It isn't so much that Britney wants Madonna as that she wants what Madonna has. The two kids who adore her, the husband who loves her in a fierce, if not particularly possessive manner, the modicum of respect when people say her name. As all she can have is Madonna, Britney is more than willing to settle.
Still, they're as casual as two people who have been sleeping together for over two years while sharing parts of each other's lives with one another can be, and Madonna, who's on location with Guy in London, has ordered, "Go out, see some friends, or something."
Which Britney supposes is why she ends up at Justin's release party.
It's his second album and she's heard it, it's solid, if not really her thing. He let her listen to it a month before the first single was played, nearly four months earlier. Two years of being in love with the boy, another two years of hating his guts and she was finally remembering what about him had been so alluring in the first place. Britney thinks that she may have been with Justin to vicariously live out being part of something. At the end of the day, Britney has always known that Fe is her mom's friend, and her dancers are paid to stay around, but Chris, JC, Joey and Lance had never left and would never leave Justin. Not even after they disbanded and it would have looked natural.
She doesn't blame Justin for thinking it wasn't enough to keep them together. Not anymore. Which puts him on the increasingly short list of people she considers friends.
She's bored, just about ready to climb in her convertible -- the only thing she's kept since she was sixteen -- and get out of there when Kevin Richardson walks through the door.
Britney is well trained enough not to gape, but damn if she doesn't want to. Last she'd heard, Kevin was holing up while completing the divorce papers from his wife, who (rather cruelly, in Britney's opinion) publicly cited his inability to father children as the reason for the split. Plus, there's the fact that Britney opened for NSYNC in the early days, she knows all about Kevin's less than amicable feelings toward its members.
Britney's come to expect smoothness from Kevin, so it's comforting to watch him swipe champagne off a passing waiter's tray. It's less comforting to watch him nurse it, as though he knows how aware he needs to be. Too close to home.
Kevin is methodical in his rounds, getting to Justin as early as possible to congratulate him and move on, carefully avoiding the Jive executives, chatting up some new starlet. He disappears, probably to the bathroom, and Britney tells herself to go home. She isn't even sure why she's stayed this long. Kevin certainly doesn't have anything that she wants.
When he sidles up behind her, though, and asks, "Wanna go somewhere?" she doesn't ask where, she just hooks her hand in the crook of his proffered arm, and lets him lead the way.
Somewhere ends up being her place, since Kristin is currently the owner of Kevin's domicile. She makes expresso, something Guy taught her, and serves it with too much Cool Whip, fabulously aware of just how gauche this is.
Kevin takes some onto the tip of his tongue, washing it down with the still-scalding beverage. "Surprisingly tasty."
Britney flushes. She's not used to people saying nice things about her, not unless they're after something. Kevin isn't looking at her, though, isn't adding a suggestive lilt to his voice, isn't doing anything other than sipping continuously and checking out her place. "Guy says I make it too sweet. He says it's very American of me."
"There are worse things to be," Kevin tells her, and doesn’t pretend like he doesn't know which Guy she's talking about. Which is pleasant, because Britney hates playing twenty questions when the answers are foregone conclusions.
"Yeah, well, I'm probably quite a few of those as well."
Kevin chuckles softly. "Like Timberlake's new album?"
"Not particularly. But it's gonna sell like music is going out of style." Justin still has some things Britney wants.
Kevin raises a questioning eyebrow at her tone. "Miss when it was easy?"
Britney remembers those days, when her handlers were constantly on her to lose weight, and the press couldn't say a nice word about her unless they were talking about market shares. "I miss being something other than hated."
Kevin finishes off the last of his coffee. "Yeah."
Britney can't hold in her curiosity any longer. "Why were you there tonight?"
Kevin thinks about it for so long she's not sure he's going to answer when he says, "I guess I was just trying to make sure I'm still me."
Britney's done that before, after Justin, when she wasn't even sure who Britney was, let alone that she could still be her. "How's that going for you?"
He catches her eyes. "Better, now."
Kevin stops by, three mornings later, hands overflowing with pansies and azaleas. "Can I come in?"
It's not even nine in the morning. "How'd you know I'd be up?"
"You seem like the kind of person who likes to get things done."
She steps back, and closes the door when he's all the way in. He hands her the flowers. She takes them, leaning in so that her face is practically part of the bouquet. "This is nice. Unusual."
"You're welcome. Got any food?"
"I toast bagels with the best of 'em," Britney boasts.
"If you have eggs, I'll scramble 'em. Top off your gourmet toasted feast."
Britney shakes her head as if unsure. "That's almost a complete nutritional breakfast."
"Pop out the Cocoa Puffs and we'll be set."
Britney makes a slight face of disgust. "You'll have to settle for orange juice."
"The things a man does for friendship."
For all his protesting, Kevin polishes off two glasses. Not to be outdone, Britney eats a full bagel, trumping his half. She's slightly mad at herself afterward, thinking about the extra time it means in the gym when Kevin interrupts her musings, "Beautiful and handy in the kitchen. Quite a combo, Miss Brit."
It's been so long since somebody's looked at her and called her beautiful; not sexy, sensuous, stunning, shocking or curvaceous, just beautiful. Paired with the way he overlooks the fact that she likes bagels slightly less toasted than most people, still pretty soft, and the way the sweetly diminutive nickname rolls off his lips, it's almost enough to make her cry. As it is, she gets up, clearing both their dishes into the sink.
"Whatever it was, I'm sorry."
Over the sound of the running water, she comes near to begging. "Please don't be. Please."
He comes over one night at seven-thirty, French pastries in one hand, a bottle of wine in the other. "Have any boardgames?"
So they play Scrabble, which Britney loses horribly at, bus school having done her vocabulary no favors. He lets her win at Life, which they have a go at afterward. Her pride is less hurt than it should be.
He feeds her a little bit of the pastry with mounds of chocolate cream oozing out the middle, laughing at the way it gets all over. His finger gently wipes it away from the corners of her mouth. "Bit of a slob, Miss Brit."
His smile is surprisingly bright and headily painful. Britney knows she should tell him not to come back. She opens her mouth. "So, have any plans for Friday?"
Britney is a bit trepidatious at first, but when they arrive and she sees that the average age of the other people in the room is about three times her own she gets it and relaxes. "Fair enough, nobody's going to find us here."
It's even more of a relief knowing that when he waltzes around the dance floor with her and she steps on his toes twice. "Sorry, sorry."
He dips her. "Everyone does that at first."
"I wasn't quite Debutante material growing up, you know. No reason to really learn this stuff." Britney had gone to school with those kinds of girls before the Club. Girls who made fun of her perfectly fine white Mary Janes because they weren't real Mary Janes, but the knockoffs from Payless Shoe Source. Girls who called her white trash and pushed their way past her in the cafeteria line.
He takes away some of the sting by whirling her around. "Closer to it than me, anyway. You would've been quite the uptown girl in my youth."
"I would've been quite the infant in your youth."
He snickers. "Just for that-"
Britney steps on his toes three times before he completes whatever maneuver he leads her into. A woman who looks to be about one hundred and six coos, "Young love."
Britney is sickeningly happy when Kevin doesn’t correct her.
She kisses him in a moment where she's not paying attention. She's watching the numbers slide lower and lower on the microwave screen, bouncing to the rhythm of popping corn when he comes up behind her, probably to ask where she keeps the soda. His hand brushes her hip to call her attention to him and she turns, and engages her lips.
What she's doing is announced to her brain about a half a second later and she backs up. "Shit, sorry."
He raises his eyebrows. "Popcorn make you horny?"
The popcorn has nothing to do with it, but she snarks, "Melted butter, gets me every time."
He leans in, "Don't mind, I'm just gonna take advantage of that."
Britney decides he's too good a kisser to really mind much of anything.
She calls Madonna, "I shouldn't do this on the phone." But they promised each other, after the first few weeks, when Madonna had told Guy and things had stabilized, they had promised that they would always tell each other first if things had changed.
"Who is it?" Madonna sounds like she expected this. Britney sometimes forgets that Madonna doesn't know everything. She puts on a damn good show of it.
"Baby, don't be somebody's rebound."
Britney smiles at the concern underneath the consternation. "We just kissed. It's nothing. But I have this thought that maybe, when all his shit is done and over with that I want it to be. And that's enough to be making this call, y'know?"
Unsurprisingly, Madonna does.
Kevin leaves town to check on his momma and brothers, biological and otherwise. He calls her from Florida, where Nick still lives in a tiny cottage by the sea, "I miss you."
She's spent the last five days forcing herself to ignore the note he left on her refrigerator. The one that says, "If you need anything, 213-418-7642." Those three words are reassuring. "Me too."
"You miss yourself?"
Britney rolls her eyes. "You knew what I meant."
"Brian said to say hi."
"You told Brian we were hanging out?"
"I tell Brian everything."
Britney feels the sharp bite of jealousy sink its way into her stomach at that type of closeness. "Um, well, hi Brian, I guess."
"I tell him everything important," Kevin clarifies.
The sting of jealousy fades into something Britney only vaguely recognizes as giddiness. "When're you gonna be back?"
"Soon as I'm ready."
Against her normal policy, Britney pretends she doesn’t hear double meanings in that.
He comes back late in the fall, when Britney's intuition tells her it should be getting cold, even if it isn't. He's stopped back on through Atlanta one more time before returning and he brings a tin of Leighanne's peach pie, filled with no other than the famous Georgia peach.
He tells her about Baylee's adventures in preschool and Nick's girl troubles and Howie's new house and that AJ's new goal in life is to become skilled at chess. Kevin gives this latest interest three months.
"Nick told me to come back." He swallows before he speaks. Britney appreciates things like that.
"You listened to Nick?" Her confidence in the situation is not so overwhelming that it can afford to be rocked this way.
"Specifically he told me that if I was going to be distracted all the fucking time that I might as well go take care of what was distracting me."
Britney cuts a baked peach into molecular units. "So you came to take care of me."
"I was hoping it could be a bit more mutual than you're making it sound."
It's only been four months since Kevin signed papers saying that he no longer belonged to the woman he'd been possessed by for nearly fifteen years. But Britney knows the look in people's eyes when they're not really seeing her. Whatever Kevin sees when he focuses in on her, it's Britney. That doesn't change the fact that, "We shouldn't."
"How many times in your life have you defied that maxim?"
Once. Twice. One hundred times. Maybe more. "This scares me."
"Not near as much as it does me, I'm pretty sure." Kevin's knuckles are white, peering over the edge of the table that he's gripping.
His fear reminds her of how very little he has that she wants. How very little there is to project onto her life. It reminds her of how, when she's with him, there doesn't seem like very much to want. "Maybe. We could try. That's all I'm saying."
He bumps his knee against hers under the table. "Sure, girl. That's fine."