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Justin went back to Orlando because Joey asked it of him. Practically begged it, if Justin was willing to think of it that way, but he wasn't, because in Justin's mind, Joey didn't have to lower himself for anyone, not even J Timberlake, or whoever he was these days. All the same, Joey told him, "Look, I already split to go down there for a weekend and if I could do it again, I would, but it would be tantamount to quitting this gig. Just go for a few days, make sure he's eating, get him out of the house at least once. That's all I ask, J. Can you do it? Please?"

Justin thought he probably would have been a much harder sell if he hadn't missed all the guys as much as he did. Even silent, psuedo-Lance from the London trip was better than no Lance. "Okay," he agreed, caught between irritation and disappointment at Joey's being surprised by the ease of Justin's acquiesance.

He had Johnny buy him a plane ticket for a four day weekend and cancel all his promotion plans for those four days. In spite of himself, he hoped he wasn't pissing off anyone important.

*

Justin got into Orlando early in the morning on a Thursday. He hired a cab and let himself into Lance's house. He shut the alarm off quickly, both glad and worried that Lance hadn't decided to enter a new code. Before Russia, Lance had done it once every six months or so, even if he had to get Justin's mother to swing by and do it for him while they were on tour. If Justin's memory served, this one had been in place for almost a year now.

Justin set his bag on the kitchen counter and set to looking for something that could pass as breakfast. Twenty minutes of in-depth searching later, he grabbed the keys to Lance's SUV hanging on the precision-organized key rack in the utility room and left to go do a bit of power grocery shopping.

It was eleven in the morning when Justin got to the supermarket. He pulled his hat nearly over his eyes. Generally, Justin didn't mind being noticed on a smaller basis. He liked the fact that hugging a girl could make her smile and bounce. He could have done without the shrieking, but his momma had taught him to take the good with the bad. He didn't like the larger crowds, coming home to find skin torn away from his arms in four precise lines, having his most comfortable t-shirts torn. One or two or even up to eight girls, however, a few at a time, that he didn't usually mind. Today he just wanted to buy some food and get back to Lance, the reason he was here. Justin wished a hug from him could make Lance smile and bounce like those girls. It never worked with the people who mattered though, this much Justin knew.

Justin bought three economy size boxes of cereal, mostly for his own sake, ransacked the frozen and box dinner aisles, loaded up the cart with every fruit or vegetable he recognized and, at the last minute, pulled every type of junk food he could remember Lance enjoying at any given point from the shelves. It was then that he got recognized, by a girl who looked to be about ten, maybe a little bit older. Her mom frowned disapprovingly at the growing stash of processed sugar in his cart. Justin gave the mother his most winning smile and hugged the fan.

The male clerk recognized him but seemed hesitant to say anything. Justin smiled from underneath his hat and let the clerk off the hook. The male population in his fan base was growing, but not so rapidly that he could afford to take the current ones for granted, "Hey."

The clerk's smile was nervous, "Hey. Um, this is gonna sound crazy, but-"

"I look just like Justin Timberlake?" Justin took a stab in the not-so-dark. He pulled out his credit card to pay for everything.

The clerk looked at it. "Holy shit. Like, for real?"

Justin nodded, hoping that was as loud as the kid was going to get. He was almost out of there.

"Um, look," the clerk rolled some blank receipt paper out of the printer, "could I maybe have an autograph?"

Justin took the paper and looked at the clerk's name tag. He scribbled, 'Hey there Derek, Thanks for listening. Justin Timberlake," and tried to feel like he actually meant it. He ended up signing something for the girl doing the bagging too, but she carried two of the five bags he had ended up with to his car, so he figured she had earned it.

Lance was still asleep when Justin got back. Justin put the groceries away, content to give Lance shit later about making Justin do all the chores. He poured half a box of Honey Nut Cheerios into one of Lance's mixing bowls, dumped in the requisite amount of milk to have everything submerged, and ate.

Lance stumbled downstairs at one-thirty, when Justin was busily engaged at kicking his own ass with the Playstation. Lance stood at the bottom of the stairs for a minute and stared at Justin. "Hello."

Justin waved distractedly, "I got you food, go eat breakfast, or lunch, or something."

It didn't take long after that for Justin's man to be killed in a fiery explosion; his mind was on other things. He wandered into the kitchen and cleaned out the mixing bowl, which he had left soaking in the sink.

Lance was sitting at his table, feet curled up in a pretzel. "What are you doing here?"

"I came to see you." Justin shook the bowl off and set it on the drying rack.

Lance took a tiny bite of the apple he was holding tightly in his hand. "Joey put you up to this?"

Justin took the seat closest to Lance. "He called and asked if I would come. I wanted to anyway, though. He just lit a fire under my ass, I guess."

Lance nibbled some more. "Thanks for the food."

Justin got up and hugged Lance. He didn't think it would do much good, he didn't have hugs that made everything okay, like Joey, or even JC, who could wrap someone up surprisingly thoroughly for being so small. Lance seemed to need something, though. Justin thought he probably was not it.

Lance let himself be hugged.

*

The hug seemed to loosen something inside of Lance, because he spent most of the rest of the day touching Justin in some way. He curled around Justin while they watched bad afternoon talk shows, held Justin's hips with his hands as Justin stood at the stove boiling water for pasta, pressed his knee to Justin's under the table while they ate. It was unnerving to Justin at the same time that it was reassuring. All five of the guys were touchy feely with each other, but as time had gone on, Lance had become less and less so, usually the one that needed to be pulled into group wrestling matches or hugs. Still, Justin had missed Lance's touch, specially prized when freely and easily given. He leaned back into the touches, as soon as he was sure any reaction on his part wouldn't cause Lance to move away.

Lance spoke over the clink of dishes being put in the dishwasher, "I didn't think of what it would be like to come back and not have anything normal to come back to. I didn't really think of what it would be like to come back at all."

Justin couldn’t imagine. He thought about going back to the way things were on a regular basis, and he wasn't even thousands of miles from everything he considered to be familiar. "We did. We thought about you coming back all the time."

Lance closed the dishwasher, sauntered over to and opened the freezer. He turned and smiled gratefully at Justin, "So many choices."

"I couldn't decide what you'd want."

"Rum raisin sound all right?"

Justin stared at Lance's back as he leaned over, the way his vertebrae could easily be counted, even through the masking effects of his t-shirt. "Yum."

Lance took the carton out of the freezer and grabbed them both large soup spoons, to make the scooping easier. He settled down at the table and took the first spoonful. "How'd you get this time off?"

"I took it," Justin stated around a mouthful of ice cream.

"Piss anybody off?"

"Dunno, I let Johnny deal with it."

The look in Lance's eyes might have been pride. "I appreciate it."

"Joey would've come again, but, y'know-"

"I know, and I meant what I said before. I appreciate it." Lance swallowed a large chunk of ice cream and Justin guessed, from the look in Lance's eyes, that it was an attempt to chase down the lump in his throat.

"I missed you." Justin wished he knew a better way to fix Lance than buying him four cartons of different flavored ice cream.

*

Justin had promised Joey he would get Lance out of the house, and a promise -- at least to the people who mattered -- was a promise. "Wanna go see a movie? I'll treat. I'll even pitch in for chocolate covered raisins." Lance was the only one in the group who liked those and early on, when they could only afford one or two treats when hitting the movies, he had always gotten outvoted.

"We could rent," Lance countered. "They have boxes of the raisins at Blockbuster and I've got my heart set on seeing every bad horror film they stock."

Justin immediately realized that the situation might be slightly more dire than he had previously thought. "Okay, I'll get you three of the very worst, on employee recommendation no less, if you'll go jet-skiing with me tomorrow."

"You're being way too accommodating," Lance's words were chilled.

"I haven't gotten to just spend time with you in awhile," Justin answered as honestly as possible while still indulging in omission of the truth.

"So spend time with me, we don't need a million fucking activities to stand each other's company. Or have you forgotten that?"

"If you're gonna be a dick I'm gonna admit that Joe made me promise I'd drag your sorry hiding-his-head-in-the-sand-like-a-fucking-ostrich ass out of the house." Justin wanted to apologize the moment the words came out of his mouth but didn't because they got Lance to react with something other than calm acceptance.

"Says Boy Fucking Wonder Who Can Do No Wrong TM," Lance seethed.

"You have no idea what I can or can't do wrong! You haven't paid enough attention to notice!"

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

Justin took a breath, coming to the awareness that maybe he had gone too far. "Look, I just, I missed you, that's all. I didn't mean-"

"You did mean, Justin." Lance deflated. "And maybe I wasn't paying attention, but only because you didn't seem to have any interest in what I could have to say. You had Timbaland and Pharrell and all your big name collaborators and I was just Lance, that guy who sometimes rounded out the sound for the chorus of NSYNC's songs and was good for a joke on late night TV."

"You." Justin flinched. "You had your dreams about Russia and space and I had mine and I didn't think that they were interesting like yours were."

"They were yours, that was what made them interesting," Lance stated. "They're your reality now and you didn't even send me an advanced copy. I had to download what I wanted, like every other fan in the world. So I didn't tell you about what was going on behind the scenes with me, I let you find out like everyone else in the world. My own little petty revenge." Lance's tone twisted and the look on his face suggested he was going to be sick.

"Why didn't you just ask for the money?" Justin wanted to cry. Wouldn't, because it wasn't his right.

"I did it in the first place to get out of the shadow of NSYNC." Lance's voice had softened, trying to let Justin in far enough that he could understand.

Justin didn't need to be let in. 'Lead-singer' or no, he knew all about escaping into the light. "You did. You went when everybody laughed at you for it, and you stayed even when they told you it was futile. That's bigger than us, even if we're the only ones who know it."

Lance summoned a sharp smile, his eyes cynical. "You can take me to Tabu. We'll get seen, Joey can be happy, all's well."

Justin knew better than that, but he nodded and let Lance think he was believed anyhow.

*

The main floor of Tabu was crowded, but the VIP lounge was nearly empty. Justin was glad he didn't recognize the few people who were up there, it meant he didn't have to chit chat politely for even a few minutes before excusing himself. He went to the bar and ordered Lance a whiskey and himself a beer. As enticing as the prospect was, Justin suspected it was in his best interests not to get drunk.

Lance brushed his fingers over Justin's hand in a physical affirmation of thanks while taking the drink. On a day to day basis, Justin missed all the little physical signals that everyone in the band understood even more than he missed the outright affection. Justin forced himself to let go of Lance's glass. Lance took more than a moment to pull away.

"Oh, hey."

Justin turned around to see who had just greeted them. He smiled when Howie came into his line of sight and held out the hand that wasn't holding his beer. "Hey."

Howie shook Justin's hand and then Lance's. "Wasn't expecting to see you here tonight."

"The feeling is mutual," Lance responded.

"Oh, yeah, well," Howie walked over to the windows overlooking the dance floor. Justin and Lance followed, standing on either side of him. "I like to check in every once in awhile. Unannounced. I have a good staff but in the end, I'm the owner. How's it going for you tonight?"

Lance raised his glass to his lips. "The liquor's excellent."

Justin appraised, "Music's pretty damn good to. A little less remix more actual music wouldn't hurt, but it's not as bad as most of the places I've gone."

"I was just thinking pretty much the same thing. I'll talk with the DJ later. He's proven himself pretty amenable in the past. Which is good, because it took me forever to find someone I even kind of liked after having to fire the last one."

Lance asked Howie a couple of business questions, obviously trying to jumpstart his brain on something that had been so easy for him before the Hiatus. Howie answered the questions thoughtfully and without condescension. Justin could have hugged him on the spot.

After about an hour of small talk that, amazingly, didn't feel like it took too much effort, Howie looked at his watch and grimaced, "I gotta go. Friend's party, I promised I'd show."

"Don’t sound too excited," Lance pulled Howie into a fond hug and patted him on the back, "Good seeing you."

"Yeah, you too. We should try to do this on purpose. I know you're in town." Howie's words were accusing and understanding all at once.

Lance shrugged. "It's not personal."

"No," Howie shook his head. "I know. But I’d still like to see you." He turned to Justin and initiated a goodbye hug. "Glad I got the chance to see you while you were in town."

Justin mumbled something similar and Howie walked away with a wave. When he was out of sight, Justin fished in his back pocket for whatever Howie had stuffed in there while they were hugging. He came up with a crumpled bar tab in which Howie had written, "For a good time call 578-9693. Really."

Lance looked over Justin's shoulder at the offer. "You gonna call?"

Justin didn't say yes, instead just folding the tab carefully and replacing it where it had been in his pocket.

*

Justin had lost his virginity to a girl named Emilie days after his sixteenth birthday. The first time he had done it with a guy, though, that had been nearly three years later, with Howie. It wasn't that his guys hadn't offered. Well, Joey hadn't, being irredeemably straight and Chris hadn't because he had a protection complex a mile wide concerning Justin, but JC had been offering every ten or so days by that point and Lance had just left his initial offer open to be redeemed at any point Justin felt he wanted to take Lance up on it.

Justin hadn't been stupid. A little slow on the uptake at times, but never stupid. To sleep with Lance or JC would be to take the extra step necessary to fall in love with one of the guys and neither offer was for that.

Howie didn't exactly offer, just took Justin back to his hotel after an awards show one night and didn't realize until far into the proceedings what he had gotten himself into. To his credit, he hadn't freaked out, just said, "You're sober, right?"

Justin had nodded, "Had a few cokes, nothing even remotely mind-altering."

"You're sober and you want me to be your first time?" Howie had wanted to know.

"You gonna kiss and tell?"

"Well, probably, but just my guys."

That had been enough for Justin, that and knowing that he wasn't in any danger of falling in love with Howie, who he'd barely known.

Justin put the bar tab with Howie's number on his dresser where he could see it. He wasn't going to call while he was in town. He had come to be with Lance, see if he could cheer Lance up any and though Justin was sensing his immense failure in this area, he wasn't going to give up and he sure as hell wasn't going to abandon the mission to get laid.

All the same, Justin had fond memories of his first time. He would call Howie later, see if he was up for taking a little vacation.

*

The joke about JC's semi-recurring WWJD apparel was that it stood for 'What Would Joey Do?' Which was exactly what Justin found himself wondering his third and last full day in town. It kind of freaked Justin out that Joey had come and gone and Lance still wasn't really okay, made him feel more powerless than usual, but Justin refused to think about it much. To do so was self-defeatist and his momma had taught him better than that.

Justin made his way to Lance's room and crawled under the covers, snuggling up next to Lance. It was nearly noon, but Justin had come to accept fairly easily that Lance slept a lot these days, not leaving bed until he was positive that he couldn't dose off again. Justin knew it was a bad sign, but being that it was one bad sign among so many others, he didn't think it was worth arguing about, or even bringing up, really.

Lance spoke up suddenly. "You're not supposed to kiss and tell, J."

"Sorry?"

"You shouldn't have said that shit about Britney, I don't care what she did. Gentleman's code, you know that."

Justin sighed, because of all of the guys, Lance understood what being raised below the Mason-Dixon meant in a man's life, and that sometimes meant that Lance had more of a right to censure him than any of the others. "If it makes you feel better, I've already gotten this speech from your mom. And mine. And Britney's." The last of which had quite possibly been the worst experience of his life to date.

"I'm sorry she hurt you enough to drive you to that."

"I miss the feeling of being with her." Justin tried to explain, "When I said that stuff, the DJ, he looked at me like maybe I wasn't just some stupid white kid trying to play in a sandbox that not only didn't belong to him but was three blocks over and six streets down, y'know? For the first time since she basically threw the fact that I wasn't enough of what she needed in my face, I felt like I mattered again."

Lance stroked Justin's hip. His laughter was bitter. "You and me suck at this hiatus thing, you know that?"

Justin smiled into Lance's hair. "I was about to reach that conclusion. Shortly, I assure you."

"Jup?"

"Yeah?"

"Thanks for dropping all your shit to come here."

"I'm glad I did. I missed the feeling of being with you."

*

Lance drove Justin to the airport for his departing flight. They hung out in a corner of the Cinnabon until Justin positively had to go through security at which point he said, "I would offer to stay, but Johnny would find me and you have such nice carpets. I would hate to see them ruined by senseless violence and death."

Lance smiled at that briefly. The smile changed as he observed, "You and Joe think I'm broken."

Justin was caught off-guard by the statement and he stuttered for bit before Lance shut him up with, "Or at least pretty damn fragile."

Justin gave up on speaking and scrounged up his most tried and true helpless face.

Lance sighed. "Jup. Joe thinks that because he's overprotective and he jumps to conclusions and then it takes forever to get him to see that his first impression maybe wasn't entirely correct."

Justin had to nod at that, because Lance had Joey down pat.

"And you think it because you still believe everything Joey tells you for some reason that I have yet to have explained to me and because in some ways you think that everyone is like you and I'm getting the idea that maybe you're a little broken right now."

It occurred to Justin that if Lance knew Joey so well, Justin probably shouldn't be so quick to dismiss what Lance was saying, even if he desperately wanted to. "Don't be getting all melodramatic on me. I'm fine. I miss you guys, that's all. Other than that, women abound, record is doing well, press is decent…nothing to be broken over. "

Lance put his hands up as a sign of surrender. "Okay."

"Don't do that shit." Justin growled. "Don't placate me."

"Look. C and I talk a lot-"

"C talks to everyone a lot, he's convinced that he's being cheated if he doesn't use all 2500 nighttime and weekend nationwide minutes that come with the cell plan."

"I was getting to that. It's how I know what's going on with everyone most of the time. When C gives me his opinion on any of you, I believe C, because in nearly nine years, I've known C to be wrong about one of us approximately never."

"And C thinks I'm broken?"

"The analogy he used had a lot to do with porcelain collector dolls, but yeah, that was the gist."

Justin considered this. "JC's a crackhead."

"JC's intuitive," Lance stressed.

"You tell JC I'm fine. He'll listen to you. Tell him I came here for a weekend, and I took you out and I made you eat and I was fine." Justin poked at Lance with each word.

"I'll tell him those things," Lance agreed, too easily. "I'm also gonna tell him that you have tired lines on your face even after waking up from a night's sleep, and that you left here feeling like you hadn't stayed long enough, and that you still miss Britney, or at least, being part of something that involves more than just you."

Justin knew they were at a standstill, but he had one last trick up his sleeve. "Don't worry Jace. That's so not what he needs right now. He's good at this hiatus thing."

"He's only good because of his insane minutes plan thing. He'd kill me if he thought I was holding out. JC would rather worry about a known quantity than an unknown. Lord knows, you never say anything to him."

"It's not his problem."

"JC thinks differently." Lance paused. "I think differently."

Justin wanted to say 'okay' and let them think that, allow them to adopt his problems and be there while he tried to fix them. He had a plane to catch, though, and the real world to return to, so instead he shrugged, "Whatever." He hugged Lance tight, not mad or upset enough to deprive himself of that, slung his carry-on over his shoulder, and walked toward the rows of metal detectors.

*

Justin called Howie two days after the wax museum opening. He told him honestly, "I'm really fucking lonely right now. So, uh, y'know. You should know that."

"If this had been…oh, say, Eminem's number, would you have still called?" Howie inquired.

Justin actually gasped. "I'm not that lonely."

"Just making sure." Howie had been in LA within a day. He had taken a cab and showed up at Justin's door and told him, "I was in the neighborhood."

Justin shook his head, "I'm not that stupid, either," but didn't protest when Howie gave him a blowjob beyond almost anything he had ever known and then very gently fucked him over the side of Justin's art-deco couch.

Eventually, when he trusted himself to do so, Justin rolled over from where he had fallen on the floor. "You've improved. I mean…um, you were good, then, but this was better. At least better than I'm remembering."

"It was your first time," Howie replied dryly.

"Well, yeah." Justin recognized that this was probably a good point. "You don’t think Eminem is hot?" Chris had once told Justin, during their brief and ill-omened fling, that he could rival JC in being tangential in the aftermath of hot sex.

Howie didn't seem too phased by it. "I don’t really think about Eminem when I can avoid doing so."

"You don't listen to him?"

"No. Don't like rap. Don't like consistent negativity and misogyny, for that matter."

Justin remembered when those things had made him uneasy. He was pretty sure it had been while he was in love with Britney. "He-"

"If you make a single excuse for him, you can return to getting laid by women who are more eager to tell stories about you than suck your dick," Howie threatened. "Don't think I don't know how easy it is to hate people or just the world in general, but I don't give into it, and neither do so many of the people I know who have every right, like Chris. So don't go making excuses for him. He has the right to do as he does and say as he says, but I have the right not to listen and not to care."

Justin smiled, unable to help himself. "You sound like Lance. He's a really good guy underneath all the Hollywood bullshit."

"I'm starting to get that," Howie agreed.

"Oh?"

"He called me after your visit, when we met up at the club. We've done lunch a couple of times."

"Yeah, see, like that, he actually calls the people he says he will. At least, the ones that matter," Justin amended. "I'm glad he's getting out. And eating."

"Speaking of eating," Howie rose fluidly from the floor, "I haven't had anything today except plane food. Shower and lunch?" Howie held out a hand.

Justin took it and got to his feet. "This-a-way."

*

Justin decided that having Howie around was oddly similar to having pre-Russia Lance around. He shared at least three vital organs with his cell phone and had a lot of conversations that consisted of terms that Justin only vaguely recognized as business-oriented. He was disgustingly tidy, and good at just about anything he set his mind to.

It made Justin nervous, because Justin, possibly more than anyone, was well aware that if Lance hadn't been in NSYNC, the two of them would never have become friends. It was kind of freaky to be sleeping with someone who very well might think Justin's only worth lay in his sex appeal. It reminded him of sleeping with a fan, without the squeamishness of having to look at someone that he knew wasn't seeing him during the entire experience. Howie may not have liked what he was seeing, but at least Justin knew Howie was seeing him, not some figment of Howie's imagination and the international press machine.

Howie was different than Lance in some ways, though. He answered questions in a way so that his response never came off as glib, and he smiled honestly and often. He concentrated when he was watching TV, instead of zoning off, worrying about business and family and whatever else came across his mind.

The third day Howie stayed at Justin's house, Justin had left early in the morning to be at a photo shoot/interview session which had ended up going much longer than anyone expected. Justin wasn't back home until early evening.

The house smelled of some kind of take-out when Justin let himself in. He called out, "Howie?"

"In the den." Howie answered loudly. "There's tamales in the kitchen if you want some. AJ treated so I ordered extra."

Justin derailed to grab a tamale before following the voice into his den. Howie was sprawled out on the floor, a line of puzzle pieces interlocked in the midst of thousands of others randomly scattered over the carpet. Justin found the top to the box. The finished product would evidently be a map of Sweden. It was five thousand pieces.

"I thought I'd get it framed when I finished, give it to Nick for his birthday. He loves Sweden." Howie attempted to fit another piece to the row he had already put together. It didn't fit and he tossed it aside.

"You're gonna get this finished in a month?" Justin was trying hard not to seem incredulous.

"Well, unless you kick me out, or something. I've got a lot of time on my hands and I'm good at these." Howie had tried at least six pieces and still hadn't fit another one on to the row. He calmly sorted through a pile off to one of his sides.

Justin could admire patience. "That's a really nice gift."

Howie grinned up at Justin. "He'll like it. He's a total goof."

Justin sat down on the floor, careful not to hide any of the pieces. "I don’t think it's goofy. I mean, you're gonna spend hours and hours on him." Justin was silent for a bit before offering, "JC wrote me a song once."

Howie waited until he was sure that was all Justin was going to say. "Yeah? Is it one of the ones I would have heard?"

Justin shook his head slightly. "No."

Howie found the piece he was looking for and connected it up. He began searching for the next.

"JC wrote it for me, y'know?" Justin wasn't exactly sure that Howie would, but it was worth a try. "I'm selfish about them. I try not to be selfish with most things, but the guys…they're mine. And the things they do for me-" Justin bit his lip. "I just don’t like sharing."

"I bet he was glad."

Justin frowned. "Huh?"

"I bet JC was glad." Howie clarified. "I mean, he wrote the song for you, right? Not for everybody else."

On a whim, Justin handed Howie a puzzle piece resting by his foot. Howie turned it three quarters clockwise and lined it up with the last piece on the row. It fit perfectly.

*

Justin awoke at 3:24 AM. It was enough of a regular occurrence these days that he knew he wasn't going back to sleep. Howie was warm and solid against him, and Justin hesitated a few seconds before carefully extracting himself from the bed. He went directly to the kitchen and pulled the green tea JC had sent Justin when the latter had mentioned the insomnia in a moment of weakness. So far the tea hadn't really worked, but in his mind Justin still counted on the fact that JC knew how to fix everything, so he kept trying. Besides which, with a little sugar, the taste was inexplicably soothing.

Howie found him at five. Every light available was on in the den and Justin was laid out on his stomach, propping himself up on his elbows, his eyes scanning the waste land of yet-to-be connected puzzle pieces. Justin looked up. "It's early."

Howie shrugged and sat down on the floor. "Sometimes I get up early."

Justin turned his concentration back to the puzzle. "You don't mind me helping, do you? I mean, you don't have to tell Nick or anything."

Howie snorted. "I don't mind and I doubt he will either. I can't even tell if you've got an issue with him or not, but whatever's going on, he's fine with you."

Justin straightened his arms out along the ground and pillowed his head on one of them. "It's not an issue. Or, I guess, it's not an issue with him."

"But it is an issue." There was something cold in Howie's voice that Justin hadn't heard before that was disconcertingly reassuring. Howie should protect Nick, that was the way of the universe.

"He's so happy." They weren't the words Justin had been searching for and he thought they probably sounded stupid, but they were true and so would work for the time being.

Howie frowned at this. He scooted to where Justin was laying and curled up next to him, reaching up to stroke the soft fuzz on his scalp. "Why is that a problem?"

"It's…it's not. I mean, it's good for him, obviously. It just doesn't make any sense," Justin concluded.

"What's confusing about it?"

Justin looked into Howie's eyes. They had lost the edge acquired when the conversation had started. What Justin was saying might not make sense, but it evidently wasn't unacceptable either. "The whole world is telling him not to be happy. His album flopped, you guys filed a legal statement that made his solo career sound negligible, at best, and a gajillion and three people are making fun of him. And he's ecstatic. Racing his boat and playing his songs and just not giving a shit. But when the world was telling him he was beautiful and desirable and everything else a kid wants to hear, he was miserable."

Howie took a deep breath. "First off, just to clarify, the statement was lawyer speak and we were all kind of nauseated when we realized how it sounded, even AJ, who was still a little bitter at that point. Nick knows this. Secondly, Nick doesn't need to hear anything from the world, he needs to hear it from himself, and until now, he wasn't. Nick's finally stopped worrying about what everybody else, even me and Kev and AJ and Brian think, and gotten around to worrying about what he thinks. After us, I don't think the world was really that big a step at all, y'know?"

Justin murmured, "Yeah. I do," and fell asleep in Howie's arms, puzzle pieces and plush rug digging into his largely exposed flesh.

*

Lance called a week before Christmas in a near panic. "I think Chris has changed his contact info again."

Chris had developed into something of a paranoid schizophrenic since a stalker had written, threatening Emily and Taylor's safety, years before. None of them minded the routine changes to all of his phone numbers and email addresses so much as the fact the he often forgot to tell them what the new ones he set in place were.

"Mm." Justin walked to his desk to find the pad he had written everything down on. "Some kid hopped the neighborhood gate and spent a day and a half gravitating between our lawns before security found her. Chris was a little spooked." So was Justin, but he was across the country, and felt foolish about it. Justin read off Chris's home number, cell, and personal email. "What do you need him for?"

"I'm going Christmas shopping this weekend, I need his help."

"Um. Lance," Justin started, unsure of how to remind his friend of certain things.

"Chris hates shopping and generally sucks at it," Lance cut him off, "yeah, I didn't leave my memory in Russia."

"Then why Chris?"

"Well, for one thing, he's around," Lance pointed out. "For another thing, I'm charity shopping, for kids."

"Ah," It was more a breath of understanding than a word, but Justin got it. Chris couldn't shop for adults if his life depended on it, but send him looking for presents for his nieces and nephews and he came back with surefire hits. Chris had extra-sensory perception about kids. "That'll be fun. Wish I could go with."

"You're coming home for the holiday, right?" Lance asked suspiciously.

Justin sighed tiredly, aware that Lance was justified. "Yeah, I have tickets and everything. Howie and I are coming back on the same day but he's not coming back here until after New Year's. He has his cruise thingy." Justin tried not to let his fear that the puzzle wouldn't be enough to lure Howie back after nearly two weeks show.

"Jace mentioned that he was staying with you. I think I may have consigned it to another one of Jace's hopeful delusions."

"Optimistic exaggerations," Justin said knowingly. "No, not in this case. He is staying with me. I think he was just restless to get out of Florida for awhile and my offer sounded good."

"How is that for you?"

Justin shrugged, even knowing Lance couldn't see it. One of the advantages of having lived on top of each other for years was a certain natural ability to understand each other's gestures without having to actually see them carried out. "Better than being here by myself."

"Wow, if I felt welcome like that, I'm sure I'd be dying to return after spending two weeks with people who like me for more than my ability to take up space," Lance told Justin dryly.

"I don't think it's the type of situation where I can fall in love with him," Justin snapped.

Lance knew that Justin always gave away too much when angry. "Oh?"

"You know why I never took you up on your offer?"

Lance was gracious enough not to make Justin specify which offer he was talking about. "No, I don't." He thought that might have been a lie, but Justin needed to say it more than Lance needed to guess.

"Because I would have fallen in love with you, and followed you around like some sort of stupid puppy dog until you got up the nerve to kick me and tell me to get over it. And you would have. I may be Justin Fucking Timberlake, but I'm not good enough for you and we both know it. I'm glad that, if what JC says is true, you've finally figured out that he is more than good enough for you. I wasn't good enough for him, either, though he would never have kicked me, which maybe would have just made it worse. I'm not smart the way you are, or sweet the way he is. I'm not a lot of things, and Howie isn't some screaming fan who doesn't have the time or the ability to discern that. He knows I get by on my smile and by having a voice that was in the right range to be lead. He sees the way I set myself up to get measured by everyone else and fall short in the eyes of everyone but the fans. He deserves better than that and if I fall for him, he'll just figure it out and gently tell it to me. I don't need to be told."

Lance's voice trembled minutely. "Jup…I don't offer to sleep with people who I don't have interest in. Ever. When you never took me up on it, I assumed I wasn't your type. You never gave me a chance to find out whether you were mine. I can't speak for Jace, but I can say that he generally thinks the world revolves around you in some ways. He literally can't imagine his life without you. That's not the thought process of someone who thinks that you're not good enough for them. And not everyone you date is going to be Britney, Justin. You won't always have them on a pedestal, and they won't always be looking for something more. She's just as unhappy as you are, if in a completely different way. It sucks that her unhappiness has to fuck with you like this, but you need to stop hearing what she said to you, or at least stop believing it. You can't keep talking like your smile and your talent have nothing to do with your self-worth. You can't keep thinking that those are your only attributes. The four of us would never have put up with that just for popularity's sake, and you've got to know that."

Justin was decently aware of his tendency to make assumptions and then grip onto them with an almost insane ferocity. It had almost never occurred to him that perhaps those assumptions weren't based completely in indisputable fact. "I'm not…I'm good enough as a friend, y'know? I mean, even she knows that. She keeps trying. She apologized. A lot."

"What is this 'enough' shit, Jup? Who's measuring? I sure as fuck hope it's not you. Look, when you came here I was depressed about not getting to go up, and I was frustrated at feeling unwanted, but I know my own worth, babe. I know that I should have been allowed to go, that I worked for it and that I deserved it. I know that. And what you or Joey or JC or the Russians thought…that only mattered for the couple of weeks I took to mope. You haven't learned that lesson yet."

"I'm starting to get that." Justin's mouth twisted into something that wasn't exactly a smile.

"Well, keep getting it. You're good enough…better than good enough, for anyone or anything, but you have to be the one to believe that. I know you did at one point. No kid wins beauty pageants without that belief. You have to get back to that point. Seriously."

Justin thought for a second of the day he had taken off a week back, canceling everything to work on the puzzle and have sex with Howie. The way he had forced himself not to worry about what people would think of him ducking out at the last minute. The way he had looked at Howie and tried to know that he was someone Howie could be proud to take home to his parents. He hadn't had the best of luck with either of his endeavors, but it had been an attempt, a response to Howie's view on Nick's inherent happiness. "Yeah, I'm working on it. Seriously."

"Hey," Lance's tone told Justin that Lance would have been poking him if they'd been in the same room. He was about to make the equivalent of an apology for being a hardass, even if Justin had deserved it. Underneath it all, Lance was really as sweet as JC. "I miss you."

"Yeah." Justin was glad to end the conversation with something that wasn't hard to say. "I miss you more."

*

Howie came back after his cruise. He was even darker than usual and Justin didn't bother resisting his desire to strip Howie down and lick him from ankle bone to clavicle. Howie laughed when Justin's tongue swiped over the skin of his stomach, writhing under the tickling sensation. Justin didn't let up.

They showered together afterward and settled down for a night in. Howie went directly to the den. "Oh, huh. You got a lot done." The puzzle was over halfway done. Justin had accomplished about a fourth of what had been finished so far.

"We're running out of time," Justin said sensibly, not without an awareness of the double entendre.

Howie lowered himself onto the floor. "It's not like I'm likely to see Nick on his birthday, if the present's late, he can wait." Howie began working with the pieces. "You did a good job. There might be hope for you yet."

Justin didn't think it was a huge thing that he meant it when he responded, "I know," but he realized it was probably significant, at the very least.

Howie caught the gravity of Justin's tone and looked up. "You okay?"

Justin fiddled with a piece that didn't look to have anything to do with the area that was already put together. "Lance and I talked before the holidays. Before either of us left, actually. I've spent some time thinking, is all."

"Dangerous." Howie smiled fondly.

"You have no idea."

Howie shook his head, "Somehow, I'll bet I do. Your thinking lead you anywhere?"

Justin tossed the piece away from himself. "Nowhere big yet." He had come to some conclusions, found things he liked about himself, but they were things that he had mostly already known, things that he had to find a way to make more important. He knew what he was good at, it was a matter of believing that those things made him a worthwhile human being overall. A worthwhile friend. A worthwhile lover.

"I happen to be living in your house, if you find you need to talk," Howie mentioned, less than subtly. JC said that Backstreet Boys weren't very subtle. Justin had always felt that JC didn't have much room to talk, but had never told his friend that.

"I might take you up on that when I have something to say." Justin considered the fact that that statement might actually sum up the whole situation. He was pretty much waiting for what he had to say, both to himself and the world. A whole solo album and he knew without a doubt that he hadn't yet formed one word, sung one note.

Howie stared at the nearly two thousand pieces left scattered about the floor. "That's cool. I'm good at waiting things out."

*

JC called three nights in a row before it occurred to Justin that perhaps this wasn't just JC's normal desperate attempts to rid himself of all his nationwide minutes. Justin didn't let the third call get far before asking, "Is everything all right?"

"That's what we're all wondering." The nice thing about JC was that while he may not have been the most eloquent person, he very rarely actually tried to beat around the bush.

"All of you?" Justin clarified. "Or you and Lance?"

"All of us. Chris seriously used the word 'lackluster' to describe your telephone conversations."

"That's not scary, Jace." He rethought his words. "Okay, well, it is. But he's only using big words because he's crushing on that Jen girl, the graphics artist that he met while he was doing voice work for Nickelodeon, and she's some kind of ivy-league mensa child according to him, and you know how he gets about women like that."

"He doesn't use big words without knowing what they mean, Jup."

"I'm stressed. Lots of people to make happy, right? And I'm maybe not entirely thrilled about that."

"About what you need to do to keep them happy?" JC's voice was sharp, and Justin could see his facial expression, the one that he had when he was looking for holes in a situation. Metaphorical ones.

Justin took a different tack without changing the subject. "I should call you more."

"Why?" JC sounded thrown and genuinely curious all at once. "I call you all the time."

"Because it's like, something I'm supposed to do as a friend you've had for eleven years, right?"

JC was silent. "I think that you know how to be my friend without all the guidelines. I know you get mad when we get on you about the self-help books but really, Just, the people who write those don't know what the fuck they're on about. Especially not when it comes to the five of us."

"So I should just throw everything that I know aside and work off a completely different set of expectations?"

"Precisely," JC's syllables came out distinctly. "Your own."

"I don't know that I have any." Justin tried valiantly not to whine.

"Sounds lovely, doesn't it?"

*

The puzzle, when finished, had to be broken up into six parts and transferred delicately onto a large board before it could be framed. Justin watched AJ and Howie perform the whole operation ever so carefully. He breathed deeply and ignored the small knot of trepidation trying to block his throat. AJ and Howie managed without losing a piece.

AJ stole one of the name-brand red cream sodas that were hard to find from the refrigerator. They were Justin's favorite and he had bought them all for himself, but he didn't say anything. AJ thanked him for the drink and talked at length about "Blowin' Me Up" and the fact that Sarah seemed to want to walk down the aisle to it. Howie whispered something in Justin's ear about Sarah being perverse for the sake of being perverse. Justin wisely stayed quiet and let AJ rant.

AJ left after Howie promised to meet him for dinner later that week. Howie threw Justin a look of apology. "He's bored out of his mind, and Sarah's relatives are driving him crazy. If I don't keep him occupied, Nick's not gonna be the missing Backstreet Boy when we go back in the studio."

"Oh." Justin nodded his head. "I thought he was just wired, or something."

Howie leaned back against the wall. "You okay? You sound kind of lackluster. And I thought you were supposed to be somewhere today. Are you sick? Have we been keeping you up?"

Justin rolled his eyes. It was nice having someone so concerned for him in the absence of JC and Joey, but he had been trained far too well by Chris to let on that he was thinking that. "I'm fine. I cancelled the thing. It wasn't…I was supposed to be talking some contract stuff, but it can be put off and I'm not sure exactly what I want to get out of the meeting yet."

Howie's eyes darkened. "Yeah. Going into that shit without clear goals gets you into trouble."

Justin knew Backstreet had done a five-way conference via phone the day before but hadn't felt the right to ask how it had gone. He wasn't exactly sure he had any more right now, but the words, "Lawsuit problems?" bubbled out of his mouth. He reminded himself not to bite his lip or his fingers or any of the other things that he had supposedly trained himself at the age of seven not to do when nervous and still wanted to do every single time he took a risk.

Howie sighed. "A lawsuit is a problem, by definition."

Justin wasn't giving up that easily. He was used to being part of something, supported as well as offering support. He didn't know how to deal with one-sided relationships. "No, I mean-"

"I know what you mean. I'm just not sure how to answer you. Kevin's dealing with it, mostly, because none of the rest of us want to, even though it needs to be done. Kevin always deals with the crap that none of the rest of us want to, and really, it's kind of surprising that he's not a hell of a lot more bitter than he is."

"He strikes me as having gotten less bitter." Justin had meant the whole 'pretty motherfucker' thing as a compliment, hadn't even realized until later that it might not have exactly sounded that way. Justin didn't really bear grudges. He counted on Lance and Chris for that, and even they both seemed to be pretty cool with the most verbally vicious of the Backstreet Boys of late.

"He's grown up. Him and Kris stopped being so on-again off-again when he finally admitted that he didn't really find G-d half so much in church as he did when he was out hiking and let go of the guilt that was causing. I think the guilt was causing other problems, like the anger and the bitchiness and other things. Finally being with Kris, in a constant, unwavering way, that helped too. All the pieces had to be in the right place, though, y'know? Like Sweden." Howie gestured toward the room where the puzzle lay, safely laid out on Plexiglas for transport.

Justin strained to see into the other room, to look again at the finished product and think of Kevin in those terms. "He'll make sure you guys come out all right."

"Yeah," Howie said, not a trace of uncertainty in his voice. "I know. It's just a pain in the ass to get to the point where we don't have to tell everyone else that. Especially the people who have no earthly right to ask."

Justin was happy at seemingly not being included in that group of people, so far as he could tell. "I hear you."

Howie's eyes flickered involuntarily to one of the many pictures that Justin still had up where Britney was one amongst many in the photo. She had been so intricately a part of his life and his memories for such a long time, that to try to eradicate her -- even from the walls of his house -- would have been to wipe out a large portion of his own existence.

"Yeah," Howie repeated, sounding much the same, "I bet you do."

*

Howie bundled AJ up, stuck him on a plane, and got the both of them to Kentucky to support Kevin and Brian through the loss of their grandfather. He then turned around, brought AJ back, and called Justin from AJ's house. "I have to stay here for a bit. I…you've probably heard about the wedding."

Justin had heard. "Is AJ okay?"

"Um. Well. I doped him up with Dramamine on the flight back, so he's drooling on his couch right now. For the moment, I suppose that means he's okay."

Justin grimaced. "Kevin and Brian?"

"Those two are fine." Howie paused. "Sad, but fine. Kev's gonna stay out there for a bit to make sure Ann's okay and Bri's staying in order to show off Baylee for as long as humanly possible. I promised I’d call and check up on them tomorrow."

"Do you need me to do anything? I could…bring you food." The offer sounded lame to Justin, but as many romantic disasters as his four guys had afforded him the chance to watch, postponing a wedding less than a month before the date it was set for was somewhat out of his league. Plus, Justin liked AJ, but he didn't really trust him to be stable. "I can do whatever, just say the word."

"Could you maybe bring me some extra clothes? I don't really feel like doing laundry." Howie sounded exhausted.

"Yeah, I can do that. You want me to do the laundry while I'm there?" Justin loved that Howie could make him feel needed with even the simplest of requests.

"You don't have to."

Justin would have bet Howie was squinting uncertainly. "There's no fun in offering to do something you're required to do."

"It would be a big help," Howie admitted.

"Should I come today? Do you want me to wait until tomorrow while you get him settled? I dunno, I mean, maybe he won't want me there."

"He mostly just wants someone here to keep him from doing things he shouldn't do," Howie told Justin with brutal honesty. "He loves me, and I'm sure he'd glad that it's me, but it could be pretty much anyone right now and he'd be grateful."

"If that's…um, okay, tell me if I'm overstepping boundaries here," Justin knew he sounded like a bad self-help book, but couldn’t seem to stop himself, "but if that's the case, do you want me to come over there for awhile? Help out, maybe. Or just, uh…provide body heat? Something."

"I'm gonna be totally distracted," Howie warned.

"Of course. You should be. I'd totally be if he were one of mine."

"I don't want you thinking he's more important."

"He is," Justin stated. He relented a second later, "But it's different."

"Complicated."

"Yes."

"I want you to be here."

Justin thought Howie might have been feeling a little guilty about that, so he told him, "I really want to be there."

"Could you bring my boxers with the palm trees? They were a gag gift from Aje, I think they'll make him laugh."

"Sure thing."

*

Justin brought food, enough clothes for at least a week, and several DVDs that he knew AJ liked but didn't own. It took him two trips from the car to move everything inside. Howie pulled him down onto the couch after the last trip, laid his head in Justin's lap, and fell asleep without comment. Justin ran through beats in his head, rhythms that he had heard before and liked. He stored the ones that compiled themselves, new and with possibility, in his memory for later. JC was always leaving messages for himself, scribbling things down; Justin could remember once having an idea for a song scrawled across his arm, the very place where his tattoo was now, in a moment of desperation from JC. The places JC could write on himself had already been soaked in ink.

Justin remembered everything he heard, even if it was just in his head. He could remember the way the first notes they had heard out of Lance's mouth had sounded and the announcer's running commentary from a rather boring basketball game two weeks beforehand. Visual impressions were mainly fleeting to Justin, but sound was non-erasable.

AJ stumbled in while Howie was asleep, his eyes indicating that the Dramamine was taking its sweet time wearing off. "Hi."

Justin smiled. "I brought 'Animal House.' And Hostess cupcakes."

"You can stay, then," AJ decreed. "How long's he been asleep like that?"

"Um." Justin glanced at the digital clock on the DVD player. "A couple of hours?" He hadn't really been paying attention to the time that he had made it over.

"You're gonna have to amputate your legs."

Justin rolled his eyes. "His head isn't heavy enough to cut off circulation."

"Has Sarah called?"

Howie spoke up, "Aje, you’re gonna have to call her. You can't freak out on her, decide you aren't ready, expect her to deal with the public reaction and then have her call first, it doesn't work like that."

AJ scowled. "Go back to sleep."

Howie sat up on the couch, rubbing gently over the space where his head had been. "Call her. Tell her to bring dinner, I'm hungry."

"Timberlake brought Hostess cupcakes."

"Ever wonder why I'm generally the one who shops for the household?"

Justin inserted an offended, "Hey!" mostly for appearance's sake. Howie squeezed his leg affectionately.

"I can't ask her to bring dinner," AJ whined, "I'm a dick. I'm the one who's supposed to provide sustenance and woo her back into loving me after totally screwing up all her plans."

Howie got up and found the phone. He brought it to AJ. "Call her. I don’t care what you decide on the dinner issue. She deserves a phone call now that you're back and conscious. And as far as screwing her plans up, I think she knew. She knows you, okay? She knew you weren't one hundred percent and that you both have to be that for this to happen. Now you have to decide if you're ever gonna get there."

AJ took the phone and pressed the 'talk' button. Justin listened to the diluted sound of the dial tone knowing that it would be inside his mind forever. He concentrated on the shape of Howie's hands as they curled lightly along AJ's upper arms and hoped he could keep the memory for half as long.

*

Howie left AJ alone after a few days, since Sarah was coming over pretty regularly without having to be asked by then. She looked tired and a bit frustrated, but she had smiled at Howie when he had told her he was leaving and said, "Yeah, I got it."

Howie had told her, "He loves you."

"'Course he does. He just doesn’t think things through before he does them."

Justin couldn’t imagine coming by that kind of forgiveness outside of the other four guys. Then Howie tugged on his arm, "Let's vamos, babe," and suddenly, he could.

Several of the windows were open in Justin's kitchen and living room. There was a note on the table, along with a box of bakery made cookies. "Thought this place could use some fresh air. Sorry I missed you. C."

Justin flipped open the box and bit experimentally into one of the cookies. It was still soft and he offered half to Howie, who took him up on the offer. Howie finished off his half and stepped into Justin's personal space, kissing him lightly on the mouth. "Thanks."

Justin didn't think Howie was talking about the cookie, but he meant it when he responded, "Anytime."

*

Howie, despite his words to the contrary, stuck Nick's rather large gift in the back of Justin's SUV and drove out to the town Nick was playing the day of his birthday. He called Justin when he got there to let Justin know he had arrived safely. He called again in the middle of the festivities, both him and Nick sounding pleasantly tipsy and Nick grabbing the phone to shout, "Sweden!!!" and several other incoherent phrases that sounded like tentative friendship.

Justin held the phone several paces from his ear until he was rescued by Howie who explained that Nick liked the present and was happy that Justin had helped so that it could be finished on time. And also that Nick was trying to impress a girl on his crew. Luckily, the girl was more drunk than Nick was, so there was a passing chance it could happen.

Justin told Howie to have a good time and hurry back. Justin would be leaving for his tour soon and he wanted to spend as much time as possible with Howie before that. He was mildly trepidatious about the tour. It wasn't that he didn't like Christina, exactly, although he thought she could use with some mild toning down of the diva mindset and some major toning down of the need to sleep with anything that moved. It was that touring with her seemed the most surefire way to remind him that he wasn't touring with his boys. He knew what Johnny and the rest of the management team had said about ticket sales and the failing economy; he could repeat all of it back to them verbatim if asked, he just wished he'd had the sense to say, "Then book smaller venues." His album had sold better than hers anyway. He knew who was buoying whose ticket sales.

Howie, to his credit, took both of Justin's instructions in stride, had a fantastic time, waited a day for the hangover to wear off, and hurried back to Justin's side. Justin, who was routinely getting home and crashing without even bothering to take his clothes off after rehearsal, was asleep by the time Howie snuck in the house.

Howie woke him up with a kiss on the morning of his twenty-second birthday. Justin mumbled, "Hi."

Howie pulled Justin's arm around his shoulder. "Let's get you in the shower, birthday boy."

Howie gave him a birthday blowjob in the shower before cleaning him up. Justin turned the water off when the last of the soap had swirled down the drain and Howie handed him a towel, taking another one for himself. "Get dressed," Howie ordered, and disappeared down the hall.

Justin went into his room and pulled on the first pair of clean, broken in jeans he could find, and a t-shirt. He followed the direction Howie had gone in and found breakfast completely laid out on the table. There was scrambled eggs and blueberry muffins and cereal, which were Justin's three favorite breakfast foods. Justin dug in, pulling Howie down into the chair next to him when the older man came back to the kitchen, fully dressed. "Eat up," Justin pointed to all the food. "And thanks."

Howie nodded but didn't grab any food just yet, getting up to grab a package wrapped in iridescent blue paper from the counter. He put it on the table next to Justin. "Happy birthday, babe."

Justin wiped his hands on a napkin before neatly ripping the paper from the gift. On top were two burnt CDs. One was labeled, "For when the road gets long;" the other, "And you get lonely." Underneath the CDs was a puzzle box. The top of the box proclaimed it to be 1000 pieces and the picture was the LA skyline, with the sun rising over it, burning everything in deep orange with the buildings standing out in silhouetted relief. Justin ran his fingers over the top of the image, enjoying it.

Howie spoke up. "You seemed to enjoy doing the other one with me. I thought this way you could take a little bit of home…here…with you. It's not as big as the other one, it should fit somewhere on your bus easily."

Justin looked up at him. "It’s a little bit of us," he corrected Howie.

Howie looked shy for a second. "Can't get anything past you Timberlake."

"I love it," Justin reassured him, wishing he had the nerve to change one of those three words and give the phrase a whole new meaning. "It's great."

*

"I think I'm beginning to understand JC and his cellular plan issues," Justin informed Howie. It was the fifth straight night he had called.

"You just keep on understanding, then," Howie replied with a laugh.

"And seriously, I would have expected that eight or nine kilos of crack a night would at least mentally impair, if not kill, someone of Christina's size. Where the fuck does she put it?"

"Somehow I doubt she's doing eight or nine kilos a night," Howie snorted. "And the mental impairment is up for debate."

Justin bit back a snicker. "She's nice enough to me and her dancers and those kind of people. And she's got pipes man. I just…dunno. Don't like her. She mistreats people she doesn’t strictly have to be nice to and when she smiles at me its like she's taught her face how to position itself correctly for all kinds of situations. It freaks me out. She didn't used to be like that. I totally had to get JC's advice before deciding whether to ask Britney or her out the first time, when we were all on the Club. She just had spark back then, got herself into all kinds of craziness. She's always worn confidence well, but…maybe it's the drugs. I wish she was the same person though, I mean, at least a little bit, on the inside."

"She probably is, babe. Just deeper inside, where people she doesn't want to can't see it. And no offence, Timberlake, but known for your discretion is one thing you are not."

Justin knew that. "Which really is unfair because except for one streak of bitchiness, I've been incredibly discreet my entire life."

"People only remember your mistakes, Just."

Justin walked to the back of his bus and curled up on the middle of his bed. "Yeah, evidently." He changed the subject. "I've been listening to my CDs."

"Oh?" Howie's interest was piqued. "Anything you like?"

"How'd you get the bootleg of Joey doing 'What You Own'? It sounds clean, too. And that's, like, my favorite song of all of his."

"I know," Howie's response was smug.

"You do, do you?" Justin closed his eyes, blocking out images that could interfere with the sound of Howie's voice. There were times when having an aural memory was worth well beyond its weight in gold.

"I have connections," Howie stage whispered.

"Oh, you called Joey." Justin thought he succeeded in sounding casual, but actually, this fact felt huge to him. He wondered for a moment if he would have just called up Kevin or Nick or Brian to put together a gift for Howie. He wasn't sure.

"Yeah, he let me talk to Briahna and everything," Howie bubbled. "She knows a lot of words for someone who isn't even two."

Justin grinned with pride. "She's a smart cookie. I like the song you wrote, too." The song was rough, Howie sang it without accompaniment of any sort, and there were some points where it was obvious he was still working out the kinks. Justin suggested, "The third measure could use some sort of bridging effect, I think that would help the slight rhythm transition that happens later. Sort of an echo thing, y'know."

Howie was silent for a long time. "Yeah. Yeah, that might work! Thanks."

Justin put his hand to his stomach, sure he would be able to feel the heat of his happiness radiating from there. "I'm good at that. At, y'know, hearing things." It didn't sound like he meant it to, didn't explain anything.

"You are," Howie agreed. "I'm glad you know that."

Justin was glad they both seemed to know it.

*

Chris caught up with Justin a month into the tour. He traveled with Justin for three stops before pretending to be fed up, but Justin knew that Chris would stay if he asked it of him. Chris liked bus travel, it felt normal after all this time, and he was used to the odd rhythm of living in a small space with Justin.

On the last stop that Chris was along for, the two of them hit a few of the bars together, danced at some of the clubs, made a good show of being out on the town, and then went back to the hotel, ready to play video games and watch basketball and be each other's best friends without all of the backdrops. Chris ordered every item with sugar on the menu, including the key lime pie which he hated, because he said it felt like it was crawling in his mouth. Justin spent a good ten minutes running around the room after Chris trying to feed him a piece before settling down and eating the pie himself. He enjoyed the cool slide of citrus down his throat.

Chris settled on the rather traditional chocolate cake as his first dessert of choice and sat down to eat it. Justin thought about commenting about how old Chris was getting, but Chris beat him to speaking. "You gonna invite Howie out?"

Justin rolled his eyes. "Chris, as it is, the only thing that keeps Miss Co-Headliner unsuspecting about the conspicuous lack of women in my life is the fact that she's too fucked up to notice that I never take any back with me."

"Maybe she'll think Howie's a girl," Chris suggested flippantly.

"Fuck off." Justin gave Chris a knowing look. "He's anything but."

"What do you care if she knows?" Chris held up a hand to forestall whatever Justin was going to answer. "Look, not to burst your carefully maintained bubble world, kid, but your sexual orientation is something of an open secret and if it wasn't before the whole 'I've never seen the other guys' dicks' thing, it is now. X or Y or Ztina over there isn't gonna say a word to the public at large. She needs your ticket sales as much as you need them. So why should it matter if she knows?"

"Howie hasn't said anything. He hasn't been like, 'gee, I'm gonna be near where you have that show, that night, and maybe we should meet up' or anything."

Chris screwed up his face. "So?"

"Chris. I- I really like him."

Chris shook his head. "Still not getting this form of Timber-speak."

"I like him enough that I actually kind of want us to be an open secret, even if my orientation hadn't been before, I would want this to change that," Justin tried again.

"Keep going," Chris instructed.

"And well, he hasn't mentioned wanting to visit and if I ask and he's hesitant than that means he doesn’t really feel that way in return, since he'll understand that the invite is really more than just an invite at this point."

"That was just an excruciatingly long way of saying you're afraid of rejection?" Chris looked at him disbelievingly.

"Are you still crushing on that graphics girl?" Justin asked suspiciously.

"Jen," Chris corrected, "and no, I'm not. We're dating, buttmunch, which you would know if you ever bothered to fucking check your email."

"Really? How long? Why didn't you say something over the phone, asswipe?" Justin was not one to let random name calling go unanswered.

"Less than a week, it took me a while to get her to say yes, we haven't even actually had the first date. It's kind of fragile at this point. Don't change the subject."

"What were we…oh, right. Of course I'm afraid of rejection, everyone's afraid of rejection."

"You didn't used to be. You chased Britney until she got tired of running."

Justin snorted, "And look where that got me."

"Why did you keep chasing her? How did you know you'd get her?"

Justin winced. "Because that's what everyone had told me."

"Why do you want to chase Howie?"

There was a longer silence before Justin answered, "Because he's calm, and a great friend. He knows I'm materialistic, and that most of the time I struggle to think anything I do is worthwhile, and he doesn't seem bothered by either of those issues. He hears different things in music but he trusts my opinion on what it is I'm hearing." Justin tilted his head. "The sex is really hot."

Chris glared. "TMI."

"Just saying."

Chris sighed. "It's harder to face rejection when you recognize the possibility of it occurring, Jup. Doesn't everything you just told me make it worth the risk, though? Maybe not everyone is telling you this will work out, but it seems to me that you're telling you that. Nothing else should matter, kid."

Justin let his mind drift around quiet fantasies of bumping against Howie in the too-small walking areas of the bus, Howie grinning at their mistake, the both of them taking advantage of it. "Maybe nothing else does."

*

Howie didn't even hesitate. He caught up with Justin one city after Justin had posed the question, which made Justin think that Howie had probably just been waiting for Justin to open his mouth.

Howie was different on the bus than either JC or Chris. He didn't get in the way as much as Chris did nor did he stay hidden away like JC. He cohabitated easily, the same way he had in the much larger living space that was Justin's house.

Justin told him honestly, intensely grateful to have someone to listen, "I don't think I like touring by myself."

"Christina-" Howie started, but was silenced by the look in Justin's eyes. "Yeah, probably not the same, huh?"

"Not even remotely. Is Nick enjoying it?"

Howie considered the question. "Maybe more than you are. Maybe."

That was something, at least. "We've been conditioned," Justin admitted, gravely.

"Mm." Howie pressed his lips together. "I could stay. If you wanted."

The offer was calm, and Justin wouldn’t have recognized the tiny spark of vulnerability in it if he hadn't been so intimately acquainted with the feeling himself. "I do want. I…" Justin let go of a breath he wasn't sure when he had began holding. "Wow."

"Yeah," Howie's smile was goofy. "Wow."

"There are things we probably need to consider." It had taken a moment for that thought to consciously settle in Justin's mind. He didn't care.

"You have good PR people. I'm sure we can work something out." Howie didn't sound worried.

"I shouldn’t do this to them." Justin didn't sound like he really cared.

The look in Howie's eyes might have been pride.

*

Near to the end of the tour, Justin woke up to an empty bed and the feel of the bus moving beneath him. He tumbled out of bed and made his way blearily to the front of the bus. Howie was there, looking out the window, holding a mug between his two palms. Justin slid in the bench seat behind him. "Morning."

Howie silently passed the mug back to Justin. Justin took a tiny sip. The coffee wasn't too hot, or even too bitter, the way Howie normally took his, and Justin took another sip before handing it back. Howie shook his head, "It's for you, I already had one."

Justin took another sip in appreciation. "How'd you know I'd be up?"

Howie turned his body so that he was facing Justin, his back leaning up against the window. "Just did. I've gotten used to you."

"Are you saying I'm predictable, Dorough?" Justin gave a half-hearted snarl.

Howie didn't answer, instead redirecting his gaze to the table, where LA's skyline lay, a few gaps of the white table showing through in certain areas, where the pieces hadn't covered them yet. Justin followed his line of sight. "Almost done."

Howie had done a good portion of the middle, Justin having finished the border and two of the corners by the time he had come. His mouth quirked. "What would you have done if I hadn't come and joined you? LA would have a big hole in the center of it."

"LA wouldn’t be the only thing in that condition." Justin blushed.

Howie kissed the tip of his ear. "You're sweet in the mornings."

"Only in the mornings?" La Timberlake was back.

Howie kissed the bottom of Justin's jaw. "You're sexy in the evenings."

Justin's breath cut off. He hadn't been expecting an answer. "Oh. Um. Yes. Mr. Sexy, that's me."

Howie kissed his mouth, lightly. "You're strong when cornered."

Justin looked into Howie's eyes, mere inches from his. "You're just strong." He set the coffee mug, almost empty, down on the table. He averted his gaze, back to the puzzle. He plucked a piece spotted in the corner of his eye and used it to fill in one of the white areas. At the same time, Howie fit another piece almost directly below it. Their knuckles brushed.

Justin began to search out the next piece.


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile