The following story contains homosexual themes involving celebrities. None of this is meant to imply anything about anyone mentioned herein. If this kind of thing doesn't do it for ya, then why are you here? You have been warned. The lyrics that begin this chapter are credited to Vertical Horizon. No celebrities were harmed in the writing of this story.

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

Don't Ever Die Again -5-

Don't tell me how to be

`Cause I like some suffering.

Don't ask me what I need.

I'm just fine here finding me.


As soon as Justin got back into his room, he stripped down to his boxers and turned the air conditioner on full blast. I shouldn't have lost my temper like that with everyone. Yelling doesn't get anybody anywhere, and you know that. You know better than that. And so Justin intended on spending the rest of the day, sitting on his bed in his boxers while the air conditioner made the room icy, berating himself for losing his cool because I shouldn't have done that; I know better than that.

But it was about ten minutes after he'd stormed out of the group meeting, that Justin felt it. Not now. God, not now. Justin glanced to door of his hotel room, as if he could see what was happening on the other side. Justin sighed. I can't go over there, now. I can't go see if he's okay. Because I know he's not. I don't even have to check. I know he's not okay...because Justin's lower lip began to tremble because...stop crying. Stop crying, you idiot; stop crying! And the void inside Justin's chest throbbed so painfully that Justin couldn't take a breath. And he fell to his side on the bed, fighting to breath, and fighting to keep his tears inside. Because Justin knew he didn't have the strength to think what he knew to be true. He couldn't face the reason Josh was hurting. Because he would rather die than hurt Josh. And he just couldn't face it.

And it felt like Justin had been sitting in his room for three eternities, trying to ignore the pull at the pit of his stomach that begged him to go check on Josh. I can't go. I can't face him. It's too hard, and there's too much, and I don't know how. So I can't. And Justin ignored it. He pushed the feeling to the back of his mind. He pushed it back, and he pushed it back until it was getting harder and harder because there was so much of it. His stomach turned inside out and knotted itself up so badly, that as Justin lay in the center of his bed, he felt like he never wanted to eat again. And now it was dusk. Josh loves the way dusk looks in a big city. And Justin tried to ignore it because he knew that this time it meant more than he wanted it to mean, but the pull at the pit of his stomach was filling up his entire body until he couldn't ignore it anymore, until the part of him that didn't want to ignore it push its way to the front.

What the hell are you doing? What the hell are you doing? Something is wrong with Josh, and you sit here ignoring it like nothing's happening? What the hell is wrong with you? He could be dying somewhere, and you'd sit here and let it happen, wouldn't you? It's too hard? There's too much? Get over yourself. Something's wrong with Josh.

"Shit," Justin cursed as he jumped up from his bed and sprinted from his hotel room, because when it came right down to it Justin should've known he wouldn't be able to resist that feeling. Josh could be dying, and here I am all caught up in myself like I'm the most important thing in the world when I'm not. Once Justin was out of his room, it only took him two strides to reach Josh's door, and he started banging on it with his fist immediately because as each second passed, Justin became more and more frantic because he'd ignored it for so long--all day--and anything could've happened. Anything could've happened. And what the hell is wrong with me?

But Josh wasn't answering his door. And oh my god, he can't even come to the door. But I know he's in there; I feel it. I know he's in there. God, what do I do now? "Lance," Justin whispered to himself. Lance kept extra keys to the rooms, just in case. And Justin stepped to the next room down, Lance's, and pounded on the door with his fist.

The door opened quickly, and Lance stared at Justin, bewildered. Lance frowned. "Justin, what's wrong?" His eyes scanned Justin's body. "And why are you only wearing boxers?"

Justin's mind was moving far too fast for him to form an entire sentence. "J-Josh...he's..." Justin sighed with frustration and tried to slow himself down. "Josh, it's Josh," he said loudly, making a definite gesture with his hands, because they all knew what it meant when Justin said that. "He's...he's not answering the door. Key...I need his key." Justin's eyes whirled frantically as he struggled to breathe against his rising panic.

Lance hesitated momentarily, looking back at Chris and Joey who stood behind him now, they had all been watching a movie when Justin knocked. Lance knew Josh was upset; he'd run crying from the room that morning, and Lance thought it might be best if they didn't disturb him. But that had happened hours ago, so why was Justin only sensing it now? That bothered Lance. And Josh wasn't answering his door. That bothered Lance even more. So after only a second's hesitation, Lance turned and dug the packet of extra keys out of his bag. But before he could remember what room number Josh was in, Justin had grabbed all the keys and darted back to Josh's door.

Justin sorted through the keys in his hands, throwing the ones he didn't need to his feet when he found the correct room number. Justin fumbled with the key card with shaking hands, and he could see everyone come out of Lance's room, waiting impatiently for the door to be opened. And Justin couldn't make his hands work, and he couldn't get the key card into the slot, and he was about to scream he was so frustrated. And it seemed that the little green light would never come on, but when it finally did, Justin flung the door open and nearly fell over himself trying to get into the room. And what Justin saw made him stop in his tracks. There was Josh's fully clothed form, lying on top of his bed, apparently sleeping.

"He's asleep, Justin," Joey said softly from where the three men stood behind Justin. And there was a slight sigh of relief that came from the group, as they had all been holding their breath.

"Yeah, thanks Captain Obvious," Chris joked automatically, but he was frowning. The more Chris thought about things, the madder he got at Justin for hurting Josh.

Justin sat down beside his sleeping friend, and after making sure Josh was still breathing, Justin just stared at him in confusion.

Lance cleared his throat and shifted his weight to his other leg. "Justin, maybe you were wrong this time," he suggested quietly. And this felt strange. Lance felt as if he were intruding on the two friends. He felt as if he had no right to be in the room. Not with the way Justin was looking at the sleeping man. It felt too intimate for so many people to be there.

Justin shook his head without looking up. "I'm never wrong." And his voice was so soft, the three men had to strain to hear him.

And Lance had known that, but he hadn't known what else to say.

Joey frowned and ran a hand over the back of his neck. He was nervous--because something was going to explode. Too many people were on edge for them all to be in the same room without some serious shit going down. This morning was a case in point. "Well, have you ever sensed it when Josh was having a bad dream?"

Justin shook his head, still looking at the sleeping figure lying on the bed. "Yeah, but not one he didn't wake up after."

And Chris was still frowning, nearly steaming with anger.

"Well maybe he's still having the dream," Lance contributed. Because Justin was never wrong.

And Justin shook his head again. "No, that's not how this feels. Something happened, and it's over now." Justin sighed. "I'm never wrong." Why is he sleeping on top of the bed? And why does he still have all his clothes on? And as Justin scrutinized his best friend's face, the lights outside shifted someway, and a new orange glow was cast over Josh's face, causing the brunette to sigh a little and shift in his sleep. And it was only then that Justin saw the evidence of what had happened. His eyes are swollen Justin noted and...those...those are tear stains on his cheeks. And Justin's hand was trembling as he reached out to touch the pillow by his friend's head, and sure enough, the pillowcase was wet. The void inside his chest throbbed so horrendously that Justin couldn't help but elicit a short moan of anguish, and he turned his head slowly to gaze at the three men standing behind him. And Justin could barely find a voice, but he managed to whisper, "He cried himself to sleep." And Justin found that he could no longer look at the three men, nor could he bear to return his gaze to Josh. So Justin hung his head and vowed I won't sleep tonight.

And Chris's frown broke into a scowl. "And do you know why he was crying, Justin?" Chris spat. And it wasn't a question. It was an accusation.

Of course he knew why Josh had been crying, but all Justin could do was shut his eyes against Chris's words. And I won't eat tomorrow.

But Chris wanted an answer, and he took a step towards the curly-headed youth. "Justin!" Chris barked. "I asked you if you know why he was crying." And Chris knew he was being vicious, but he didn't care. Because Justin was being childish, and it was long past time for this shit to end.

But Justin just shrank away from his verbal attacker. For the rest of the week. I won't eat for the rest of the week.

And Justin's silence only served to make Chris's anger boil over. "Godammit Justin," he roared, lunging for his band mate, "what the fuck's the matter with you?" And Chris was intent on beating some sense into Justin's curly, little head.

But Joey managed to intercept Chris's assault by catching him around the waist and forcing him backwards. "Alright, Chris, that's enough," Joey strained as he struggled to back the fighting man out of the room. "It's time for you to go on a little time out." And Joey kept his hold on the older man until he had Chris backed up against the door of his hotel room. "Gimme your key," Joey demanded.

And Chris stared at Joey in defiance.

Joey growled, "Don't make me kick your ass, Kirkpatrick. You know I can. Now gimme the damn key." Joey hated it when Chris lost his temper. It took so long to calm him down, days sometimes.

Chris snarled as he dug into his pocket and handed the key over to Joey.

And once he'd gotten the door open, Joey practically threw his friend into the hotel room, making sure to stand between him and the door. "What the fuck's the matter with you, Kirkpatrick?" Joey insisted.

Chris picked up the remote control from where it lay on top of the television and hurled it at the wall. And then he sighed, his angry energy having been satiated by the loud thud and the clattering of the remote as it fell to the floor in pieces. "Can't Justin see how much he's hurting JC?" And Chris's voice was strained with irritation.

Joey frowned immediately. "Can't you see how much Justin's hurting himself?" And Joey fought the urge to take a step towards the other man, knowing he'd make a break for it if he could.

Chris looked up at Joey, annoyed that he had an opinion to offer.

Joey shook his head. "Jesus, Chris, you heard what JC said this morning. Justin's punishing himself. Shit, you probably just convinced the kid to stop eating and sleeping for the rest of his life."

Chris chewed on his lip. "Well, I'm sure as hell not gonna just stand around while JC and Justin make each other miserable. That's insane. We've gotta do something." And he was still angry, very angry, but he wasn't itching to start a fist fight anymore.

Joey sighed, and his voice came softer...because none of them had ever talked about this before. "Chris, do you even begin to understand Justin and JC's relationship?" And he held his friend's gaze intently...because he had a point to make.

Chris stared at him blankly.

"Do you pretend to know why Justin can sense these things about JC?" Chris shook his head slowly. "Because I don't," Joey continued. "Justin and JC's friendship is something you don't mess with. That's the way it's always been." Joey pursed his lips. "You know that. Their friendship goes way deeper than any of us understand. And there's no way in hell I'm gonna fool with something that important without knowing what I'm doing." A thick pause. "If I were the one that broke up their friendship, Chris...I don't think I could live with myself. They have something special, and I, for one, refuse to fuck with that. Things will work themselves out. They always do with those two."

Chris frowned. "Yeah, sure they always have. But what if things don't work out this time, Joe?"

Joey sighed and shook his head. "Then that really sucks. But we've got to let it alone, Chris. There's nothing else we can do. We can't start to fix something when we've got no idea how it works. And neither of them are talking." Joey regained eye contact with Chris. "You've got to let this one alone, Kirkpatrick. And I know that's hard for you. I know you're all about making friendships stronger by testing known boundaries. But you don't know where this boundary is. You don't even know where the hell you are. You're just guessing. And that's dangerous." A pause. "Chris, you've got to leave this one alone." And Joey stared at his friend, hoping to make his point soak in.

Chris crossed his arms and leaned against the dresser. "Yeah, fine," he said tersely.

And Joey eyed his friend carefully before leaving the room.

Chris shook his head. Fuck that. There was no way in hell he was leaving this alone. Because he knew what was going on. And he was going to slap some sense into Justin if it was the last thing he ever did. Because this was ridiculous.

Lance laid his hand on Justin's bare shoulder once Joey had pushed Chris from the room. "Chris is an ass, Justin," he said softly.

Justin's head was still hung as he studied the intricacies of the bedspread. "Yeah," he sighed, "but he's right."

Lance felt the blood drain from his face. This was something he hadn't counted on. Lance sunk down until he was sitting next to Justin on the bed, and he heard Josh exhale softly and felt him move in his sleep. It had never occurred to Lance that Justin knew why Josh was so upset. And Lance couldn't even think about what he might say to Justin after such an admission. Because Justin was the reason that Josh was so upset. Justin was the reason that Josh had been crying. And apparently Justin knew that. A loud thud came from the direction of Chris's room, and Lance imperceptibly hoped that both Joey and Chris were still alive. And Lance sat there on the bed next to Justin, and even though he didn't know what to say, Lance opened his mouth in preparation, because he felt like he had to say something.

But Justin beat him to the chase. "Lance, will you just leave?" Justin shook his head and sighed as he ran a hand through his curls. "I don't mean to be rude...really. It's just..." a pause... "you just don't need to be here anymore." And Justin shook his head again because he wasn't saying what he meant.

But Lance understood and nearly leapt to his feet, thankful to have been given a cue to exit--he didn't feel like he ever should have been here in the first place. And Lance turned to leave, but frowned slightly and turned back to face Justin. "Are you staying here?"

Justin nodded without looking up. Of course I'm staying here. "Just until he wakes up."

But they both knew full well that Josh didn't wake up once he'd fallen asleep for the night. And Lance's frown deepened. "So you're sleeping here tonight?"

And he saw Justin flinch, and it dawned on Lance that Justin may be staying, but he wasn't going to sleep.

So Lance cleared his throat. "See you in the morning, Justin."

* * * * *


The shrill ring of the telephone brought Josh out of the fog that sleep had dragged over him. And when he answered the phone, Josh heard the automated voice telling him what time it was. He groaned and returned the phone to its hook. And as he turned back over, Josh nearly jumped out of his skin when he saw Justin sitting on the small dresser directly across from the bed. He exhaled sharply. "Shit, Justin, you scared the crap out of me." And when Justin didn't respond--didn't even look at him, Josh squinted his eyes at his best friend. A pause and Josh sat up straighter on the bed. Oh god. "Justin, you've been crying."

Justin didn't move. And he took a deep breath. And he whispered, "So have you."

Josh blinked and took a moment to look at himself. Fully clothed, and lying on top of the sheets. I must have cried myself to sleep last night. "And that's why you're here," Josh sighed.

And Justin nodded slowly.

And Josh just sat there on the bed, staring at the man who sat across the room, and he chuckled a little. He's so uncomfortable around me. He can't even talk to me anymore, and he still comes to check whenever he thinks something's wrong. And however fucked up it all was, it still gave Josh some hope. He hesitated a moment, but before he could change his mind, he got to his hands and knees and crawled to the end of the bed, sitting on the edge, level with Justin's eyes. Josh took a shaky breath, wavering because of the intensity of his friend's gaze. "Justin..." I'm sorry "Justin..." and Josh took another deep, wavering breath, "I don't know what I did..." Josh shook his head. "I mean, I don't know what I did to make you pull away from me like you have." God, please come back to me. I'm sorry. I miss you. God, Justin, I love you. Please don't do this to me anymore. I love you "But whatever it is..." and Josh could barely breath around the force of Justin's stare, "whatever it is that I did, Justin, I'm sorry. I'll do anything to make it up to you." Justin "I..." please "Justin..."

And Justin tried so hard to concentrate on the stare he was giving Josh. Because it was a front--of strength. Because right now, more than anything, Justin needed to be strong. Because I can't talk about this. Shit, I don't even know what it is I can't talk about because I can't even think about this. And he's going to make me. Look at him, sitting there, pleading with me. I can't say no to him. I never could. He's going to sit there and make me tell him. And Justin was terrified of what he might hear himself say. And Justin couldn't hold the stare any longer, and he looked down at his hands as he whispered, "It's not you, Josh." But he'd already known that...somewhere.

Josh blinked, wanting Justin to look at him again, because then maybe he could get the meaning from Justin's eyes because who knows when he's going to stop talking to me again. "What?" he asked, shaking his head in confusion.

Justin sighed as he picked at his thumbnail. "It's not you, Josh," he repeated. "You didn't do anything wrong. It's not you; it's me." And Justin winced because that was so cliché, and he knew Josh wouldn't believe him.

Josh scoffed. "Justin--"

Justin shook his head emphatically, looking up and regaining his eye contact with Josh. "No, really. I know how that sounds, but I'm serious." I'm sorry. I'm sorry for doing this to you. "You didn't do anything wrong. It's about me, Josh. Honest to god, it's about me." And Justin couldn't stand being so close to his best friend anymore, so he rose and walked to the window, looking out over the morning.

Josh frowned and stood up when Justin walked away. "That doesn't make sense, Justin." That doesn't make sense. "If I didn't do anything wrong, then why are we sleeping in separate rooms, now?" And Justin's silence told Josh that his friend didn't have an answer. "'ve never lied to me. Not once. Ever." And Josh wanted the weight of those words to force Justin to tell him the truth, if he hadn't already. "So if it's true that I didn't do anything to you to make you mad at me..." and Josh paused, taking a second to work it out in his head, "then whatever this is, Justin...whatever it is that's made you not want to talk to me...whatever it is, it's got to at least be about me. Otherwise, none of this makes sense." It doesn't make sense anyway. And Josh stood there, pleading with Justin's back.

And Josh saw Justin hang his head, and he knew that what ever it was...was about him.

Josh took a step towards the window, and his anger was getting the better of him. "I don't know why you can't talk to me about this, Justin. You've always been able to talk to me, always. So, I don't know why this time is so different." And Josh's voice was getting louder with each word, and he sighed angrily. "Justin, is this still about Marc? Is this still about me not telling you the truth right away?" And when Justin didn't tell him he was wrong, Josh pressed forward. "Shit, Justin, I don't understand that. Honestly, I don't. I broke up with him because he was trying to take me away from you. I broke up with him because I couldn't stand someone trying to come between us." Josh couldn't keep the yell out of his voice. "Why doesn't that make you feel good about yourself, Justin!?" And when Justin didn't answer, Josh planted a hand on his friend's shoulder and turned him around sharply.

Justin gasped at the abruptness of the gesture, and it took him a few seconds to get used to the electricity that flowed through his arm where Josh was touching him--it didn't hurt; it had never hurt; Justin just hadn't felt that electricity for awhile. And Justin found that he didn't have anywhere else to look except Josh's eyes.

And when Justin's blue eyes connected with his, Josh became immersed inside the feeling that gave him, and his anger was forgotten. I love you, Justin. I love you; don't you feel that? Why don't you feel that?

And Justin held his best friend's eyes for one second longer, before pulling away and brushing past the older man. And on his way out of the room, Justin stopped at the dresser he'd been sitting on, and he sorted through the pile of extra keys someone had picked up from where he'd dropped them, finding his and intending to continue on his way out of the room, like he hadn't stopped walking in the first place.

But he felt Josh grab his arm. And Justin didn't turn around when he heard Josh whisper, "Justin, please don't run away from me again. I don't think I could take it. Not again. Look what it did to me the first time." And Josh didn't care if it was below the belt. This isn't fair. I don't deserve this; I didn't do anything wrong!

Justin cringed at his friend's words. But it was easier when he didn't have to look at Josh. It was easier because Justin knew he shouldn't be leaving, but he didn't know how to stay. "I have to run, Josh. I have to." I can't stay here.

And Justin heard the tears in Josh's sigh. "Why, Justin? Why do you have to? Why can't you stay?" What is it you're feeling that makes you need to run? God, you never have to run from me, Justin. I'll always be here for you. Godammit, Justin, I love you. And Josh's grip became so tight that Justin's arm began to go numb.

And Justin squeezed his eyes shut. "I don't know." And Justin pulled his arm from Josh's grasp and ran away.

* * * * *


He ran away from me. Again. I even asked him not to. I told him that I wouldn't be able to take it. Because I love him. Except, I didn't tell him that. And he ran away anyway. He knew it would hurt me, and he ran away anyway. Josh sighed as he tried to follow Wade's instruction. I don't know. Maybe if I'd have told him that I love him, he wouldn't have run away. But maybe he would have run away faster. And Josh sighed again as he went through all the dances on autopilot. And that's all he seemed to be doing today--sighing...and dancing on autopilot. And that's it, I quit. Okay god? Alright? You win, alright? You win; I quit. I can't do this anymore. Justin's not happy; I'm not happy, and I can't live with both of us miserable. So, you win. I have no idea how to make this better. So, you got me. I failed your little test. You'll just have to reincarnate me until I get it right. If you do that kind of thing. Anyway, I quit. You win; I quit.

Is it strange to be totally aware that you don't want to think about anything that's happening in your life because you know you won't be able to deal with it? And is it weird that, even if you do know that, it still doesn't motivate you to find a way to deal with whatever it is that you can't deal with? Is it so strange to know your limitations and not want to expand them? I used to be happy with who I was. These limitations used to be completely fine for me, and I was perfectly happy. So what's changed all of a sudden that makes these limitations so damn constricting? Careful there, Justin, you're starting to think about things, and that'll get you absolutely nowhere. Godammit, I'm tired. And hungry. Fuck, what's happening? What the fuck's happening? Careful there, Justin. Careful.

"Justin, are you even on the same planet as us?" the choreographer frowned, crossing his arms as he stood in front of the curly-headed lead singer.

Justin refocused his eyes onto the choreographer and blinked. "No," he said softly, shaking his head, "I'm not. Sorry." And he turned around to face the rest of the group. "Sorry, guys." And he turned back around to face Wade. "Okay, I'm here now. I'm good. Let's do this."

And they did a couple more hours of rehearsing, after which Wade sighed and said, "Alright, guys, come here for a minute."

The guys sighed with relief--that's what Wade always said right before he released them for a break. And they sat down in the circle they always made when Wade talked to them like this.

Wade dabbed his face with a towel and took a long drink of his water. "Guys," he started, "the steps are right on. You've got these moves down--there's no doubt about that. Technically speaking, you guys are fabulous." He sighed. "But your attitude, your chemistry as a group, sucks. Excuse the pun, but you guys are nowhere near in sync right now." A pause. "I don't want to point fingers--I'm not sure I'd even be able to--but I've worked with a lot of groups in the past, and shit like this is usually an internal thing. It's like an engine; if each part isn't working at full potential, then there's no way the engine can work as well as it could if all the parts were working right. And if you guys don't put out one hundred percent, not only is my job at risk, but more importantly you look stupid when you're onstage. I have to keep that from happening. That's my job. But I have no idea where to start on this one." And Wade took a moment to let it all sink in. "Alright, take a break for lunch. Be back in two hours, guys."

And everyone except Justin floated to the concession area backstage. Justin sat on the opposite side of the arena from everyone, nursing a Coca-Cola. And even though Josh went through the concession line, and even though he'd piled up his plate with all of his favorites, his stomach churned when he thought about taking a bite. And he pushed his plate away as he laid his head on his arms.

Lance, Joey, and Chris sat at the far end of the table from Josh, because they'd all noticed the vibe that day--Justin and Josh were not the people to hang around with right now. Lance sighed, taking a bite of his sandwich. "Something happened here, guys," the bass said around a mouthful of food.

Joey nodded, swallowing his water. "Something big. Something must've happened after we left last night." And Joey shook his head because he didn't understand anything that was going on.

"Well, Justin stayed," Lance said, clearing his throat. "Maybe that had something to do with it. After I left last night, Justin said he was staying until JC woke up."

And at that, Josh raised his head and looked at his friends. "I am actually still here," he said sarcastically. "I can actually still hear you." And Josh frowned at his band mates.

Joey winced. "Sorry, man."

And Josh replaced his head on his arms.

And Chris's blood bubbled with anger when he heard the desolation in Josh's voice, when he saw the huge circles under Josh's eyes from crying himself to sleep the night before, and when he saw that Josh wasn't eating his lunch. And that was it. That was it. Chris was not taking this anymore. He tore away from the table and headed straight across the arena.

Joey jumped up as soon as Chris had moved. "Chris!" he shouted after his friend, anger marring his own face.

"Fuck you, Joey!" Chris shouted right back. Because this was ridiculous. And in no time, Chris had crossed the arena and grabbed Justin by the arm, yanking him up from where the youth had been sitting. "It's time for you and I to have a little talk," he snarled. And it took almost no effort on Chris's part as he practically threw Justin through an exit door and out onto the sidewalk.

And the two bodyguards that stood there were most definitely startled at the sudden violence that was thrown into their midst. And upon seeing that it was two of their charges who were making the ruckus, they instantly made as if to blend into the brick walls they were standing in front of, but being sure to keep an eye on the two, should the need present itself to separate them from a fight.

Chris threw the youth out onto the sidewalk and planted his feet between Justin and the door they'd come out of. "Can't you sense how much you're hurting him?" he bellowed, once Justin had regained his footing.

And it was so accusatory and so sudden that Justin hadn't even thought before he'd responded. "Of course I can!" he yelled. And Justin was more than a little surprised at his own admission. "Of course I sense how much I'm hurting him." And there was no question as to whom they were talking about. "What do you think, that I've all of a sudden been struck dumb? I'm not stupid, Chris. I know when I'm hurting my best friend." And Justin kicked at the brick wall with his sneaker. "But I don't know what else to do." And his voice was filled to overflowing with undirected anger--because the moment seemed to call for anger, and Justin didn't have the will to think about who he was angry with.

"Why the hell not?" Chris's eyes whirled inside his skull. "What the hell does that mean, you don't know what to do?" And Chris actually laughed. "Stop doing this to yourself. Stop doing this to him!"

And Justin looked directly into the older man's eyes. "I. Can't." And his jaw was set in steel because Justin was standing his ground on this one.

But Chris wasn't buying it. "Why not!? Why can't you, Justin? Why is it so hard to just start eating again? Why is it so hard to sleep at night, huh?" And Chris was trying to antagonize Justin. He was trying to get under his skin, because Chris had an alarming ability. When he pried, people talked. It was absolutely uncanny and equally unfair. But it worked. "Why is everything so fucking hard for you anymore, Justin?"

"Because I'm scared!!" Justin screamed, turning his back.

And it was so unexpected that Chris was shocked into silence for several seconds. He couldn't remember a time, ever, when he had heard Justin say those words--not ever.

"Look, Chris," and Chris could hear the tears in his friend's voice. And he realized that he had also never seen Justin cry. And suddenly Chris was thinking that maybe Joey was right--maybe he really didn't know enough about this to be messing with it. But it was too late now, wasn't it. "I don't know what's going on in my head anymore," Justin continued. "I don't know what's happening. I just need to work some things out." God, just leave, Chris. Please just leave.

And Chris stood there, staring at Justin's back for quite a long time, debating whether he should say something or walk away. And Chris mulled Justin's words over--they were complicated, definitely, and there was certainly more than one thing going on here. But if Chris could help with that one thing...the thing he suspected was the biggest...then there was no way he was going to stay silent. So he put on his angry voice again, even though this time there was absolutely no anger behind it--just friendship. "I'll tell you exactly what's happening," Chris said mock-angrily. "I'll tell you exactly why you're scared. Because for the first time in your life, you're realizing that you love JC." Because Chris knew this was helping. He knew it was. "And not the friendship you thought it was all these years," he continued, "but you're coming to realize that you honest to god love him. And you don't know how to deal with that." And Chris added a dramatic pause. "Well, whatever it is you need to work out, Justin, you need to work it out fast. Because you're killing yourself, even though none of us can make you care about that. But you need to work out whatever it is because you're ripping JC's heart out. And I know you care about that." And Chris turned around sharply and threw the door aside as he reentered the arena, trying his damnedest not to cry.

* * *

Chris steadied himself on the wall directly inside the door for a few seconds to bite back the tears that suggested themselves near the back of his eyes. Chris had made the assumption that Justin was going through something because of his love for Josh. Ever since that day he'd confronted Justin while he was packing...well, Chris hadn't meant for it to be a confrontation, but that's what it ended up being when Justin freaked out like he had. And Chris hadn't known what to do when Justin had just clammed up on him like that. But he had no idea that Justin was anywhere near this bad--Chris had just thought Justin was being a closed-minded ass. He'd way underestimated Justin. Chris had thought Justin was too young for this to be very complicated. But Chris'd had no idea.

And as Chris raised his head and looked in the direction of the food tables, he made a half-decision and began a slow approach to where his friends were sitting. He walked up to the end of the table where Joey and Lance sat and cleared his throat.

Joey looked up at him with a hefty frown on his face, and when he saw Chris's somber look, Joey's frown turned into a smirk. "I told you, Kirkpatrick," he spat caustically. "You shouldn't have meddled in something you don't know about."

And Chris glared at his friend. "I know more than you think I do, Fatone." And he looked over and made eye contact with Lance before he said, "You guys, beat it, wouldja?"

Lance furrowed his eyebrows. "We're eatin' here, Chris."

And Chris made sure that both men were looking at him before he glanced across the table at Josh, and then he looked back at Lance and Joey. "Well eat somewhere else, okay?"

Lance and Joey looked at each other before they took their plates and went to go eat near the water cooler onstage.

Chris plopped down across from Josh and laid his hands on the table. "Hi," he said, trying not to sound too sympathetic.

"Hi," Josh mumbled into his arms.

Chris slid the uneaten plate of food out of the way, and he tried not to let Josh hear him sigh. "JC, I want to talk."

"So, who's stopping you?" Josh said without looking up, still mumbling.

A pause and Chris took a deep breath. "About Justin."

And Josh looked up from his arms. "What about Justin?"

And when Chris saw the pure emotional exhaustion in his friend's eyes, he melted and returned to the feeling he'd had when he left Justin not two minutes before. He shook his head and tried not to let his voice waver. "I just had a talk with Justin." Chris sighed. "Actually, I yelled at him." And Chris shook his head because if he could take it all back now, he would.

Josh gaped. "You yelled at him?" What the fuck's the matter with you?

Chris nodded sadly, and he winced as he said, "Yeah, for the second time in two days." Because he would take it back if he could.

Shit Josh's eyes flew open. "Chris!..."

Chris interrupted his friend. "I know. I know now, but I didn't know then." Chris shook his head. "I had no idea how much...Justin was hurting." Chris sighed painfully and lowered his eyes. "And I know now, and I'm sorry. I mean, I knew what he was going through. I mean, I knew he was going through something, and I knew why, but I didn't know how much...I mean, I just didn't understand...I didn't understand..." Chris stopped himself. "I just didn't understand." And Chris honestly regretted getting into the middle of this, but he couldn't just stop now. He was helping--he knew that--it was just way more intense than he'd counted on.

Josh frowned. "You came over to tell me that you yelled at Justin...twice...and now you're sorry?" If I had more energy right now, I'd kill Chris.

Chris shook his head. "No. No." And he took another deep breath. "JC, there's something you need to know about Justin."

Oh god. Oh god. "Okay, so he has, like, cancer. Or some degenerative, genetic disease, right?" Because Josh knew that wasn't it, and he needed some humor before his world came crashing down on him.

Chris smiled. "No," he chuckled, "it's nothing like that."

JC sighed dramatically. "Good. Because that is, like, the last thing I need right now." And Josh went through their conversation so far, just to see if there had been any hints as to what it was that Chris was about to tell him. And then Josh's mind screeched to a halt. "Hang on a second, Chris," and Josh narrowed his eyes. "Did you just say that you know why Justin's doing this to himself?" How the hell does he know, and I don't?

Chris hesitated a moment, then nodded. "Yeah," he said haltingly, and Chris tried to regulate his breathing because now he knew he was meddling, and by all laws of contractual friendship, Chris shouldn't even be talking to Josh about this. But Chris was sure there must be a clause about extenuating circumstances in there somewhere, and if these circumstances weren't extenuating, then he didn't know any that were.

"Uhm," Chris took a deep breath and steadied himself. "The thing that Justin's feeling that he doesn't know how to deal with..." He sighed. "JC, Justin's in love with you." And it was only then that Chris realized he was holding his breath.

What? "What?" That was not what I was expecting him to say.

And Chris smiled broadly, happy to have the weight off his chest. "He's in love with you," Chris repeated. "That's what's going on." And he watched the wheels turn in Josh's head.

So many things were happening in Josh's mind, that it was all just one big mass of words, and he just sat there staring at Chris. "And you're sure? I mean, he told you that?" And where the hell is this coming from? How could I never have picked up on this?

Chris frowned. "Well, I asked him, and he didn't deny it."

That's the same thing with Justin. And Josh shook his head. "But Justin's not gay." And he looked up into Chris's face because he knew it had been a stupid thing to say, but Justin isn't gay.

Chris chuckled. "Try to follow along here, JC. I don't know how Justin classifies himself. I don't know if he thinks he's gay, or bi, or even if he still thinks he's straight and this is just a one time thing for him. I think he's probably confused." Chris sighed lightly and returned Josh's gaze. "But regardless of labels, JC, that guy's in love with you."

Josh chewed on his lip as he stared into space, and tears blurred his eyes, and he reached up and swiped them away.

Chris blinked, confused, but then reached across the table and rested his hand on Josh's arm. "What's wrong, JC? Isn't this good news? Isn't this good that he loves you too?" And Chris searched Josh's face, trying to look past the strange feeling he felt as he witnessed, face to face, tears running down Josh's cheeks for the first time ever.

And Josh didn't care if Chris saw him cry--that seemed like such a silly hang up of his when confronted with so much indistinctness. And how does Chris always know everything? How does he know that I love Justin? Lance would never have said anything. None of this makes sense. None of this makes sense. Josh sighed very softly, and his voice came steadier than Chris had expected. "He loves me." And Josh couldn't help but smile. "That's amazing." Josh shook his head. "But if he loves me, then why..." And Josh found he didn't have a way to end that sentence. Just..."Why?" Didn't I give up on this already? You're not funny, god. You're not funny. You won't let me give up, will you? You won't let me give up because you know that I don't really want to. You are not funny.

A pause and Chris licked his suddenly dry lips. "He told me that he's scared." And Chris told himself that he couldn't look away from Josh's eyes even though he wanted to. Because this was big. Justin admitting a fear was big.

And Josh's mouth opened involuntarily and found he had to pause before he could remember how to speak. "What's he scared of?" Of me? But he wouldn't say that. "He's scared of the whole `two guys' thing?"

Chris chewed on his lip. "I think that might be part of it." But then he shrugged. "I don't know, JC. Really, I don't know. There's a lot of stuff going on with Justin. I bit off way more than I could chew, here. I don't even pretend to know what's happening anymore." A thick pause and Chris began to whisper as he entered the part of the conversation that he wasn't sure of. "I just thought...I just thought that maybe it would help if you knew. And I tried to tell you yesterday, but you wouldn't let me and..." He sighed. "I don't know. I just supply the information. I'll leave you to apply it."

And he had to run away because he loves me. And that freaks him out. He loves me. Justin Randall Timberlake loves me.

* * * * *

Josh paced the lengths of his hotel room. I can't ignore what Chris told me, but what the hell do I do? Talk to him. Sure that's easy, talk to him. But who says he'll even let me in? And saying he does, who says he'll even talk to me? And even if he does talk to me, what do I say? "Justin, I know you love me, and there's no reason to be afraid." Yeah, that's realistic. He loves me. I'm still having trouble with that. Since when? Why now? He loves me. God, what do I say?

And Josh was already out the door, crossing the hall to Justin's room. And he hadn't decided on what he was going to talk about. But he knew that something needed to be said. Something needed to be done. And Josh hoped the he'd just be inspired by the muses when the time came to say something.

Josh stepped in front of Justin's door and found it to be propped open, the deadbolt having been turned before the door was closed, preventing the door from shutting completely. Josh pushed the door open, easing his way inside. "Justin," he called hesitantly, "are you in here?" The frigid air of the room smacked Josh in the face as he stepped through the door. Frowning, he stepped all the way into the room, and he found Justin lying on his bed, clad only in boxer shorts. Josh immediately walked over to the thermostat. "Shit, Justin, it's freezing in here." And it was only once the words had left his lips that Josh realized. He made it this cold on purpose. He's doing this to hurt himself. And this was the first time Josh had actually witnessed Justin hurting himself. And for a second, he didn't know what to do. Justin still hadn't said anything yet, so it was easy for Josh to do things without feeling Justin there, watching him. So Josh stepped over to the micro-fridge that sat in the room, and upon opening it, Josh saw that all of the complementary food was still sitting in the refrigerator, unopened and untouched.

Josh turned and looked at Justin for the first time. He was just lying on the bed, staring up at the ceiling. And Josh couldn't help but feel drawn to his friend, and he crossed the room and sat next to Justin on the bed. And he sat there for a full minute before he realized that Justin wasn't going to look at him. "Why was your door open?" It was the only thing he could think of to say.

And Justin didn't even seem to take a breath before he spoke. "I felt you coming."

I should have known that. Hell, at least he didn't run away this time. "Justin," Josh said weakly, "look at me."

And Justin turned his head slowly to gaze at the older brunette.

And the muses struck, and Josh turned away quickly and picked up the first pair of pants and the first shirt he found on Justin's floor and he threw them onto the bed. Josh put his hands on his hips and said tersely, "Put your clothes on, Justin, we're going out." And Josh surprised himself at his sudden shift in mood, but this was the best thing--the best way.

And Josh saw the muscles in Justin's abdomen strain and he sat up and swung his legs off the side of the bed. "Josh, I don't wanna go out, okay? I'm exhausted from rehearsal, and I just wanna spend the rest of the night in my room. Alright?"

"No," Josh said shortly. "No, that's not alright." And he saw the surprise register on Justin's face. "There's no reason for you to stay here; it's not like you'd be sleeping." And he saw the sting in Justin's eyes. "Put your clothes on we're going out."

Justin held his friend's eyes a moment longer and then began to pull on his pants while he still sat on the bed. And Justin stood to pull the pants up over his boxers and do them up, but when he put his weight on his feet, Justin wavered and began to fall.

And Josh lunged forward and caught Justin before he hit the ground, helping him to his feet. And it was only then Josh remembered the times during that day's rehearsal that Justin had stumbled, and nearly fell as he was doing a turn. And it was only then that Josh remembered the pale color of Justin's face that wasn't normal, and the exhaustion in his eyes after only half of the rehearsal was over. And I was too involved in what Chris told me to notice. I was too caught up in what it meant for me to notice what it was doing to him. And if I had noticed I might have been able to get him sent to the hotel early again. This is my fault. Part of this is my fault.

And Justin finished doing up his pants, and he sighed deeply. "Josh, I can't go out tonight. I just wanna stay here. Not tonight; I can't."

"Which is exactly why you've got to," Josh said, holding Justin's waist and reaching around to grab the shirt off the bed, handing it to his friend.

Justin frowned as he pulled the shirt over his head. "Josh," he whispered, "you're not making sense."

A thick pause, and Josh replied. "Neither are you."

* * * * *


Josh and Justin sat at a booth in the back corner of the restaurant on the ground level of the hotel. Josh had to do the ordering for Justin, as Justin was to upset with him to speak, and now the food had come, and Justin just sat there, staring at Josh, his face frozen in anger.

"You can stare at me all you want, Justin, but we're not leaving until you eat." And even though Josh wanted to cross his arms, because it felt like a situation that called for arm-crossing, he refused to let himself--because he wanted to remain open to Justin. He wanted Justin to be able to communicate with him, and Josh didn't want to give any signals that he was unreceptive to anything Justin had to say. So Josh sat there with his hands flat on the table in front of him.

Justin ground his teeth together. "You can't stop me from walking out," he muttered, stone-faced.

Josh raised his eyebrows. "No, that's right. I can't." But you won't.

I can't walk away from you. I can run away...that's different. Running from something that scares you is different from getting up and walking out on it. And Justin sat there, staring at the plate of food that sat in front of him, and his stomach jumped with excitement at the chance it might be filled with sustenance. And the void inside Justin's chest throbbed harder and more painfully than it ever had ever before. And I'm tired of this, Justin thought to himself as he gritted his teeth against the pain of his void. I'm tired of not eating. I'm tired of not sleeping. I'm tired of not being able to rehearse like I used to. I'm tired of feeling guilty all the time for things that are absolutely not my fault. And I'm tired of the fact that, even though I know they're not my fault, punishing myself still makes me feel better. So I give up, okay god? I give up. I can't do this anymore. Chris was right; he was right, and I'm not going to pretend he wasn't. I'm killing myself, and I'm killing him--and I can't let myself do that anymore. And the edge began to come off the sharp, throbbing pain. So I'm gonna eat this meal. And I may not sleep tonight, but that's only because I'll be up thinking about this shit inside my head. I'm sick. I'm tired. And I can't do this anymore.

To Be Continued...

Alright, that's it. It took several turns that I wasn't expecting it to, but I'm very happy with it. Feedback at

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