The following story contains homosexual themes involving celebrities. None of this is meant to imply anything about anyone mentioned herein. If you don't like this kind of thing, then you're most likely in the wrong place. This is the last chapter; use it well. It's been a marvelous run, guys, and I love you all. My new story is called "False Impressions". Those of you on my website know this--those of you on Nifty do not. So it's just an FYI--False Impressions will not be on Nifty, so there's a link to my site at the bottom of this page. It might not be a bad idea to look over the previous chapter before you read this one. It's been awhile since DEDA6. Alright, that's it. Go read.

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

Don't Ever Die Again -7-

He acted like I had a choice. He stood there and asked me to let him in, as if I could've said no. But I didn't really have a choice, did I? No, of course not.

He steps in and leaves the door open behind him, and immediately he frowns at the lack of light, looking to the windows. He crosses to one of them, and fingers the wood. "Why are the windows shut up like this?" he asks.

And I'm sitting on the floor now, cross-legged, arms supporting my weight behind me. And I'm watching him because I'm confused--I don't know why he wants to be here, and I don't know how he'll change things. And I remember that he asked me a question--why are the windows shut up like this? But I don't know anymore. Something--something from the outside that I didn't want to see anymore, maybe that I didn't want to see at all anymore. But he's from the outside, and I don't mind seeing him. "I'm not sure," I say quietly by way of reply, and he frowns at me for a second before looking back at the window.

And he grasps the edge of one of the boards, and I see the tendons in his arms strain as he labors to pull the board free. But soon the tendons relax, and he shakes his head as he chuckles a little. "Boy, when you board up a window, you really do it right, dontcha?" And the tendons resume their work.

And I clear my throat, knowing he doesn't really expect me to answer, but I do anyway. "When I did it, it was supposed to be permanent." And I don't look at him because everything feels different now.

As soon as the words leave my mouth, he takes his hands from the boards, and he looks at me. "You want me to stop?" And he backs away from the window like he'd jumped to conclusions too hastily.

A frown. A pause. "I'm not sure." And I look up at him this time...because I'm really not sure.

And he gives me this wonderful, crooked little smile, and in one fell swoop, he rips the boards from the window. And he looks back at me, his grin lighting up the room without the help of the sunshine that now spills through the glass, and he asks, "How's that?"

"I'm not sure," I say softly...because I'm not...but his eyes want an answer, so I try not to laugh. "Different. It's most definitely different." And my eyes are having to adjust to the new light that floods into my space...the space that I share with Josh now, but it's still mine...isn't it? I'm not sure.

And wordlessly, he steps over to the other window and rips the nails from their homes, depositing the now-surplus wood outside the door, where he'd already left the first batch. And he turns to me, his weight on one leg and his hands on his hips. "Different," he repeats, and he's grinning, "is that good or bad?" He's teasing me.

So I raise one of my eyebrows. "I'm not sure." And I return his grin with a wink.

And his face breaks out into a full smile when he rolls his eyes. "So what are you sure of, Justin?"

I'm not sure. But I don't say that because I think he might tackle me. So instead, "I am sure that I like having you here. I'm sure of that." And it comes out more seriously than I'd intended it to, and it breaks the playful mood that we had going, but I don't care because it feels right. It feels different, but it feels right.

And his eyes soften, turning his smile into one so heartwarming, it's impossible not to return it. And then he's not looking at me anymore. His gaze turns to the room, and he looks around like he's just seeing it for the first time. And he's looking at the jars; I know he is. And I expect questions. What are they? Why are they here? Why are they empty? But he doesn't ask any questions. He just slowly walks along the shelves, reading the labels. And I wonder what I'm going to say. The longer he stays silent the more I feel like when he does speak I'll have to defend myself, have to defend the way I've chosen to live. And I can imagine getting mad and shouting, and if he doesn't start talking soon, I'll have finished the entire conversation without him.

And then he stops walking, and he still doesn't speak--but his face changes...into something too soft to expect questions to follow. And he turns to me and smiles a little. "What are the ones without labels?" And his eyes are almost unreadable.

And it's a question, but not really. Not the kind I was expecting. And I can't help but smile because he didn't ask me the questions I know he's thinking, because by not asking those questions, he's allowing me to exist without making me defend my right to do so. And so I chuckle a little bit, and I say, "I don't know what they are," and I smile. "That's why I haven't labeled them."

And a thin blush creeps into his cheeks as he turns back to face the unmarked jars.

The silence stretches between us, and I clear my throat and say softly, "Be careful of the broken glass."

And he looks down at his feet. He hadn't realized there was glass on the floor, and I see him frown and look up at me, no doubt wondering why I haven't cleaned it up if I knew it was there. But again, he doesn't ask. He just sweeps the glass away gently with his foot until it's out of his way and resumes his study of the blank jars.

And when he picks one of them up, I almost tell him not to open it, but I stop myself because he wouldn't do that--I just know he wouldn't. He turns it over in his hands, inspecting it, probably questioning what's inside. And it's then that I hear the unmistakable tremor of jars rattling on their shelves; I remember hearing it when that jar broke of its own accord.

And I look towards the sound in horror--every single one of the unmarked jars is quaking where it sits. And that's how the other one started. That's how the other one started, and they're all going to break. They're all going to break; I just know it, and then I won't be able to breathe. They're going to break, and what am I gonna do? It'll kill me. I won't be able to breathe, and it'll kill me.

And he puts the jar back on the shelf, trying to reverse this thing he seems to have caused, trying to make everything the way it was before, but he can't. I know he can't, and he knows it somewhere too. And we stare at the jars as they lift from their spots and hover as one entity above the boards they had been resting on. And I remember this...I remember this same thing happening before, so I pull Josh out of the way of the jars that will soon be crashing to the floor. And as I pull him to my side, he looks at me with so many terrified questions in his eyes. But he still doesn't ask them.

And I'm expecting it to happen one by one. I'm expecting each jar to fall to the floor and shatter separately...because all the jars are different...they're all different, so I expect them to act differently. But this isn't like the last time. This time the jars seem to expand as they hover there in mid-air. And I can almost see what's going to happen...I can see it, so I pull Josh to the far corner of the room...because he doesn't know how things exist here. I pull him to the far corner, and I throw him onto the floor, covering his body with mine. And I hold to him tightly as each one of the unmarked jars explodes at the same moment with deafening intensity, sending flying shards of glass in every direction possible.

And the immediate force of the airborne intangibles knocks me to the side, and I roll over onto my back, struggling to breathe against them. And I'm waiting for them to constrict my lungs and kill me, and I'll die...I'll die right here in front of Josh. And I turn my head to look at him; he's crying...he's crying because he knows this is his fault...he knows that all this is happening because of him. "I'm so sorry," he keeps saying over and over, "I'm so so sorry," and I want to make him stop apologizing.

And then all at once, all the airborne intangibles rush into me...through my nose, through my mouth, they seep into my skin and through my clothes, trying to get into me any way they can. And I'm lying there, watching Josh cry, waiting for them to fill up my lungs and arrest any air flow, but they don't. That's not what happens. And I feel a deep throbbing inside my chest that isn't my heart, but that feels like...longstanding emptiness...emptiness that I've lived with for so long, I'd forgotten it was there.

And as they all rush into me, I realize that all those airborne intangibles...which had been housed in separate jars for so long...they're all really just different parts of the same thing. But as I lie there, they fill up the emptiness inside me. They fill it up, and I realize that it's him. It was him in those jars. It's Josh that's filling up my emptiness like this. It's him, and god it's wonderful. I've never felt anything as close to nirvana as this must be, and I can barely breathe against the intensity of it.

And then all the movement stops. And it seems to be quiet again. I look up at Josh, and he's stopped crying because he feels it too...he feels that it's stopped, but the tear tracks are still prominent on his cheeks.

And he pulls my head into his lap, and he strokes my hair, and the breath he takes is shaky because he doesn't know what's happening. And he breathes, "How do you feel, Justin? Justin, how do you feel?" Not `What happened?'. Not `What was that?'. He just asks me how I feel, and god I love this man.

And the breath I take is shaky because on some level I'm still expecting that I won't be able to breathe, and I breathe, "Whole...I feel whole."

As Josh roused from sleep, he tried to roll over onto his back as he always did when he was waking up, but he felt himself impeded by a large, warm body, and he smiled when he felt Justin's arms tighten around him. He always woke up before Justin. A few hours before usually. Justin still hadn't outgrown that stage a teenager goes through when he needs more sleep than normal people. Josh chuckled to himself. I need to keep reminding myself that Justin's not a kid anymore. He's a man. Josh turned his head so he could see his lover sleep. He's a grown man, and it's very important for me to remember that. I treat him too much like a child sometimes. I don't like playing that role for him, and I know he doesn't like it either. Josh kissed his lover's forehead gently, knowing it wouldn't wake him, and Josh detangled himself from the younger man's arms.

He stumbled his way downstairs, and as he flapped into the kitchen, Josh passed the calendar he and Justin kept so as to try and keep their insane lives just this side of chaos. Josh ran his finger along the crossed-out dates, crossed-out each night before going to bed because even the days were hard to keep track of, and he came to that day's square. And when his eyes ran across the letters scrawled in red ink inside the box, Josh's heart sank, and he sighed. Jonathon's Birthday. Jesus Christ Josh thought to himself as he stood staring at the calendar in disbelief today is going to suck.

Josh willed Justin to stay asleep for the whole day. If Justin slept for the whole day, then neither of them would even have to deal with it at all. Justin wouldn't have to realize what day it was. Josh wouldn't have to go through the torment he always went through when he had to watch Justin not eat. Josh hated that. He hated having to eat his lunch across the table from Justin, who wasn't eating. And Josh always knew Justin wasn't going to eat, but he always set a plate full of food in front of his lover anyway--Josh was very in tune with Justin now. Ever since that night in the hotel...ever since that night Josh had felt something pop inside of him and had gone flying to Justin's room on the primal instinct that he had to see the curly-haired youth...ever since then Josh'd had the ability that Justin had always had, and honestly it was very strange for Josh. He wasn't used to that feeling at the pit of his stomach yet. He wasn't used to being able to tell that it was Justin on the other end of the ringing phone, and, when Justin was calling, it was strange to be able to predict the phone ringing milliseconds before it happened. It was just strange...and he wasn't used to it.

And Josh honestly had no idea how Justin withstood the horrible feeling that resulted from knowing your lover was hurting, or was in trouble, or something of that sort. It made Josh feel like he was turning inside out. It made Josh feel like the pull at the pit of his stomach was the most important thing in his existence and that it was trying to claw its way out of his body to rectify whatever it was that was going wrong.

But of course Justin didn't stay asleep all day. He couldn't have stayed asleep all day because Josh knew the alarm was set for eleven. They had to be in the studio by twelve-thirty. Wishful thinking. And sure enough, Justin came plodding into the kitchen at eleven-ten, rubbing his eyes and running his tongue over his freshly-brushed teeth. Justin cleared the rattle of sleep-phlegm from his throat, and he mumbled, "What day is it?" as he opened the pantry in search of his morning cereal. It's what he always asked in the mornings before he was really awake and oriented.

And Josh almost didn't answer. Josh almost wanted to wait for Justin to pour and finish the bowl of cereal before he told him that it was his brother's birthday. But Josh knew he couldn't do that; he'd done it once before--only once--and Justin had stopped speaking to him for the rest of the day. Not because of any childish silent treatment, but because Josh had refrained from telling Justin the date because he knew it would upset him. Because by not telling him, Josh had made the arbitrary decision that those feelings Justin would experience were wrong in some way--that Justin had to be kept from feeling them because they were bad. And that's the reason Justin had stopped talking to Josh that day...because if Justin had spoken to his lover, it would have only resulted in screaming, and Justin hated that more than anything.

So Josh steadied himself and said softly, "It's Friday the 18th." And Josh cringed when he saw Justin hesitate...then put the cereal box he'd been holding back into the pantry.

And just to be sure, Justin went over to the calendar, which he never checked on a regular basis, and he let his eyes run across the black X's until they fell on the first unXed box. And indeed, Justin found it to be his brother's birthday. And Josh saw the man he loved slump against the wall and let out a deep sigh. And Justin turned around, facing the way he came, and he whispered almost inaudibly, "I'll be in the shower if you need me." And with that Justin shuffled from the room.

And Josh bit back the tears that stung the corner of his eyes. Because now Josh could feel that Justin was tearing away at himself at will. And Josh couldn't stand it. He just couldn't stand it anymore.

* *

Godammit, I don't want to be here Justin thought to himself as he tried to focus on the music he was supposed to be recording today. Today is not a good day, and this is not a good song, and I do not want to be doing this. I should be on a plane to Tennessee to be with Jon and the rest of the family. But I'm not. I'm stuck here, trying to work out this fucking bridge that I can't sing and that I've never been able to sing and that I'll never be able to sing, and Josh knew that when he wrote it. Josh knew it would be hard for me, but he wrote it because he believed in me, and I'm failing him. I'm failing him because I'm not trying hard enough, and it's just too fucking high. I can't sing that high. Not today anyway. And it was the same place that Justin messed up every time. The same place on the same note every single time. I just can't hit that note. I just can't hit that fucking note. Jesus Christ I don't want to be here.

And it only took one more screw up--it only took one more run through of the bridge and one more voice crack to set Justin off. "Shit!" he nearly screamed as he threw off his headphones and stomped out of the studio, heading towards the cafeteria that was really more of a big room with vending machines.

The four men looked after the angry youth and then glanced at Josh, hoping for an explanation.

"What the hell was that all about?" Chris ventured when it became clear that Josh wasn't just going to offer up the information they were all looking for.

Josh pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed heavily--the way he always did when a situation that he didn't want to deal with presented itself. "It's Jon's birthday," Josh said quietly by way of explanation.

And then everyone understood. And then no one knew what to say. But Chris was adamant about getting the whole story. "So, he hasn't eaten today?" And Chris knew the answer; he just wanted to be sure.

Josh glared at Chris. Why the hell do you have to ask shit like that, Chris? Of course he hasn't eaten; he never eats on his brothers' birthdays. And you also know I don't want to talk about it, but still you push. You get on my fucking nerves, Chris. So Josh didn't answer, but he didn't have to, really. And shaking his head, Josh followed his lover out of the studio.

And Josh knew where Justin had gone--he always went to the same place. And as expected, when Josh looked through the window to the cafeteria, he saw Justin sitting at one of the tables nursing a bottle of water. So, gingerly, Josh pushed the door open and stepped into the room, slowly making his way to the table where his lover sat without saying a word.

And they both just sat there for a few minutes, letting the other get used to the aura of the setting, and Josh cleared his throat. "You know this isn't your fault, Justin." I don't know why I'm saying that; it never helps.

"I can't sing that fucking song," Justin said curtly. "It's too high. You knew it was too high when you wrote it." And Justin glanced up at Josh but had no accusation in his eyes.

And Josh pulled back a little. We're talking about the song? I know that's not why he's upset. But if that's what he wants to talk about, I'm game. "That's crap, Justin," Josh said softly. "You've hit that note before." And he had. Plenty of times. So this was not what they were talking about.

"Yeah, well, not today," Justin muttered as he swung his eyes down to the bottle of water he swirled in his hand.

And Josh let the silence flow for a second or two, and then he ventured almost silently, "Justin, it isn't your fault that you have to miss Jon's birthday." And Josh hoped he sounded non-confrontational because Justin hated confrontation.

Bullshit. "I'm missing his whole life, Josh." And Justin gritted his teeth against his anger. Bullshit it's not my fault.

And Josh sighed. "But there's nothing you can do about that, Justin," Josh said softly. "Don't you understand? There's nothing you can do to change your obligations. It's not your fault; it's your job. No one's blaming you except yourself." And Josh knew he was tap-dancing on thin ice. He hoped that last bit hadn't been one tap too many.

Justin stood up quickly. "Let's just get this song recorded, alright?" And Justin stalked out of the cafeteria. Don't I understand? Don't you understand, Josh? Don't you understand that it doesn't matter if it's my fault or not? Jesus H. Christ, don't you understand me at all? You don't understand me at all.

* * * *

Josh stood at the entrance to the sunroom, watching Justin as he sat there at his desk in front of his laptop, which was closed. The sunroom served a dual purpose for Justin--it was the place he came to write and the place he came to sulk. Right now, it looked like the room was serving the purpose of the latter. Nature calmed Justin down; that's why he liked this room so much.

So Josh tip-toed over and leaned on the desk, drawing the attention of his lover. "Dinner's ready, sweetheart." Josh smiled softly, and without waiting for Justin to respond, Josh pushed off the desk and walked back into the kitchen to serve the lasagna he'd made.

Justin looked after him in disbelief, though he wasn't really sure why he was surprised--Josh always did this. So Justin followed his lover only as far as the doorway to the kitchen. And there Justin stood, jaw set in stone, waiting for Josh to sense his anger and turn around.

And it only took a few seconds for Josh to get the feeling something was wrong, something on top of the way Justin had been acting all day, and when he turned around to face the younger man, the smile dropped from Josh's face. Justin was very angry.

"Justin..." Josh started calmly, setting aside the dishtowel he'd used to dry his hands. "What's wrong?" Why are you mad all of a sudden? What happened?

And Justin paused a moment, then took a deep breath. "Do you know one of the things I love about you most?" And Justin had barely moved his mouth in the asking of that question.

And Josh had not been expecting a question like that. It caught him off guard to hear such heartfelt words inside such a malevolent voice. And all he could do was shake his head as his mouth hung open.

"One of the things I love about you most," Justin continued from the kitchen door, "is that you never ask me why." And Justin paused to let that sink in. Don't get angry, Justin. You know better. Anger is the root of everything bad in this world, and if you get angry at him now, you'll fuck everything up. You'll fuck it up just like your mom fucked it up, and he'll leave you just like your father left her. So don't you dare get angry at him. You love him. You want him to stay, and you love him, and there's no way in hell I'm gonna let you yell at him.

But Josh didn't quite understand. "What are you talking about Justin?" And why are you mad at me?

And Justin had to take several deep breaths to keep himself from going off on his partner...because Justin hated fighting. Don't get mad at him. Don't you dare get mad at him. "I mean that on a day like today," Justin nearly hissed through his clenched teeth, "a day when I'm not eating, you've never once asked me why. You never want to know what happened, or what's wrong with me, or why I'm not eating. You never ask, and I love that about you. You don't make me justify myself." Justin paused caustically. Don't get mad at him! but he wasn't listening to himself anymore. "But the things you do, Josh, are passive aggressive!" And Justin couldn't control his yelling anymore, and his voice began gaining force. "You're passive aggressive, Josh, and I'm fucking tired of it." I've had it. I've had it with you. And fuck not getting angry. Fuck that because you deserve this.

And all Josh could do was stand there with his mouth hanging open. "What are you talking about?" he breathed incredulously. Who the hell are you and what have you done with my boyfriend?

"You know what I'm talking about!" And now Justin's voice shook the walls, and now he'd lost all control of his emotions. "When you know I want to be cold, you hand me a coat. When you know I don't want to sleep, you drag me to bed with you. And when you know...when you fucking know that I'm not eating, you fix me dinner!" Justin's eyes burned with intensity, and his jaw steeled with determination.

Josh pursed his lips and sighed through his nose. "Justin, be sensible. Don't get your panties in a wad. We both know that it's not me you're mad at." You're just upset that you're not with your brother. And Josh's eyebrows lowered, and he crossed his arms in front of his chest.

Justin saw Josh's frown and raised him a snarl. "The hell it isn't!" Justin bellowed, taking a step towards the older man. "Don't fucking tell me what I'm mad at! Who the hell do you think you are?" He's your soul mate. And Justin had been looking into Josh's eyes the entire time...but all of a sudden the gaze got too intense for Justin, and he pulled his eyes away from the older man and focused on his shoes, and his voice came much softer. "Josh," he almost whispered, "I would rather you ask me a million questions about why I do the things I do than ignore how I feel altogether." And Justin's anger had completely dissipated, and his need to fight flowed out through his feet, and now all Justin wanted to do was curl up in the sunroom and wait for tomorrow. I didn't mean to yell. I couldn't help it. I'd been keeping that in for so long...not telling you for so long, that I had to say it. But I didn't mean to yell.

And Josh advanced towards his lover and wrapped his arms around him...because he felt Justin's anger leave him. And Josh nuzzled into Justin's neck and kissed the space just below his earlobe and whispered, "Justin, I just hate seeing you do these things to yourself. I just want you to eat; is that so bad?" And Josh felt his breath reflected back at him as it bounced off Justin's neck.

Jesus Christ. "No, that's not bad, Josh," Justin sighed but didn't pull away. "Of course that's not a bad thing, but I'm tired of you ignoring how I feel, and you do it all the time." And he pulled his partner tighter to him just to reinforce his love. "This is who I am, Josh. This is part of the man you fell in love with. Please...will you please just try and respect that?" Please don't get mad. I had to say it. Please don't get mad, Josh.

But there was no such luck. Justin felt Josh tense beneath his hands, and Josh had to practically pry Justin's arms away from him. That was a low blow Josh thought to himself as he tried to keep himself from walking straight out of the room. Shit, Justin, just because I want you to eat doesn't mean I don't respect you. That was a low, fucking blow. Who the hell do you think you are? And Josh pushed Justin away and crossed the kitchen to lean on the sink, his back to the other man. "You know, Justin," and Josh's voice was dangerously low, "I don't get to be with my family for their birthdays either. And neither does Lance, and neither does Joey, and neither does Chris. So why are you so fucking special?" And Josh had to grip the sides of the sink until his knuckles were white because all he wanted to do was walk straight out the front door. Because of all the things he loved about Justin, his not eating and all the other shit he did...that was just a part of his lover that Josh hated. Don't you dare walk out on him. You know what that would do to him. You know what his father walking out did to him; you were there. Don't do that to him. Don't make him go through that again. Don't you dare walk out on him.

And Justin felt his anger rise inside of him again and begin to bubble over inside his veins. Why am I so special? God, I can't believe you. Why are my problems so much more drastic than yours? Justin smirked. "Because I'm me, and you're not." And Justin wanted to push the words into his lover. They had never fought like this. They had never fought like this.

And Josh whipped around manically. "Fuck, Justin, what the hell does that mean? What the fuck's the matter with you? That's the most egotistical thing I've ever heard you say." And Josh was balancing on his tip-toes because no matter how much he knew he shouldn't, he was about three centimeters from giving up on this stupid argument and letting his feet take him out the door don't you dare don't you dare and fuck how it would make Justin feel. Fuck that because Justin wasn't paying any attention to how what he did made Josh feel.

And something inside of Justin just broke free--because no part of him was willing to apologize for who he was--and he screamed, "This is who I am! This is what I do!!" You fucker! How dare you say that to me!

That pushed Josh so far past anger that he circled back around to calm again. If you refuse to compromise, then so do I. "Well," Josh whispered, "I don't have to sit around and watch." And Josh brushed past Justin, knowing the younger man would be too caught off guard to try and stop him. Josh just refused to be in the same house with someone who could think those thoughts.

And Josh left Justin standing in the kitchen doorway. And Justin heard the jingle of Josh's keys just before the door slammed shut, shaking the entire house on its foundation.

And there was no way Justin was going to run after him--no way in hell. But he just someone had numbed his legs or something. And for a long time, Justin just stood there...staring at the space Josh had once occupied...unable to believe that Josh had actually left. Justin felt like he was in suspended the whole world had been stopped and then restarted again in slow motion.

Justin was barely aware of slowly making his way into the living room and curling up in the oversized chair--he was too conscious of all that had happened. He was too conscious of Josh's absence, and he was too conscious of his own role in it. And he was still angry. Somewhere, Justin knew he was still angry at Josh for disregarding how he felt. And somewhere, Justin knew that he was angry at Josh for just walking out like he had instead of staying to talk about it.

But Justin couldn't figure out whose fault this was. I yelled at him, yes...and I shouldn't have done that, but he shouldn't have walked out on me, should he? I had no right to yell at him, but he had no right to just leave like that, right? Is this my fault? Is fault?

* * * *

Josh had his hands wrapped around the steering wheel so tightly that he could feel the stitches in the leather making indentations in his skin. He had the volume on his car radio turned up so loud that he was certain passing vehicles could hear it, and he didn't care. He didn't care. His mind was just a whir of obscenities; everything else was drowned out by the booming bass that rattled through him.

And it wasn't until Josh had parked his jeep in the studio's parking lot and had unlocked the front door, nearly half and hour later, that Josh came back to reality. Justin shouldn't be alone right now. Not with what just happened. Not with what I just did to him. He could do some real damage to himself with this. He shouldn't be alone. "Fuck," Josh cursed quietly to himself as he pulled out his cell phone and hit number three on his speed dial.

* * * *

Justin was startled when the phone began to ring--he was startled so it wasn't Josh. It wasn't Josh on the other end, so why answer it?

And when the machine picked up, Justin heard Lance's bass voice rumble into the room. "Justin, are you there? If you're there pick up. Justin?" And he heard Lance sigh. "Okay, well if you are there, JC just called me..."

And Justin was at the phone in milliseconds. "Talk," he demanded before he even had the phone to his ear.

Lance was caught a little off guard. "So you are there," he said, after a moment.

No, I left. "Talk," Justin said again.

And Justin was obviously in no mood to fool around. And Lance cleared his throat. "JC just called me. I don't know where he was, but he said that you shouldn't be alone with yourself right now." Lance paused. "I'm not real sure what he meant by that, and he didn't elaborate. He also said he was turning off his cell phone." Lance paused again, waiting for Justin to say something, and when he didn't, "Justin, do you want me to come over?" Lance had no idea what was going on. Why shouldn't Justin be alone? Why would Josh turn his phone off?

"Uhm..." Justin breathed into the phone. No. Not really. I've got too much to think about. Like if this is my fault. I've got too much to think about. "Uhm..." Justin said again, having not yet caught up with his voice.

And in the time that it took for Justin to decide, Lance made a decision of his own. "You know what," his voice rolled through the phone, "scratch that. I'm coming over. And I'm bringing Joey and Chris with me." And Lance hung up without giving Justin a chance to think about it.

* *

Justin still sat curled up in the overstuffed leather chair, his knees nearly touching his chest and his arms wrapped around his shins. Lance sat on the floor, leaning against the chair Justin sat in which was catty corner to the couch, where Joey and Chris sat.

Joey cleared his throat nervously as he slowly rubbed his hands together. "Do you know where he is?" he addressed Justin softly.

Justin shook his head immediately but then shrugged. "Well," and his voice was barely audible, "he's probably at the studio." The studio was Josh's second home after all.

Lance turned halfway around so he could see Justin as he spoke. "Do you want us to go get him? Or maybe drive you to go get him?" Lance felt like he should be doing something. He'd called because Josh wanted him to be with Justin, but he'd come over after hearing how lost Justin sounded on the phone. But now that he was here, he felt a little useless.

But Justin shook his head. "If he doesn't want to be here, then I don't want to go drag him back somewhere he doesn't want to be." And Justin sighed and picked at the seams of his khakis. "If he doesn't want to be here, then I don't want him to be here." But I sure wish none of this had ever happened. Justin swung his legs out of the chair. "Scuse me, Lance," he said, sidestepping the older boy's hands. And without saying anything else, Justin got up and walked out of the room.

Chris frowned, and after looking at the other two men, he followed his friend into the kitchen where he found Justin with his head in his hands, leaning heavily on the sink. And was he crying? Is that why he'd left like that, because he didn't want them to see him cry? Chris didn't know if he should say something. Chris didn't even know if he should be in the room. But he'd be damned if he was gonna ignore Justin now. So he walked up quietly and put his hand on Justin's shoulder.

Chris had been expecting Justin to turn and embrace him, but Justin didn't move or even acknowledge Chris's presence. And after awhile, Chris removed his hand from Justin's shoulder...because it felt awkward.

And it took a long time for Justin to speak, but it didn't even cross Chris's mind that maybe he should leave. And Justin took a shaky breath. "I wish he was here." And Chris almost didn't hear it.

"We can go get him, Justin." Well, what was he supposed to say?

No. "I mean, I wish he wanted to be here. I wish I hadn't started this stupid fight in the first place. I wish it wasn't my brother's birthday, and I wish I could just rewind this stupid day and do it over again--or not at all." Justin sighed heavily and straightened up from his place at the sink, and his eyes swung over to the lasagna that hadn't even been cut yet. "Have you eaten, Chris?" And Justin frowned as he realized he hadn't the faintest idea what time it was--all he knew was that his exhaustion reached down to his bones, and even further. Chris nodded that he had eaten, but Justin wasn't even paying attention as he shuffled to the doorway of the kitchen. Justin leaned against the cool wood and his voice came very softly. "Joey, Lance, have you guys eaten? There's a whole lasagna in here that's going to waste. I've gotta put it up anyway. You want some?" And Justin ran a tired hand through his curls. Isn't this day over yet?

Lance nearly sprung from his seat on the floor, thankful for something that felt helpful. "I'll put up the lasagna for you, Justin," he said, already walking to the kitchen. "You want me to cut you a piece, Joey?" he called over his shoulder.

But Joey declined, and when Lance brushed past Justin into the kitchen, Chris felt extraneous and went to join Joey on the couch as he flipped through channels. And as Lance busied himself with cleaning up the kitchen, Justin had pulled himself onto the countertop and wrapped his arms around his legs again, burying his face in his knees. And after Lance had put the lasagna in the fridge and had closed the door with his hip, he looked over and saw that Justin had curled up into the self-protective ball that he defaulted to when he was having an exceptionally bad day.

Lance padded over to Justin and put a comforting hand on his friend's back, rubbing light circles into Justin's tensed muscles. "Justin you must be exhausted. Why don't you go to bed?"

Justin let out a deep soft sigh. "Because I know I won't be able to sleep." I hate today. Today sucks.

Lance frowned and cleared his throat softly. "Well, there's no reason to keep yourself from sleeping tonight. It takes two people to have a fight. You didn't force JC into anything; he walked out all by himself." A pause. "This isn't your fault, Justin." And Lance felt like he should say something more...or go back and say what he had more slowly...He just hoped Justin was listening to him.

Justin turned his head slowly and gazed into Lance's green eyes. "I meant that I can't sleep alone anymore," he said softly, keeping his friend's eyes. And even softer, "But thank you." And Justin kept looking into those green eyes...because right now he felt closer to Lance than he ever had before.

And after several seconds Lance cleared his throat. "Well, JC told me to make sure that you weren't alone." A pause. "So that's what I'm gonna do." And Lance put his hand into Justin's and pulled his friend from the counter. "Come on, Justin; I'm tired. Let's go to sleep."

* * * *

What the fuck am I doing? Josh wondered to himself after hours of sitting on the studio's couch. What the fuck am I doing? We have an argument, so I walk out on him? Does that make sense? I don't try to talk about it; I don't try to work it out; I just up and leave. What the hell is the matter with me? And Josh sighed to himself, but he didn't make a move to get off the couch. I've never been able to do that, though. I've never been able to just stay and talk about things. I've never been able to have a huge fight with someone like that and hang around for it. And he sighed. But that doesn't make what I did any better, does it? I still walked out on him. I still put him through a lot of shit that he doesn't need and didn't deserve. What kind of lover am I? I sit here, steaming in my own juices...and I feel that he's hurting...I feel it deep inside me. And I'm hurting because of my unresolved anger that's unresolved because I walked out on the situation that could have resolved it. I'm hurting, and he's hurting, and I'm sitting here acting like my not being there will make it better when all it can do is make it worse. And Josh got up from his seat on the couch, his keys still in his hand because he'd never put them down, and he checked his watch Jesus, it's already one in the morning.

And Josh ran to his car and sped along the freeway away from the studio with as much zeal as he'd had on the way there. And it was midnight. And he was in a hurry to get back home to get back to Justin, who shouldn't even let me in when I get there. And he'd been so preoccupied with his need to just be there already that Josh hadn't even seen the car that came careening towards him until the second before impact.

* * * *

Justin bolted upright in bed, covered in sweat, with a cold terror ripping through his body. And he was still mostly asleep, unable to speak because of the fog that consumed him made worse by the incredible fear that was making his heart beat too fast. And he hesitated; he didn't know what to do, he just knew he had to do something, and he had to do it now. And then the fog cleared momentarily, and a thought got through, and Justin sprang from the bed towards his pile of clothes on the floor, digging through them to find his cell phone. Please have your phone on, Josh. Please have turned your phone on. But all Justin got was that fucking automated piece of shit telling him that Josh, hadn't turned his phone on. Fuck. Fuck! And Justin wasn't even thinking anymore, he just got dressed as fast as possible, and where the fuck were his shoes?

By this time, Lance had been roused, and he pushed himself up on his elbows in the bed, looking at the beside clock to see 1:09 in small, green numbers glowing back at him. And he swung his still tired eyes over to Justin, to see what was going on, and the second he saw the panic in his friend's eyes, Lance's heart lurched into his throat, and he threw off the covers as he scrambled to his feet. "Justin..." and he didn't know what to say, really. "What, Justin, what is it? What's wrong?" And Lance's pulse raced in his ears as he tried to slow everything down so he could make sense of it.

Meanwhile, Justin was turning in frantic circles. "Fuck," he cursed, "Lance, where the fuck are my sandals?" Shit, I don't have time for this. I need to find him. I don't have time for this; I need to find Josh.

Lance shook his head with exasperation because he could see it was going to be nearly impossible to get Justin to answer his questions. "Justin, I don't know where your sandals are. What's going on, Justin? What's happening?" And Lance watched as his friend scurried around the bedroom, stuffing his wallet into his pants, still searching for the elusive sandals.

Maybe they're in the living room. And Justin bolted for the door and took the stairs three at a time. Fuck, I don't have time for this.

And Lance felt like he had to move in three directions at once. He had to wake up Chris, and he had to wake up Joey...he needed their help in...whatever it was that was happening, but he also had to go stop Justin from leaving without them. The young man wasn't thinking clearly, and Lance still had yet to discover what the fuck was going on. But Lance had never seen Justin this scared before. Never before had Justin acted with such quick determination, and it frightened Lance more than he wanted to admit. Because Justin was always right about this. He was always right about Josh.

So after a moment's hesitation, Lance burst from the room to go wake up Chris...because Joey was a bear when you woke him up, and Chris had always been a very light sleeper, thank god. And as soon as Lance had opened the door, Chris was awake and sitting up in bed. "What's going on?" he asked with surprising clarity, and Lance thought that maybe he'd woken up when Justin had gone barreling down the stairs.

And Lance didn't know how to get it out fast enough. "Get up," was all he could manage. "It's Josh. Something's happened." And despite his rush. "I think it's really bad this time." And Lance stood there staring at the older man for a moment before he remembered his task of stopping Justin, and as he ran down the stairs, Lance called over his shoulder, "Wake up, Joey." And it didn't really matter if Chris heard him or not; he would have done it anyway.

Lance found Justin in the living room trying to figure out a way to pull on his sandals without unbuckling them. And Lance didn't know quite what he should do to detain Justin. "What's going on, Justin? What is it? What happened?" Because he didn't know what else to say--those were the only thoughts running through Lance's mind...they were the only things he felt capable of vocalizing.

But Justin didn't respond, and Lance wasn't sure his friend had even heard him speak. And so when Justin finally got his shoes on, and bolted past Lance, heading for the front door, Lance seized the boy's shoulders. "Justin stop. Stop. Tell me what the fuck's happening." Lance felt like he wanted to stop the whole world, but Justin would have to do.

But Justin shook his head, and Lance knew that he wouldn't be able to hold his friend in place if Justin decided to break free. Justin was stronger than Lance by a good long way. Where the fuck were Chris and Joey? "I can't stop, Lance. I've gotta go. I've gotta go find him." And Justin made a move towards the front door, but Lance strengthened his grip. "You don't understand!" Justin cried desperately. "It's bad this time, Lance. It's the worst I've ever felt it. Something horrible happened. Something horrible, Lance, and I have to go find him!" Let me go, godammit. I don't have time to sit here and explain it to you. Josh is out there, and he's in trouble, and every second I'm not with him is a second that I don't know what's going on, and I need to know what's going on.

"No!" Lance said sternly. "No, Justin. It doesn't make sense to just go flying out the door in a frenzy without even knowing where you're going. It doesn't make sense, and I'm not gonna let you do that." Because it didn't make sense, right?

Justin sighed loudly and began to struggle out of Lance's grip. "But I do know where he is. Fuck, let me go!" And Lance's hold began to slip from Justin's shoulders. "I know where he is, Lance. He went to the studio." Fuck! Let me the fuck go!

The cavalry has arrived. "You don't know anything, Justin," Chris called out as he flew down the stairs, still pulling on his shirt, with Joey right behind him. "You don't know anything," he said again, his chest heaving from the adrenaline that charged through his veins. And Chris had to take a second to catch his breath even though he knew there were no seconds to spare. "You two have never fought like this before," he gasped, chest still heaving. "It's never been like that before, and you can't tell me you know where he went. He's never walked out on you before. He's never done that before, and you can't be sure." And Chris latched onto Justin's elbow to keep him in place.

"Well, then we'll split up," Justin screeched, trying to wriggle out of the men's hands and almost hyperventilating from anxiety when Joey came up on the other side of him to block any escape attempts. "We'll split up," he said again. "We'll all go somewhere different, and then we'll find him." Jesus Christ, what's the matter with you people? Why are you holding me here?

"No go, Justin," Joey piped up. He was still half-asleep, and he held a t-shirt in his left hand. "We don't know where he is, either. There's no guarantee that we'd find him, and besides there's no way any of us are going to let you out of our sight for one second. You know that." And Joey breathed deeply, trying to catch up with the rest of the world.

And Lance saw that Justin was about to run for it, so he shook the boys shoulders firmly. "Justin, look at me." And his voice was so spontaneously demanding that Justin had no choice. "Justin, I know it's the worst it's ever been. I know you're more scared that you've ever been before. That's why we've got to stay here--we'll find him faster this way. What if we all go out looking for him, and we miss his phone call while we're out?" And when Justin started to shake his head, Lance said, "Yeah, I know you think he'd call your cell, but you aren't sure of that Justin, and right now we can't afford to be wrong about something." And Lance paused. "I know it feels like you're not doing anything...but there's nothing we can do that makes sense right now. Justin, you see that, don't you?" And Lance's eyes pleaded with the younger man.

And Justin stopped struggling, and he nearly crumpled on his feet. And his voice came much softer, defeated. "I don't know how I can just sit here and wait." And he sighed. "Fuck. Why did this have to happen today?" He shook his head pathetically. "Why did this have to happen at all?" And Justin let himself be led into the living room, where he curled himself into a ball on the couch.

* * * *

Dr. Cantrell grimaced as he looked at the ultrasound of Josh's belly. This was not the kind of publicity he needed for his hospital. He wouldn't mind being the one who saved a celebrity's life, but he sure as hell didn't need to be known as the doctor who didn't. He sighed. "There's a palpable mass in the upper left quadrant, and there's fluid all over the place in here," he said, shaking his head and examining the monitor just to be sure. "It's a splenic rupture. Someone call O.R. and tell them we're coming up." And as the nurses and interns around him buzzed to life, preparing for the transfer to the operating room, Dr. Cantrell grabbed a nurse and pulled her aside. "Janie, has anyone called this guy's family?" The hospital couldn't afford to screw this one up.

But Janie shook her head. "There's no ID on him with his phone number, and he was unlisted in the phone book." That was all she could think of. She'd tried to find a way to discover a phone number she could call, but all she had met were dead ends. Unless, "He did have his cell phone on him," she continued, "and it has a speed dial, but I didn't want to call someone at random, ya know?" Janie frowned. "I didn't know what to do next." She'd followed all the policies and had still come up with nothing.

Dr. Cantrell itched to get up to the operating room, and he began to back away towards the elevators. "Find someone who knows about the group this guy's in, and call someone on the speed dial that looks like they're in it. Only someone who's in the group, Janie. We can't take chances on this one." Janie nodded as the doctor backed away. "And get security up here," he called. "I want guards outside the O.R. and the room that I want waiting for him when he comes out." And the doctor stopped at what he'd just said. And he didn't want to correct himself because he knew Janie already understood. Dr. Cantrell shouldn't have said when; he should have said if. But he shook himself out of it and returned to the task at hand. "And don't talk to anyone about this case until the person you call gets here, alright?" And he didn't even wait for Janie to nod as he turned around and slipped inside the elevator doors before they closed.

* * * *

Silence rang through the living room as all four men sat waiting. Waiting. They knew something was terribly wrong with their best friend, but they had no way of finding out what that was. They were all surprised by how well Justin seemed to be doing. All three of them thought that it was going to be impossible to keep Justin from leaving the house and searching for his lover. All three men thought that Justin would rip their arms off before he would stay home and wait. It was gruesome, this waiting. But they didn't know what else to do.

Lance looked at the youth that sat curled up on the couch. He'd been sitting that way for the last...Lance checked his watch...ten minutes. Ten minutes? Are you serious? Their entire world had changed within the span of ten minutes? Every security they felt they'd had was just pulled out from under them in ten minutes? Could that possibly be fair? Could that be right? Surely that's not the way it's supposed to go. Surely that can't be how everything is supposed to be. And for the first time, Lance noticed that Justin's shoulders were shaking...and Lance's eyes widened--Justin was crying. Shit, Lance knew he wouldn't be able to take all of this if he were in Justin's shoes right now. The boy had a right to cry. So Lance cleared his throat softly. "Justin...?"

And that was all the impetus Justin needed. He lifted his head from his knees and sobbed openly. "Something really awful happened," he strained, tears covering his cheeks. "Really awful this time, I just know it." He gasped. "And I don't have any idea what it was and there's not a damn thing I can do to find out because the fucker turned his phone off and I'm scared to leave the house in case he calls, and I'm scared to leave the house in case he comes back, and I'm scared to leave the house because I have no idea in creation where he is because for all I know he might not even be in Florida anymore and Christ why the fuck did this have to happen today?" And Justin returned his head to his knees, and his voice became much softer. "Why the fuck did this have to happen at all?" And Justin seemed to deflate on the couch, seemed to blend into the cushions, just this side of existence.

The sharp ring of Justin's cell splintered the silence. Three of them nearly jumped out of their skins, but Justin didn't even flinch, didn't make the least possible move to answer it. And all three looked at him. "Aren't you gonna get that?" Joey questioned, almost disbelieving that Justin had actually not picked up the phone.

Justin shrugged without lifting his head. "Why should I? It's not Josh." What's the point if it's not Josh?

And all three of them repeated it to themselves. It wasn't Josh. How could that be anything but a bad thing? So Chris snatched up the small receiver, and upon seeing the caller ID, he frowned. The word Josh stretched across the display. It wasn't Josh, but whoever it was was using Josh's phone. How could that be anything but a bad thing? So without another second's hesitation, Chris flipped the phone open with his thumb and put it to his ear. "Hello," he asked, more than a little frightened.

He heard a woman clear her throat. "Yes, hello. Is this Justin?" She sounded official.

Chris faltered--an official sounding woman calling from Josh's phone fifteen minutes after something horrible had gone down with its owner. How could this be anything but a bad thing? "Yes, it is." And Chris had to be careful not to say the wrong wrong word, and he was sure Justin would explode in pain, and Chris had no idea what he'd do after that.

And Chris heard the woman sigh. "You're in the group with Mr. Chasez, right?"

Chris took a deep breath and reminded himself to just keep it simple. "Yes," Chris said slowly. "Who is this?" And Chris prayed harder than he ever had before--prayed that his friend was alright.

"Oh, I'm sorry. My name is Janie. I'm a nurse down at The Medical Center."

Chris stopped breathing.

"Mr. Chasez was brought in just a few minutes ago. He was in a motor vehicle accident, and he's in surgery right now." A small silence. "I'm sorry we didn't get in touch with you sooner, but we couldn't find a way to get your number. Then we saw that his phone had a speed dial and..."

Chris cut her off, "Yes, I've figured that part out already." And Chris felt everyone looking at him. He was sure they all knew who the call was about. And he didn't know how else to ask it. "Is he okay?" And Chris tried to ignore the look on Justin's face--a mix of so many emotions that Chris couldn't even classify it--he didn't think he was strong enough to face the young man right now.

Another small silence. "He came in unconscious, but that's probably just a mild concussion. He needed emergency surgery--a splenectomy. I'm sure he'll be fine; we've got very competent doctors here."

And it was a non-answer, but Chris heard what she meant. He's unconscious, and it's an emergency surgery. There's a chance he'll die. There's a chance your whole universe will be turned on its end. Have a nice day. And don't forget to buckle up.

Chris flipped the phone closed and stood slowly, not knowing how to begin, not knowing what to say, not knowing how to say it. Chris cleared his throat, and when he spoke, his voice barely responded. "He was in a car accident." And his eyes scanned his friends but rested on Justin, wanting so much to be able to say He's fine. He's going to be home any second now. But instead, "He's in surgery at the Medical Center." And Chris joined in Justin's overwhelming desire to just rewind this day and start it over again. And then Chris didn't know what else to say. "I'll drive."

And it took a few seconds for everyone to get roused into action, a few seconds to let the news sink in. But then Joey and Lance jumped to their feet and scrambled out the front door in a rush of panic and urgency, but Chris turned back when he saw that Justin wasn't with them. Justin was still seated on the couch, curled up in the same ball he'd been in all night. So Chris took his friend's elbow and helped him stand. "Come on, Justin. We've gotta go."

And as he was being led to the front door, Justin asked quietly, " he okay?" And Justin's lower lip trembled.

And the pain and the hope in those words tore at Chris's heart, and he hated that he could only reply, "I don't know, Justin. I don't know." And a pause. "I hope so." They all did.

* *

"Can't you go any faster, Chris?" Joey asked as they sped along the freeway. They were already doing ninety, but it didn't feel fast enough--if they weren't already at the hospital, they weren't going fast enough.

Chris didn't take his eyes off the road. "Joe, if I were going any faster, we'd be flying." A pause. "There's no point is getting us in an accident on the way there. I want to get there just as badly as you do. But there's no point in endangering our lives too." Chris sucked in through his teeth as soon as the word too had left his lips. He glanced in the rear view mirror at Justin, who was curled up in Lance's arms in the back seat. It didn't seem that Justin had heard him, but Lance sure had, and he returned Chris's terrified look.

It was a couple more minutes before Chris saw it...and he couldn't really believe what he was seeing. He didn't know why he hadn't thought of it before. You had to take the same interstate to get to the hospital as you did to get to the that is where Josh went. If they had only let Justin leave when he wanted to, maybe none of this would have happened. Chris sighed to himself. "Shoulda, woulda, coulda," he muttered under his breath. And he glanced into the rear view mirror, willing Lance to look at him, but the bass was running his fingers through Justin's hair and whispering things to the younger man. Things like, It'll be okay. Don't worry, Justin, everything's gonna be okay. He's gonna be just fine. So Chris cleared his throat, and when Lance met his eyes in the mirror, Chris glanced to the other side of the highway before catching Lance's eyes again, hoping he got the message.

Lance looked confused for a few seconds before he looked across the highway to where Chris's eyes had strayed, and when he saw what Chris was looking at, the color ran out of Lance's already pale face. It was Josh's jeep; Lance knew it was, and god Josh came out of that thing? Jesus Christ. Lance's blood ran cold, and he put a hand on Justin's cheek to keep him from turning his head to see the accident because there was no way Lance was going to let Justin see that. Not with the nearly catatonic state Justin was in already; lord knows what would happen to him if he saw the torn wreckage that Josh had been pulled from. Lance wasn't going to risk it.

But Justin didn't know what was going on. Right now his whole world seemed to be the hold he had around Lance's torso--as if Lance was the only thing keeping him afloat, and without him Justin would drown in everything that was happening. And Lance wasn't about to let that happen, so he tightened his embrace just a little as Chris sped by the wreckage. The wreckage...Lance didn't think he'd be able to close his eyes without seeing the bent metal for a very long time.

When they got to the hospital, Lance practically had to lift Justin from the car--not an easy task now that Justin was a much bigger boy than he used to be. And Lance wasn't sure that Justin was aware they'd arrived. Lance wasn't sure Justin was really aware of anything at the moment. His normally vibrant blue eyes now stared straight ahead into nothing as Lance helped the youth through the doors to the emergency room. Joey and Chris ran to the front counter, and Lance wanted to as well--he wanted to know everything that was happening right now. He wanted to know where Josh was, and he wanted to know why he'd had to have surgery so quickly, and he wanted to know it all right this second.

But Lance was more occupied with Justin than anything else. Because Lance knew that Justin wanted to know the answers to all those questions more than all three of them put together, but Justin was just letting himself be pulled around and manipulated as if he wasn't really in his body anymore. And Lance was more than a little bit scared by his friend's behavior--maybe this time was too much for him. Lance knew Justin wasn't very good at feeling things...maybe Justin had just turned himself off this time. Was that a good thing or a bad thing? Lance didn't really know, but he was a little envious...right now he'd rather be anywhere else, too, and here Justin was succeeding in that. Maybe Lance should let Justin stay in whatever world he'd created for himself; maybe Justin was happier there for the moment.

I don't know what happened. One second he was sitting here right beside me, and the next he was all the way on the other side of the room. He was mad at me...we got in a fight about something stupid--I can't even remember now--and he'd stomped off to the far corner, and I couldn't even see him very clearly in the shadow he was sitting in.

And then he just...fell over...onto his back. Just all of a sudden like that. And I ran over to him. He was still breathing; he just wouldn't wake up.

And now I don't know what to do except just sit here and stare at him. Nothing I do makes any difference, and it seems like I don't have any control over this situation. Is that what letting him in here changed? I've always had control in here...I always used to...and now I don't have the faintest idea what caused this, and I don't know what to do about it, and I suppose that's what having him in here with me changed.

I don't know if I like that change. I like being in control. That's why I built this place--I needed somewhere where I was always in control. That's what my place was for me, and now that's been ripped away. By letting him become such a big part of my world, I lost control of it. But at least he's still here. At least there's that. At least I can still have the comfort that comes with him just being in the same room with me.

And so I'm just sitting here looking at him, wondering where the hell he went and wondering what I can do to bring him back...or get to wherever he is. I want him here with me again...I don't like him being gone like this--still here but nowhere to be found. I hate it this way, and I want things the way they were before he'd stomped off into the shadows. But I don't know how to get it back. I don't know the rules of this place anymore--it isn't even my place, he's taken that away from me, and I'm not sure if I like that or not. I liked having a place all to myself...somewhere where only I knew what was going on and how to adjust things so that they suited me. But I can't do that here anymore, and I don't know if I'm okay with that or not.

And in the midst of my rambling thoughts...the thoughts I get all the time now...the thoughts that are constantly running through my head in everything I do and say and in every time he touches me and every time we make love...I love him...there's no doubt about that in my mind...but sometimes I feel like we aren't two separate people anymore...sometimes I feel like the price for letting him in was not having a place inside myself that was just me...and in the midst of all my rambling thoughts, he just disappears. Vanishes into thin air.

And I sit there, staring at the place he used to be because I can't really believe it happened. He's...gone...but that can't be right, can it? That can't be right.

And then everything inside of me that was him...everything in my chest that had filled me up and made me whole...all the airborne intangibles that had found comfortable homes in my deep pulsing void began to separate inside my body. And I felt the painful ripping as parts of my chest cracked off and fell away in huge, bloody, painful chunks. And I'm bleeding to death...I'm bleeding to death, and I can't breathe. I can't breathe without him anymore. I can't feel him inside me. He's not part of me anymore, and I don't know how to exist without him...I'm not someone without him, and I can't survive in here now. He changed this place, and I can't live here without him...I can't live without him. Oh god. Oh sweet Jesus, what do I do?

Lance looked to Justin in horror. Justin had been nearly unresponsive ever since Chris had answered his cell phone and gotten the news. Justin hadn't said three words in a row since then. And they'd been ushered into a private waiting room that was slow torture...and Chris had gone for a walk because he felt like he needed to be doing something, and Joey had gone to find the cafeteria because he felt like he needed to be occupied as well. And Lance had stayed behind because he knew Justin shouldn't be alone. And the two men had been sitting in silence for the better part of an hour, waiting and wondering what the hell was going on with Josh.

And then, out of nowhere, Justin had fallen to his knees and began to gasp for breath, had begun to moan and wail and cry uncontrollably. And Lance felt paralyzed by the fear that charged through his veins, and before he could think about what he should do, he was on the floor with Justin, holding the crying man in his arms, trying to console his friend without having even the vaguest notion of how to begin. And Lance was crying too; he couldn't help but absorb some of the immense pain that was radiating from Justin in waves that made Lance nauseous. And Lance didn't even want to begin to think what it was that Justin was crying about. No part of Lance wanted to know what had provoked such a heated and sudden reaction--because part of him already did.

"Justin," Lance managed through the hot tears that ran down his face and the ragged breaths that constricted his speech. "God, Justin, what is it? What happened?" But Lance didn't want an answer. God, Lance didn't want to know the answer to that question.

And Justin grabbed onto Lance so tightly that it pained the older man, but Lance didn't care; he was not the important one here. And all Justin could do was gasp and try to survive around the bleeding void inside his chest, created from everything that had been Josh being torn away from him in less than one second. And Justin just kept repeating, "Oh god. Oh god, Lance, please don't let it be true. Oh god, please don't let it be true. Oh god. Oh god." And Justin dug his fingers into Lance's shoulders, trying to hang on to something in this existence, trying to anchor himself to one reality when everything he felt like he'd ever lived for was nowhere to be found within himself.

And they were both crying, Justin for everything he felt that he'd lost and Lance for Justin's pain. And Lance felt that maybe he should go get a doctor or a nurse or something, but he couldn't leave Justin even if he wanted to--his friend's grip wouldn't allow it. And then Lance heard Chris and Joey at the door, and he saw them kneel beside the two of them, asking questions that none of them wanted answered.

And when Lance became aware of the first tear rolling down Joey's face, Justin's grip fell away as if it had never been there in the first place. And Justin fell back onto the ground, and it seemed that all the breath he'd lost now rushed back into his body, his chest rising and falling in such large, quick breaths that they couldn't have been voluntary. And this was nothing physical that was happening to Justin. This was something metaphysical. And after one last audible gulp of air, Justin lay silent on the floor, his chest now rising and falling normally, the only sign that something had happened in the boy's wide eyes which seemed to ask every question that each of the three men were thinking.

And it was several minutes before Justin felt like he could move again. Several minutes before Justin felt that all of his parts were in the right place, as they had been before his entire universe had collapsed on itself. And each of his three friends asked him what had happened. What was that? What did you feel? Even though, on some unspeakable level, each one already knew what it was that had just occurred.

He was gone. For a few minutes there, he was gone. I know he was. I couldn't feel him anymore. He was nowhere inside of me, and he was gone. I never want any of you to know what that felt like. I never want any of you to have to know what it was that I just experienced. That was the most horrible thing I've ever lived through, and I hope I never have to again. Josh is my life. I can't live without him; I know that now more than ever. God, please don't make me try.

So Justin didn't answer his friends' questions. He just returned to the seat he'd been sitting in before any of it had happened, wanting to pretend none of it ever had, knowing he would never be able to.

* *

And it seemed like Justin's entire lifetime before the doctor came in to talk to them. And upon glancing at his watch, Justin found that it was only four in the morning. That can't be right, can it? All of this hasn't taken place within twenty-four hours. Surely that's impossible. It's been at least three days since I was in that recording studio this afternoon...yesterday afternoon...whenever that was. And Justin rose to his feet and approached the doctor, now very much in charge. This was his boy that was hurt, and it was him who would get the needed information. That's just the way it was. "How is he?" Justin demanded right away. He didn't have to be nice to this doctor; he was sure the doctor understood.

Dr. Cantrell smiled warmly. "Mr. Chasez is just fine. I just brought him out of surgery. He'll be just fine." And he nodded to emphasize his point.

And part of Justin relaxed, but a bigger part of him didn't. "Did something happen?" And when he saw that the doctor didn't understand, Justin shook his head. "I mean, during the surgery. Did something...happen...during the surgery?" And even though Justin knew the answer, he prayed that the doctor would smile and say Nope, it went off without a hitch.

But the doctor paused and frowned, and he took a deep breath. "How did you know?" And Dr. Cantrell looked over his shoulder. "All the nurses that assisted are behind me; I came straight here afterwards. How did you know?" And he looked directly at Justin, more than a little bewildered.

And Justin shook his head. This was not his desired response. "Sometimes I just know things like that," he rushed. "Now, god, please tell me what happened!" Get on with it, old man. Don't make me have to hurt you. Tell me what happened to Josh. Tell me what the hell it was that made me feel like he he wasn't...And Justin found himself unwilling to finish that thought.

And the doctor came back to himself, and he straightened up a bit. "Well, as you already know," he began, "Mr. Chasez was internally bleeding when he came in, and upon examination I found that he was in need of an emergency splenectomy. The spleen holds a lot of blood, and a ruptured spleen is very serious." A pause as Dr. Cantrell cleared his throat. "During the surgery, about halfway in I suppose, Mr. Chasez had lost so much blood that his heart stopped. It's a known risk of the surgery. We got it going again, and there's no need to worry. Mr. Chasez should have a full recovery."

And slowly, one by one, the three men's attentions were switched to Justin as they realized that that's what had happened before. Justin had...sensed it. And it was a second before Justin remembered how to breathe. So that's what that was. I knew it was something like that. I knew...I have to see him. "I've got to see him," Justin blurted. And he was pretty sure he'd interrupted someone, but he didn't care. "I've got to see him," he said again because he didn't know what else to say. "Where is he?" I have to see him. Right now.

The doctor cleared his throat again. "I shouldn't even try for the words `visiting hours' or `family only' should I?" And all four men shook their heads. "Yeah," he smiled, "I didn't think so." And he turned and began walking out of the room down one of the many white hallways, and he called over his shoulder, "Follow me." And as the four men followed him, Dr. Cantrell continued, "He's still under anesthesia," and he checked his watch, "but he should be coming out of that within the hour. All he'll want to do is sleep, though. His body's been through a hell of a lot in the past few hours." And the doctor stopped in front of a door that two guards stood in front of.

And Justin smiled to himself. Already. They already have guards here, and he just got out of surgery. I like this place. Yes, I've decided I like this place. Though, I don't ever want to come back. And it seemed like Justin hadn't even gotten through the door before he had pulled up a chair to Josh's bedside and taken his lover's hand in his. At least there aren't any tubes sticking out of him. I don't think I could handle that.

And no one spoke...because no one knew what to say. And everyone just stayed silent, staring at the comatose man lying in that hospital bed, staring at the younger man who sat by him with such love in his eyes. And it was an odd situation to find beautiful, but that's what it was--beautiful.

The doctors cleared his throat after a few minutes, bringing the entire room, minus the two lovers, back to reality. "I have to get back to the ER," he said softly, "but before I go, I just want to know if anyone is going to be staying overnight--so I can tell the nurses and the guards." And Dr. Cantrell flipped through a few pages on the clipboard he held.

And that question seemed to rouse Justin immediately. "Yes, I'm staying overnight." And he slowly shifted his gaze to look at the doctor. "I'm staying until he's discharged," and Justin smiled briefly before returning his gaze to Josh.

The doctor smiled, having heard that kind of thing a million times, and he made a little note on the clipboard before he turned to leave. "I'll have a cot brought in," he said before the door closed on him.

Lance frowned and crossed his arms. "Justin..." and it sounded like the beginning of a warning.

But Joey clapped the bass on the back, laughing. "Don't even try," he chuckled. "We can't get Justin to leave that boy's side when all he did was faint. You think there's any way in hell you're going to convince him to leave JC after a car accident and major surgery? You're crazy." And Joey shook his head at his friend, then looked to Justin. "How bout we bring you back the essentials in the morning? A few changes of clothes and your bathroom stuff?" And Joey's eyes softened when addressing Justin; he had no idea what could be going on inside the youth's head.

And Justin nodded, gratefully. He didn't relish the thought of showers in the hospital's bathroom, but he wasn't going to even consider leaving Josh's side. "Thanks, Joe," Justin said without turning his head. Did this really happen?

And Lance stood there looking at his young band mate. He was worried about both men, but in an odd way, Lance was more worried about Justin than he was about Josh. They'd fixed Josh. Yes, it had required major surgery, but now Josh was well on his way to a full recovery. But there was no way to fix what Justin had gone through. There was no way to open Justin up and make better what he'd felt in that waiting room--and it curdled Lance's blood just thinking about Justin's screaming sobs of endless pain. He'd felt it when Josh's heart had stopped; that was amazing; that was...scarier than anything Lance could imagine. And there was nothing anyone could do to make it better. How could love that strong be possible?

* * * *

The guys left about an hour or so after the doctor had returned to his other patients. They felt useless just sitting there, staring at Josh, and Justin wasn't talking anymore. And they were tired; they needed to get some sleep because they knew they'd be fielding about a thousand press conferences soon enough. And Lance said that there were about a million calls that needed to be made, starting with Josh's family, which had been forgotten in all the rush. The accident had, ironically, brought a blanket over the four of them that had made them feel almost...normal. But, as always, it had been short lived, and they had to think about the press and the fans and the concerts and the security, as if the five of them together were of any real importance at all. Nowhere near normal.

And Justin had crawled into bed beside his partner. An orderly had brought in a cot, but Justin wouldn't think of being that far away from Josh. And he felt a little childish, wanting to be so close, but he couldn't help it--a little childishness is healthy on occasion. And Justin had been lying there, on side his with his hand draped across Josh's waist, carefully avoiding the bandage, for about half an hour, give or take; Justin couldn't see a clock from where he lay, and he didn't want to move to look at his watch, which he'd set on the table by the bed. And at first, Justin thought he'd imagined it when he saw Josh's eyelid's flutter, but soon enough, the older man began to mumble unintelligible murmurs, the way he always did when waking from a deep sleep, and Justin ran his thumb across Josh's cheek. A few more mumbles, and the Josh muttered, "Justin..." and it made Justin's heart swell with love.

And through a smile that threatened to split his face, Justin whispered, "It's okay, Josh, I'm right here." And the boy lay a hand on his lover's chest. "Just go to sleep, baby. I'll be here when you wake up." And there were no arguments from Josh--there never were when he was told to go to sleep. And Justin got comfortable again, and soon enough he'd slipped off to sleep as well.

* *

Justin slowly blinked himself into consciousness, and for a moment he was a little confused. Where in the fuck am I? But after a second, Oh yeah, I'm in Josh's hospital room. Right. I knew that. And he took a deep breath through his nose as he stretched all his muscles awake.

So you're finally awake. "Morning, sunshine."

Justin's head popped up to see Josh smiling down at him, and Justin smiled back. "How long have you been up?"

But Josh shrugged. "I don't know; I can't see a clock." Hurry and wake up, Justin. I have about three thousand questions I need answered, and you suck at answering questions after you've just woken up.

Justin shifted slightly in the cramped hospital bed so he could reach his watch on the beside table. And after blinking at it curiously a few times, trying to remember what those little hands meant, he said, "It's just a little past noon." And he reached behind him to replace his watch on the table.

Just past noon. That doesn't seem right. "What day is it?" There that's a good one to start with. Maybe he's awake enough to know what day it is.

Justin curled back into the spot he'd occupied for the last several hours. "Uhm," he murmured softly, "it's Saturday." And after a few seconds. "Yeah, that's right, it's Saturday." And he kissed Josh's chest through the thin material of the hospital gown he wore.

And Josh frowned., that still doesn't seem right. "So yesterday was Friday?" Yesterday was your brother's birthday?

And Justin chuckled a little and began to trace little patterns onto his lover's upper abdomen. "As is usually the case on a Saturday." And he looked up into Josh's blue eyes, his fingers faltering at the pattern he'd been drawing. "What's up, babe? It's usually me that's confused in the mornings." And he smiled. "I'm doing better than you are. That's gotta be a first." And he smiled when Josh stuck his tongue out at him.

"Well," and Josh thought a moment, "you seem to be a few up on me today. So let's try this one," and Josh blinked a few times at his young lover before continuing. "Do you know why I'm in the hospital?" If you say no, I'm going to be extremely upset.

And Justin's frown creased his forehead. What... "What?" What are you talking about?

And the older man looked around the room. "Well," he started slowly, "I can't help but notice that I seem to be in a hospital room. And I was just wondering as to why that might be." Stop looking at me like I'm crazy.

And Justin hesitated. He hadn't thought about this. "You don't remember?" I guess he was unconscious through everything.

And Josh shook his head. "The last thing I remember is..." a pause "driving home from the studio. What'd I get home, and you were so mad at me that you hit me over the head with a frying pan?" Please say that's not what happened.

Justin chuckled. "No." And then a pause, and his voice was much softer. "But you would have deserved it if I had." I know that was a low thing to say, but it's true. Another pause before Justin realized. From the that is where you were.

And Josh winced as he lifted his arm and placed it around the younger man's shoulders. And Josh's voice was just as soft. "Yeah, I know I would have." And he sighed. "God, Justin, I'm so sorry. I don't know what came over me; I was such a jackass. I should never have walked out on you like that." And he rubbed his hand up and down Justin's arm. "Please believe me, baby, I'd give anything to be able to take it back." Oh god, Justin, please forgive me.

And Josh almost didn't hear it when Justin whispered, "Me too." Because then none of this would have ever happened.

And Josh's lip trembled as he replied, "I'll never do that again, Justin. I promise. I'll never walk out on you like that again. God, I'm so sorry."

And when Justin looked at the older man and saw the sadness behind those blue eyes, Justin reached up and rested a soft hand against Josh's cheek to comfort him. "It's okay, baby," he said gently. And then he smiled. "But I'm gonna hold you to that promise."

And Josh returned the smile whole-heartedly. "I hope you do."

And it was a few seconds before either of them came back to the situation at hand, but then Justin cleared his throat, grinning. "But back to the whole hospital thing..."

And Josh returned Justin's grin. "Yeah, I've been a little curious about that myself."

Justin cleared his throat, and his voice barely responded. "You were driving home from the studio last night..." The god, if I had only left when I'd wanted to, all of this could have been avoided. Justin shook his head and picked up where he'd left off. "They say you must not have seen him coming. A guy that was going the other direction on the highway fell asleep at the wheel, and his car swerved over the median and broad-sided you. They say that there weren't any tire tracks from either car, so you must not have seen him coming." God, I don't want to be talking about this.

Josh interrupted, "I was a little focused on other things." Like hoping that I hadn't fucked up our relationship.

"Yeah," Justin said softly, "I know." A pause. "So anyway, you must have hit your head on something because you were unconscious when the paramedics got there. You have a slight concussion, too, they tell me. And then they brought you here, and the doctor decided you needed emergency surgery--a splenectomy. And that's really it." Another pause. "The doctors said you're lucky to be alive." And Justin fingers began to draw that pattern on Josh's stomach again, well away from the bruised flesh.

"I'm lucky, huh?" Josh said, disbelievingly. "Then why don't I feel lucky?" I feel more like someone ran me through a meat grinder.

Justin smiled and kissed his lover's shoulder. "They ripped you open and took out one of your internal organs. That could put a damper on anyone's mood." And he watched his fingers dance so close to Josh's skin.

And Josh laughed, but the pain it caused turned the laugh into a heavy groan. That was not a good idea. Note to self: no laughing.

And Justin took up laughing for him. "Oh I'm sorry," he said through his giggles, splaying his hand across the other man's chest. "I shouldn't make you laugh; I'll rip your stitches." And Justin leaned down and kissed Josh's stomach as close to the bandage as he dared.

And Josh smiled. "Don't kid yourself, babe. You're not that funny." My god, I love you.

"Oh hush. I'm hilarious," Justin grinned. "That's why you love me." Better not be the only reason, though.

The two men lay next to each other for a few minutes, Josh running his hand along Justin's arm just to be sure the youth was still there beside him, Justin tracing those little patterns onto his lover's sternum for the same reason. And he didn't want to break the silence, so Josh asked quietly, "Did someone call my family and tell them what happened?" I might should have asked that sooner.

Justin nodded, knowing that Josh was looking at him. "Lance said he would." Good ole Lance. I don't think I could have handled this without him.

And then the men fell silent again, not feeling the need to speak, but rather feeling the need to just lay next to each other for as long as they could--they didn't get many times like this, long periods of time when they could be so intimate with each other without caring who might see them. Their intimacy always transcended any fight they might be having, always made unimportant anything that wasn't the two of them together. It was the best feeling in the world for both of them, and they didn't get to share it very often.

All that could be heard in the large hospital room was the steady beeping of the heart monitor Josh was hooked up to--he hadn't noticed that before. Because you always saw that on television; anytime anyone was in the hospital, there was always that beeping in the background--it was like a defining characteristic of hospitals. And Josh hadn't picked it out as odd before now. And he cleared his throat. "Uhm, baby?" Why didn't he tell me about this?

"Hmm," Justin hummed as he lay against the other man.

And Josh paused. "Sweetie, why am I on a heart monitor?" And it made him nervous when Justin didn't answer, so Josh tried to push himself up in the bed, tried to sit up so he could get a better look at Justin's face, but when he moved, streaks of sharp pain shot through his abdomen, and Josh winced and relaxed again. "Fuck that hurt," he cursed, eyes shut tightly. Note to self: no moving.

"Shhh," Justin soothed, rubbing light circles into Josh's chest to calm his nervousness. "Shh, baby, it's okay. Everything's fine now; they just want to make sure, is all." Please don't ask, Josh. I don't want to remember this; please don't ask.

But of course he did. "Everything fine, now? What happened before that wasn't fine?" Why don't you want to tell me, Justin? What happened?

And before he could change his mind. "Your heart stopped," Justin said so softly that Josh wasn't sure he'd heard it. "During surgery," Justin continued, his voice shaking. "You had lost so much blood, and your heart stopped. But there's nothing to worry about now; they just want to be sure." God, please don't ask, Josh. I don't want to remember this. Please don't ask.

There's something you're still not telling me, isn't there, Justin. And Josh contemplated the youth for a moment, letting his hand delve into Justin's hair and allowing the curls to loop around his fingers. "What else, baby?" What's going on inside that head of yours?

Oh god, Josh. God, it was awful. And Justin's voice shook, but came out stronger than either of them expected. "For a few minutes, you were dead." And he felt Josh want to say something, so he pushed forward. "And I know how weird that is to say, but it's true. Your heart stopped beating. You were dead. For just a few minutes, you were dead." Maybe if I say it enough times, it'll stop being true.

And Josh wanted, needed to say so many things, but he knew Justin wasn't finished.

And it took several minutes before Justin could will himself to say the words, will himself to tell his soul mate what it was that'd happened. He took a deep breath, but still the sound he uttered could not even have been classified as a whisper. "I felt it," Justin murmured.

And Josh frowned deeply. "What do you mean?" But he only asked it because he didn't want to believe it was true. "What does that mean, Justin? What do you mean you felt it?" Please don't be saying what I think you're saying.

And Justin shook his head, wanting Josh to understand, needing him to comprehend it. "I mean I felt it." I don't know how else to say it. "I felt it. I felt you die." Please understand.

And the importance was thick between them. "What did it feel like?" Josh asked, his eyebrows furrowed. What could that possibly have felt like?

And the tears began to slip from Justin's eyes. "Oh god, Josh, it felt like I'd lost everything that ever kept me alive." And he buried his face in Josh's shoulder, fisting his hand in the man's hospital gown. "It was horrible," and his voice was muffled as Justin pulled Josh tighter to him. "I was crying and screaming and sobbing...I can't put words to it. I just can''s too..." And Justin fell silent as he tried to make it all disappear. Because he couldn't put words to it; because there were no words for it. And Justin shook his head as his tears slowed. "I hope you never have to feel anything like that." And all the words in the world couldn't begin to describe this.

And Josh mumbled, "Me too." Because what else could he say? I hope you never have to feel anything like that ever again. My god, Justin, I don't know how I could live through what you just described to me. I'm so sorry that had to happen to you. God, I'm so sorry you had to go through that.

And a long silence rolled between them as each man realized how much of himself depended on the other's existence.

And Justin whispered, "Josh, promise me something?" And he resumed tracing the patterns onto his lover's chest.

"Anything, Justin. Anything," Josh agreed immediately, still playing with the younger man's hair.

And Justin paused before saying, "Don't ever die again."

And the silence rolled between them. And Josh pulled Justin closer to him and kissed his forehead. "I love you, Justin."

And Justin hugged Josh tighter to him. "I love you too, Josh."

And they met each other's eyes, knowing the words hadn't said nearly enough. And their lips crushed together.

You mean everything to me.

The End

Wow. I never thought I'd get there. I never thought I'd actually type those two little words. I'm gonna miss this thing. Please write me to tell me what you thought. This is my heart and soul--I'd really like to know how it affected you. The new e-mail's Wow.

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