sparsenicjade
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Justin had probably been the first to get a phone call from Britney, maybe even before Lynn. It wasn't cruelty on her part, either. To Britney, Justin was the best friend she'd had since before the words 'sexual icon' had even correlated to Madonna in her mind. He was the guy she could trust enough to play boyfriend without asking for anything in return besides the protection it afforded him as well.

To Justin, Britney was the girl he'd been in love with since before he got over thinking girls had cooties. The girl he was convinced would wake up one day and notice what was right in front of her.

Ironically, she had kind of done just that. Only, not in the way Justin had hoped. Her call to say that her and Wade had, "maybe, um, started a thing. Y'know, together," blindsided him. He was pretty sure he had congratulated her before hanging up and spending the rest of the evening over the toilet bowl.

JC had probably been the third to get a call. Britney loved Brian, but she tended to consider JC more of an older brother than him. JC had been around for more of her life. He told her he was happy for her. He was. She'd had a crush on Wade for what had to be over a year by that point and he would treat her well. JC mumbled vaguely about having something to do and told her goodbye.

JC found Justin with a brand-new buzz-cut in the bus kitchen. He was halfway through a gallon of ice-cream. Seeing as how it was ten in the morning, JC could only hope Justin had eaten some of it at an earlier date.

Justin's voice was stiff with the cold of the ice cream. "She couldn't've picked someone that it wouldn't last with."

JC was the worst liar in the group, they all knew it, so instead of trying to reassure Justin with words about how her and Wade wouldn’t make it, he draped a hand over Justin's head, "You look better this way."

Britney had loved to run her fingers through the curls.

*

They were all terrified of the upcoming hiatus.

It wasn't the time off that was scary. They had all fervently agreed to needing it, which was the reason for the decision in the first place. It was the idea of eight months of time off. Six of which Lance wouldn't be available during.

Chris needed the time to let his body recover. Joey needed to spend time being a good father. Lance needed to fulfill all of his dreams. Justin needed to find out if he could stand without four other guys supporting him.

JC needed to allow the four of them time to do what they needed to do. Everything outside of the guys had become inconsequential to him a long time previous.

Particularly in the case of Justin.

At first it had been JC's mother hen instinct that had made Justin special to him. From the day Justin had wandered onto the set of MMC with legs that were too long for his body and ugly button-up shirts, JC had found ways to make life easier for the kid, down to smuggling Hostess Cupcakes onto the set so that Justin could have his favorite snack.

For the past few years though, JC's relationship to Justin hadn't been that simple. It was still protective. It always would be. JC hated seeing Justin hurt or embarrassed or sick. It hadn't just been about that since the time of the lawsuit, though. He couldn't pin the change down to a singular moment, he just knew that somewhere along the way the desire not to see worry fogging Justin's eyes began being driven less by pure friendship and more by the fact that JC was head over heels in love with him.

There was Britney, though, so JC just fought for "I'll Be Good For You" to be placed on NSA and pretended like nothing had changed.

The whole situation meant that he actually had something he needed the hiatus for in the wake of Britney's announcement, though. It wasn't that different from what he had been doing for years.

JC needed to fix Justin.

*

"You want me to get in that death trap of a Land Rover that you've been hanging onto for most of the last decade and drive around the country with you in the buttfuck middle of August?" Despite his words, Justin sounded like this really might be the most attractive offer he'd gotten in awhile.

JC gripped the phone tightly and allowed a little bit of hurt to creep into his voice. "I take excellent care of Panther."

Panther was JC's car. JC refused to own things without names.

Justin sighed. JC took phenomenal care of Panther. He was that way with all of his stuff. He still wouldn't let anyone do laundry for him in case they didn't remember which stains Spray 'n Wash worked best on and which Shout was needed for. "Jace, why do you wanna do this?"

"Because I want to do something for my 26th birthday that doesn't include a lot of liquor and mostly-naked women for show. And because I'm tired of being driven all around, I want to do some of the driving, pick my own destinations, pump my own fucking gas, okay?"

"Why me then?"

"Chris said he was too old for this shit. Those were his precise words, actually." They had been, only not in response to JC asking if he wanted to go on a road trip. Chris had said that after JC had incoherently laid out his plans to take Justin on one and the reasons behind such plans. He hadn't said anything else, though, except, "Remember to take your cell phone, Jace and charge it before you leave, and a map, and call if you get lost or lose Justin, or something like that."

"You don’t have to if you really don’t want to, I am capable of doing this by myself." JC crossed his fingers behind his back, as though Justin were standing in front of him.

"Shit, I dunno. Where're you going?"

"All over. Was gonna hit a whole bunch of places on my way out to Seattle. There are waterfalls out in Oregon. Thought maybe I'd stop at the great lakes, Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame-"

"We've been there."

"For ceremonies. Have you ever walked through it?"

Justin thought about it and conceded that JC had a point. "You've already made all the arrangements for this, haven't you?"

JC whistled a little bit.

"If Panther's air-conditioning dies on the road, I will kill you, leave your carcass for whatever scavenger predominates in the state we are in and take the first flight back to my cushy recording studio."

JC changed his whistle to a victory march.

*

Justin made JC stop at the grocery store before they even got outside the city limits. "You said you took care of snacks, Jace."

JC turned off the engine and stared ahead. "Almonds have every vitamin and mineral you could possibly need ever and the carrots are bite-sized. Just because you want to die of clogged arteries at twenty-three doesn't mean we all share that desire. And SYNC doesn't sound as bad as NSYN."

Justin was half way across the parking lot.

*

"Chris didn't tell you he was too old for this shit." They were in the sixth hour of the trip. Things like JC's Clem Snide compulsion and Justin's innate ability to drive Lance crazy through text messaging during solemn events had long been touched on and tabled for later discussion.

JC was relatively positive that Chris knew he was implicitly sworn to silence on this issue, so the only possible way Justin could know that was to have figured it out on his own. "He didn't?"

"Dude, Jace. I'm not twelve, okay? You can say, 'you've been moping, I thought I'd try and get you to pull your head out from between your legs.'"

"Now that you mention it, my world does revolve around you. This trip has nothing to do with me turning twenty-six or wanting to see Yellowstone or anything. Not at all." JC tried not to feel defensive. Justin was only half-right, after all.

"Oh, well." Justin switched lanes in order to be able to check his blind spot. He could hide embarrassment from JC about as well as an elephant in a closet.

JC unbuckled his seat belt and turned to lean over into the backseat. He fished two sodas out of the cooler. He sat back down before popping the tops of both and setting them in the two cup holders. Justin glanced sidelong at his to notice the label. He reached out to pick the can up, sipping from it. JC pretended not to watch the movement of Justin's throat.

Justin smiled softly, not turning toward JC. "My favorite."

"Since forever. You have more loyalty to soda pop than people."

"Pop."

"You start singing and I won’t be the one on the side of the road waiting for scavengers."

"I was talking about-"

"I know." JC tipped his head back and poured a generous dose of ginger ale into his mouth. "The thing is, J, you evidently deserve better."

All of the guys, Justin included, were long past the point where they got thrown by JC's non-sequiturs. "Jace, I know you see her like a little sister, but the rest of the world, we have a slightly different view. It doesn't get better than that."

"She doesn't appreciate you. Doesn't…wake up every morning and think fondly about the way you do really stupid things, like forget to warm the shower water up before you step in."

"Last I checked, sanity was a good thing in a significant other."

"So is a mutual amount of affection."

Justin ran a finger around the rim of his soda can a few times. "It was always… Like, I figured, everybody thought it was right, y'know? I mean, me, and the media, and all the fans, and I just figured one day she had to look at me and think, 'okay, I could do this, for real.'"

"Someone's gonna look and think, 'this is all I've ever wanted, for real.'"

"I dunno. It seems like all the people who say that are people who have no fucking clue who I am. Like, they don't even know that I started liking brick red more than baby blue when I was eighteen."

JC finished his drink. "You've forgotten which voices to listen to."

*

The last time Justin could remember staying in a bed & breakfast was in Ireland, where they were a dime a dozen and cheaper than anything else when the cost of buying separate food was figured in. With five boys, four of whom were still growing, food costs had been substantial.

He thought he might have told JC back then how much he had loved those places, with the women who acted all happy when they showed up, like they were cousins who just hadn't bothered visiting in a long time. JC grinned widely at the woman who ran this particular B&B when she offered them a night cap, so Justin figured that JC probably just had the same fond memories.

They settled into the couches in the main room as their hostess went to get the drinks they had requested. Justin bounced a couple of times up and down into the padding that made him seem small. "Bed & Breakfast, dude, I loved these things."

"You just liked the way all the ladies adopted you straight off."

Justin blinked, because he really hadn't thought JC remembered that. JC used to crash straight out when they'd arrive at the houses in the evenings after concerts and days of driving. "Yeah, well, not like they neglected you in the mornings. Remember that one time when the owner kept giving you more breakfast? And you were too fucking polite to mention that you were about three pancakes past danger of explosion?"

The owner came back in with two Irish coffees. She smiled, gave them the schedule for morning and left them by themselves. JC held his up to his nose, content just to breath it in for a while.

Justin took a sip and made a low sound of approval. JC pretended to believe that the sentiment extended to everything about the moment.

*

"Jace, I was expecting a little more out of a ten hour drive than a rose garden."

"Have you thought about seeing someone about your tendency toward expecting the extraordinary?" JC flipped calmly through his McGill Rose Garden brochure, reading about the orange-tinted rose in front of him. He huffed softly at whatever information he was gathering and leaned down to smell the rose. When he spoke again, his mouth was inches from the petals. "This all started with just two rose bushes. The mother of the girl who greeted us planted them because living in a coal yard was killing her."

Justin turned slowly where he was standing. Rose bushes sprawled out in every direction. Even the obvious industry of the area couldn't really compete with the density of the garden.

"There are over a thousand bushes, y'know." JC had moved to where the roses were shaped differently, a butter shade tipped in pink. He read from the brochure again. "Double delights," he nodded at the flower.

When he considered things, Justin thought that JC was probably his version of an Achilles Heel. Lance could drag him to a million business functions, and no matter how many times his teeth flashed in the savage delight of carrying off coded small talk, Justin just didn't care. Chris could try to explain the fashion market and the significance behind walkway shows with outfits that nobody would ever wear to him four times a day and Justin would just nod and smile and say 'oh, yeah,' at the appropriate moments. When JC loved something though, Justin had no chance of escaping without an appreciation for that thing. He had a one-year subscription to Wine Lover's Magazine because while he thought white wine was the bane of a drinker's existence, JC had a point when he said reds could make or break a meal. He had set aside a day to visit the Whitney last time he was in New York, because JC had been all up in arms about some exhibit they had paid an arm and a leg for and Justin had to figure out what all the fuss was about. He'd returned from the exhibit without the slightest clue and JC had explained the controversy without acting like Justin was some sort of moron.

JC's joy was everyone's joy, as Chris's likelihood to apologize whenever he got truly snippy about things to him proved. Still, Justin was pretty sure that he co-opted it more often than the other members of the band.

Justin bent down next to a rose that JC had pronounced a Flutterbye and sniffed gently. Its smell was gentle and pervasive all at once. JC dropped a hand on Justin's shoulder. "You like that one?"

JC's hand felt like the rose's smell.

*

"Are we lost?"

JC giggled shortly. "Nope."

"Okay, because I mean, we've been driving for about ten hours now and you seem to be stopping at a house in the hinterlands of Ohio."

JC got out of the car, grabbed his bag from the backseat and walked toward the porch. Justin followed in the absence of any better game plan. JC dug around in the mailbox that was next to the door, raising his hand triumphantly when he found the key. "Brad mentioned that he probably wouldn't be home, so we could just go on in."

"Brad said that, huh? That was nice of Brad." Justin decided to pretend that he walked into the houses of people he didn't know at eleven o'clock at night all the time.

"Brad is an old friend. DC old. He was my first boyfriend."

This information took Justin somewhat aback, because JC was notoriously quiet about his exes. He wasn't ashamed of them, but most of them had ended badly and JC saw no reason to verbally relive his pain.

"We broke it off when I went to Florida, but we kept in and out of touch, especially when I was in LA, he was really supportive of me. I've been promising to come visit him for awhile, but things just keep getting in the way."

"How'd he end up here?"

"He's at graduate school here, he's like one of the only ten people to get accepted as a graduate at the conservatory here."

"He sings?"

"No, he plays the organ."

"For real?"

"No, I'm making it up."

Justin cuffed JC lightly. "I love organ music."

"I know. You wouldn't shut up about it for like a month after your mom took you to the big ol' Episcopalian church in Orlando that one Easter."

Justin started to speak but stopped before any of the words came out. He watched as JC fluffed his hair in the mirror he had pulled out of his duffel. "Dude, that was nine years ago. I didn't even remember that until you brought it up."

JC pulled a hair more perfectly into place.

*

JC found the map of the campus that Brad had left on the kitchen table before he and Justin set out for the building that was circled. They made it at ten minutes to midnight and walked down the aisles to sit near the front. The audience section of the building was dark and Brad had reassured JC that unless they drew attention to themselves, there was very little likelihood of him and Justin getting recognized.

It was summer, so there weren't a ton of students filling the seats. Brad had explained that Organ Pumps were held every third Friday of the month at midnight religiously during the school year and brought in a decent size audience. In the summer they were only put on if there were enough students interested in doing one. Brad had organized this one so that JC could see him play.

The first few selections were played by other conservatory students. They ranged from postmodern and full out odd to ultra-traditional baroque. Justin was leaning forward, chin resting on his arms which were folded on the top of the pew in front of him. His body swayed to the music, feet tapping rhythmically against the ground.

Brad was playing the final piece. It was by Lizst, because -- as he had explained to JC -- Lizst had been the first composer to have roadies. Considering his guests, Brad thought it was only appropriate. The announcer for the evening came on stage once more, announced who was playing and what the piece was. Then he said, "Time to c'mon up."

Justin looked confused, but Brad had warned JC about this part, so JC took Justin's hand and led him to the stage. They climbed up onto it and walked until they were at the very back. JC laid flat on his back directly under where Brad would be sitting to play. His feet were flat against the back wall of the stage where the organ was set up. Justin looked a little uncertain, but got down and mimicked JC.

It took Justin less than a minute to figure out what was going on. Brad struck the first chord on the organ and the floor vibrated beneath Justin's skin. He imagined that this was probably what the strings on a violin felt like after having been tuned at the first stroke of the bow. He turned his head to JC and laughed softly. The laughter in conjunction with the tangible rhythm underneath him was intense. His hand stole out to where JC's hand was open, palm up. JC's hand closed over Justin's.

*

Justin cut himself a piece of the orange marmalade cake that Brad had made in honor of JC visiting for breakfast the next morning. JC screwed up his face but didn't say anything.

"Was it good?" Justin spoke with his mouth full.

JC took the Brita out of the refrigerator and poured himself a glass of water. "Comfortable."

"Not your first time with him?"

"Actually, yes, just, we've known each other for so long it doesn't really matter. Just another aspect of things between us, I guess."

Justin had figured out that JC intended on getting some from the moment he had introduced Brad after the concert. JC didn't indulge in random one night stands along the road, partly out of disinterest and partly out of distrust for people. Justin could read the body language of the other guys in the band as fluently as he could English, though. Last night had been the first time Justin had felt anything other than a congratulatory rush for JC when he'd placed his hand in between Brad's shoulder blade and flushed.

Justin's responding feeling had been oddly like jealousy. Of Brad.

JC peered at Justin from behind the water in his glass. "Did it… You okay?"

Justin picked intently at the crumbs on his plate. The cake's sugar content was hitting him. "Surprised, a little."

"I should've said something-"

"No, you have the right-"

"You just, you do it, on the road, y'know?"

"It's fine, Jace, just caught me off guard. You're not me. You don't do that, really."

"I trust him." JC walked over to sit down across from Justin. "I used to be in love with him."

"Maybe that's it, maybe I'm just still getting over her." Justin stood up to wash his plate in the sink.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to… I wasn't trying to make you think of her."

Justin didn't say anything. He was too busy pondering the fact that he hadn't been thinking of Britney at all.

*

JC put India.Arie in the CD player on the way to the Rock 'N Roll Hall of Fame and sang along to Justin about being ready to love.

They visited the Elvis exhibit first upon arrival, because it was a sure tactic for cheering Justin up.

It was JC's turn after that, so they ended up in the history of Rock 'N Roll room. Justin was relatively positive it was a sign of madness on his part that he found JC's need to rent the headphone guide and read all of the information plaques quirky and neat. Still, Justin couldn't argue with the chance to pick up facts that would allow him to kick Chris and Lance's respective asses in their next trivial pursuit marathon, wherein they played all seven versions owned between the three of them in the space of a weekend.

After nearly four hours, they finished up in the hall displaying all of the inductees signatures. The hall was dark, illuminated completely by blacklights, so that the only things glowing were the signatures themselves.

JC walked around slowly, stopping in front of his favorite legends as though to pick up some of their genius through osmosis. He ended up behind Justin, who was staring at Jimi Hendrix's signature.

"You ever wonder," Justin's voice was modulated, the same way it would be in a library, or a courtroom, "what it would be like to have that kind of music inside you every day, all the time?"

JC stepped to the side a bit, peering at Justin's face, the name's glow shining out over his features. "No."

Justin whipped his head to the side, eyes curious and a little shocked.

"It's not what the music inside you sounds like to other people J. It's what it sounds like to you."

*

Justin took the driver's seat along Route 6, so that JC could point and pronounce odd facts loudly every few miles along the shores of Lake Erie without endangering their lives. He gave into JC's pleading that they park at one of the rest stops where tourists could go down to the water about two hours in, when JC started threatening to whistle Yanni songs all the way through. He had once done that for a whole day straight on the bus in retribution for waking up to find all of his underwear frozen. Justin had spent a lot of time that day glaring at Chris, who had come up with the idea in one of his more juvenile moments.

JC bounded out of the car and toward the water, peeling off his shoes and socks as he walked. Justin followed, watching in amazement at the way coordinating his limbs while moving in eight different directions didn't seem to take any extra thought for JC whatsoever.

JC hit the water running and screeched in delayed reaction as he became cognizant of the icy temperature of the lake. Justin laughed, "Cold?"

"Holy fuck!" JC sounded scarily similar to Chris. They all had their moments of blending into one another.

Justin, oddly determined to prove that he could not be scared by the threat of hypothermia, especially not when JC was acting like contracting it was the most fun he'd had in ages, set his shoes and socks next to JC's and walked bravely into the tide. "Oh my- SHIT, Jace!"

Justin pranced, trying to warm his body up through action. JC grabbed both of Justin's hands and ran in a circular motion, twirling the two of them. Justin stumbled against the water, but picked up his feet and attempted to move in the pattern JC had started.

It hadn't even been ten minutes when JC dragged himself to the edge of the water, breathing harder than he usually did after a fast three song set. Justin's breathing was just as labored and he bent down, hands resting on his knees, to check that all his toes were still connected to his feet. "You are so gonna get yourself or one of us killed one day."

"Yeah, but Chris'll beat me to it, so the sensationalistic aspect will've already been minimized."

Justin frowned a bit, but JC had a point. "Right."

JC looked over at Justin, his smile moving as his teeth continued to chatter. "Feel better?"

Justin wiggled his toes. "I'm sure it'll be fine."

"Not what I meant."

"Oh. I wasn't…I was fine." Justin bent down to pull his socks out of his tennis shoes. He tugged at them forcefully and decided not to think about the way he used to do silly things -- like walking into Lake Erie -- to get Britney's attention. Or the fact that evidently, he'd had JC's attention without having to prove himself.

*

Justin had been a little worried that JC's head was going to explode over the multitude of options of things to do on their one day in Chicago. JC had picked at least fifteen brochures out from the stand offering thirty or forty behind the check-in desk, spread them out around him on his bed and read through them carefully. Finally, he announced that they had plans for the next day and fell asleep on top of the bedspread, too tired to bother with removing his shoes. Justin did it for him before tucking JC in and climbing into his own bed.

Their plans included a nine in the morning wake up in order to hit the Natural History Museum. Justin had to admit that Sue, the tyrannosaurus rex, was pretty awe-inspiring. JC blinked at it a whole bunch and said, "Big." Justin got the sense that they were at the museum more for the sake of his enjoyment than JC's.

They both enjoyed the aquarium, even if JC didn't try too hard to hold back his laughter at the fact that Justin wouldn't go anywhere near the glass on the tanks with the sharks in them.

Justin balked at JC's reservation for high tea at the Drake, but JC tempted him with promises of finger foods. Justin laughed at the way JC held his tea cup and actually liked scones in retribution for the whole shark thing.

They were both laughing later, sitting in the audience for Second City. JC was doubled over, tears leaking from his eyes, ribs shaking to the point of pain. Justin pressed a hand to his own chest, trying to regain his breath.

*

"Chicago, Charlotte and Cleveland, those were logical. Oberlin made a demented kind of JC-sense. Des Moines?" Justin wasn't really upset at being there, he figured if nothing else, it would provide him with time to rest.

"Their entire downtown is connected with above-ground walk ways."

"Jace, their entire downtown can't be more than an intersection."

"I'm sure people say that about Memphis too."

"Hey!"

"Tell you what, you stop being mean and I will too." JC made sure to do his best impression of an overwrought kindergarten teacher.

"You didn't just come here to get a bird's-eye view of downtown Des Moines."

"Not exactly."

"You know you're gonna tell me, we might as well do it the painless way for everyone involved."

"I kind of have an opera ticket for tonight."

"You kind of have one? In Des Moines?"

"Are you trying to see how many times you can say the name of this city in one conversation? Yes, I have a ticket and yes, in Des Moines, which is one of the only opera houses I haven't been to in the States that's worth anything."

"I didn't even know they had an opera house here."

"Justin, the only reason you knew there was an opera house in New York was because they hold the VMA's there."

"I thought we weren't going to be mean."

"Sorry." JC still sounded prepared to go on the defensive.

"So, um, you're going alone?"

"I'm not gonna drag you with, J. You have the night off, go have a good time."

"What opera is it?"

"Madame Butterfly." JC tried to keep the excitement in his voice down to a minimum. After five days of being alone with Justin, he wasn't emotionally buffered enough to deal with being made fun of. "Appropriately enough."

"Huh?" Justin sounded preoccupied.

"Nothing."

"Would you…can I go with you? I mean, there's gotta be last minute tickets, right?"

JC's eyes narrowed. He had actually bought two tickets out of habit, forgetting that he wouldn't have his mom or anyone else to go with him. He wasn't giving the ticket to Justin so that he could act bored all night while JC was trying to enjoy himself, though. Or so that Justin could make fun of the opera later with Chris, while JC pretended to ignore them. "Why do you want to?"

"Well, I don't want you to go alone."

"I've done it before, J, and I promise to be home well before I turn into a pumpkin."

"Maybe. Maybe I wanna see what got you to stop in the middle of Iowa."

"You've seen an opera before. I know, you managed to fall asleep in the middle of Carmen when I took you two years ago."

Justin stayed silent for a moment, frustrated with JC's obstinance. He was just about to say something snippy when the pattern of JC's breathing caught his attention. There wasn't anything tremendously abnormal, it just sounded like it did whenever they were getting ready for a press conference or an event that probably wouldn't go the way they wanted it to. JC's lungs were acting the way they did when he was worried about getting hurt. Justin took a second to feel unequivocally like an asshole before placing a hand on JC's shoulder. "That was two years ago, Jace. Give me another chance, okay? If I fall asleep, you can make fun of me all you want."

"Yeah," JC snorted, "I'm sure the others would join me in that."

"I would join you."

For a moment, JC forgot that Justin helping to make fun of himself would be less than effective. "Thanks."

"Can I come tonight?" Justin's voice was plaintive. "Please?"

"Well, since you used the magic word…"

*

Justin managed to stay awake long enough to glare accusatorily at JC when the lights came up after the last act. "That," he paused in between his words for emphasis, "was really fucking sad." He wiped his eyes, prepared to say something suitably manly about weird plants growing in Iowa and allergies, if need be.

JC sniffled. "Please don't tell me you weren't expecting sadness. I thought I made it clear that we were going to an opera."

"How can you do this all the time?"

"I don't really pay attention to the plots, they're not that important."

"What? I don't…of course the plot is important."

"You didn't like it, huh?"

"No, I mean, it had its moments."

"You don't have to lie, it's okay. I loved it anyway."

Justin knew this already, could see it in the way JC was prancing out of the theater. "Y'know how we all tell people, like reporters and stuff, that it's all about the music?"

JC nodded at him. "It is."

"No, I know. I know that. But I think maybe more for you than for the rest of us."

JC's heart clenched. Real compliments between them were rare and sometimes hard to identify. He kissed Justin on the cheek. "Thanks babe."

*

Fishing Bridge, Wyoming was eighteen hours and the entirety of South Dakota from Iowa. Justin determined it worth the drive once they got there, standing outside while JC was checking in, walking distance from a lake and smack dab inside Yellowstone.

They slept in the next morning, JC waking up to the sound of a bird that he didn't recognize when the sun was already an insistent presence in their room. JC put on his bathing suit and some jeans before waking Justin up to hand him his. Justin slid into both articles of clothing and the pair of shoes next to the bed before following JC out the door.

The walk to the hot springs was no more than five minutes. JC paid the entrance fee for both of them and the lady at the gate put tiny "I'm allowed to be here" bracelets on their wrists. The springs smelled of sulfur and Justin twisted his nose up, which made JC desperate to kiss the younger man. Instead, he toed off his flip-flops, kicked off his jeans and sank down into a pool with as few people as possible. Justin was right behind him, as fluid as the water he was sliding into, settling with a small, blissful, "Oh."

"Good?"

Justin's response seemed to be missing several essential syllables, but JC got the general sense that his companion was enjoying himself. JC closed his eyes and allowed his brain to get caught up in the rhythm of the water against his skin. Later, when he was inarticulate himself, Justin caught JC by surprise and formed a sentence. "I'm glad we did this, just you and me."

It was JC's turn to say, "Oh."

*

Justin put his foot down, stating adamantly that it was sacrilegious to be in Yellowstone and not see Old Faithful, which he had evidently heard about somewhere along the way in bus school. JC booked them on a walking tour, saying if Justin wanted to see it, he wanted to know something about it. Justin said that sounded cool, which JC suspected was some kind of reverse psychology trick. He wasn't falling for it.

As it turned out, though, Justin was the one asking the guide questions every other minute. The guide seemed to be enjoying it, so JC just put in a little prayer that nobody in the group would suddenly figure out who they were and spoil everything. The demographic of the group was pretty varied, but seeing as how nobody had said anything ten minutes into the walk, he was willing to bet they were fairly safe. Two or three of the parents were looking at them oddly, but that could easily have been because Justin was asking about the specifics of underground waterworks.

JC liked nature from an aesthetic point of view. He loved falling asleep against the window of the bus as different landscapes rolled by. It wasn't exactly that he didn't like being in the midst of nature -- he did for a little bit. After that he tended to feel overwhelmed by it. Filming in the forest for TIPY had been great, so long as he knew that he could get back to the safety of the makeup trailer if he needed to.

Justin, on the other hand, had probably been an aborigine or something in a previous life. When he wasn't being forced to be inside, Justin wasn't. JC didn't have proof, but he was willing to bet Justin slept in his backyard when nobody was watching. All of Justin's best subjects in school, and the ones he had liked the most, had been natural sciences.

Yellowstone was one of the places JC had promised himself he'd go see at some point, another landmark that he could cross off his list. He had included it in this trip because while JC knew he would enjoy it, Justin would appreciate it.

JC came out of his musings to Justin's hand being on his shoulder, excited words tumbling out of his lips. JC listened, smiling in a way that would show Justin he cared even if he didn't necessarily understand what he was all worked up about. Justin's enthusiasm was the easiest thing in JC's world to care about.

*

JC took Justin to see the petrified tree the next morning. Justin circled the tree several times before asking, "Who the fuck woulda thought a tree could do that?"

JC touched his hand to the tree, reverently. It didn't feel much like a tree at all. "Not me."

Justin watched the way the condensation from JC's fingers faded quickly from the petrified wood. A surprising number of things were surpassing his expectations of late.

*

Justin had taken them up to Inspiration Point, explaining to JC that the guy at the front desk had said there would be fewer people hiking along the Northern Rim. They hiked southward for about three hours, not saying much outside of commenting on the scenery. They were walking along the river that ran all the way back to Inspiration Point when Justin started talking like they'd been having a conversation all along. "So, I think I was probably over Britney a longer time ago than any of us thought. Me included."

JC figured that confession had to be pretty painful, but all he found himself able to say was, "Okay."

"She's the perfect friend, y'know? She's all about seeing the best in people and sometimes magnifying it, when there isn't that much to see. She makes me feel like I'm ten times more than I am when I'm near her. And she's smart with people, she knows how to get things done without people getting hurt or pissed off. And we have a great time together. She's always willing to try new stuff and she doesn't get bitchy if things don’t work out."

JC wondered if Justin knew how close he was to describing himself. "But?"

"Everything was the idea of us, not us. Every time I thought about us, it had more to do with what everyone else saw than what I did, or she did. Like I said, she's a perfect friend. But I don't know what she's like as anything else. Probably not as perfect."

"Nothing's perfect."

Justin looked out at the length of water bubbling over rocks and back to JC. "No, I guess not."

JC thought Justin sounded strangely unsure.

*

San Francisco was a shock to the system after two days of Yellowstone. The day in the car buffered the experience somewhat, but Justin still looked a bit lost gazing out the hotel window down onto early morning Bay Area traffic. JC tickled the back of his neck, causing him to gasp and squirm away.

"C'mon, kid." JC flounced out of the room in an outfit bright enough to be used for nighttime jogging.

Justin let the others call him Infant all the time. It was his nickname. JC was the only person in the world who could get away with "kid" and not get mauled. Justin told himself it was because JC was too easy a target.

JC got them tickets on the ferry out to Alcatraz. This surprised Justin, as JC could be pretty easily spooked. Justin wasn't all too shocked when he spent the large majority of the tour, particularly the parts where they were actually inside the cells, with one hand on JC's shoulder.

JC was shivering when they got done and he didn't waste time getting on the ferry to go back to the mainland. Justin frowned. "You okay?"

JC gripped the side rail of the boat. "Sometimes I like to remind myself how lucky I am."

Justin laughed a little, he couldn't help it. JC turned to him, eyes widened slightly, curious and a bit hurt. Justin shook his head, "No, it's just. You're probably the most self-aware person I know, Jace. I don't really worry about having to get you new britches, y'know?"

*

To make the morning up to both himself and Justin, JC hopped a trolley car, declining a seat in order to stand, head slightly outside the car, hair whipping in response to the force of the wind. Justin copied him, the wind flowing over his smooth scalp. He didn't mind that it didn't have the same visual impact, oftentimes he wondered how people ever thought he did in comparison with JC.

JC pulled them off outside the Ghiradelli factory, where he made them eat lunch before taking the tour. It was evident, though, when they spent an hour in the gift shop, what JC had really come there for.

There was another ferry involved in their passage over to Sausalito, wherein JC paid a taxi driver an obscene amount of money to take them into the hills of Marin County. Their destination turned out to be an Marine Animal Rescue that JC evidently donated money to on a regular basis. There were recovering seals and sea lions all over the place, flopping in and out of pools of water, being fed, staring back at the visitors curiously. JC was literally turning pink with joy from getting to see where his money was going.

Back in the city, Justin allowed JC to pull him into a Dim Sum restaurant, but refused to pick anything off the carts that came around regularly. JC did his best to assess what Justin would like and offered him a taste of everything.

When JC came out of the bathroom after brushing his teeth that evening there was a postcard on his pillow. The picture was a perfect representation of the bridge, almost as clear as what they had seen earlier that day from Marin. He flipped the card over to find the words, "I know your world doesn't revolve around me and that you did this trip for you and I was probably more of an addition due to pity than anything else. But I'm having the best time ever. Thanks."

JC slipped a chocolate starfish onto Justin's pillow and giggled when Justin whined about having just brushed his teeth.

*

"Dude." Justin's spirit was willing to say more about his feelings on the gigantic waterfall in Oregon's Columbia Gorge, but his brain was weak.

"Yeah."

JC's response made him feel slightly better. Not a ton, since JC wasn't the most coherent person on average, but at least Justin wasn't the only one with a tied tongue.

The water at Multnomah Falls fell in a drop too large for either of them to comprehend in terms of feet or yards, or anything that scientific. The drop created a crystalline wall, tiny shards flying out in all directions. The briskness of the water specks felt good in the moist heat of late summer Oregon.

"This is. This is really cool, Jace." Justin decided never to write anything when he was awe-struck.

JC gently wiped some of the water from Justin's cheek with his thumb. He licked his lips where some of the water had spattered. It tasted clean.

*

They were walking through pathways that had been created by the wake of Mount St. Helen's destruction when Justin turned to JC and said, "I think you're the point I've been missing."

JC stiffened slightly, nervous about being near a powerful -- if dormant -- volcano, and the fact that Justin seemed to know what he was talking about. "You've been missing me?"

"Because I kept thinking, if I haven't been all wacky about Brit all these years, there must have been something I was missing, I know what being in love is, I must have gotten that from somewhere."

"Maybe you figured out what to take from the whole Joey-Kelly extravaganza. You're brilliant when you stop thinking so hard."

"Thanks…kind of. No, but that's why it took me so long to figure it out, because it wasn't right there, like Britney. It was…y'know how I was always like, 'I'm right fucking in front of her and she never sees me??' and all whiny with the 'My So-Called Life' angst?"

JC nodded.

"It wasn't her who was all oblivious. Well, I mean, she was, but with Wade, which isn't really my concern."

"Justin-"

"Let me finish. It's not about you being a guy or anything, it’s just that you're JC, and really, who woulda thunk? And really, if you're gonna shoot me down, I'm counting on you to be nice about it, because it's taken me about three cities to work up to this."

"I woulda thunk."

"I mean, I know its gonna be awkward, with the other guys, and the media, but I'm pretty sure-" Justin stopped walking and talking all at once. "Huh?"

"I wasn't oblivious. I'm not oblivious. Spacey, but not oblivious."

"Wait, so you… How? Why?"

"Because you used to come to me with questions about your homework and then when you knew the answer better than me, you'd still act like I'd helped you through it. And you haven't given up on Lance's abilities on the basketball court, even if he has. And you get this look on your face when you have a new idea for a song that looks like you're about to go off and do something mischievous. And all the stupid things you do, like getting into rubber band wars with Chris and shooting yourself more than him."

"Oh. You-"

"Know you so well. Love you even better."

"Okay. Okay." Justin studied the dried remnants of the molten lava, amazed at the multitude of layers.

*

JC had drank coffee in the cafes of Vienna and Switzerland, so he felt he had the right to say that Seattle was home to the best coffee in the world. It wasn't as bitter as European coffee, but it had the same kick in the end. He and Justin hit a small coffee shop on the fringes of the outdoor market after dropping their stuff off at the hotel. JC ordered the flavored coffee of the day and drank it black. Justin had a white mocha.

Justin tried to buy the coffee. JC threatened to leave him in Seattle. Justin sat down. "Sorry."

"I just don't need to be impressed. I know you're Justin Timberlake. I don't really care."

"Right, well, I was trying to be romantic."

"The postcard the other night, that was romantic."

"Oh." Justin took a sip. "I wasn't trying then."

JC fixed Justin with a fond look. "Uh huh. Exactly."

*

They hadn't picked up souvenirs for anyone yet, so they spent several hours in the outdoor market. JC bought a sweet pepper and allowed Justin a few bites after due begging.

JC laughed until he cried at some of the gifts Justin picked out for Chris and Joey. Justin stopped at a stall where they sold figurines carved out from hardened lava ash. He mulled for a bit at the offerings before finally paying for a palm-sized hummingbird. JC peered over his shoulder. "Pretty."

Justin spun and grabbed JC's hand, turning it so that the palm was facing upward. Justin put the bird in JC's palm. "I saw one of these in Charlotte, where this all started."

"Made out of the ash from the place where you changed everything."

"Bought and given to you in the place where this trip ends." Justin was smiling, but he sounded sad.

"Just the trip, kid. That's all that's ending."

"What if this can't exist off the road, outside of hiatus?"

"It's existed for almost three years, you just haven't noticed."

Justin stole a glance at the bird and then brought his eyes back up to meet with JC's. "I'm noticing."

JC closed his hand over the bird. "That's romantic."


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile