Thanks to Schuyler for letting this count for her challenge (KMX #2: whisper, late, library, lipstick), and to Tiffany the Cuter for providing key research material. And additional thanks to Schuyler for loaning me her silver pen and a page out of her Mandy Moore notebook to take notes with.

"If there is one predominant river coursing through the following stories, it is the river of friends. She was my friend. I loved her."
- Lindsey Elder, ed. Early Embraces.

Early
by Lesa Soja
 

JC is Keri's best friend at MMC. They always eat lunch together, and talk over the skits they're doing, and practice their lines together. And since Keri got her license and her car, they've spent more hours than she can count driving around Orlando, not going anywhere really, just driving. They've covered at least half the city this way, cruising down street after street after street, late into the evening, until it's time for her to take JC home. They don't always talk a lot during those rides, because she's still getting used to city driving, and JC tends to get quiet for long stretches at a time - he says the motion helps him think. Keri doesn't mind that, though. She just likes being together.

Sometimes she can't believe someone like JC actually wants her for a friend - someone delicate and elegant, someone who can really sing, not just dance, like her. Keri gets called vivacious and fun-loving in her bios, and obnoxious and annoying on the set. But all JC has to do is give people one smile, and she's never heard anyone call him obnoxious the whole time they've been working together.

He hangs out with some of the guys, too, Tony, and Dale, but he's always cool about it. Some of the younger girls love to show off in front of the guys - Britney and Christina, for instance, act like they're buddies, but are constantly fighting for Justin's attention, even when he doesn't really seem to notice them. Keri and JC aren't like that. They're real friends.

"Want to sleep over on Friday?" Keri asks, and JC says yes.

She loves having JC over, though it hasn't happened all that often. At MMC there are way too many people around who want to talk to JC and ask him questions, and he stops to think too long because he wants to answer completely. Then they laugh, and he gets flustered. Keri doesn't want JC to have to go through that. Away safe up in her room, JC calms down, and they lie awake far into the night, talking. JC tells her things then that he doesn't talk about when they're at work, how he wants to write songs, and sing them, and make his own album someday. A few months ago he even showed her part of something he was working on.

On Friday when they leave the studio they get in the car like usual, but Keri can drive straight home tonight, because she's bringing JC with her. She starts the engine and glances over quickly, and JC grins at her. She looks down to hide the breadth of her answering smile and moves the gearshift carefully into reverse.

The car slips quickly through the streets, and it's not long till they reach her place and she can close the door of her room behind them. Five minutes later it looks like JC lives there, his blue bag spilling open in the middle of the rug, one slim sneaker kicked into a corner and the other nowhere in sight, a new notebook and his favorite green pen lying precariously half off the edge of her dresser. JC has never been a neat person. Keri smiles.

"Let's get changed," JC says, "and then I'll do your hair."

JC sleeps in an enormous loose T-shirt and underwear, and so does Keri when he's over. JC isn't shy about changing in front of people; she's seen him shuck off his jeans and shirt in any free corner at the studio to put on a costume, without even noticing who's around. But even though he doesn't turn away, she can't look. Her eyes dip down to her fingers, and she studies the nails she's no longer allowed to bite short.

When she glances up again, the T-shirt is settling over JC's stomach. There's a glimpse of pale skin and the hem comes to rest on his thighs. She doesn't feel bad about looking at his legs then because really not much more of them shows than if he were wearing shorts. JC says, "Hurry up, slowpoke," and laughs. Keri turns around quickly and pulls her jersey off and her sleep shirt on.

JC picks up her hairbrush and sits on the edge of the bed, and Keri sits down on the floor in front of him. She loves this, the brush moving through her curls more gently than her mother ever did it, and JC's other hand resting lightly on her shoulder, her back, her neck. "Lean forward," he says, and brushes down from the nape. His fingertips hold her head steady against the strokes. Headrush. She feels a little dizzy.

Keri would like to brush JC's hair, too, but it's so short, the ends waving gently down just to his cheekbones, that he always just does it himself with a few quick pulls of the brush.

"Have you ever thought about growing out your hair?" she says when he puts the brush down.

"Maybe," he says. He fingers a few brown strands. "Or I might try it even shorter, what do you think?"

"I like it longer," she says.

JC grins. "Okay," he says.

"Oh, I got a new lipstick, do you want to try it?"

"Sure."

JC doesn't usually wear makeup off the set; he doesn't need it, really, his eyes and his nose and his cheekbones give his face enough character even without it. But sometimes he lets Keri try putting a little eyeliner along his lids and gloss on his lips - nothing too dark or dramatic, because he thinks that makes him look skanky, but just enough to highlight the contrasts of his natural coloring. She picks up the lipstick, Dusky Rose, it's called, and JC sits obediently still while she traces the lines of his mouth. She lets herself put her other hand under his chin to hold it in place till she's done.

'There," she says. "You can look now."

JC looks in the mirror and touches his cheek, considering. "I don't know," he says.

"I think it looks good. You look nice."

He blushes. "It's just not really me, I guess."

He looks one more time and then holds out his hand. Keri passes him the Kleenex box.

"It's getting kinda late," he says after wiping off his mouth. "Maybe we should go to bed."

"Okay," Keri says.

They take turns brushing their teeth and then get in bed with just a sheet because it's warm. JC lies still for a while after Keri turns out the light, but she knows he's not asleep yet.

"Did you see the latest ratings?" he says finally.

"Nope. Were they bad?"

JC hms into the darkness, and Keri turns on her side to try to look at him.

"Do you think a lot about the show ending?" she asks.

"Sometimes," he says. "I mean, it's not gonna last forever, you know? Have you ever thought about what you're gonna do when it's over?"

"I don't know. Maybe. I'd like to keep acting, I think."

"Like, TV?"

"Yeah, or movies, maybe. Or, I don't know. Another TV show would be cool."

"I want to sing," he says.

She nods, and then says, "Yeah," aloud.

"By myself, I mean, so I can choose what to do, and really try some cool songs. Not this stupid stuff where the whole cast has to split up the lines whether they can carry a tune or not."

"Oh," Keri says. "Yeah."

"Not you, of course," JC says quickly. "I like working with you."

"You don't have to say that," Keri says.

"But I really do," JC says. "You're, like, one of the best things about that place." He shifts and stretches his arm out towards her. "We're gonna stay friends when MMC ends, right?"

"Of course," Keri says. She rolls over to hug JC, squeezing him tight, and he wraps his arms around her neck. He is her friend, her best friend, and she holds his thin body close to her longer than ever before, because she can't bear to think of him doubting that. JC lies tense and warm in her arms. His breaths push his chest against hers.

She can feel his nipples through his T-shirt.

"Ker," she hears him whisper.

"Ssh," she murmurs. Her heart is pounding. She keeps her hands still on his back, but his fingers come up and trace a path along her arm. Then she runs her hands down his sides, and she doesn't know what she is doing, but JC is turning and his breath is coming faster and suddenly she is touching his skin. She wants, she has wanted to touch all of it, wide sweeps across his spine and ribs and waist. When she brushes his stomach, he twitches, startled, so she lies back again and rests her head on the pillow. JC turns his face towards her. She can barely see anything, but his eyes are wide open. She has not moved, but his mouth is there.

Keri thinks: I am kissing JC, and the words make no sense, they have no meaning. JC's lips are soft and tentative. She doesn't know anything.

JC's hands are moving now, over her shoulders and down. His finger brushes across her nipple. She doesn't really feel it there, but something shoots through her stomach and she opens her mouth. JC's lips are closed still, but she touches them with the tip of her tongue and his body makes one long arch against her. His arms drop to his sides.

After a while Keri lifts her head, feeling dizzy again. JC's knee is between her thighs, and she pushes down against it and rocks. He twists his head to the side, the faint light no longer finding anything to glint off since his eyes are closed. She stops and presses her hand to the jut of his hipbone.

This is -

We are -

those sentences do not have endings, but JC's legs have fallen open, and she slides her hand between them and hears his breath hitch. She stiffens her fingers and rubs, and JC is nearly panting. His hips are trembling. His whole body shakes.

He pushes away from her abruptly and turns flat on his stomach, one hand on either side of his pillow. Keri looks at the outline of his hunched shoulders. She shifts onto her back and fights to get some air back into her lungs.

"JC," she whispers, when she thinks she can control her voice. But JC's breathing has slowed, too, and he doesn't answer.

Her hand lies lax and open on the sheet, palm turned up to the ceiling.
 

Keri wakes up to daylight and panics that she has overslept. Then she remembers that JC spent the night and they don't have to go in today, and relaxes. Then she remembers JC last night.

JC is sitting on the edge of the bed, already dressed, tying his shoelaces. When he hears her move, he turns to look at her over his shoulder.

"I have to go to the library," he says, "for school."

"Oh," Keri says. "Okay."

JC turns away again and pulls on his other shoe. When he's finished he gets up, picks up the rest of his things, and shoves them into his bag.

Keri wants to say something but nothing is coming out. JC is already moving towards the door. "Do you want a ride?" she blurts out.

"No, thanks, I'm gonna take the bus."

"Okay," she says helplessly. "See you later, I guess."

"Bye," JC says.

After JC is gone, Keri brings a hand to her face to push her hair back and takes a deep breath. She sits up quickly then and goes to take a shower.
 

She doesn't think about JC for the rest of the day, because she doesn't know what to think. She wishes he hadn't had to leave so early, but that isn't thinking about him, really. At night she thinks about the warmth of his skin a little.
 

On Monday, when Keri gets to the studio, she finds JC in the hallway, sitting between Christina and Britney, listening to Justin. Justin finishes his sentence with a dramatic sweep of his hand, and they all laugh.

Christina looks up, sees Keri standing there, and smiles and waves to her. JC lifts his head, too, but when he looks at Keri, his mouth is a thin, straight line.

"C'mere, Keri!" Christina calls. Keri has to walk over to them then and mumbles hi under her breath. She sits down on Justin's other side and leans back against the wall.

When Justin starts in on a new story, she closes her eyes.
 
 

"JC was one of my best friends. When I was sixteen years old, I'd just gotten my car and we'd drive around everywhere together."
- Keri

"When I was on the Mouse Club, Keri Russell and I always did fun stuff together."
- JC
 
 

[Read a companion piece by Schuyler: Easy]

[smile]