by Chris J

Sometimes, Joey wishes time could stand still.

Just sometimes, in moments like the first time he sang with the rest of the guys, like playing Madison Square Garden to a sellout crowd, like the release of their sixth album, when everyone finally knows they're there to stay. Like the first time he slept with JC. Like the birth of his daughter. Those moments he wishes could go on forever.

But nothing ever does, and he knows that, and he takes what he can get.

So he stands leaning against the bathroom doorframe and just watches as JC steps out of the shower. Watches as JC reaches blindly for his towel and wipes off his face before scrubbing his hair, leaving it in little haphazard spikes all over his head. Finally, JC wraps the towel around his waist and looks up to see Joey watching him.

"Perv," he teases, grinning broadly and adjusting the towel to make sure it's secure. "I didn't even hear you come in."

"You left the door open," says Joey, pushing it wider and letting a billow of steam out into the hallway. "Bree's down in the music room, practicing."

JC squints at himself in the foggy mirror before turning back to Joey again, squishy grin back on his face. "You're early. I wasn't expecting you for another couple hours at least."

"Yeah, well, we were just rattling around the house, waiting to come over and get you ready, anyway," Joey admits. "Bree's already packed for her mom's place. There wasn't much else to do."

"And of course you're packed, too," says JC, and pinches Joey's cheek and finally just kisses him. "You don't think I can get ready on my own?"

"I think the only thing you have packed so far is your underwear," says Joey, stealing another kiss before letting JC back away. "And lots of CDs. Am I right?"

"You're not wrong," says JC unapologetically. "It won't take me long. I'll pick up most of my stuff new on the road anyway."

"Did you remember to set things up with your housekeeper?"

"And the gardener. And the pool boy. And the security company," JC assures him. "Honestly, Joey, you'd think I've never done this before. Are you going to remind me to pack my toothbrush, too?"

"I don't have to. I bought you a new one," says Joey, smiling, knowing JC already knows that. It's a little pre-tour ritual, one of many, dating back too many years to count. "And a couple other things, too, that I'll only share once we're on the road."

"Tease," JC accuses him. "Just let me put some clothes on and I'll get downstairs and hang out with Bree." He falls silent and frowns in concentration for a moment, but before Joey can ask him what's wrong he adds, "I don't hear the piano. Bet she turned on the TV."

Joey makes a face at that, but he wouldn't be surprised. Bree's a little too worked up to concentrate on anything right now, even something she loves. "As long as she practices before her next lesson," he says, and sighs. "She really wanted to see you again before we left."

"I wanted to see her too," says JC, giving Joey a little shove to get him out of the doorway so they can make their way to the bedroom. He towels off his body one more time and grabs the first things that come to hand, pinstriped pants and a white t-shirt with a hole in the side. He leaves the towel in an untidy pile on the carpet.

"She's been a handful today," Joey tells him as they start downstairs. "She always is, when it's time to switch homes." He makes another face, and he doesn't even have to say what he's thinking. JC already knows.

"She can't be any worse than she was last day of school," JC offers, giving Joey a pat on the shoulder that, small as it is, helps. "Out of control, kids these days."

It's an effort to make Joey smile again, but he doesn't bite. He and Briahna are both a bit of a handful on their last day together, and it's no mystery why. At least they both have something they're going to.

Once they get to the bottom of the stairs, they can hear the television, and Joey frowns. "Oh, don't be too hard on her," says JC. "It's a big day, for all of us."

"JC!" Briahna bounces off the couch at the sound of his voice and starts for the stairs. Like it's been more than two days since she saw him last.

Joey swears he left her looking perfectly presentable, but her hair is already coming out of its braid and her blouse is twisted and crooked. Joey thinks absently that he's going to have to buy her a bra soon. He isn't looking forward to that.

"Hey, Bree," says JC, catching her in a hug. "Thought you were practicing, chickpea."

"Oh," she said, and gives Joey a vaguely guilty look. "Well, mom has a piano, too. I thought I could do it later. Right?"

"Briahna..." starts Joey, but JC gives him a nudge and Joey lets him take over.

"How about," he says, "I make us some lunch, and then we can work on stuff after. Yeah?"

"Jace, we can order in some lunch," says Joey. "You have -- we have -- too much to do."

"No, we don't," says JC. "Just packing, and that'll take five minutes."

It had taken Joey more like five days, but he's not going to argue the point. When JC runs out of socks in the middle of Texas, then he'll be sorry.

"I'll help," says Briahna, and they're already starting for the kitchen before Joey can say anything anyway.

* * *

Joey watches JC and Briahna flicking suds at each other as they clean up the pans, and makes himself even more comfortable at the table, tipping his chair back on two legs.

It's a good time. A month hanging out with JC on his tour, another two on location in New York for his new movie, then back to California and into the studio with the guys again. Back in time to reclaim Briahna for a new school year in a new school. This is his life, and he's pretty damn happy about that.

"So, you gonna show me what you learned?" JC asks Briahna as he rinses out the sink, spraying the front of his t-shirt with spots of water. She gives him a smile -- big front teeth in a still-small face, just like her dad when he was her age -- and nods her head. "Okay, off to the music room with you. Joey, you coming?"

JC's always been better at getting Bree to practice anyway, and Joey doesn't know how he does it. They love music the same, but somehow it's more, coming from JC. He's half-parent, half-friend to her, and maybe that makes it different.

"Coming, coming," he says, and almost overbalances backwards until he gets the chair righted again. Briahna titters and then scampers off before Joey can grab her. "Brat," he says affectionately, and reaches for JC's hand as they follow her.

"What time is Kelly coming?" asks JC lowly as they hear the piano bench scrape along the floor.

"Four-ish," says Joey, glancing at his watch. "When she gets off work. So we've still got time to get you ready to go, I guess."

"Really, Joey," says JC, and grins at him again, and Joey is captivated by the tiny web of lines around his eyes. "If you have to go, I promise I won't leave the house without pants or something."

"That's not the problem," Joey teases, though some days he wouldn't put it past him. Not in absentmindedness but just in the name of fashion. "Okay, we've got two, maybe three hours before we have to head back. And then you and me, we're still meeting at the venue, right? That's the plan?"

"The bus will be parked in the back lot," says JC, reaching out and plucking a hair from the top of Joey's head. It damn well better be a gray one; he doesn't have so much that he can afford to lose it by unnatural means. "Meet me in the restaurant next door, though. Quieter and all."

Joey's been hoping that maybe they'll have some private time before JC's show, but a nice dinner will have to do. They'll have plenty of private time afterward. "That works," he says. "You'll need a seven-course meal by then anyway."

"Only five," insists JC, grinning again. "And hey, you know I can throw my things together real fast, Joe. We'll have time, real time."

"I know," says Joey. "Thanks. But let Bree help you pick out some clothes, though, huh? You know how much she likes that, and Kelly cares about fashion even less than I do."

"That may possibly be part of the reason I haven't packed yet," admits JC, and Joey suspected as much, really.

As they step through the door she starts playing, and Joey's eyes shoot open. "That is not part of your lesson," he blurts out before he can think about it. JC just laughs and elbows him, and of course he would do that because it's the intro to his latest single that she's playing.

She doesn't stop until she gets to a part she stumbles over, then she looks up over the top of the grand piano and beams at them.

"That was great, honey," says JC, giving Joey's ass a pat before he crosses the room to the piano. "You want me to show you that part? It's not so hard once you get the hang of it."

She looks so thrilled Joey bites his tongue and doesn't come out with another comment about how this is definitely not part of her lessons. People learn better when they're doing stuff they like, but still. He doesn't want another note from her piano teacher saying she hasn't done her exercises. Maybe he'll get him to send it directly to JC next time. Of course... that's Kelly's problem now.

He watches them for a few more minutes, heads bowed together over the keys, then slips away and back upstairs to the bedroom. JC's favourite suitcase is open on the floor and virtually empty. Except for the multiple packages of underwear, which Joey never understood and never will.

He starts going through the dresser for essentials, because once JC and Briahna get into it they're going into the closet and not coming out until they're done. It's happened the last three tours -- both solo and group -- and he doesn't expect it's something that will stop any time soon.

He finds a few of his own t-shirts that he thinks he might like to have along and rolls them neatly and sticks them in with JC's things. It's not as though everything they own isn't already mixed up together anyway. The one shirt of Briahna's that he finds he sets aside for her to take with her when she goes to her mother's. It's one of her favourites, and she's been looking for it.

He's stretched out on the bed when the two of them finally come upstairs, his own work done. He hopes that JC has made Briahna do at least some of her exercises, but he doesn't count on it.

"Heeeeey," says JC, giving him a kiss as Briahna tackles his feet. It's nice to see her be a kid again once in a while, when the rest of the time she's trying to grow up too fast. "What, you were up here being lazy while we were working?"

Joey lets his hand flop over the side of the bed to point at the half-full suitcase and bags. "My lazy ass just did half your work for you," he says as he playfully tries to shake Bree off his legs. She's a fighter, that one, though.

"Huh, so you did," says JC and he actually sounds surprised. "All right, c'mon Bree, we have some accessorizing to do. She tries to look mature and composed and competent as she lets go of Joey's legs and straightens her blouse, but Joey knows she's squealing on the inside.

He may as well take a nap; it's not as though they're coming out for a while.

* * *

JC is already at a dim corner table when Joey arrives, and Joey knows just where to look for him. Personal security a couple tables away, he isn't really noticeable unless you're looking. His head is bowed and he's wearing a canary yellow scarf. The warm California weather doesn't warrant it, but to JC it's an accessory, not a necessity.

"Hey," says Joey as he sits down across from him. "I'm not late, am I?"

JC's head snaps up, as high-strung before a performance as he always has been. "Hey, Joe. No, no, not at all. Briahna get away okay?"

Joey sighs as he sits down. "Yeah," he says, and wishes there was already a drink in front of him. "Kelly was only a few minutes late. So she's gone."

"Hey," says JC softly, reaching for him and touching his arm for a moment. They both knew this moment would come, like it always does. Something is beginning, but something also has to be left behind. "She'll call, and you'll call, and you'll see her in a month, maybe sooner."

"Yeah, yeah, I know," says Joey, not quite meeting his eyes for a moment, not until they're not quite so wet. "She says she's going to text message me all the time. I dread the bill."

"You do not."

"Okay, I don't," admits Joey. "So, what, you didn't even order me a beer? Some kind of friend you are."

For a second, JC actually looks like he's taking that seriously, then he gives Joey's shoulder an affectionate shove and does, in fact, order up a couple beers for them. It's hours before he has to play, but it's his first show of a cross-country club tour and he's finding his vibe. Or at least, that's the way he puts it. Yesterday, press. Tomorrow, press. But today, nothing but JC and his music. And his vibe.

"What do you want to eat?" he asks when he turns back to Joey again. "The chicken fingers here are fantastic."

Joey snorts, and bites the inside of his cheek. "Do you even know how often I have chicken fingers with Bree?"

"Point taken," says JC, accepting the cool, wet bottles from their server. He dries his fingers on the hem of his shirt. "Better than spaghetti, though, right?"

Joey cringes and knows he doesn't have to answer. It was one of the happiest days of his life, when Bree outgrew that stage. It hadn't helped that his mother had encouraged it, calling her a good little Italian doll. Spaghetti out of a can doesn't count as Italian, Joey is pretty sure.

"Just whatever," he says. "I'd be happy with just beer right about now. I'm not real hungry."

"Yeah," says JC sympathetically, soft again. "But you will be later, and we'll be on the road, and you'll have to make it for yourself. And isn't this better than that?"

Joey shrugs, but he knows he's going to get something sooner or later. Maybe once the sting of Briahna's absence begins to fade. Just being here with him, and seeing him perform, helps. This moment, though, this separation, it just doesn't get any easier with time.

"Well, you can eat off my plate, then," JC says, and proceeds to order for himself, a pile of food that Joey knows won't last long, even without his help. JC burns a lot of energy on show days.

"Your stuff already on the bus?" asks JC after a comfortable moment of silence. There's an old Elton John song playing and everything feels mellow. Melancholy. "I already half unpacked."

"Missed that," admits Joey. "Just dumped my bags and came in here. You got some good guys working for you out there."

"That's why they're working out there," says JC, and smiles, and Joey remembers that JC really does have his shit together. Maybe better than the rest of them. Maybe better than the rest of them put together. And Joey loves him for it, and for so many other things.

* * *

He leaves the scarf on when he takes the stage, over a black shirt and jeans worn in all the right places. The fine fringe doesn't quite reach his waist and the whole thing lies flat against his body, and once Joey might've thought it looked dumb but now it's just JC.

Skinny JC with a presence that takes up the whole stage. Always has.

The place is packed to the rafters, and for once that doesn't really seem like just a figure of speech. There are people everywhere, and Joey is pressed into the back, and he doesn't really mind at all because the press of bodies keeps him from being noticed. Tonight isn't about him, not at all.

Though most of JC's music is still driven by dance beats and electronic effects, he starts the show simply -- just him and a guitar and a spotlight, and a set of lyrics that makes Joey's heart hurt, every time he hears them. With hardly even a signal other than the lights going up on stage, everyone hushes so JC can begin.

He's amazing, but Joey doesn't have to see the show to know that. There's just something magical about JC when he's on stage, that's different from how he is the rest of the time. Both are equally precious.

"Hey, are you...?" says someone he doesn't know, pushed up against him by a passing busboy. Joey just smiles at her and she nods. "He's great, huh?"

"He sure is," says Joey. "He's a star." She smiles back and a moment later the crowd shifts again and she's back with her friends, whispering excitedly. Joey watches them for a few seconds, but only as long as that.

His drink is long gone, but he doesn't want to get up to get another. Sure, there'll be plenty of shows and he'll be at many of them, but there's only one first, and he doesn't want to miss a moment of it.

* * *

Even now, Joey still thinks of buses as cramped, cluttered and slightly smelly things. His memories of their early days are too deeply ingrained for it to be any other way. So it's always a surprise, no matter how many times he does it, when he steps onto one that's bright and spacious and fresh.

His things are right where he dumped them, except one bag which has tumbled onto the floor, upside down. JC's things really are, in fact, everywhere already, neatly tucked away and fastened, and Joey wonders how early he really got there. How long he spent on the bus before going inside, making it home.

He picks up his suitcase -- the one full of clothes, mostly, and a couple of scripts to kill time with -- and heads for the back of the bus. He leaves that one bag on the floor with only a momentary feeling of guilt, knowing he'll probably pay for it when he trips tomorrow morning.

Instead of bunks, the bus has one big bedroom with one big bed, and a door. That closes. And maybe even locks. Joey's never quite had a bus like this to travel on himself. Even when they were big enough to afford it, and he was still with Kelly, there was always Briahna to think about, too.

"Nice, huh," says JC, and slips an arm around his waist. If it was anyone else, Joey would have jumped, but it's JC and so he leans back into the embrace. "I supervised the outfitting myself."

"Nice," murmurs Joey, tangling his fingers with JC's. "And great show. I can't wait for the reviews to start coming in. Briahna says she's staying up all night to email us the stuff from online, from the boards. If they're anything like the reviews for the album..."

"Let's not talk about reviews right now," says JC, and Joey also hears 'let's not talk about the children'. He slides his hand inside the buttons of Joey's jeans, and he still smells of sweat and smoke, but the shower can wait. "We haven't been alone together for a week."

Joey hasn't forgotten. He's been thinking the exact same thing.

The bed is as comfortable as it looks. And as sturdy. And Joey thinks he could get used to this, for a little while. Used to feeling JC against him and inside him and around him and not having to worry about anything else.

Finally, Joey is beginning to get the hang of his summer. Of the relationship he has, in place of the relationship he misses. In addition to it. Nothing ever really goes away, after all, it just changes a little.

At some point in the middle, when JC is touching him and kissing him and pulling him closer, the bus starts moving. Joey notes it only as a change of circumstance, not an interruption. Something driving them forward.

Happy Birthday, Chris.

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