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Lance glanced at the number on the screen before flipping his phone open. "I'm not in the mood, J."

He almost wished he hadn't said it when Justin replied, "Oh. Kay. Why'd you answer your phone, then?"

Almost. "Because you would've kept calling. Then you would've complained to Joey, who would've gotten on my ass about it. And quite honestly, I've dealt with enough for you these past two weeks. I had to talk to Kevin fucking Richardson because you didn't have the foresight to ask where your now ex-boyfriend was going when you kicked him out of the house and instead decided to freak out after the fact when you couldn't find him. No offense, but it wasn't even really your business where he'd gone at that point and the only reason why I bothered to help out was because I like Nick, and C was worried."

"I guess everyone can stop worrying. He's with his real boyfriend now."

Lance would have laughed except that Justin didn't sound petulant. He sounded…sad. "Look, J-"

"I know, you're busy and there's no longer a band so I can't have possibly called to talk business and you'll call me when you get a chance, probably Monday, this weekend's a mess, I know. I'll talk to you then."

With that, the phone line went dead before Lance had a chance to correct Justin. He stared at the phone for a bit, considering calling back. Instead, he went into the phone's built in palm pilot and put a better plan into action.

*

Bella and Bearlie were on Lance before he even got his foot in the door. He bent down to scoop both Yorkies up and they squirmed in his grip, licking happily at every square inch of skin afforded them. "Where's daddy?"

Unsurprisingly, all the question garnered was another bevy of dog kisses. Lance shut the door behind himself and wandered into the kitchen. The place was immaculate, which either meant that the maid had been there earlier in the day, or that Justin wasn't eating. Lance set the dogs on the floor and shouldered his bag onto one of the bar stools.

Bella and Bearlie followed at his heels as he made his way through the house, his shouts of "J!" ringing with less and less expectancy. Finally, he gave up and rooted through the refrigerator for a snack. There were a few cans of soda and not much else that wasn't past its expiration date. He grabbed one of the Cherry Crème Sodas and set to cleaning out the fridge.

He had thrown everything out and was soaking the glass shelves in the sink, ready to scrub them, when Justin appeared in the doorway. "Um. That was my refrigerator."

Lance found soap and water cleaning a rather Zen experience and so was able to reply rather evenly, "It will be again once I'm done with it. Ebola free, even."

"Ebola was not hanging out in my crisper," Justin attested. "Why are you here?"

Lance finished scrubbing one of the shelves and lifted it from the sink, shaking it to remove excess water. "There was a cheap flight, I thought you could use some company."

"I don't-"

"If you tell me you don’t need a pity visit, I'm gonna kick your ass with the aid of your own refrigerator parts," Lance warned.

Justin walked to one of the bar stools and slumped into it. "There wasn't any harm in letting me at least say it."

Lance sighed. "Maybe I needed a pity visit too."

Justin traced an invisible pattern on the surface of his bar. "I'm sure."

"Fuck you," Lance laughed, and it was almost amused laughter. "You're not the only one who believed in forever."

"I didn't think you believed in anything," Justin replied and went white. "I don't. I didn't mean-"

"You did mean it. You don’t pay attention to fucking anything, J."

Justin argued, "I paid attention to Nick."

Lance couldn't deny that. For all the good it had done Justin, he'd known everything about his other half of nearly five years. Everything down to the fact that it was time to let go. Even if Justin hadn't done it exactly the way Lance would have, Lance couldn't bring himself not to feel some sympathy for him. Still, "That was your choice. He would've loved you forever."

"And I would have always been someone he loved because loving comes naturally to him."

"Just because you weren't his or Joey's first choice doesn’t mean you can't be anyone's, J. Nor does it mean…" Lance smiled sardonically, "I mean, I wasn't your guys's first choice, right?"

Justin fixed him with a rather enigmatic look. "You were the choice that mattered. The choice that I made thinking it was forever."

"Forever isn't encapsulated in stadium tours and name-brand merchandise," Lance admonished. "I'm here, aren't I?"

Justin looked skeptical. Lance gave up for the moment and set to the drying/reassembling portion of his self-assigned task.

*

"Checkers?" Lance offered.

Justin threw him an odd look, but agreed. "Sure. I'm red."

"I would never have guessed."

Justin was always red. He swore it gave him good luck, which Lance wondered at, since Justin lost at checkers far more often than he won. Against any of them. Even Chris, whose attention span for board games was about as long as his constantly-bitten fingernails.

"You want the first move?" Lance asked.

"We're not gonna flip for it?"

"Gift horses and mouths, J."

Justin took the words to heart. "Right." He moved one of his pieces toward the center.

They played in silence for five moves before Lance took three of Justin's pieces in succession and Justin demanded, "Is this why you're here? To defeat me at checkers?"

"No, but I already cleaned your refrigerator and I was getting bored." Lance saw an opening to take more of Justin's little red guys, but in an odd moment of mercy, chose another move.

"Don't," Justin muttered through a clenched jaw.

"Play nice?" Lance inquired.

"Allow me a pity win. The only person I've ever thrown away any pretense of pride with was Joey and he fucking threw it in my face. I won’t have you doing it too."

"Joey didn't mean-"

"I don't fucking care what Joey did or didn't mean!" Justin stood up, pushing the board nearly into Lance's chest, tiny round discs flying everywhere. He stalked toward one of several walls in the house positively dripping with pictures of the five of them, but before he could do anything stupid, Lance was on him, arms around his stomach, pulling him backward.

Justin struggled and most likely would have broken free, except that Lance's soft commanding, "Stop. Stop it, J," caused him to crumble, taking Lance down with him. He didn't apologize, too busy breathing.

"J-"

"Why doesn't he-" Justin was keening more than anything else, his words faint moans of frustration and hurt, "Why am I not-"

"J, please, c'mon, it’s not like that. Joey loves you. We all love you. He just doesn't love having to leave his kids all the time anymore. He doesn't…he wants his wife and his family and you're not them."

Justin went limp. "He's my family. You… But you're gonna go and do the things you do and it's gonna be like hiatus, when the only time I ever hear from you is when you send me a chain email that you found funny and Joey will send those 'family update' things that he doesn't even bother pretending he isn't sending to the one hundred and three people he doesn't have time to actually call and Chris'll disappear and we'll have to search for him because he forgets how to be a responsible human being when you're not around to kick his ass and C…holy shit. I mean, what if C just gets wrapped up in a project and forgets to sleep for three weeks? They commit people for shit like that. And there's nobody around to make sure-"

"Justin. C's not gonna go crazy. And I'll call you every day if that's what you want. And I had Chris's right ear tagged with a radio tracking device."

"Really?" Justin perked up slightly.

"No, but I did have all of his cars and bikes bugged with them. And I swore that I would set Bev on him if he ever 'forgot to call' one of us before setting off on a cross-country or cross-oceanic trip."

Justin nodded. "I guess that'll have to do."

Lance ran his hand over Justin's fuzzed head. "Joey's gonna invite you over all the time, you dick. You’re his free baby-sitter."

It was evidently not the right thing to say, as Lance almost immediately felt Justin shuddering against his legs. There was no sound, but Lance had lived on a bus with Justin all the while that Justin was learning how to cry without giving himself away. The fact that he was moving at all was incredibly expressive of him.

Lance let Justin cry himself out, falling asleep next to him on the plush carpeting when it was all over.

*

Lance woke up still on the floor but with a blanket thrown over him. The light from the windows indicated that it was late afternoon. He got up, folded the blanket and threw it over the nearest chair.

He found Justin in his rec room, playing the computer at a video game. Justin glanced away from the screen long enough to see Lance shake his head when he offered, "Wanna join?"

Justin won the round and turned off the game. "I'm sorry I was a bitch."

"Really?"

Justin nodded, "Yeah."

"Okay, then I'll take you out to dinner."

"Mexican?" Justin bounced on his feet a little.

"Next time," Lance promised. "Howie told me about this new place that I wanna try."

Justin pouted but went to go put his shoes on. He met Lance in the car ten minutes later, smelling faintly of expensive, understated cologne and wearing a pair of jeans that didn't have holes in them. All in all, Lance felt honored. "I would've mentioned if there was a dress code."

Justin buckled his seat belt. "Better safe than sorry."

Lance knew that people all over the world said that, but he was pretty sure that small Southern ladies like his mama and Lynn Harliss had created the saying. "Right."

The place was a trendy Eurobistro run by a pair of chefs who had both been large on the New York dining scene before they married and moved to Orlando to open their own place and pop out children at roughly the same rate as entrees. The article Howie had sent Lance had mentioned four children in a little over four years. A fifth was on the way. Justin took one look at the menu and fished for his cell phone. Ten minutes and a conversation with JC later he was evidently ready to order.

The food was excellent, as Howie had told him it would be, and Lance jotted a note to himself in his palm pilot to consider backing any other ventures the two chefs got themselves up to, assuming they had time in between creating the next generation of Floridians.

In the middle of dessert, mid-bite, Justin asked, "You' 'onna 'eave tomowow, awen't 'ou?"

It came out sounding odd, since Justin was eating the ice cream they made in-house, and his tongue was slightly numb, but Lance got the message. "Either that or the next day. I have a meeting in LA later this week."

Justin concentrated on making a moat for his hot fudge sauce for several minutes. "And then?"

"I dunno. I'm not really expecting much to come of the meeting, it's for a movie, but… I think I'm feeling apathetic." Lance took a bite of his raspberry tart, not feeling overly concerned. He had invested his money well, he could afford to be apathetic for the rest of his given life if he so chose.

"Would you feel apathetic about helping me put together an album?" The words came out so quickly that Justin couldn't have taken a breath during the entire statement.

Lance bit into a raspberry, savoring the tanginess. "You know that's not really my thing. I always left that up to you guys."

"Look, you said you're not really up to much right now, so even if it ends up being a tremendous waste of your time, it's not really that big a deal, right?"

That wasn't exactly what Lance had said, but he didn't feel like pressing the issue. "Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why me? Why do you want me to do this?"

Justin hefted a large scoop of ice cream dripping in hot sauce onto his spoon. "Because you pay attention."

*

Lance flew out to LA and had his meeting. The moment he was in a cab back to the hotel he picked up his phone and told it he wanted to speak to Justin. It dialed for him.

"How'd the meeting go?"

It was sweet of Justin to ask, even if Lance knew he was hoping for a negative response. "Pretty much as I expected. I want credit on the album, J."

"Fuck, you can have equal billing," Justin laughed. "It could even boost sales."

Lance doubted that. One of the reasons Joey had cited for his intent to leave the group -- the fact that Justin's name was now far more reason to buy an NSYNC album than the other four of them put together -- was a proven fact, not just Joey's perception of things. Justin was a bona fide superstar. "And if I need to pick up and do shit, you can't freak out on me. I'll keep in touch, I just can't…there could be opportunities, right?"

"Right," Justin agreed firmly.

As those were really Lance's only conditions, he asked, "So what does this album sound like?"

"It sounds…"

Justin seemed lost for words, so Lance offered, "I mean, is this a tribute to Dre and his crowd, or a wedding gift for Beyonce and Jay-Z-"

"They're so never gonna get married," Justin snorted. "Engaged, my ass."

Lance went on as if he hadn't been interrupted, "Or maybe you've seen the light of Latin influence and are trying for a return of thoroughly Americanized Latino pop."

"Actually, I was thinking of an entire album of J-pop. How does that sound?"

"Like a disaster waiting to happen, but one that would probably be fun in the meantime."

"It's not J-pop," Justin told him, "more's the pity. I dunno. It's hard to explain. It sounds…well, it kind of sounds like us, only not. There's a couple of slow songs I've been writing and when I try'em out, I feel like Billie Holliday. There's one dance song so far, C's been listening as I go along, it's…I guess it's what would happen if a garage band suddenly went pop. I've probably been listening to too much punk lately. Nick's fault."

Punk was Justin's angry-and-hurt music. Which was almost a relief, considering that he tended to listen to some pretty hard-hitting rap music when feeling good. "Let it happen, J. You have good instincts."

"Liar."

"Well," Lance amended, "when it comes to this stuff. You know what sounds good for you, what you can make an audience move to."

"I don’t think I'm very punk," Justin reported glumly. "Or very 1950's jazz diva."

"Pleading the fifth."

"Asshole."

"Don’t give up on yourself, J," Lance advised. "You haven't yet disappointed."

"You guys have always been there to buffer the situation if I was about to."

"I'm still here."

Justin's breathing was sharp for a moment. "Just get back here, okay?"

"I'm coming."

*

Lance had the cab take him straight to the studio from the airport. Justin hadn't told him that was where he would be, but every time they'd spoken in the daylight hours of the past week, Lance had been able to hear audio techs fussing around in the background.

Sure enough, when he asked the receptionist she told him what rooms Justin was working out of and gave him access to go on up. Lance walked the flight of stairs rather than wait for an elevator and strolled down the hall, slipping into the sound room rather than the actual recording studio. Justin was singing, his eyelids drooping the way they did when he was trying to shut out everything but his own sounds.

Diva jokes aside, Justin was damned good at sultry. Lance listened to him croon the slow R&B tune with a considerable amount of style and more sadness than Lance wanted to be able to hear. He wondered if that was going to be the trademark sound of this album.

It was good. Excellent, even.

He hoped it changed.

Justin finished the song with a surprisingly uncomplicated ending, no trills or riffs, just a note held for a few seconds and then reluctantly let go. He sat on the bench, breathing into the mic for a little while before opening his eyes. They caught on Lance. "So, too diva?"

"No," Lance shook his head. "Just the right amount of diva. The bridge needs work. It's jolting."

Justin carefully extracted himself from all of the recording material and walked out of the recording booth into the sound room. "I've been thinking that. I'm just not exactly sure why. It should work. I played it for C on a keyboard and we both agreed, the notes are fine. So it's something else, I just don’t have any clue as to what."

"Stop thinking about it, let me for a bit."

Justin ran a hand over his head. "I'm always up for letting someone else's brain do mine's work."

Lance was about to come back with a suitably mock-scathing comment when he caught the look of relief in Justin's eyes. "Hey, I'll figure it out."

"I know," Justin told him. "I know that."

"Have you eaten lunch?"

Justin looked at his watch, "Um. No. Didn't realize it was so late."

Lance confirmed that it was nearly three o' clock on his watch. "Skip meals a lot?"

"I'm not C."

"Not what I asked."

"Look, I didn’t mean to, I just lost track of time."

There was an edge in Justin's voice that convinced Lance to give up. For the time being. "Let me get you something?"

"Mexican?"

"Good Mexican," Lance quantified.

"You can pick the restaurant, all right?"

"You have yourself a deal."

*

It was two weeks before Justin got drunk, showed up at the studio with a hangover, bitched Lance out for no apparent reason and Lance left. For several days. Long enough to visit Chris and bitch about Justin until he was tired of Chris's manic energy and demanding tendencies.

Justin tried apologizing when Lance showed back up. Lance waved the effort away.

Which only prompted Justin to insist, "I really wish you'd fucking listen to me."

Lance wondered if JC was up for visitors. "I do listen to you. I listen to you sing all day and I listen to you bemoan the fact that you miss the boy you cheated on for months all night."

Justin went white, which made Lance regret the words. A little bit.

"Okay." Justin turned around to disappear back through the door he had come out of to greet Lance and say sorry.

Lance followed. "You apologize because you think that's all you ever owe people."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Lance eyed the technicians in the sound booth, but they hadn't even looked up when Justin had made his dramatic re-entrance with Lance on his tail, so Lance suspected the sound between the two rooms had been turned off. "You think that if you say sorry and you mean it then it's like you didn't make the mistake in the first place. And it’s not, J. The world…saying sorry doesn't erase time."

"I've heard you apologize, Lance, so don't start telling me-"

"Of course I apologize. Because I fuck up and the people who get screwed deserve to hear it from me. But I don't apologize over trying to fix things so that my mistakes won't occur a second time. When you called me that day, and you got mad at me, I came to Florida by way of apology but it wasn't just words, J. That's all it ever is to you. And you want me to listen because you think words hold inherent meaning when they don't. Especially not between any of us."

Justin held his hands out, palms up. "What do you want me to do, Lance? What is it you're looking for?"

"I'm looking for you to start remembering that I know everything about you and I still like you. That acting like a pissant isn’t going to change that. I don't know what your deal is, I mean, I get that you put everything into Nick, I do. I get that you kept him in your house for over a week and let him puke on your carpets and try and kill you more than once and even after all that, he was still never going to love you like he did them. I know that tears you up. But there are people who love you more than anything else on this planet and I want you to stop thinking that there aren't." In addition, Lance would have liked an iced coffee and some painkillers for the headache he was pretty sure was imminent, but he knew the value of only asking for so much at one time.

"That fight we had wasn't about Nick," Justin insisted.

"Well it wasn't about the fucked up e-chord in your punk anthem either, so you tell me what it was about."

"Maybe you've stayed for too long," Justin wrapped his arms around his torso.

"I've stayed longer before."

"Maybe I don’t even know," Justin admitted.

"That I can accept."

"Why? Why is that any better than the others?"

"People who can admit there are questions are people who might be able to find the answers," Lance had read this once in a fortune cookie. He found it to be surprisingly on target.

"You want questions."

"As many as you've got." Lance rummaged in the bag still slung over his left shoulder and handed Justin his legal pad. "So you can keep track."

Justin took the pad, flipping idly through its empty pages. His fingers looked restless against the lined yellow. Lance listened to the rustle.

*

"Their new song keeps getting stuck in my head," Justin seethed. "I don’t even listen to the radio. I've heard it a grand total of once. I'm incredibly fucking annoyed right now."

"Really?" Lance goaded, trying to remember what the new BSB single sounded like. He thought there might be a neat guitar riff. It had been pretty catchy, at any rate. Which was probably why Justin kept hearing it in his head. Justin had a memory for notes that was only surpassed by JC and about two other people Lance had met in a lifetime of the music business.

That, and the fact that Justin was clearly not over Nick.

Lance had caught him wearing Nick's shirts to the studio at least twice in the weeks that he'd been recording. Lance only knew whose they were because Justin threw out anything with revealing holes in it, while Nick kept something until it fell off his body. Both shirts were practically rags. Lance spent the days praying that nobody caught Justin on film.

For their sake and for Nick's.

The second time, when Nick's one time shirt was trying to advertise what looked like an early eighties horror movie across the front of Justin's chest but was mostly succeeding in displaying the broken, falling off bits of the iron-on logo, Justin confided, "I talked to him."

He sounded a little dizzy, and Lance was hard pressed to begrudge him the comfort of the shirt. "What'd he say?"

Justin shrugged. "Stuff. He's okay. Tour's not quite there yet. Y'know."

"You wanna go? To the tour, I mean." Lance wasn't sure it was the right thing to be offering, but he needed to offer something.

"Maybe. Toward the end. When I can trust myself."

Lance hesitated for a second before trusting his inner Joey and pulling Justin into a hug. "I trust you. If I didn't I wouldn't take you. Wouldn't do to have you embarrassing me in public."

Justin attached on, clinging hard enough to hurt. "Right."

Lance ignored how good it felt, just like he'd always ignored everything about Justin. Justin was only safe when being ignored. "The opening chord on your new one sucks."

"Kick me while I'm down. Please."

Lance could hear the laughter that Justin was trying to hide. "I'm giving you something else to concentrate on. Take the out, J."

"What d'you suggest then?"

"Nuh uh," Lance enunciated. "I tell you what's wrong, you fix it. That's our deal. I told you, this isn’t my thing."

"It is," Justin argued, "you're just too afraid to let anyone know it. In case what's good enough for you and me isn't good enough for them. For all your bitching at me, you've never even figured out who matters and who doesn't."

It was only because Lance knew better than to ever let Justin know he was right about something that he said, "Fix the chord."

*

"You’re not cooking, Timberlake." Lance didn't growl or point, just stated, simply and without room for argument.

"I have a kitchen in my house, y'know. It's like, not unreasonable to assume that I can actually use it."

"Not by anyone who doesn't know you," Lance admitted.

"I'm trying to do something nice, here," Justin pointed out.

"So order from somewhere that doesn't include a guaranteed time in their delivery option and charges more then five dollars a person," Lance suggested.

Justin put his hands on his hips. "You're missing the point."

Lance looked up from his computer screen. "Actually, I'm not. You're sweet, really, J. But I'm still not eating your food. The words 'Nacho-cheese surprise' ring a bell? How 'bout, 'southern under-fried chicken'? Never again, J."

Evidently the last part of Lance's tirade had penetrated because Justin was wrinkling his nose. "You may have a point."

"It happens. It's for these moments that you pay me the big bucks."

"I do pay you the big bucks."

"You picked the one moment this evening that I wasn't being even remotely ironic to contest."

"Sorry that we're not all as quick on the uptake as you," Justin mock-apologized.

Lance finished up his typing and sent the computer into shutdown mode. "What are you ordering?"

Justin slumped into a chair. "You pick. Dinner was gonna be for you anyway."

"What were you planning on making?"

"Spaghetti and tomato sauce."

Lance wasn't exactly sure that Justin could have messed that up, but he didn't particularly want to find out. "Italian, then?"

Justin was slow to answer. "We could do that."

"Is there some reason why we wouldn't want to?"

Justin ran a hand from the nape of his neck up and over his forehead. "Every Italian place I know here is a Joey thing."

"J-"

"I know I'm being stupid."

"You're not-"

"I just need to get done being fucked up. Then we'll be fine."

Lance walked to stand behind Justin, putting his hands on Justin's shoulders. "There is such a thing as waiting too long for something that doesn't really exist."

"Joey and me as friends exists," Justin protested. "It existed for years before and after us."

"I know, but I think you may be idealizing how it existed. It was always a little quirky. You can't wait for it to become normal."

Justin arched his shoulders up. "You wanna do Marnie's for dinner?"

"Does that really exceed the five dollars per person rule?"

"Does it matter? It's the best."

Which had been proven a fact on several occasions, so Lance relented. "Sounds excellent."

"Share the cheesy breadsticks?" Justin hopped up from the chair, bouncing a little on each step toward the door.

"Only if you split them evenly." Lance knew the routine: offer to share, eat all but one. He was having none of it.

"Yeah, yeah."

*

Joey was leaning on the hood of Lance's car when he got out of the studio in the early afternoon one day. Justin was staying later, so Lance had the afternoon to do as he so wished, which suddenly was seeming ridiculously convenient. "How long have you been waiting?"

Joey looked at his watch. "An hour?"

Lance rolled his eyes. "What were you gonna do if I was in there until the evening?"

"Wait."

Lance unlocked the doors. "Get in."

Joey settled himself in the passenger side as Lance keyed the ignition and turned on the air conditioning. "You've been avoiding me," Joey accused, more confusion in the statement than anything else.

"No," Lance corrected, "I've been hanging with J, who's been avoiding you."

"Oh. Um, what's the likelihood of him getting over that anytime soon?"

Lance had the strong urge to go home and take a nap. The whole situation was exhausting. He couldn't imagine how Justin had the energy to still sing. "Maybe. I'm working on it."

It was a long time before Joey asked, "Why are you here, Lance?"

Lance took the easy way out. "I'm helping J with the album."

"I can think of things you'd probably rather be doing. Seriously, why you? JC's usually the guy who deals with traumatized Timberlake."

Lance thought it rather politic of Joey not to mention how long that had been his job. "It probably has something with me being the first one to get here. You know J, not that particular."

"Beg to differ, asshole. J's incredibly discerning."

"I didn't mean it like that, and you know it."

"Lance. If it were just a timing thing, you'd already be gone. Trust me. I know he's not talking to me right now, but I know him, really really know him in ways that I doubt any of the rest of you do."

Lance counted to ten, pushing back at his building frustration with each successive number. "Well, then I don't know, all right? He asked me to help with the CD, I like being around him, I miss being the backup. I mean, I know, you were never into that, but I was good with having someone in front of me, someone to take the real heat. And I'm not mad, Joe, but it sucks being a team player without a team."

"You two always made a good team."

Lance missed the turn he had intended on taking at the non-sequitur. "We made an awful team. He was jealous because I was older and I was jealous because he was comfortable in his skin. We spent the first five years trying to destroy each others psyches."

"You have a sister, Lance. You know how it is with family."

"I'm just here because we both needed someone," Lance protested.

"Evidently each other."

"If that were true, things wouldn't still be completely fucked." Lance made two left turns and managed to get himself back onto the right road.

"Yeah, well, maybe," Joey gave in.

"Don’t do that. I know what's going on in my own life."

Joey laughed as Lance missed another turn.

*

Lance made it clear that, "I'm going to eat this whole fucking gallon of ice cream, so if you want in, now's the moment to say something."

Justin disappeared into his kitchen and reappeared with a spoon. Lance cracked the top of the ice cream and took honorary first scoop, Justin not far from his lead. "Why are we depressed?"

"We aren't anything, except possibly codependent."

"Nah," Justin swallowed a huge lump of ice cream. "I read a book about that once, I was, uh, a little worried about the group, but we're fine, trust me. We only show like two of the symptoms on the quiz and you have to exhibit five or something to be considered truly codependent."

"If I gave you a book that wasn't written by someone claiming to be a doctor, would you read it?"

"Fuckhead," Justin drew his spoon back like a slingshot by way of threat. "Seriously, what's on your mind?"

Lance poked fiercely at the inner, more frozen layer of ice cream. "Nothing. Just… Maybe third wheel syndrome."

"There's only two of us."

"I don’t feel like I'm doing anything here," Lance tried to explain.

"Lance, I've known you for as long as I really care to remember, and for all of that time, there's never once been a moment when you thought you were doing enough. Not even when your heart was giving out, you were trying to learn new dance steps that hated you, do one show a day if not more, and try and figure out what the fuck was going on with our contracts. You're a workaholic, it's a sickness."

As Lance was not entirely unaware of this fact he allowed, "I know, but that's not the issue here. There's a difference between wanting to do too much and wanting to do something."

Justin quickly devoured three scoops of ice cream and muttered, "Can't you accept that you're here because of me? Is that such a bad thing?"

Lance meticulously scooped the ice cream lining the sides of the container. "Excuse me?"

"I know what you think of me. I know you find me to be a spoiled little shit with a head the size of his home state, but I'm still your friend and I obviously need you here and I should think, that for once, I might be of enough importance for you to just accept that and fucking stay."

Lance went still. "J-"

"Let me be the most important thing to someone. Even if you think it'll make my head larger and that that's the last thing I need. Please." Justin's voice was quiet with cold and what Lance thought he recognized as fear.

Lance gave him the ice cream. "You are, J. I don't have to let you be. You just…are." Lance stood up.

"Where are you going?" Justin sounded panicked.

"To call Joey."

"Why? Why do you need-"

"Because he knows me better than I know myself." With that, Lance left Justin with half the gallon of ice cream and his issues, and went off to go try and fix his own.

*

"This is about me and Nick," Justin told him, laying out the notes to the punk song that never sounded quite right. The lyrics were something about a girl and cheating and real, true, honest-to-everything love. Four years since the "break up", and Lance knew people would say it was about Britney.

"I know." Lance kept quiet about how he thought it was probably a little bit about Joey. Joey who had been cheating on Kelly with Justin.

"It should work."

Lance stole the music out from in front of Justin.

"What're you doing?" Justin held out his hand in a demand that Lance return the goods.

"Taking it. You need to stop thinking about it. Let me think about it for a bit. You think about…that little R&B number with the lyrical issue. Namely, lack of any."

Justin stuck his tongue out. Lance grabbed it, raising an eyebrow. Justin made sounds that Lance assumed meant, "let go." Lance asked, "You gonna keep it in your mouth?"

Justin nodded, his eyes extra-specially sincere. No sooner had Lance released his fingers than he found himself pressed up against the edge of the counter, Justin's lips on his, tongue demanding entrance. Lance just barely had time to think of the first three reasons they shouldn't be doing this when his mouth opened seemingly of its own accord and the only coherent thought he could form was, "Shit. J. Yeah."

Lance relaxed, letting the counter hold him up and Justin do all the work. Justin, for his part, was evidently pulling out his arsenal of "seduction by mouth" tricks. Every once in a while, Lance would reward him with a quick flicker of his own tongue, or something equally engaging, but mostly, he just let himself be lead, sucked, and nipped. When Justin was done, slumping into Lance, Lance scolded, "I thought I told you to keep your tongue in your own mouth."

"You didn't bite it," Justin panted. "I figured that was permission enough."

Lance grunted.

"Was I not supposed to?" Justin's voice was small, making its way into and hiding in the hollow of Lance's throat.

Lance brought a hand up and cupped it over the back of Justin's head. "I need to know if this a rebound thing." He waited a second before adding, "Or a substitution thing."

"I've known you too long for the substitution thing," Justin answered immediately. It was a bit longer before he said, "I want…I want whatever it is we're doing. Like, no diagrams or plans or maps, right? I…if it is a rebound, I don't know. I don’t think so, but I'm afraid to promise."

Lance's fingers tightened slightly. "If it is, you're gonna need to tell me that. The minute you find out."

"I know. I know this part, Lance. I don't want to hurt you. That I'm clear on."

"Who says I can be hurt?" Lance blustered quietly.

"I've known you too long for the macho thing, too."

*

It was Saturday afternoon and Lance was very happily sprawled out over Justin, who was attempting to work, when the doorbell rang. Justin didn't even look up as he said, "Your turn."

"My turn to what, exactly?" Lance demanded.

"Do something." Justin shifted up slightly so that Lance had no choice but to roll off.

Lance gave Justin a suitably nasty look, picked himself up from the floor, and went to go see who was bothering them. His only response to the person on the other side of the door was, "Aren't you supposed to be in LA, working on your own shit?"

JC set down his bags and hugged Lance in spite of the rude greeting. "My own shit was boring me. I needed a change of scenery."

Lance squeezed back. He was better with actions than words. JC broke the hug off just as Justin yelled, "Who is it?"

Lance yelled back, "Nobody!"

JC grinned and picked his bags back up, moving everything inside. Lance was closing the door as Justin made his way into the hall, "Why's nobody taking so fucking- oh. Oh!"

JC took getting slammed with six foot plus of heavier-than-he-looks Timberlake with surprising aplomb. Lance tended to forget that JC was far more Clark Kent than Joey could ever dream of being. Mild-mannered popstar by day, physical and emotional champion of the weak by night.

Lance finally broke the two of them apart. "How long are you staying?"

Justin lead them through the house so that JC could settle in as JC answered, "Probably until I'm ready to deal with my own shit again."

Lance was well aware that was JC-speak for "Until I've gotten what I came for," but not knowing what JC had come for, he kept quiet.

When they reached the room, Justin took one of the bags from JC and set to unpacking the unexpected guest. He was half-way to the bottom of the bag when he exclaimed, "Jesus, Jace. Even I don't pack this many pairs of shoes."

Which, judging from the three shoe boxes Justin had unearthed, was a total lie, but still, JC was more of a wear-your-Reebok-low-tops-until-they-crumble-back-into-the-earth-from-whence-they-came kind of guy, so Lance understood Justin's surprise.

"Not shoes," JC corrected. "Presents. Yours is the blue box, Lance's is the orange."

Justin glanced at Lance, "Mind if I open'em?"

Bowled over by the fact that Justin had managed to wait long enough to ask, Lance graciously gave his permission, "Sure."

Justin lifted the top of the blue box and trilled, "Dude. Duuuude."

"What'd we get?" Lance asked.

Justin lifted one of the box's contents for Lance to see. "Roller skates! Shoes with wheels on them. It doesn't get any better than that."

Lance could see how that might be true in Justin's world. He couldn’t, and didn't want to, imagine a world in which they made the perfect gift, but he bet that was true of JC's universe, so he smiled, "Thanks, C."

JC nodded, "You're welcome. I got myself a pair too, I thought we'd all try'em out together."

"Ooh! Can we?" Justin was vibrating with so much excitement Lance was getting assaulted with it clear across the room.

He enjoyed the feel of it. "Whatever," he agreed as nonchalantly as possible. He doubted he looked as cool as JC when, a second later, he found himself the sole support of a too-excited, just-happy-enough Justin Timberlake.

*

"There has to be some kind of cosmic unfairness that Justin Timberlake was ever able to have come into being," Lance mused. He and JC were rolling cautiously along the sidewalk, holding hands and praying to avoid a repeat of the last six times one of them had fumbled, nearly killing the both of them. Ahead of them, Justin was sailing, flipping back and forth intermittently to see if he could handle navigating backwards.

"Nah. There's lots of things Justin can't do. You just never catch him trying."

Lance wasn't biting. "Oh yeah, like what?"

"Well, changing a tire, for one. My dad taught Heather and me that when I was in fifth grade, said it was a skill every human being should have, but evidently nobody felt that Justin fit into that category. Or saving everything on a defunct computer onto disk so that you won't lose it in a crash. I've seen you do that a million times and neither Justin nor I can figure it out."

"I'll teach you," Lance offered, "it's not hard."

"So you say, techno-boy, but honestly, the graphs in the Wall Street Journal make my heard hurt. The articles I'm fine on, but the minute all those numbers in odd formation start up, I'm as good as illiterate. You glance at those things and start telling me how the currency in Malaysia's faring. As far as I'm concerned, if Justin wasn't perfect at something there would be no balance to your friendship."

"I probably shouldn’t be telling you this while hanging onto you and your four-wheeled gracefulness, but-"

"You and J are making the beast with two backs, I got the memo."

Lance wobbled and used JC to steady himself, nearly sending them both to the ground. "There was no memo. And there have been no beasts, merely tongues."

"Eh, I'm an optimist."

No debating that. "How'd you know?"

JC tightened his grip on Lance's hand. "You've been in love with J for almost ten years. How could I not notice?"

"I've barely thought about J for almost ten years, maybe that's what you were noticing."

"You've barely allowed yourself to think about J," JC argued. "Not the same. And now you're allowing yourself. It's better."

Lance hoped the nausea creeping up on him was due to roller-skating induced motion sickness.

"Lance?"

"Can we go back now?"

JC looked ahead to call out to Justin, but he had already noticed them stopping, and was skating toward them at speeds that only made Lance dizzier.

*

Justin knocked on the door to Lance's room, peeking his head inside, "Can I come in?"

Lance sighed. "You're already partially in."

Justin smiled guiltily, "Easiest way to make sure you won't say no."

"Where's C?"

"Out with Joey. You didn't hear him come pick C up?"

That got Lance's attention. "Joey was here?"

Justin sat down on the bed. "Yes. And yes, we talked. And it was weird. That's all I'm saying."

Lance sat down next to Justin. "At least it wasn't awful."

Justin slowly put his head down on Lance's shoulder, as though expecting him to move at the last second. "I really miss him. I miss everyone."

Lance kissed the top of Justin's head.

"What's got you hiding up here?"

"Not hiding," Lance corrected. "Thinking."

"C says you're hiding."

It was hard to deny JC's intuitive truths. "Maybe a little. Not from you, though."

"Then what?"

"Me, I guess. I dunno. Things."

Justin snorted. "Thanks for clearing that up."

"C says I've been in love with you for ten years."

"C has read 'Wuthering Heights' way too fucking often."

Lance twisted his nose up. "I don’t think that ends well."

"Haven't read it, but C says it's all about Great Destined True Love."

"Huh."

"Yeah, exactly."

"I do…" Lance started, "I do love you. I mean, in the most basic sense."

"Right, me too."

"It could be something more, maybe."

Justin straightened up to look at Lance. "It probably is with me."

"Yeah," Lance nodded. "Me too."

"Come downstairs?"

"Stay up here and make out with me until C walks in on a scene of lust and depravity?" Lance countered.

"I like your plan better."

"Thought you might."

*

Lance came up to Justin from behind and put the music he was holding over the sheets in which Justin was immersed. "Try this."

Justin leaned backward, into Lance. "You fixed it?"

"Try it," Lance insisted.

Justin went over to his synthesizer and keyed in the combination for the prerecorded sample he had done of the punk song. He waited through the first two bars before starting in on the downbeat. He sang all the way through the first two choruses then cut the music. "It works." He caught Lance's eye. "You fixed it, Mr. That's-Your-Job."

Lance shrugged. "You should sound angrier. It's an angry song."

"Only at myself."

"Still."

"Lance." Justin walked back over to Lance and kissed him, drawing away reluctantly. "It works."

"You make it."

"We," Justin corrected. Lance allowed the change.


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile