now is because he’s turned his cell phone off, and is running away.

When the road forks he takes the one that curves gently back into the desert, away from lights and noise and the artificial atmosphere of too many people trying too hard to have a good time. He lets himself lapse back into the soothing blankness that had carried him out of the LA basin and waits until the glow of Las Vegas has completely faded in his rearview mirror before thinking about stopping again. Right now the only thing that seems important is the feeling that he has to keep moving.

He chooses a busy and well-lit truck stop off the highway, full of vehicles with license plates from all over the continent. He fishes his hat from the jumble of empty food wrappers on his passenger seat and hesitates for a moment, staring at his cell phone, before placing the hat firmly on his head and exiting his silent car to the dull roar of a bunch of diesel semis.

He keeps his head down and nobody pays him any attention as he fuels his car, gets the key to use the surprisingly clean restroom, and waits in a line of tired, grizzled truckers to pay cash for the gasoline. The clerk, a young man about Justin’s own age with heavy black circles under his eyes, barely glances up at him as he takes Justin’s money; nor does he make eye contact when Justin asks quietly about where to find food in the area.

“There’s fast food with drive-throughs about half a mile west,” says the man behind him in line, his eyes on his wallet as he moves to take Justin’s place at the counter. “Or if you’re heading in the other direction, about two miles east.” He glances briefly at Justin. “Do you know the area?”

“Not at all,” Justin answers, keeping his voice low. The man has a southern accent; he reminds Justin a little bit of one of his uncles.

“Well,” the man continues, carefully folding his receipt into his wallet and moving with Justin toward the door, “if you’re wanting a sit-down meal and have the time for it, there’s a coffee shop open all night about six miles east.” He glances over at Justin with a faint smile, his brown eyes bloodshot and his face stubbled. “They serve the best pancakes in the southwest, 24 hours a day,” he adds, “but stay away from the coffee, unless you want to be stopping every two miles between here and where you want to be.”

“Thank you,” Justin says politely, and holds the door for the man as they exit the convenience store. “That’s good to know. I appreciate the tip.”

“Oh, it’s no problem,” the man says. “Us road dogs have to stick together.” He turns away from Justin and heads for his truck, a giant Kenworth with a big sleeper on the back. “It’s a good night to drive,” he calls over his shoulder, and waves a hand as he walks away.

Justin steps out of the lights of the store and looks up at the stars, brilliant against the black sky. The clear desert air makes him feel like he can see a thousand miles in every direction, and something tight inside him loosens at the thought. “Yes it is,” he agrees quietly, and starts walking to his car.

Faced again with his cell phone, Justin ignores it and reaches for his CD holder. The CD he’d burned and placed in the front pocket is right where he’d put it, and when he slides it into his car’s CD player he feels the first spark of interest, the first real thrill of anticipation that he’s felt in far, far too long.

He waits until the lights of the truck stop fade and he’s alone in the dark before turning his sound system on. It’s an amazing, state-of-the-art system that Justin had paid a lot of money to have custom-designed to his specifications, and which he very rarely gets to use. Suddenly he’s sorry that he’d driven so far without taking advantage of it; then he forgets everything when the first track loads and JC’s voice fills the quiet night.

~ ~ ~ ~

The first time he’d heard JC sing Justin had been eleven years old, passing through the living room with a can of soda in one hand and his basketball under his arm. He’d been on his way to meet Trace for a quick game before dinner and homework, but the voice coming from the television had made him stop in his tracks, backing up until he could see the screen. The sound had been mediocre at best, but something about the clear tenor pouring from the tinny speakers, and the blue eyes and big smile of the boy singing, had kept Justin frozen there for long moments. Later he’d attributed his pounding heart and sweating hands to admiration for the boy’s talent, and envy that he had a job utilizing it. But he’d stood and stared at the screen until the song ended, and when the program cut to a fast food commercial he realized that he hadn’t even been breathing, so powerful had been his reaction.

It was nothing compared to the first time he’d heard him sing in person, though. Justin could still remember his first days on the MMC set, his excitement, his nervousness and his anticipation, and how it had all faded away the first time he’d heard JC sing in rehearsal. It had been just like before, watching MMC in his mother’s living room, except now he was hearing the voice live and could see the details that the television had not revealed -- the way JC’s eyes fluttered shut as he sang, the small creases in his forehead as he’d concentrated, and most of all the small, pleased smile as he’d finished his solo and opened his eyes. It hadn’t been a smile of pride or self-congratulation; it had been a smile of pure and private joy. Justin, who had always gauged his performance on the reaction of his audience, was fascinated. He couldn’t stop thinking about it. It took him a while to realize that JC had looked at least as happy singing in rehearsal as he did singing during the tapings before the live audience -- maybe more so.

After many years spent with JC, Justin has become accustomed to the impact JC’s voice has on him although his appreciation for it has not faded. But it’s been a while, and now, driving alone through the desert night as JC’s clear voice flows over him, it felt like the first time all over again.

It’s a short clip, less than two minutes long, and Justin’s trained mind clicks through various mental bullet points -- it’s a mid-tempo song, JC’s voice sounds amazing and smooth even in this obviously rough cut, there might be something missing from the percussion, it might be worth trying a little faster or a little slower. But none of this distracts him from the sheer appreciation of JC’s voice, and with his eyes steady on the road ahead he can still see JC’s face crystal clear before him, knows exactly how he looks when he reaches for notes that high, can almost see the tilt of his chin, the furrow in his forehead, the way his eyes would’ve narrowed and then shut completely. Justin’s face aches a little and he realizes he’s grinning.

When the clip ends he punches the back button so he can listen to it again and this time he beat boxes to it almost unconsciously. So absorbed is he in the music brimming from his speakers that he almost passes the roadside diner without seeing it, and then only the demands of his very empty stomach force him to stop.

The diner is well lit and decorated in true roadside café style -- red leatherette seats, faux Tiffany hanging lamps, miniature jukeboxes on the table of each booth, prints of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean on the wall. It’s sparsely populated with road-weary and distracted people, people who glance at him when the bell over the door announces his entrance, and then look away with a complete lack of interest. Justin seats himself cautiously at the counter close to the door but with his back to it, and gives his order to a busy, middle-aged woman who calls him honey and doesn’t look at him twice. A few minutes later he’s working his way through a huge plate of blueberry pancakes and bacon and his mind is already back on the road.

~ ~ ~ ~

Since he’d been a young boy, Justin’s favorite thing to do had been to perform. He loved the rush of singing for a receptive audience; he even loved working hard to win over an unreceptive audience. He felt secure with his band mates even after his mom left the tour and started visiting sporadically instead of traveling with them all the time. He was doing what he loved to do; the challenge of winning over Europe fed his competitive instincts and made him willing, even eager, to tackle the endless days of rehearsals, performing, promotion and travel, and doing it as part of a team made the hard days even more satisfying. The steady increase in their popularity filled him with exhilaration and made him hungry for more. For so much more.

They had ended many of their very, very long days in just this fashion: the five of them in a dark restaurant or bar, crammed into a booth meant for four, eating appetizers because it was too late to eat a meal and nobody wanted to go to bed with a full stomach. At this time of the night they were all a little punch drunk with exhaustion, high on anticipation.

JC had been warm and solid beside him and when Justin had turned to look at him he’d felt a jumble of strong emotions that he was almost accustomed to now -- admiration when he thought of their performance earlier that day and the way JC’s voice had soared, affection as he watched all of JC’s painfully familiar mannerisms, amused incredulity that someone he’d once thought had been so utterly cool was truly such a dork, and something else -- something that had nothing to do with how JC looked or what eye-rolling and ridiculous thing he was saying.

It was something else, something darker that simmered low in his stomach when he watched the way JC danced with faceless, nameless women in clubs. It was something that twisted his guts when he caught glimpses of strangers, sometimes women, and sometimes men, leaving JC’s hotel room in the hours before dawn. It was something that shivered painfully down his spine at moments like this; moments when JC threw back his head and laughed at something Chris said, with his leg jittering manically against Justin’s under the table and infusing his whole body with heat. Moments like this, when JC picked up his glass and drained it, the muscles under his throat moving smoothly as he gulped it down and Justin watched, fascinated and helpless.

JC’s short hair was messy, as if he’d run his hands through it a bunch of times without looking in a mirror, and after the endless day there was a shadow of stubble on his face and neck. He had dark circles under eyes that were puffy and more than a little bloodshot, but he was smiling that lazy and slow half-smile and laughing, and at first glance one would think that JC was paying attention, that he was participating in the story Joey was telling about the promoter and his fat, giggling wife and just anticipating the punch line. But JC was already listing a little to the side, and Justin knew if he leaned back and put his arm along the back of the booth JC would gradually drift closer and lean right up against him, comfortable and relaxed.

So Justin did that, making his movements slow and gradual as the talk swirled around him. And it happened just like he knew it would, because he hadn’t spent the last few years studying JC for nothing. And this was the payoff -- JC shifted his weight and leaned easily against Justin’s side and Justin pulled in a long, slow breath to keep his heart rate under control. This close, Justin could see the smudge of mascara that JC hadn’t quite cleaned off beneath his left eye, and the way his upper lip was slightly chapped, as if he’d been chewing on it. There was nothing attractive about these things; there was no reason for Justin’s body temperature to rise at the physical proximity of someone he’d known and worked with since he was twelve, but it was happening more and more frequently. He tried not to stare, but it was almost impossible. JC’s mouth twitched when Joey got to the end of his story and the others burst into uproarious laughter, but his eyes were drifting to half-mast. A minute later Chris and Joey headed for the bar and Lance slid out of the booth to find the restroom, and Justin was just tired enough and reckless enough to take his chance. Before he could talk himself out of it, he curved his hand around JC’s warm shoulder and leaned in, pressing his mouth to JC’s soft, curved lips.

He wasn’t sure exactly what he expected, but it certainly wasn’t this sad and awkward attempt. The angle made it uncomfortable, the fact that Justin hadn’t planned his move better made it messy, and the fact that JC clearly was not expecting such a move and was frozen in shock made it just plain embarrassing. And yet something had kept him from immediately abandoning the attempt -- something about the unexpected softness of JC’s mouth and the roughness of the stubble surrounding it, something about the fierce desire Justin felt made him lean forward and curve his neck to reach for that almost impossible angle, made the fingers on his left hand clamp hard on JC’s shoulder, as if to keep him from pulling away.

Justin jerked his mouth away before the desperation inside him could gallop out of control. He was breathing hard as he leaned back and swiped the back of his free hand across his mouth. He closed his eyes for a brief moment and wished himself a thousand miles away, then took a deep breath and risked a glance at JC, who had not moved.

Justin felt like the entire world had shifted on its axis, but except for the slight flush across his sharp cheekbones, JC looked exactly the same. He turned to meet Justin’s eyes and raised his eyebrows. “What was that?” he asked casually, almost uninterestedly. “Did you just win a bet or something?”

“A bet?” Justin blinked and took a deep steadying breath. “Uh, no. No bet.” He chanced a small smile and was profoundly relieved when JC’s mouth quirked in return. “I don’t know what it was,” he lied, “but it wasn’t a bet.”

“Oh,” JC said, and turned to glance across the bar where Joey and Chris were in earnest conversation with the shapely bartender. Someone had turned the jukebox music up, and the small bar throbbed with the bass. “You know what? I think you do know.” The look he leveled at Justin was cautious but very, very firm. “So, how about you tell me why you just did that.”

Justin gulped hard, feeling his face burn. “I don’t . . . I don’t know. I’m sorry,” he offered, and JC had sat up and leaned away, leaving the whole right side of Justin’s body cold.

“Oh bullshit,” he’d said, leaning his elbows on the table and turning so his body blocked them from the bar. “You know exactly why you did it,” he added, his eyes sharp and direct even though his tone was still casual. “I just want you to tell me why.”

Justin had hesitated, struggling to make sense out of the chaos of his thoughts and impulses. “I just wanted to,” he said finally, his voice barely above a whisper, and JC’s half-smile encouraged him to continue. “I wanted to. I knew it would make me happy.”

JC’s little smile had morphed into something slow and sweet that made relief and joy rush over Justin like a long, cool wave. “Then why don’t you do it again?” he suggested, his voice low and lazy. “Because it makes me happy too.”

That had been the way it started.

~ ~ ~ ~

The final clip on the CD sounds like an almost-complete song, and Justin listens to it seven times before allowing it to fade into silence. There’s a remote control console on his steering wheel to operate the stereo, and just as he reaches for the button to replay the clips from the beginning JC’s voice suddenly fills his speakers and he freezes.

“Hey man,” JC says, and Justin shivers a little because it’s that low, intimate tone JC seems to save for those times when he and Justin are alone together. “I don’t know if you even got this far, but if you did, I want to, uh, you know, say thanks for giving it a listen. There aren’t too many people I’d let hear stuff at this stage of, you know, the process, but I always know I can trust you.” He laughs a little and Justin can picture the scene while JC was making this recording -- the way he always kept the lights low in his studio, the way he’d be seated at the big console hunched over the microphone, the private little smile that Justin hadn’t seen in far too long. “So, you know, maybe sometime we can get together and talk about it, ‘cause you know I’d like to hear what you think. Or, you know, not,” and here there’s another laugh, one that has Justin laughing out loud in response. The sound is surprising and loud in the silence of his car and it startles him. He wonders how long it had been since he’d heard the sound of his own laughter.

“Anyway,” JC’s voice continues quietly, “that’s all, just thanks and I hope things are going well for you and that you’re, you know. Feeling good, and doing what you want to do, J.” There’s a small click and the CD track ended.

Justin has been avoiding his cell phone for the last twelve hours, but when the memory of JC’s voice starts to fade it’s surprisingly easy to pick it up, click it on, and immediately hit the speed dial button that will take him to JC’s phone. He wonders if JC will even answer his call -- he’s gone on record recently saying that he’d stopped answering his phone and preferred text messages -- but after only two rings the call connects and JC’s voice, surprisingly clear, fills his ear.

“Dude!” is his greeting, and Justin feels that ridiculous smile once again stretch his own face. In all the years he’s known him, JC has never greeted him with anything other than the appearance of pleasure. JC has the ability to make people he cares about feel like this moment -- whether it be a meeting, a chance encounter at the grocery store, or a phone call in the wee hours of the morning -- is the moment he’s been waiting for all day.

“Hey,” Justin says through his grin. “How’s it going?”

“Not too badly,” JC answers cheerfully. “I just got done with some studio work and I’m hunting around for something to eat. If I can find something in my kitchen, I won’t have a single thing to complain about today. What’s going on with you?”

Justin glances around the landscape, the full moon, the long empty stretch of highway ahead of and behind him. “Not a whole lot,” he says, and even to him his voice sounds easily more agreeable than it has in weeks. “Dude, I just listened to those tracks you sent me.”

“You did?” JC says, and he sounds so pleased. “That’s cool, man, I really didn’t expect you to have the time for that anytime soon.”

“I made the time,” Justin says firmly, “and I liked them all, C. Seriously, you have such good shit goin’ on here. Really interesting, original stuff, you know?”

“Hey,” JC says, and Justin can tell that he’s grinning. “I hope you’re not just saying that because I know where you live and you fear my wrath.”

Justin laughs, and the sound amazes him again. “No, dude, no, I’m not just saying it. You know I wouldn’t just say shit to you.”

“Well yes. I guess I do know that,” JC said, and there is that tone, the one that makes Justin’s heart swell and his throat go a little dry, even after all this time. “It’s funny that you would call now, man, ‘cause I was just working on one of those tracks here at home, I think it’s the first one I sent you . . .”

“That first one,” Justin interrupts, “yeah, you know, I liked that one a lot, it sounded really good, but I was wondering if you were going to do some more work on the . . . ”

“Percussion!” JC says with delight. “That’s exactly what I was doing just now; it seemed a little sparse. You know how it is, you don’t listen to something for a couple of days, give your head a break, and then when you go back to it, it just seems . . .”

“So much clearer,” Justin interrupts again. “Tell me what you did to it; I was just listening to it and I want to hear what you have now.” He pauses and feels his face heat up, even though he is all alone in the desert. “I mean, if you want to. If you feel comfortable.”

“Are you at home?” JC asks, and for a minute Justin’s mind races ahead and spins out of control -- JC will invite him over to listen to his music, they’ll have cold pizza and beer and hunch close together in the small studio in that downstairs alcove in JC’s house and listen to the clips and play with the levels and talk about each tiny change and try different things. They’ll hum along and sing and talk and discuss it all until they’re hoarse, and when they get tired JC will nudge him upstairs like he’d done a hundred times before, and the sheets will be worn and soft against his naked skin and JC’s body will be warm, and heavy with tiredness but familiar, comforting, and afterwards they’ll fall asleep just as the sun is coming up and . . .

“. . . because I could throw this into an e-mail right now, so you can hear it if you’re near your computer,” JC is saying, and Justin jerks himself back to the night and the road with an effort. He glances at his speedometer and feels his eyes widen in horror.

“No, dude, I’m in the car, on my cell. Can’t you tell?”

“Reception’s not too bad,” JC comments. He sounds muffled; he must have found something to eat. At that moment Justin’s call waiting pings in his ear. He ignores it.

“JC -- can you play it now? If it’s not too much trouble? Just turn it up and put me on speaker phone or something.”

“Yeah, you know what? I can do that. Wait, wait a minute,” JC says distractedly. “Let me get back down there.” There’s banging and a muffled curse that makes Justin snicker.

“Okay,” JC says, and now he’s chewing noisily in Justin’s ear. “Okay, hold on, let me see if this works. Listen to this.”

It’s the first clip that’s on Justin’s CD but JC has sped up the tempo a fraction and added an extra set of drum beats that changes the whole attitude of the piece. It plays for a solid minute and Justin finds himself nodding sharply along with the bass line, his fingers tapping on the steering wheel.

The music faded and JC comes back on the line. He’s still chewing. “See, I changed up the tempo, I thought it would be catchier with a little bit of a faster rhythm.”

“I can hear it. Dude, I like it a lot, you definitely made a good choice there. What about the percussion?”

“Yeah,” JC says, and Justin can hear him fiddling with levels as they talk. “I added some stuff but I think it needs something more, I’m not sure what.”

“Are you up for a suggestion?” Justin asks carefully. “Because I think I have an idea.” He’s speeding again; he eases his foot off the accelerator and glances nervously in his rearview mirror.

“Of course,” JC says, and he’s smiling again, Justin can tell. “Final veto and all that but yeah, if you have an opinion you know I want to hear it.”

“Play it again, and listen to this.” Justin waits until the music is back in his ears before beatboxing the slightly-off rhythm that had popped into his head the first time he heard the clip.

“Dude,” JC says slowly when he is done. “I think you’re on to something there. Hang on with me for a minute; I can do something like that right here and I want you to hear it.”

He has no idea how long they’re on the phone, but the next stretch of time passes in a flash for Justin. He puts his car on cruise control because his foot seems to get heavier as his excitement grows. He listens to the pieces of music that JC feeds him over the speaker phone and has intense discussions about things like tone, tempo, pitch, and vocal arrangements, and he listens to JC talk, and listens to him listen, and for the first time since he got into his car the previous afternoon he feels exhilarated, connected and alive. For the first time in what seems like forever he feels like something is more real to him than the solitude of his car and the peaceful and empty expanse of the road.

They’re trying out vocal arrangements when JC drops out of harmony with a jaw-cracking yawn, making Justin laugh. “Hey, you know what?” JC jokes. “I think that might mean I’m done for the night.”

“It’s late,” Justin agrees, eyes flicking to the clock on his dashboard. 13 hours on the road, and he feels like he could drive forever.

“Where are you?” JC asks curiously. “You sound like you’re so far away.”

“Seriously? I don’t even know, man. I’m just -- taking a drive,” Justin says, and licks his lips. “But I’m still right here.”

“Well,” JC says softly. “So you are. I can’t tell you how good that is to know.” He pauses and Justin strains to hear him breathing. He continues, his voice low. “It’s pretty late for a drive, man. Or early. But it kind of sounds like you need it.”

Justin, surprisingly, feels his throat tighten up. “Yeah,” he says hoarsely, and clears his throat. JC knows. It seems like JC always knows.

“Justin?” JC asks quietly. “Really, now. Are you okay?”

His throat closes up and it’s surprisingly difficult to answer. “I think so,” he finally says, his voice raspy. “I mean, I’m trying, you know? Listen,” he says a little abruptly, because he isn’t ready to think about why he’s all alone in the middle of the continent in the middle of the night and feeling like he might cry. Not just yet. “You sound like you need some sleep, but let’s talk soon, okay?”

“Dude, yes,” JC says, and his voice is absolutely normal. “Whenever you have time, and thanks again for taking a listen to those clips, man. I appreciate your trouble.”

“It’s no trouble,” Justin says, and unclenches his fingers from the steering wheel. “I like what you have, and I’m interested in where you’re going with it.” He pauses for a moment, weighing his words. “One more thing. Have you -- what does Jive say about it?”

“Oh, you know,” JC says cheerfully. “They keep telling me very significantly that they hope I deliver something more marketable this time, but you know how I feel about that. I gotta feel good about it first, you know?”

“Yeah,” Justin says slowly. “Yeah, I think I know exactly what you mean.”

“So it’s cool,” JC says. “What about you? You doing okay? Your movie girl treating you okay?”

Justin swallows hard. “Yeah,” he says quietly. “She’s good. Things are okay, I guess. You?”

“Oh yeah,” JC says. “Things are cool. I like what I’m doing; being happy isn’t too hard.”

Justin nods, forgetting for a minute that JC can’t see him, and JC continues. “Okay, man, I gotta get some sleep before I fall over. Talk to you soon, okay?”

“Yeah, JC. Definitely,” Justin says. He ends the call and hits the power button before it can remind him that he has messages.

He almost plays the CD again, but in the end he resists and drives in silence for a long, long time. He’s left the desert behind for what he supposes are the badlands -- the full moon is illuminating long stretches of flat open space and sharp mountains in the distance. He can see sparse and scrubby shrubbery amongst large oil rigs, looking like monsters in the silvery light. He didn’t think that such desolate places still existed in the United States. He hasn’t seen another car in more than two hours.

For the first time since he’d gotten in his car the previous afternoon the silence seems a little lonely. He glances at his cell phone, but instead of reaching for it he pushes the power button on his steering wheel, and JC’s voice once again fills his ears.

~ ~ ~ ~

Once, after three consecutive nights of sell-out crowds at one of the biggest arenas on the continent, Justin had thought that his ears would never stop ringing. The decibel level from the audience had been unbelievable; even their special custom earpieces hadn’t provided the filter he needed. He feared that he would have permanent damage like the rockers from the seventies, reaching complete deafness before he hit 30.

And the crowds. The endless crowds, with their wide open mouths and bulging eyes and grasping, desperate hands. Getting from the venue to the bus had been a nightmare even with the extra security, and Justin had breathed a sigh of relief when the thick doors had closed behind them, muffling the screams.

But his ears continued to ring, making all sound tinny and painfully distorted. Chris and Joey’s cheerful voices as they’d shouted at each other over a video game had made him wince; the sound of the gunfire from the game itself had driven him to his feet, pacing in the confined space until Lance had said something exasperated about going to his bunk and getting some sleep. But even the muffled sound of the wheels seemed unnaturally loud in his narrow bunk, and the ringing had been a constant, irritating buzz. There was noise everywhere he turned, pounding behind his eyes and echoing in his head, and with a groan he levered himself out of his bunk and into the aisle, headed for the darkness and silence of the back lounge.

Hardly anyone went back there because there was no television, and Justin didn’t even bother turning on the lights, just lunged into the dark room and pulled the pocket door shut behind him. Unaccustomed to the dark, he’d groped his way to where he knew the big, L-shaped couch to be and thrown himself down on it. He’d taken a deep, deep breath and willed himself to relax, willed his ears to stop ringing, willed away the accompanying feelings of claustrophobia and the dim, far-away panic.

JC’s voice, so soft it was barely above a whisper, had made him jump. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Justin had answered immediately, automatically. His own voice rang overly loud through the silent room, and he winced at the way the sound echoed harshly in his head. “Yeah,” he said again, this time in a whisper that matched JC’s. “It’s just, you know, so loud.” His eyes were growing accustomed to the dark; he could just see the shapeless lump that was JC on the far end of the couch, his silhouette dark and narrow against the blinds. “What are you doing back here? I thought you’d gone to sleep.”

“I was,” JC had murmured with what Justin could tell was a smile. “I woke up because I was afraid you were going to sit on me.”

“Oh,” Justin had said, and started to rise. “I’m sorry; I’m sure you’re back here because you wanted to be by yourself . . .”

“Don’t be silly, JC had said quietly. “I mean, yeah, I do, but you don’t bother me. You know that.”

Justin had sat back down, relieved and pleased. JC was sitting cross-legged, his bare feet tucked under his legs, and his knee was warm against Justin’s thigh. “Are you ears bothering you?” he’d asked tentatively. “Mine are ringing something awful. I think my earpieces are bad.”

“No, mine are okay,” JC had answered softly, and Justin inched closer so he could better hear his voice. “I bet yours hurt because you’re a little congested. Do you think you might be coming down with a cold or something?”

Justin had squashed the automatic denial and taken stock. Now that he was paying attention, he realized JC was right -- he didn’t have a runny nose but he was stuffed up high in his sinuses, and one of his ears was ringing more than the other. “You know what,” he said slowly, “I think you’re right.” His eyes searched JC’s profile for his expression, for something to go with what he thought he heard in his voice, but JC’s face was just a darker part of the dark room and it gave him nothing. “I should make some tea, maybe.”

The couch shifted and the dark shape that was JC eased into motion, the shadow materializing into an arm extending toward Justin, holding a large mug. “Here,” he said.

“Oh, I can make my own,” Justin had protested, even as he had reached out to cup the warm mug between them, sliding over JC’s warm fingers as he took the mug from him. “I don’t want to take yours.”

“You’re not,” JC had murmured, retreating back into the shadow. “I have one too. I made some for myself, and there was enough left over for you. You should take some aspirin or something, though.”

Justin had stared at him until he had the stray thought that maybe JC could see his face much better than he could see JC’s. “How did you know I’d even come back here?” he finally asked simply, and watched the shadows move as JC shrugged.

“I saw your face when we got on the bus. I figured you’d be looking for quiet.”

Silence fell between them, and Justin leaned back against JC’s arm, cupping the warm mug in his hands and relaxing as JC carefully slid an arm around his shoulders. He took a sip and sighed as the warmth traveled down his throat and bloomed inside. The last vestiges of his agitation and distress had melted away, soothed by the dark, the quiet, the warm liquid, and JC’s peaceful company.

~ ~ ~ ~

The late afternoon sun is merciless and his eyes feel like sandpaper when he drives through Memphis to the suburb where he grew up. He pulls into the long driveway that leads to his parents’ house and surprises his mother unloading groceries from the back of her jeep. She pauses and squints at the car as he drives slowly toward her and he can’t keep from grinning when her jaw drops open and she starts to run toward him.

She’s already babbling when he opens the door and catches her as she throws her arms around him. He wraps his arms around her and hugs her as tightly as he can, not even listening to her words at first, just soaking in the sound of her voice, the feel of her body, the sights and sounds and smells of home.

“ . . . just about gave me heart attack! I swear I’ve never been more surprised in my whole life -- baby, what are you doing here? And without even a phone call telling me you’re coming!” She hugs him again and he almost laughs out loud with joy. Then she pulls away and looks closely into his face, blinking away tears of surprise and happiness. Her smile fades a little and she glances through the open driver’s side door into the car, taking in the debris on the passenger seat from the last 24 hours: the empty food wrappers, empty water and soda containers, the poorly-folded map of New Mexico on the floor. Her eyebrows go up. “Good heavens,” is the only thing she says, and then she beams her smile on him again. “Come on in, honey. You look exhausted and I know you must be hungry.”

She tries to drag him right into the house but he insists on helping her with the groceries, carrying them into the house and unloading the bags while she talks about her trip to the store (“the checkout girl asked how you were doing”), the dinner party she and Paul were attending that evening (“although we can cancel that now that you’re home”) and pointedly does not ask him what he’s doing in her kitchen at 5:00 on a weekday afternoon with rumpled clothes, bloodshot eyes and two days’ worth of stubble. She waits until all the groceries are put away and he’s gulped three glasses of perfect iced tea out on the back patio before she brings it up.

“So, where’s Cameron?” she asks carefully, and with that odd alertness that comes with total exhaustion he really notices the way she says the name; the just slightly overly-bright and overly casual way she pronounces the word. He’s always known that his mother isn’t close to Cameron the way she’d been close to Britney -- they’re such different people, from different parts of the world and from very different backgrounds -- and it makes sense that they would have less in common. But despite his exhaustion, the drive seems to have cleared some cobwebs because this is the first time he realizes that it’s more than a lack of understanding. His mother really doesn’t like his girlfriend, and the realization surprises him into saying it.

“You don’t like her,” he says quietly, and it’s not a question, but a simple statement of fact. His mother blinks in surprise and her expression -- careful, casual inquiry -- doesn’t change, but he isn’t fooled. He knows her almost as well as he knows himself, and then he thinks back to the last 24 hours of almost mindless driving, and wonders just how well he knows himself after all.

“That’s . . . Justin, honey, why would you say such a thing? We like her just fine. Don’t tell me she didn’t come along with you because she thinks we don’t like her.”

Justin heaves a big sigh and tells the truth. “No, she’s not here because I didn’t invite her to come along,” he says with a humorless little smile. “Actually, I wasn’t even sure myself that I was coming here until a few hours ago.”

His mother glances back at his car sitting the driveway and he watches her register the California license plates, the fact that it’s one of his own cars, not a rental. When she looks back at him concern has crept across her face. “What is going on? Is something wrong?”

Justin looks across the pristine lawn, the pretty flowerbeds, the peace and quiet that is his parents’ back garden. “I don’t know,” he says slowly. “I think so, yes.” He grabs a handful of chips from the bowl at his elbow and eats them carefully one by one, more to give himself time than to ease any hunger.

She looks intently at him and doesn’t even try to hide her concern. “Justin, stop dancing around it and tell me what’s wrong. What is this all about?”

“Let me ask you a question,” he starts, and shakes his head when she starts to protest. “No, mom, seriously. What did you want when you were my age? What made you happy?”

She looks like she might argue again, but then she takes in his hunched posture and the tense way he’s perched in his chair, and she bites her lip. She turns away from him, looking out over the garden as her brow furrows. “Okay,” she says slowly, “when I was your age your father and I had just split up, and you were starting school, and it was just a really, really tough time,” she says quietly. “What I wanted at that time was to make sure you were happy, and healthy, and to take care of the two of us as well as I could.” She turns back to look at him, and Justin feels something already aching inside of him wrench painfully at the sight of the tears brimming in her eyes.

“But what made you happy, mom?” he asks softly, and she gives him a watery smile.

“Honey, you did. You still do, every single day. All I ever wanted was what would be best for you. Not for your career -- for you. What makes me happy is seeing you be happy.”

He leans forward, his heart starting to beat more heavily. “Mom. What would you say makes me happy?”

“Justin . . .”

“Mom, please,” he asks quietly. His hands are clasped tightly together between his knees; he feels like the very air stills as he waits for her to respond.

She stares at him, her forehead wrinkling in distress and confusion. “I don’t know what this is all about, honey. But I know you pretty well, and I think what makes you happy is your work, and being with people who love you and inspire you. People who love you for who you are, not what you look like or what you do or what you want to do or how much money you make doing it.” Her mouth lifts in a smile that trembles. “It’s pretty simple, really. The things you do, and who you do them with. Those are the things that work for you.”

She sniffles a little bit and takes a big gulp of her iced tea before going on. “And I thought that you were happy -- changing, obviously, people do change, but I thought you were doing what you wanted to do, how you wanted to do it. I thought you were -- pleased with your life and the way things are going for you.” She pauses and he can almost feel her eyes on his bent head. “Am I wrong, honey?”

He stares down at his hands, his stomach in knots and his throat closing up. Exhaustion makes his vision swim, and he can’t shape the words, can’t put the deep and roiling wrongness into anything that makes sense. He shakes his head, silently.

“Do you know why you’re not happy?” she asks quietly, and her voice is thick with tears. “Or, do you know when you stopped?”

Justin clears his throat and takes a deep breath. “I don’t know how to do that anymore, mom,” he confesses quietly. “I feel like . . . I don’t know, like I’ve taken the wrong turn or something.” He keeps his eyes on his hands as silence falls between them.

“So you needed to do some thinking, and you . . . took a drive?” She’s guessing now and he’s not completely certain that she’s right, but he nods.

“I feel kind of . . . lost, I guess,” he says quietly. “Although that doesn’t really explain what I’m doing here. I took off from LA without even thinking about it, and had no idea what I was doing or where I was going.”

“Well, you’ll figure it out, baby,” she said finally says, her voice rich with sympathy. “You’ve always been one to figure out what you want, and then work your ass off to get it.” She cocks her head a little, her eyes bright on his face.

“I don’t know,” he admits. “I’ve never felt like this before. And, you know, I’m really too old to run away from home.”

She’s quiet for a long time, and then leans forward and puts her small, warm hand on top of his. “You know, home isn’t necessarily a place,” she says with a smile. “And it doesn’t sound to me like you’re running away; it sounds like maybe you’re looking for something.” He unclasps his hands so he can hold hers between them, seeing the similarity of shape in the length of the fingers, the squareness of the palms. She gives his hand a squeeze as they hear Paul’s car pull up the driveway in the front of the house. “And the next time you appear in my driveway like magic and start asking me hard questions like this, give me some warning,” she finishes with some spirit, and the knots inside him have loosened enough so he can laugh with her as they go inside.

~ ~ ~ ~

Justin eyelids start to droop during dinner, and after helping them with the dishes he makes his apologies to his parents and retreats to his room. Insomnia is his old, old friend but this time he sleeps almost around the clock, waking in the cool pre-dawn in his parents’ guest suite with one of the clips from JC’s CD rolling around in his head. The song has a vague surf influence to it that reminds him of classic Ventures, the sort of music that JC had liked to listen to on his very early morning drives to the ocean when they were teenagers in Orlando. The memory makes him smile.

During what he privately refers to as The Mouse Years he’d carefully observed JC’s arrival on at the sound stage, his surfboard strapped to the top of his Jeep. JC was never late, he was far too serious and professional for that, but when the weather started to get hot there were times when he would often cut it pretty close. Justin, as one of the younger cast members, rarely had early calls; but he could usually talk his mother into taking him to the studio early so he could be in the parking lot when JC pulled up. He would shoot baskets until he caught sight of JC’s vehicle and wander over to help JC pull his board down like he had nothing better to do, and walk with him while he brought it inside where it wouldn’t be stolen. In retrospect he’d been pathetically transparent, and in later years JC had teased him unmercifully about it, but at the time JC had never been anything but kind to Justin, had never let on that Tony and Dale referred to him as JC’s shadow.

JC didn’t always make the drive to the beach on his own -- sometimes he’d show up at the studio with Nikki in the passenger seat, although by the state of her hair it was obvious that she never went near the water. More often it was Tony, who had a board of his own but who really, really hated to get up early. It had taken Justin the majority of the summer to screw up his courage to tell JC that he’d always wanted to learn to surf, and to ask if he could go with him sometime. Even all these years later the old memory of JC’s smile, his easy “Sure, Justin, anytime, you just let me know,” could make him feel warm inside.

He’d been so excited the night before his first trip to the beach with JC that he hadn’t slept, terrified of missing the obscenely early alarm. JC had pulled up while it was still pitch dark with his own board and a borrowed one strapped to the top of his jeep, and Justin had been ready, slipping silently out of the little rented house he shared with his mom and almost tingling with excitement at the prospect of being alone in a car with JC for a long drive to the beach.

JC’s stereo had been pumping music from a surf legend named Dick Dale. He’d been a little pale and his face had been puffy with sleep, but his grin had been relaxed and welcoming. “Ready?” he’d said, and Justin had just nodded. “Let’s do it, then,” JC had said, and after a fast trip through McDonald’s drive through window for food and coffee, they’d been away.

It has always been easy for Justin to talk to people and JC was no exception, but now, laying in bed in his parents’ house and thinking back on a memory that was more than a decade old, Justin can’t remember anything of what they’d talked about on that drive. Nothing earth shattering, certainly -- probably nothing more that set gossip. But what he does remember with crystal clarity are things like the coffee, which had been so hot he’d burned the roof of his mouth a little bit, and the way the inside of JC’s car had smelled of watermelon air freshener and JC’s after-shave. He remembers how they’d driven straight toward the steadily-lightening horizon, and how just before the sun appeared JC had given his head a brisk shake so the sunglasses perched on top of his head dropped neatly down to cover his eyes. He remembers the firm way JC’s long, narrow fingers had handled the steering wheel, and the way his thin tee shirt didn’t quite meet the waistband of his surf trunks. He very clearly remembers his own sense of euphoria, and that he’d wished the drive would never end.

But it did end, on a clean and gorgeous and nearly deserted beach about half an hour after the sun had come up. “I figured this’ll be a good place for you to get wet,” JC had said casually. “It’s a fun beach when you’re just starting out.”

Looking out at the blue water, Justin had felt tension grip his belly even as he’d thanked JC for his consideration. He’d stared until JC had called him to come and take his board, and had shaken it off with an effort as JC had shown him, on the sand, how to position himself on the board to paddle out, how to go from laying on his belly to balancing on both feet without tipping the board over. He’d had Justin repeat the drill more than a dozen times (“it’s like a dance move, y’know, you just have to let your body memorize it so you don’t have to think about it out in the water”), and then grabbed his own board, strapped the tether to his ankle, and had said “All right, J. Let’s do it.”

Justin sighs and rolls over, throwing an arm over his eyes. The embarrassment of twelve years ago is still distressingly fresh in his mind -- he’d frozen, stopping dead in knee-deep water, and JC had had to shake his shoulder to get him to talk, to tell him what was wrong. He’d expected JC to ridicule him after his halting confession of seeing Jaws when he was too young to properly assimilate it, but JC had been unbelievably nonchalant. “Oh, yeah,” he’d said. “I get it.”

And so Justin’s half-acknowledged daydream of companionably surfing alone together in the early-morning had degenerated to him sitting in the sand on his borrowed board and fretting stupidly about shark attacks while JC worked the small waves until it was time to head back to Orlando. He’d been silent on the drive back until JC had nudged him with his elbow and told him not to worry about it; such things were nothing to be ashamed of and they’d try it again some other time.

It had been just a couple of weeks later when JC had picked him up again just before the sun came up, but this time instead of taking the highway east they’d driven into the heart of Orlando, JC just grinning at Justin’s repeated questions on where they were going. Their destination turned out to be one of the Disney complex water parks: JC had a friend who worked the early morning cleaning crew, and had arranged for an hour in the wave pool before the park opened to the public.

Justin had been stunned into speechlessness, but JC had just shrugged and grinned at him. “No sharks, dude. No creatures of any kind,” he’d said, and then bumped Justin’s shoulder with his own. “Let’s get wet.”

Justin had never forgotten that day or JC’s kindness. When he’d offered a stammered thanks at the end of the morning JC had just shrugged again, not even glancing at Justin as they’d loaded the boards on to the top of JC’s jeep. “Dude, so not a big deal,” he’d said, and there had been that heart-shuddering thrill when JC had grinned at him, the cautious hope that JC had wanted to spend this time with him as badly as Justin wanted to learn to surf.

Justin had never quite gotten over his concern about hungry sea creatures, and private trips to water parks were few and far between. As a result, he’d never really gotten any good at surfing, although recently he’d had the time and opportunity to take regular vacations and actually had practiced it. On his first vacation to Hawaii with Cameron he’d confessed his hungry sea creature phobia to her, convinced that she’d show him the same kindness that JC had all those years ago. Instead she’d told him earnestly that the only way to conquer such a fear was to face it, and had alternatively cajoled and bullied him into the water and on to a surfboard, although at that point it had been years since Justin had even attempted to surf. But once he was in the water his body had suddenly remembered what to do, and the beach had been crowded with other swimmers. He’d been so excited that he’d been able to push the thought of sharks to the back of his mind.

Alone in his parents’ quiet house, he chews on his lip and stares at the ceiling. He remembers being grateful to Cameron for forcing him to face his anxiety about the ocean, and for all the things she’d done for him that involved building confidence and being assertive and –

And what? Going for what he wanted? That wasn’t something he’d even needed to be taught how to do. Doing what made him happy? Maybe at the time -- she’d certainly helped him learn how to relax, and that was something he’d forgotten how to do.

But the fact remains that he feels more lost and unhappy now than he’s felt in his entire life -- worse than the usual adolescent hormonal upheavals, worse than the lawsuit, worse than when he’d discovered that Britney had been cheating on him, worse than when Bobbie had started traveling with them and had casually but firmly shut him away from JC.

Except for sometimes, he thinks, remembering Cameron’s recent words with a wry twist of his mouth. Except for now and then, once in awhile when they found themselves in the same place at the same time, or those other times when Justin had really needed JC, or when JC had really needed Justin. Except for those times when nothing and nobody could keep the two of them away from each other.

The memory of JC’s understanding when he was 12 is just as sharp and clear as the memory of Cameron’s encouragement less than a year ago, and if he’s honest with himself, what JC had done for him all those years ago means much, much more to him. What does that mean? That he appreciates compassion more than motivation? That JC’s understanding of him is more complete? Or just more subtle?

His head is all muddled up and after almost 11 hours of sleep he feels strange and headachey and like he’s been up all night. Now it’s starting to get lighter outside and dimly Justin can hear Paul in the kitchen, making coffee and getting ready to leave for work. The day is starting, and Justin rolls over again and sighs, feeling oddly reluctant to leave the peace and quiet of his parents’ guest room. He isn’t ready to face the rest of the world, or even that part of the world that’s represented by his cell phone’s almost-certainly-full voice mailbox. He still feels so very tired. He just doesn’t want to deal with any of it.

JC’s song is still running persistently through his head when he pulls the pillow over his face and drifts back to sleep.

~ ~ ~ ~

It’s already past ten when he wakes up and this time he absolutely has to get out of the bed before he becomes a permanent part of the mattress. JC’s song is still rolling around his head and Justin lets it, humming along with it as he takes the world’s longest shower and finds the dirty clothes he’d left on the floor of his room the previous night washed and neatly folded on his bed.

His cell phone is lying on the dresser beside his wallet and keys, and he picks it up and tosses it up and down in his hands, debating. Then, quickly and before he can second-guess himself any further, he keys it on and hits speed dial.

It’s 8:30 in the morning pacific time, but JC sounds remarkably awake -- for him -- when he answers with a lazy “Hey, I cannot believe I’m hearing from you again already, man. Especially at this hour of the morning.”

“No kidding,” Justin says ruefully. “I figured I’d get your voice mail; I just wanted to tell you that one your tracks is still stuck in my head.”

“Which one?” JC asks, pleased. “The one we talked about yesterday?”

“No, uh, that track that sounds sort of surfy. Number seven?” Justin says, and JC laughs. “Seriously, man, that’s some very catchy stuff. I can’t get it out of my head.”

“Well, good,” JC says, and he’s still grinning. Justin catches sight of his own reflection in the mirror over the dresser and stares for a moment. He’s standing stiffly in the center of the bedroom with his free hand stuffed into his jeans pocket, but he’s grinning from ear to ear.

Justin blinks and turns his back on his reflection. “I was thinking this morning,” he says, “that it reminds me of that time you took me to the water park to learn how to surf.” He waits a beat, but JC is silent. “Do you remember that?”

“Yeah,” JC says, and his voice was so gentle. “Of course I remember that.”

Justin takes a deep breath. “Did I ever thank you for that? I mean, really thank you? Because I have to tell you, C. That was one of the coolest things anyone’s ever done for me. I’ve never forgotten it.”

“Oh come on,” JC says, but he was smiling. “It wasn’t that big of a deal, man. It wasn’t like I had to pay a gazillion dollars to rent the park out or anything; Dave just owed me. And I figured, you know, you had the right to learn, figure out if surfing was something that’d work for you.” He pauses, and laughs a little. “Not that surfing is the only thing that’ll make a person’s life, you know, worthwhile. But you know what I mean.”

“I know what you mean,” Justin repeats. He wants to say more, is almost trembling with the need to say something more, but his tongue seems glued to the roof of his mouth.

JC’s voice is very quiet. “You know, that song, when I was laying the tracks down, it made me remember that summer too,” he says softly. “Even though we were so young, and it was way before any, uh, stuff between us . . . it was a good time, you know?”

Justin finds his voice with an effort. “Yeah,” he says softly. “Kind of like we were first really getting to know each other.”

“Yeah,” JC says, and then he clears his throat abruptly. “And, you know, I’m going to write another song here that reminds me of that time in New York when you decided to drink eleven Hurricanes on an empty stomach, and threw up all over everybody and everything,” he continues cheerfully. “In fact, I’m going to have a whole ‘this is your life, Justin Timberlake’ theme on my next album.”

“Oh, you asshole,” Justin responds immediately, and again turns away from the reflection of his own delighted grin in the mirror. “I can tell you right now, that’s a song I don’t ever want to hear.”

JC is laughing and even as Justin rolls his eyes he can picture JC like he’s standing right in front of him -- the way JC curls up and clutches his stomach when he laughs this hard, the way his face turns red and his eyes water. His stomach feels full of butterflies as JC starts to speak. “Well, you know, next time we’re both in the same town, you should swing by and I’ll let you listen to what I’ve got going,” he finally says. “I won’t be back in California until the end of the month, I don’t think, but maybe after that.”

Justin is somehow facing the mirror over the dresser again, and he watches his smile fade and his eyes go large and watchful. “Dude, you’re not in L.A.? I thought you were in L.A.”

“No, no, I came home to Orlando last week,” JC says, and that explains why he’s so awake -- he’s not two hours behind Justin, he’s an hour ahead. “Didn’t I tell you that? It’s way easier for me to work here, you know?”

“Yeah,” Justin says slowly. His heart is beating loudly, heavily in his ears.

“But I’ll give you a call when I get back, J,” JC continues. “I want you to hear that song we worked on yesterday; I’ve got some more ideas for it.”

“That’d be great, “Justin says simply, and wipes his palms on the thighs of his newly-washed jeans. “Seriously, JC, call me whenever. You know how to reach me.”

“Yeah,” JC says, pleased. “Yeah, I do.”

~ ~ ~ ~

“You shouldn’t spoil me like this,” he admonishes his mother when he runs her down in the garden an hour later. He indicates his clean clothes and grins at her. “I might decide to stay forever.”

“Oh, right,” she says, looking up from her flowerbed with a big smile. “First of all, you’d go crazy in less than a week. And secondly, I’m allowed to spoil my only child if I want to.” She pauses to pull off her gardening gloves. “Come inside, I’ll spoil you some more and make you some breakfast.”

“No, it’s okay mom. I already had some cereal.” He settles down beside her and watches as she efficiently plucks a weed threatening her pansies. “Thanks, though.

“You feeling better today, honey?” she asks softly.

“I think so,” he replies. “I slept good; that has to mean something. I’m sorry I worried you, showing up the way I did.”

“I’m not worried,” she says easily. “I know where you are and that you’re safe, so I’m not worried at all.” She reaches forward to dig up another weed. “I’m sure there are others that are, though.”

Justin sighs, his stomach already knotting up at the thought of the phone calls he’ll have to return. Even thinking about listening to his voice mail makes his breakfast churn threateningly. “Yeah, I guess I need to talk to some people,” he says slowly. He reaches out to pull a weed that’s creeping around the base of a rose bush, but his mother slaps his hand away.

“Will you stop? That’s not a weed,” she says with some exasperation, and he pulls back with a laugh. “Don’t mess with things you don’t know anything about,” she continues and he leans back on his elbows with a sigh.

“Well, fine,” he says easily. “I’ll just hang out here in the sun and supervise.”

“Yeah, you do that. Or, you could tell me what’s going on in your head today,” she suggests mildly, and shoots him an amused glance. “Just to pass the time.”

It startles him into a laugh. “Well, what’s in my head right now is a clip from some stuff JC’s working on,” he says, and he’s smiling wide enough to make his ear pop. “It’s really fucking catchy.”

“Watch your mouth,” she says automatically. “So you’ve talked to JC lately?”

“Yeah,” Justin answers slowly. “Talked to him on the phone a couple days ago. And last night, while I was driving. And a little while ago to tell him that his song was still stuck in my head.”

“Is that right?” his mom says quietly, smiling, her eyes intent on her flowerbed. “And how is he doing?”

“He’s good,” Justin says thoughtfully. “Working on his music, doing his thing. He seems happy.”

“I’m sure he is,” his mom says fondly as she carefully trims back a small flowering shrub.

Justin rolls his head sideways and looks at her. “Why do you say that?”

“Say what?”

“What you just said. That you’re sure he’s happy,” Justin says. His heart is pounding.

“Oh, I just meant that JC has his ups and downs like anyone else,” she answers slowly, eyes on her flowerbed. “But as long as I’ve known him, he’s been one of those people that knows, deep down, how to do what’s best for him.” He mouth quirks in an amused smile. “Even if he didn’t always do it.”

“He said Jive was giving him some attitude about being more commercial,” Justin says quietly, and is startled when his mom throws her head back and laughs.

“I’m sure they are,” she says, still chuckling. “And I wouldn’t be surprised if he gives them what they think they want, and still manages to be pleased with the end product. He does tend to arrange things that way, doesn’t he?”

Justin sits up abruptly, staring unseeingly at the tall hedges lining the yard. His breath comes short and quick, and he feels a little lightheaded. “Are you saying that he just tells people what he wants them to hear?” he asks carefully. “Like, he feeds people whatever bullshit he thinks will make them happy?”

“What? No, not at all,” his mom says and turns to him in surprise. “No, I’ve never thought JC was anything less than honest, at least with the people he gives a damn about. Why would you say something like that?”

Justin takes a deep breath and lies back in the soft grass. He presses the palms of his hands to his eyes and presses. “You know, mom, there were a lot of years that JC . . . Well, I don’t know if you know, but for a long time, sometimes, JC and I . . .” He trails off and opens his eyes to look helplessly at her, wondering why this is so hard.

“You and JC,” she says with a little, crooked smile. “Of course I knew that, honey. You and JC have been there for each other since you were boys.”

“He’s done a lot for me.” Justin forces it out over the lump in his throat that’s threatening his voice, the very air he needs to live. “In a lot of ways. But do you think, like you just said -- do you think that . . .”

She leans over and puts her hand, still with the dirty gardening glove, over his. “I don’t think JC has ever been anything less than perfectly honest with you, honey,” she says softly. “If that’s what you’re trying to ask me, that’s what I think.” She gives his hand a little shake. “He’s someone that was always on your side, and always had your back, and never wanted anything other than for you to be happy.” She smiles at him and it’s soft, gentle. “That’s why I always loved him so much,” she finishes simply, and turns back to her garden.

Emotion rolls through his body and washes over him, and even as he breathes through it Justin is surprised to realize that he’s blinking back tears. His mom works quietly beside him but the peacefulness of the afternoon is lost for him. He sits up. “I think,” he starts, and then clears his throat. “I think I’m ready to get back on the road.”

“Oh honey,” his mom says automatically, pausing in her work to turn her head and frown at him. “You just got here.”

“Mom,” he says quietly, and doesn’t even try to disguise the urgency jittering through his body as he gets to his feet. “You know I have to go.”

She straightens up slowly, gardening tools in her hand and her eyes sharp on his. “Do you know where you’re going?” she asks quietly, and something in her tone tells Justin that she already knows the answer.

Justin swallows over the knot in his throat. “Yeah,” he said. “I do. I think I do.”

She blinks hard and gives him a watery smile. “Well, good for you, Justin. Good for you.”

~ ~ ~ ~

He’s back on the road shortly after noon, and as he pulls onto the interstate he thinks that it feels much different than when he left Los Angeles. Before he’d driven fairly conservatively, concerned about getting pulled over for speeding, concerned about blowing out a tire in the middle of the desert with no cell phone reception. Before he hadn’t been in a hurry.

And he’s not necessarily in a hurry now, either, he tells himself as he accelerates to pass a string of cars going the speed limit. But he’s antsy and agitated and he has no patience for traffic or anything else that gets in his way. His foot rests heavier and heavier on the accelerator, and when he glances at his fuel gauge and realizes he has to stop for gas he curses impatiently.

He pulls on his hat and keeps his head down out of habit, but he fidgets restlessly while filling his tank and uses his credit card instead of standing in line to pay cash. Then he reconsiders -- if he buys snacks he won’t have to stop for a meal and can drive straight though, but he makes his choices quickly and without much consideration for what will actually taste good or fill him up.

He waits until he’s crossing the state line between Georgia and Florida, partially to make certain that the strong, incalculable pull drawing him south doesn’t waver. But there is no sign of uncertainty or second-guessing, and so he takes a deep breath and turns on his cell phone. It beeps immediately and his mouth tightens at the number of messages in his inbox, but there’s only one person he needs to talk to before he gets to where he’s going. Everything and everyone else can wait.

He’s not the slightest bit surprised when she refuses to answer her home or her cell phones; after the last two days he doesn’t suppose he can blame her at all. It surprises him a little that her voice on the outgoing message sounds like that of a stranger, or at least someone he hadn’t talked to in a long, long time. But it makes it easier than it should be to leave the short, to-the-point message, and he’s ashamed of himself for feeling relieved that he doesn’t have to have the actual conversation with her. Guilt makes his tone gentle, and he apologizes because no matter what the circumstances, it’s a shitty thing to do over the phone. But after he’s done, he keys the phone back off without a qualm and settles in to drive.

The confidence and anticipation carry him quickly south, and as the day darkens around him and traffic tapers off he opens all his windows and breathes in the thick, warm air. He hasn’t spent much time in Florida in the last few years, but the balmy air is comforting and the long highways and lush greenery make him feel like he’s on his way home. He hopes fervently that that is exactly what he’s doing, because he isn’t interested in the journey any more; now he just wants to reach his destination.

It’s so hard to drive slowly after hours of over-the-limit speeding on the highway, but the small college town on the outskirts of Orlando is unexpectedly teeming with activity despite the lateness -- or earliness -- of the hour. He is puzzled until he realizes that it’s Friday night, of course people would be out partying. Justin maneuvers carefully down the narrow streets and through increasingly quiet residential sections and hopes that the person he’s driven across the continent to see isn’t out tonight as well.

And if he is, well, Justin will just park in front of his house and wait for him.

JC’s house has a very necessary security gate and Justin leans out his window to key in the code with little hope -- it has been at least two years since he’s had occasion to use it. And he’s right -- the code denies entrance and Justin presses the intercom with a finger that trembles a little.

The house is almost dark but Justin can see dim lights deep inside through the tall windows with their filmy curtains, and his eyes strain, searching for movement within. The intercom stays silent but suddenly the gate hums and swings open, and Justin’s palms feel damp as he pulls his car into the driveway.

There’s still no movement inside the house as the gate closes behind him with a quiet click, and when Justin turns his car engine off the night is silent except for the chirping of crickets and the painful pounding of his own heart. He opens his car door and climbs out, stretching slowly to his feet. His eyes are still on the dark house when the disembodied voice comes out of the darkness and startles him.

“Hey,” JC says, and Justin hears his footsteps and turns to see his dark shape coming around the side of the house. “I was in the back yard; I couldn’t believe it when I saw your car, man.”

“You knew it was my car?” Justin asks, and curses himself for the inane question. He has so much to say, so much he needs to process and to say, and after an around-the clock drive to get here he’s procrastinating with stupid small talk.

The street lamp is bright but its light is filtered by the tall trees surrounding JC’s property, and the darkness is almost absolute. The footsteps are coming closer and Justin can just make out JC’s lean form as he moves slowly toward him. “Of course I know your car,” he says with amusement. “BMW, California plates, guy with a hat driving all alone.” He cocks his head and Justin sees a flash of teeth as he grins. “I have to say I’m pretty surprised,” he admits quietly. “What brings you here, Justin?”

Justin opens his mouth and nothing happens. He gulps and tries again. “I, uh. I don’t really know,” he says, and he’s lying, he’s totally lying and it’s obvious just by the slant of JC’s body in the darkness that he knows it too.

JC is silent for a long moment, but he lets him off the hook, shrugging and taking a step back into the darkness. “Well, okay. You want a beer or something?” he says easily, and Justin nods mutely. “Come on, then,” JC says, and it sounds like he’s trying not to laugh.

Justin’s knees feel a little wobbly as he follows JC blindly around the side of his big, old house and across the patio around his pool. The lawn slopes down to the lake’s edge and somewhere there’s a big party going on; the sound of revelry drifts across the water. JC’s body is a darker piece of the night and as they cross the patio Justin can see his form backlit by the distant mansions on the other side of the lake, big houses with all their windows lit up. Dimly he hears snatches of laughter and music, but here in the darkness of JC’s back yard there’s nothing but crickets and the sound of two men walking across the damp grass.

“There are fireflies under that tree,” JC says quietly as he leads Justin across the dark lawn. “I was just hanging out, watching them.” He motions to two Adirondack patio chairs, perched solidly on the gently sloping lawn. “Have a seat,” he says, “I’ll get you something to drink.”

Justin stares at the two chairs and his throat feels painfully dry. “Do you have company?” he blurts out, because the thought hadn’t occurred to him until just that moment.

“Not at all,” JC says with some amusement.

“Were you thinking you were going to have some, maybe?” Justin asks cautiously.

“Not really,” JC says thoughtfully, and he turns to look out at the water. “Although you’ve kind of been on my mind all day.” He shrugs again and turns back toward the house. “I’ll be right back.”

Justin blinks at the two chairs, side by side and facing the water, for a long moment, then seats himself gingerly in the farthest one. The small table between the chairs has a half-empty bottle of beer sitting on it, and from where he sits Justin can just see the faint dots of fireflies under one of the big trees ringing JC’s property. It’s a perfect evening: warm enough for shorts and bare feet but with the slightest of breezes saving him from mosquitoes.

Justin takes a deep breath of the moist air and feels oddly peaceful despite the exhaustion settling into his body, the residual hangover from his cross-country drive. There’s the muffled sound of a screen door sliding shut and Justin turns to watch JC moving silently toward him. This is what home feels like, he thinks disjointedly, and then JC is there, handing him a cold bottle with the top already popped off, easing himself into the chair beside him. Justin takes a long drink and thinks just like this.

“So,” JC says lazily. “When you said you were taking a drive, you weren’t fucking around.”

The laughter that bubbles up into Justin’s throat is unexpected and feels more than a little hysterical, and it’s deeply unfortunate that it meets the beer on its way down. He fights it for a moment, his chest burning and his eyes starting to water, but it’s no use. And now JC is laughing, leaning over to pound his back as Justin gasps for air, and this is so not the way he’d pictured this, not at all.

“Yeah,” he finally manages, and when he sees JC’s grin he can’t help but grin back, and with an enormous relief Justin feels the anxiety and nerves that chased him across the continent start to drift away. “I had some thinking to do, I guess,” he says. “It seemed like a good time to do it.”

“Hmm,” JC says, slowly, speculatively, and there’s a tension and a knowledge in his voice that makes Justin’s heart race. “Well, you can’t get much farther without driving into the ocean, dude.”

“No,” Justin agrees carefully, and his eyes have adjusted and he can’t stop staring at JC’s face. “When I left L.A. I thought I was running away from, you know, stuff. But I figured out this morning that I was looking for something. And that I knew where to find it, all along.”

There’s a long silence, and Justin watches JC’s profile, strong and tense in the dim light. He sees him take a long deep breath, can almost feel the struggle JC’s having not to turn and meet his eyes and that’s okay, Justin knows how to be patient. His own heart is pounding heavily again but it doesn’t feel like fear.

“Like what?” JC finally asks. “What are you looking for? What brings you here?”

His voice reflects the same slow and delicious wonder that Justin feels, and Justin’s pulse races into overdrive. There are a million things that need to be said and they all struggle to be said first with a violence of emotion that has him close to choking on them all, but they’re not necessary. He’s not going to have to explain himself, he’s not going to have to try to put into words the things that drove him across the country and to this quiet moment because JC knows why he’s here. They’ve always known how to read each other, always understood each other, and the joy and relief of that is so big that Justin feels like it might burst out of his chest.

Justin turns to face him and leans closer because he needs to, because there isn’t anywhere else in the entire world that he wants to be. The night is dark and silent and warm, and JC is beside him, finally turning to face him as he waits for Justin’s answer. And this is the moment that Justin has been moving toward since he was twelve years old.

“You do, JC,” he says softly. “Nothing else, just you.”

For a long moment there is no movement, no sound at all. Then JC smiles at him, slow and sweet, and holds out his hand, and Justin feels that final painful knot inside loosen and give way. He sets the bottle down and reaches his hand out to let his fingers tangle with JC’s, and when JC pulls him to his feet Justin knows what true happiness is, and he swears to himself as JC wraps his arms around him and pulls him close in the darkness that he’ll never, ever let it go.


~ End