The following story contains homosexual themes involving celebrities. None of this is meant to imply anything about any of the celebrities named. If this doesn't float your boat, then come back when you have a life. Consider yourself warned.

"I'm still learning things I ought to know by now." --Vertical Horizon

Don't Ever Die Again -4-

Justin was sitting on the edge of the stage drinking his bottle of water when Wade came up and sat down next to him. Justin had thought the choreographer was backstage eating lunch with the rest of the guys. Wade smiled at Justin when the youth turned to look at him.

"Hey Just," the choreographer said casually, dangling his legs off the side of the stage. "Aren't you gonna have any lunch?" The word that Justin wasn't eating anymore had long since spread to everyone who needed to know, but Wade thought it couldn't hurt.

Justin shook his head and tried to look like he was studying his fingernails. "Nah, I'm not hungry." And he prayed that his stomach didn't growl.

Wade frowned and looked over at him. "You're never hungry anymore, Justin," he said softly.

Justin shrugged. "Maybe I'm coming down with something." What do you want, Wade? Just get it over with, and leave me alone.

There was silence for a moment as Wade gathered up his courage, and his gaze turned to his feet as they swung back and forth beneath him. "So, what's up?" Wade asked, trying to sound casual.

A pause as Justin picked at the side seam of his warm ups. "Nothin'." Everything. Justin tried not to laugh. God, where would I even start?

"Don't lie to me, Justin," Wade said quietly, and he fought to urge to return the look he felt Justin give him, and instead continued to inspect his shoes.

Justin's heart began to beat harder when the older man challenged him. "What are you talking about, Wade?"

And this time Wade did look at him. "Something is up with you, Justin. You haven't been acting like yourself, lately." A pause, and now Wade's voice came more quietly. "We're all worried about you. You look exhausted all the time, and you never hang out with us anymore." He thought a minute. "All that's as a friend. As a choreographer, I just want to say that the rate you're losing weight worries me. And I don't feel like you can work nearly as hard as you used to be able to." Wade paused to let everything he'd said sink in. "This is serious. So...what's up?"

And Justin couldn't keep the embarrassment from rising into his cheeks as he studied the label on his bottle of water. I didn't know I was being so obvious. He shook his head and whispered, "It's just stuff, Wade. We've all got stuff." Justin shook his head. "It's just stuff." And he began to pick at the glue that held the paper to the plastic.

"Well," and Wade pulled his knees up to his chest and locked his arms around them, "it looks like your stuff is getting the best of you. It's getting scary, Justin. You might feel better if you talk about it."

I don't know how. And Justin cleared his throat. "Don't we have to get back to rehearsal sometime soon?" And he raised his eyebrows just slightly as the label began to come off in his hands.

"Rehearsal doesn't start until I say it does." Wade sighed and wished that Justin would just put the water bottle down. "Talk to me, Justin. I'm worried about you."

And Justin could hear the irritation in Wade's voice, so he shook his head and began to stand up. "Well don't be, alright? I can handle it." And even if I can't, I'm going to. But as Justin reached his feet, his anger melted away when he felt that familiar pull at the pit of his stomach. And despite himself, Justin's face paled. "Oh Christ," he cursed weakly.

Wade frowned and looked up and the teen. "What?"

Justin sighed and shook his head. "It's Josh." But instead of rushing to his friend's side like he always did, Justin just stood in his place and stared offstage.

And Wade was on his feet immediately, taking his first step toward the lunch area, but he hesitated when Justin didn't move. He looked at the youth. "Aren't you going to go see if he's okay, Justin?"

Justin sighed again, defeated. "Yeah, of course I am." And however reluctantly his steps were taken, Justin made his way backstage to where everyone was having their lunch. And when he got there, he saw Joey, Chris, and Lance standing around Josh's unconscious form where it lay by one of the lunch tables. Justin hesitated before he parted his friends and knelt beside Josh. "Did he hit his head?" Justin's voice almost didn't respond inside his throat

"No," Lance said quietly. "I caught him."

And Justin just sat there staring at his best friend. There's no way I can lift him.

Joey cleared his throat. "We thought you weren't coming this time, Justin."

Justin gritted his teeth. "I always come," he said without turning around.

"We know," Joey amended, "it's just that it took you so much longer this time, and we thought what with what's been going on with you recently that maybe--"

"I always come," Justin snapped, and that made Joey shut up. And now would've been the time when Justin picked Josh up and carried him into the wardrobe trailer. But there's no way I can pick him up right now. I'm too exhausted. But you should try. There's no harm in just trying. But part of Justin was actually afraid to reach out and touch his best friend, so he just sat there staring at Josh as he lay on the floor.

Joey stepped around Justin and knelt on the other side of their unconscious friend. "You shouldn't hurt yourself trying to lift him, Justin," Joey whispered, trying to avoid eye contact with his young friend. "You're too weak right now. Let me carry him this time." And Joey slid his hands underneath Josh's body and effortlessly lifted him into his arms. "Come on, Justin," he said, already walking towards the trailer.

And once Joey had situated Josh on the wardrobe trailer's sofa, he smiled awkwardly and edged his way out the door again, mumbling something about rehearsal and how Wade was probably waiting for him. "See you two in a little while," he murmured as he walked towards the stage.

And Justin stood on the opposite wall from the couch, resting against the trailer's door. I can't stay with him here. Sure it's okay right now--he's unconscious--but soon enough he'll come to, and then what'll I do? I can't talk to him now. I can't be with him now, not with...everything. I can't do this right now. But Justin had no intention of leaving. And eventually Justin didn't have the strength to stand anymore, so he slid down the wall until he was sitting with his knees pulled up to his chest. I know I can't stay, and I know I can't leave. And I know I can't handle this. And that's how he sat, curled up in a ball, his gaze focused intently on Josh, until his friend came to. What the hell am I gonna do?

Josh's eyes blinked open, and he propped himself up on his elbows, shaking his head clear of the blur he felt. He saw his friend sitting across the room so wrapped up into himself, and Josh frowned. He looked around the trailer, the one he always woke up in, and then back to Justin. "Justin," he started, sitting up quickly, "did you carry me in here? The guys shouldn't have let you do that. You could've hurt yourself. They shouldn't have--"

"They didn't," Justin said softly. "I couldn't. Joey carried you this time."

Josh nodded. "Well, good." And the silence that covered them was so thick, Josh thought he might suffocate before too much longer.

Justin cleared his throat, looking at his knees. "I just hung around to make sure you're okay." And without looking up, "Are you okay?"

Josh nodded, but then realized that Justin wouldn't be able to see the gesture. "Yeah, I'm fine," he rasped. And he couldn't seem to find a real voice. God, Justin, what's going on here? What the hell is happening with us? I don't understand, and it's driving me crazy. I miss you.

"Well good," Justin said shortly. "Let's get going back to rehearsal, now, Wade's probably waiting for us." But Justin stood up too quickly, and his eyes faded into black, and his head washed in circles, and he stumbled against the door when he lost his footing. And upon reopening his eyes, Justin saw Josh standing in front of him, his hands holding onto Justin's waist--Josh had rushed over when Justin nearly fell. And it felt like an accident--their gazes locked together.

And for three terrifying seconds, Justin was absorbed into Josh's eyes, and he melted into Josh's hands. And for three terrifying seconds Justin was completely part of Josh again. And for those three seconds he felt like he used to. For those three seconds, Justin was the person he used to be, before everything got in the way, before everything got so damned complicated, back when he wasn't afraid to let himself just be.

And that scared the shit out of him. He jerked away from Josh as he struggled to open the door with his trembling hands. Dammit, you almost lost it there, Justin. I've told you to be careful. I've told you that if you faced him there'd be too much of it, haven't I? And now you're panicking because you just found out what you already knew--you can't deal with this. And Justin's sweaty hands finally turned the doorknob, and the door flung open as Justin scampered away from the wardrobe trailer, thankful to be getting away from Josh because I can't deal with this.

And Josh didn't follow Justin because he was too stunned...and too hurt. And he was trying his damnedest not to cry. I've never felt so torn apart from something in my whole life. And what's worse...I don't think I even know what I just lost...or if I lost anything. And that's where Josh was standing, just inside of the wardrobe trailer's doorway, when Lance climbed the steps, looking for him.

Lance was startled to see Josh standing there. And were those tears in his eyes? He didn't quite know what to say. "JC?" Lance questioned, because it was pretty clear that Josh wasn't on the planet at the moment. And when Josh looked back at him, Lance continued, "Justin said you came to, but when you didn't show up, we got worried again...even though he said you were okay."

Josh shook his head. "Yeah, Lance, I'm fine." Physically.

And Lance didn't know what to do with his hands in that awkward moment...because whatever was wrong with Josh sure didn't have anything to do with his fainting spells. But regardless of the awkward moment, Lance looked up and studied his friend's face. "What happened just now, JC?" Because regardless of the moment, something had happened--something big.

Josh tried very hard to avoid Lance's eyes. He shook his head, trying to make it feel less important that it insisted it was. "He ran away from me." And Lance averted his gaze as well...because this felt embarrassing for some reason. "Justin actually turned and ran away from me, Lance," he sighed sadly. "What am I supposed to do with that?"

And it wasn't a question that Lance was supposed to answer.

But when Josh cleared his throat again, Lance looked up at him. And this time, Josh looked clearly into his friend's eyes. Because regardless of the moment, this was important. "And Lance, he almost fell over just now. When I came to, he was getting up to leave, and he almost fell over." Josh swallowed thickly. "Lance, he never faints. I think maybe he's had enough for today. Maybe the best thing for him to do before the concert would be to rest." And Josh's eyes pleaded with Lance because somehow this was his decision. Lance always seemed to be in charge of decisions like this.

Lance nodded without a second thought. "I'll talk to Wade, JC. I'll get him to send Justin back to the hotel for the rest of the afternoon." A pause, and Lance took a deep breath--because he was about to cross a line. "Justin's gonna be okay, JC. You know that, right?"

Josh tried not to seem desperate as he looked into Lance's green eyes. But still he whimpered, "I don't know." And the tears that had been waiting in their ducts now spilled over, and Josh shook his head furiously against them as he turned around and walked deeper into the trailer angrily, trying to keep Lance from seeing him.

But Lance followed him. "JC...?" He had been about to ask `what's wrong', but he knew what was wrong. "JC, just let it out. It's okay; don't worry about it. You'll feel better."

"No I wont!" Josh nearly screamed. "I won't feel better, Lance. I won't feel any better because I don't know what to do about Justin. And I know there's nothing I can do, and it's killing me!" he shouted, pacing the length of the trailer and throwing his arms about his head emphatically. "I can't make him eat. I can't make him sleep. I can't make him dress warm enough. I can't do anything of that, and I don't..." Josh took a shaky breath, "I don't know how I can just sit back and do nothing, but then I don't know what to do. And I have to do something. God, I...I have to do something." Josh sighed in resignation and sunk down to the couch he'd woken up on.

But Lance hadn't heard half of what Josh had said. Because this was the first time he'd ever seen Josh cry. It was the first time Lance had ever seen Josh rant and rave and scream and cry, and Lance was unexpectedly overwhelmed by Josh's humanity. Because through all the ranting and crying, Lance caught a glimpse of the human behind JC the pop sensation. Because as Josh paced back and forth inside that trailer, Lance saw a little bit of the person who would live in the studio twenty-four seven if he could. And Lance realized that right now, he wasn't in a trailer with JC...he was in a trailer with Josh. And Lance finally realized the difference. And as Lance stood there and watched the fat alligator tears run down Josh's cheek, a lightning bolt of realization hit him. And when Lance gasped, Josh looked up at him.

"You really love him, don't you." Lance's voice was below a whisper, and the words were only suggestions.

Josh frowned and looked at the carpet. "Of course I love him, Lance, he's my best friend. That's what I've been saying for five minutes, that--"

Lance shook his head forcefully. "No, I mean you love him. Don't you."

And Josh couldn't look up. And after a long pause..."Yeah," he whispered to the floor, "I do." He sighed deeply. "I always have."

* * * * *

Everyone except Justin was sitting around Lance's hotel room. Joey sat on the couch, rubbing his hands together and looked towards the door nervously. "When's Justin getting here?" His voice wavered a little.

"He's not coming until later," Lance smiled weakly as he leaned against the counter of the small kitchen. He paused, then whispered, "Justin's still not eating."

Joey nodded from where he sat. "It's been, like, months since I've seen him eat anything."

"Oh, he eats." Josh cleared his throat. "He just doesn't eat much," he said quietly from the armchair.

Chris looked up at him from the newspaper he'd been reading. "What makes you so sure, JC?"

The corners of Josh's mouth turned up ever so slightly. "I have management call me when they get the bills to the hotels. I tell them what room number Justin was in, and they tell me if the food in that room was eaten or not. So, I know he's still eating--just not much." Josh didn't make eye contact with anyone as he spoke; he just fiddled with the hem of his shirt.

Lance furrowed his eyebrows. "How can you remember all his room numbers?" And he pushed himself off the counter and took a seat in the chair facing Josh.

Josh pulled out the notebook he kept in his pocket and turned to the page entitled `Justin's Room Numbers.' "When we get to a hotel, I write down the date and what room he's staying in." He looked up at his friends only briefly before quickly repocketing the notebook, and he couldn't stop the blush that rose into his cheeks.

Joey chuckled a little. "You really do your homework, don't you JC?"

And Josh looked up into Joey's eyes. "For Justin? Yes. I do my homework."

Lance felt awkward about breaking the silence, but he couldn't stand it anymore because he'd heard what Josh meant, and he wanted to move on before anyone else did. So he cleared his throat. "Every concert we do wipes Justin out more and more," Lance said, concerned. "I'm worried he's going to collapse onstage one of these days."

"Me too," Josh added quietly, picking at his hem again.

Joey shifted in his seat. "So what do we do, start canceling concerts?" he asked.

"Force him to eat?" Chris offered, folding his newspaper and placing it on the coffee table.

"Or maybe we should find out why he's not eating." Lance glanced around the room, then his gaze reverted to his hands. "I've been thinking, guys." And it took awhile for Lance to say the next part...because it was scary...and because he didn't want to even entertain the fact that he may be right. "When I was in school," he started, his voice soft, "one of my friends stopped eating, like Justin, and..." Lance sighed. "I think Justin might be anorexic."

Before anyone else could respond, Josh cut in. "What are you talking about, Lance?" He looked around the room at his friends. "We know why Justin's not eating, right? Well, not exactly, but kinda."

Everybody looked at him and shook their heads.

Josh blinked, bewildered. "He's done this before, guys. It's never been for this long, but for a few days, at least." Josh glanced around the room. "You mean you really haven't noticed?" And now Josh glanced towards the door because Justin will be here soon, and he'll freak out if he hears us talking about this.

They all shook their heads again, and Lance asked, "When has he done this before, JC?"

Josh blinked. Are they blind? He sat up straight in the chair, but kept one eye on the door. "When's the last time y'all remember seeing Justin lose his temper?"

No one spoke.

"Or cry?" Josh continued. When Josh was again met by silence, he asked, "Do you ever remember seeing Justin have any big emotions?" Everyone's eyes were on Josh. "When Justin was a kid, all he ever heard in his house was his parents screaming and crying at each other. He hated it. It tore him apart." He looked up at his friends. "I was there; I saw that it did." Josh sighed "And somewhere along the way, Justin stopped letting himself feel things." He shook his head. "I thought you guys knew that."

Lance shook his head and thought for a second. "Okay, so all of that kinda makes sense, knowing Justin. But what on earth does it have to do with him not eating?"

"That's the thing," Josh said, now perching on the edge of his seat. "It took me a couple years to figure it out, but I know I'm right." I shouldn't be talking about Justin like this, but I don't know what else to do. If this will help him get better, then I'll do anything. Josh shook his head. "Justin doesn't let himself feel anything, so when something does happen to slip through, and he does feel something, he thinks he's doing something wrong."

Chris blinked. "So, what? He's punishing himself?"

Josh nodded sadly. "By not letting himself eat. And sometimes he won't let himself sleep, or he'll purposefully dress so that he'll be cold. He thinks he doesn't deserve to be warm, or he doesn't deserve to get some rest. He thinks he doesn't deserve to eat." Josh shook his head again. "Geez, I thought you guys knew this." I always thought it was obvious. "He did it back when he was so mad at his mom that time, remember?" They nodded. "And he did it when his grandfather died. He always does it when he has to be away for his brothers' birthdays." And now Josh was beginning to get angry with his other friends. "Why don't you guys know about this? Don't you pay attention? God, I would've thought his friends would at least..."

"Now you hold it right there, JC," Lance barked, leaning toward his friend. "Of course we're Justin's friends. We love him too. If we didn't, we wouldn't even be sitting here talking about this right now, so don't try to pull that shit on us." And Lance was sick and tired of it. He wasn't gonna take that shit from Josh anymore. And it didn't matter that Josh loved Justin--they were his friends too.

Josh sighed.

Chris added quietly, "It's just that we don't watch him as closely as you seem to. I mean, you've shared a room with the guy since god was a boy. It's only natural that you'd know more about Justin than we ever could." Chris shook his head. "Just because you're worried about Justin is no reason to claim that we're not good friends for not knowing what's going on with him, JC. That's just not fair." And Chris sat back in his chair, his eyes still watching Josh.

Josh sighed again. "'re right. I'm sorry. It's just...I just don't know what to do." And they weren't even words anymore. Josh sat back in his chair and buried his head in his hands as he pulled his knees up to his chest, effectively curling himself into a ball.

And Lance opened his mouth to say something, but there was a soft knocking. And Josh looked up at the door with wide eyes as Lance rose from his chair and opened it for Justin.

"Hi," Justin smiled weakly as he came into the room. "Y'all wanted to have a group meeting, right?" He checked his watch and frowned. "Am I late?"

"No, Justin, we just got here a little early," Lance said softly, retaking his seat. "Sit down, Justin, there's something we've all got to talk about."

Justin furrowed his eyebrows as he took a seat next to Joey, across from Chris and Josh, both of whom he studiously avoided eye contact with. "What's up, Lance?"

Lance looked down at his hands as he spoke, and it was times like this when he resented the fact that he was always the one in charge. "Look, Justin, this is getting serious." Lance tried to look up at him but failed, and he sighed, "We all know you're not eating."

"Much," Josh amended almost silently.

"Right," Lance continued, managing brief eye contact with the youngest band member. "We know that you're not eating much, and we don't know what to do, Justin." He chuckled nervously. "We can't make you eat." And Lance made eye contact very briefly with Josh. "And you know that we're all here for you if you want to talk about something, but you don't talk to any of us anymore. We hardly ever see you."

Justin shifted uncomfortably in his chair.

Joey looked down at his hands and added softly, "And we're worried that you might collapse onstage every time you perform."

Justin furrowed his eyebrows, and his voice came much too loudly. "What is this, an intervention?" And as he looked around at his friends he could see that's exactly what it was, and he stood up quickly. "I'm a big boy, guys, I can take care of myself." And Justin started walking out of the room.

"But you're not taking care of yourself, Justin," Josh whispered from where he sat curled into himself. "That's why we want to help."

And Justin stopped walking at the sound of Josh's voice.

And even though they were standing in the same room, Josh couldn't help but feel that Justin was being ripped away from him. And he didn't know how he could take it. And he didn't know how he could stop it. And all he could do was sit there and try to endure the ripping that wouldn't stop.

"Management wants to bring in a nutritionist, Justin," Lance said to his friend's back. "They want to bring in a nutritionist and a psychiatrist, both of whom would report back to management every day." Lance turned around when he felt Justin stare at him. "I'm stalling them as much as I can, Justin, but you make them money There's no way they're gonna let you stay unhealthy."

Justin's mouth hung open, his jaw slightly offset, and he turned his head to one side--the way he did when he was offended. "So you're giving me an ultimatum. Eat or lose your privacy."

Joey sighed. "Justin, we just want to help."

Justin shook his head. "Yeah, well I don't need a damn hero." And he threw the door into the wall with a loud smack as he left the room.

"Well, that went well," Josh spat.

Lance snarled from his chair. "Aw, fuck you, JC." Because it didn't matter if he loved Justin. This attitude of Josh's was over.

Josh raised an eyebrow, surprised at his friend's sudden outburst. "Excuse me?"

Lance shook his head as he stood up. "You're sittin' up there on your high damn horse thinkin' the pain that your worry for Justin causes you is so much more damn important than ours. Because you've known him longer. Because he's your little Curly." Lance's eyes blazed green fire, and he was so close to saying `because you love him.' "And I'm fuckin' tired of it. He's my friend too, ya know, and I hurt just as much as you do when I see him like this."

Josh shot out of his chair and got right up in Lance's face. "Hey now, Lansten, I'm on your side. I want Justin to get out of the funk he's been in just as much as you do." Josh planted his hands on the blonde's shoulders and pushed him backwards. "But how the fuck do you think it makes me feel to know this is my fuckin' fault?"

Lance staggered backwards and stared at Josh like he'd sprouted another head. "What the fuck are you talking about, JC?" Lance's voice was softer now as he looked at his friend carefully.

Josh plopped back down in his chair. "He got a separate room." And the tears bit at the back of his eyes. I will not cry. I've never cried in front of everyone. I will not cry. "We've shared a room all our lives. Then all of a sudden he gets a separate room, and I'm supposed to think that him getting worse has nothing to do with me? I'm not that naive." I will not cry.

The entire room was silent

because no one knew what to say.

"And everything was okay," Josh continued. "We'd made up that night, and I'd even gotten him eating the next morning, and everything was fine; everything was back to normal again for a little; I just know it was, and then the next thing I know, he requests a separate room." He closed his eyes and tried to keep his voice steady. "And it's bad this time, guys. He isn't sleeping, and he refuses to wear a coat." Josh paused. "Whatever it is that he's feeling..." I will not cry "whatever it was that I did to him..." I will not cry I will not cry "it must be really big this time." And godammit, I'm crying. So Josh rose from his seat and left the room because he couldn't cry in front of everyone. And Josh hurried to his room, struggling to open the door because he knew at least one of the guys would be following him.

And just as he got a foot inside the door, he felt a hand on his shoulder, and he was surprised when it wasn't Lance's voice he heard. "Hold up, Josh," he heard in Chris's high tenor.

And he couldn't hold up because I don't want you to see me cry. So Josh tried to dip away from Chris's hand, but his friend held strong.

And Chris knew why Josh was trying to get away. "Josh," he said quietly, "I'd be more worried about you if you weren't crying. Now let me in; I want to talk about Justin."

"I can't," Josh whispered. Because I don't know how to be like this in front of you. I only know how to be like this in front of Justin and he's not talking to me. And so Josh snatched himself away from Chris's hand violently. "Chris, lay off," he growled as he managed to shut the door on his friend.

And Josh leaned back against the door as he let the hot liquid run down his cheeks. He couldn't do it anymore. He didn't know how he could keep existing with the knowledge that he'd done something to cause Justin to push him away like this. He loved Justin more than anything in the world, and he couldn't remember how to live without him. Josh couldn't remember how he'd ever lived without Justin Randall Timberlake by his side. And he didn't know how he ever could again. You're everything I am, Justin. You are me. I don't know how to exist without you because I can't separate us anymore. And the fact that I did something to make you hate me tears me apart.

And Josh crawled onto his bed. And it had just been too much for one day, and it wasn't even lunchtime, yet. Too much happening. Too much emotion. Just too much. And too fast. And Josh sighed as he let the reluctant relaxation wash over his body. I guess this is what they call the eye of the storm. Because amidst all the chaos and destruction that was devastating everything he knew, all Josh had the strength to do was lie there in that misplaced calm. He didn't want to move. He didn't want to talk. He didn't want to fix. He didn't want to discuss. He didn't really want to be. And so he lay there, trying as hard as he could to blink himself out of existence. Because that would be the easiest thing--if he just didn't exist. Then Justin would be okay. And that's all that really mattered.

And as Josh lay there, counting the number of times he breathed, concentrating on inflating his lungs with air and then pushing the carbon dioxide back out of his body, he felt a ripping inside his chest. It was quiet and gentle at first, non-intrusive. But as the moments stretched on, the ripping spread to his stomach, and all of his internal organs until the sound of it was deafening. And just when the rattle of loosened insides and the screech of ripping that wouldn't stop had reached its peak, it pierced his flesh from the inside and split Josh's skin over his entire body until he lay scarred and broken, his heart feebly pumping to sustain the life that now lay scattered in unrecognizable pieces.

Because he wasn't whole without Justin. He didn't know how to be.

To Be Continued...

Well, there you are, then. E-mail me if you want to talk about this chapter.

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