Happy birthday, kel!

by Lesa Soja

"Why don't you bring this boy over so I can meet him," Justin's mom said, and his heart jumped inside him. His mom was the coolest - she'd let him do voice lessons, and the pageant, and the Mouse Club, lots of things he'd wanted and most mothers would never go for. But he'd been nervous all over again asking her for this.

"You're gonna like him, Mom, I promise," he said, throwing his arms around her neck. She squeezed him tight and kissed his forehead.

"I'll like any friend of yours, baby," she said. "So let's just see how this goes."

It went well, though. Justin's mom sat them both down at the kitchen table and made Chris tell her everything he knew about Lou Pearlman and his offer, and Chris, Justin was relieved to see, answered her thoroughly and seriously. Not that he expected Chris to wrestle his mom to the ground and say, "Just trust me, little boy," but. He couldn't help drawing a fairly deep breath when she finally said,

"And how many more guys are you looking to find, again?"

"Three," Chris said, "a bass, a baritone, and another strong tenor."

"I was thinking we could call JC and ask him," Justin chimed in. "He had the best voice, and he'd just be perfect!"

His mom shook her head a little. "Well," she said, and she looked from Chris to Justin and back again. "I guess we'd better find JC's phone number, then."

"You're the best, Mrs. H.," Chris said, cracking his glass of lemonade against hers.

"It's Lynn," she said. "And put that down before you break it."

"Yes'm," Chris answered in a mock drawl. Lynn rolled her eyes. She was grinning.

"No, I say we keep our name," Chris said. "It's a good one, it still fits us. And it was Lynn's idea."

Lynn looked down modestly, smiling. Joey's face was still somewhat troubled, but he didn't say anything. Justin looked at Lance, but Lance was also looking down at the floor, and Justin couldn't tell whether he felt any particular way about it or not.

"We can call him Lansten," he suggested. "Then it'll work out, same as before."

"Brilliant!" Chris said. "We have a winner!"

Lynn laughed out loud. "That suit you, Lance?" she said gently.

"Um, sure," Lance said. His cheeks were a little pink, but he had half a sarcastic smile on his face now, so Justin figured it was okay.

Lance was in rehearsal with Robin, and Joey and JC both said it was too hot out, so Justin and Chris were playing one on one. Chris fouled Justin yet again, and Justin shoved him in the ribs.

"Cut it out, jerk," he said. "I'd'a had so many free throws by now if we had a ref…"

"Oh, baby boy can't take the heat," Chris shot back. "You obviously never played street ball."

"Oh, and you did? On the mean streets of Philadelphia?"

"Philly's plenty mean," Chris said, and he reached over to smack the ball out from between Justin's hands.

"All right," Lynn called from the screen door. Justin jumped a little; he wasn't sure how long she'd been there. "It's four o'clock. You boys come inside now, it's time to get cleaned up."

"Another Kirkpatrick triumph!" Chris declared. He picked up their T-shirts and tossed Justin his.

"Only 'cause we didn't finish," Justin argued.

His mom was holding the door open for them. "How'd a classy lady like you produce a whiner like this?" Chris asked as he came in.

She laughed. "No badmouthing my baby, now." Chris saluted her with a grin, and went on into the house. Justin wiped his forehead with his shirt and followed, scowling.

"So," Lynn said, "when do we leave for Sweden?"

Lou gave her a questioning look, his smile never moving from his face.

"If you're taking my fifteen-year-old to Europe, you're taking me too," she said.

"And me," Diane said.

"Well, that'll be just fine," Lou said slowly. "Just fine. I think it'll be real good for the boys to have someone looking after them. A chaperone," and he nodded at Diane, "or two. You know what boys can be like, after all."

"I sure do," Lynn said brightly, and it was settled.

Chris flopped down on the bed and settled his feet next to Justin's pillow. "What's been up your ass lately, sulkyface?" he said. "If a bee came through -"

"-it would sting my lip, I know," Justin said. "Nothing, Chris. Go play some more Mario."

"Nuh-uh," Chris said. He laid his arm over Justin's knees and squeezed. The air was on really strong in the house, and Chris's warmth felt good. "Talk to me."

"It's nothing. It's stupid," Justin said after a moment. "It's just, like. I was kind of looking forward to going on this trip as a group, you know - like, us, together, independent. And now my mom's coming, too."

"Hm," Chris said. "Yeah, I see what you mean, but - I don't think it's such a bad idea, J. There's gonna be plenty of people trying to fuck you over, and up, and every which way, and her being there could hold some of 'em off."

"Yeah, I know," Justin said.

"Besides, your mom's pretty cool. She's fun to have around."

Justin sighed. "I know. She is, she's the best. But she's not your mom."

"Well, you got me there," Chris said. "Now, are we napping, or what?"

"Some of us were trying to nap before," Justin said, but only for form's sake; he did feel better. He closed his eyes and just barely heard Chris turn over before he fell asleep.

"Justin," his mom said in the hallway, "bring your underwear and socks to my room when you've unpacked, okay? I don't know when we'll get to a machine, so I'm just gonna do some wash in the sink."

Justin nodded and shifted his duffel bags higher on his shoulder.

"And tell Lance Diane said to bring his, too."

"Hey, can I bring mine too?" Chris called from behind them. Lynn turned around, hands on her hips.

"Why, Chris," she said. "I'd'a thought a grown man like you could do his own wash by now."

"Maybe you could teach me."

"Maybe someone should teach you some manners, Christopher."

"Nah," Chris said, "that's a lost cause." He winked at them, swiped his key at a door, and went in. Lynn turned back to Justin.

"Don't forget, now," she said. "Make sure to come by before you go to bed." Justin nodded again, and she closed her door behind her.

The stage stretched broad and bare in front of them. "Are you nervous?" JC asked.

"Nope," Joey said.

"I am," Lance said.

"Vat ees zis 'nervous'?" Chris demanded. "Ve vill dance beautifully! Look!" He grabbed Lance and drew him into a mock tango, stalking down the length of the stage with his head jutting forward. Lance was chuckling now, and Chris hummed loudly as they went. When they came back, Chris spun Lance out into a twirl and let him go. "Now everybody!" he called.

Joey began steering JC across the floor, and Lance shrugged a little and turned to Justin. As he and Lance sorted out their hands and feet, Justin saw Chris pull his mom out onto the stage too. They all careened around trying to avoid each other's paths for the next five minutes, till the stage director came out with a roll of masking tape and stared.

"It is time to get ready," he said stolidly, not blinking, so they stopped and moved to their opening places instead to start the sound check. Lynn slipped back into the wings and sat down on a folding chair. She was just slightly out of breath.

Justin got himself down to the hotel's dining room in time for breakfast and sat down at his mom's table.

"I ordered you some cereal, honey," she said.

"Mm," Justin mumbled. "Thanks."

"Sounds like someone was up too late last night," Chris said cheerfully.

Justin held a finger up.

"Justin," his mom said.

"Sorry," he said. "But 's easy for you to talk, Chris, you didn't have homework due today too."

"Are the others up already?" Lynn asked.

"Lance is," Justin said. "Don't know about Joey and C."

Then finally a waitress came by and said, "Kaffee oder Tee?"

"Kaffee," Justin said. "Kaffee, bitte, Kaffee."

She smiled at him while she filled his cup. He dumped in some cream, took a long swallow, and began to feel more human again.

They had rehearsal in a good-sized dance studio in the basement of a gym. Lynn and Diane sat on the floor at the edge of the room with their knees pulled up, looking on. When the others started on the flips, Justin went over and sat down next to his mom.

"What do you think?" he said.

"Real nice, honey," she said. She and Diane both watched intently as Lance reached for Chris's hands and pulled him into the flip.

After a number of repetitions, Chris held up one hand. "Enough, enough," he said. "I'm so dizzy I'm gonna fall over."

Diane went to give Lance a new water bottle. Chris put one hand against the wall to steady himself and tried to catch his breath. His dark hair clung thickly at his neck, and his T-shirt stuck around the lines of his chest.

"Chris, c'mere, we've got more water," Lynn called. Chris grinned and began walking over. Justin watched until Chris was standing nearly in front of them, sturdy legs disappearing up into navy blue shorts. Then he looked down quickly at Chris's white-soled sneakers instead.

Justin woke up from a nap to a string of muffled thuds in the bunk above. "Cut it out!" he heard JC say. JC didn't sound all that mad.

"Shh," Joey said. "Justin's sleeping."

"Oh, for-" JC said, and there were more shuffling noises. Then there was silence for a while, and Justin almost drifted off.

"Hey," Joey said dreamily, "d'ye think Chris is boning Justin's mom?"

"Fuck!" JC hissed, and the frame of the bunks clanged loudly. "Don't say shit like that, man! Especially not-" and it was quiet again.

Justin's bunk had a slate blue curtain across the front. He lay looking at it with open eyes.

"Mom," Justin said, "when's the last time you talked to Dad?"

She turned to him, her forehead creasing slightly. "You want to call your father, honey? It's been a while, but I've got the number around here somewhere, I think."

"No, not Daddy. I meant Paul."

"You want to talk to Paul?" Her clear eyes tilted in confusion. "You can call him whenever you want, you know that. Although it's probably the middle of the night there now, so if you -"

"No," he said again. "That's not what I meant. I meant -"

"What, Justin?" she said.

"Nothing," he said.

He got up really early for a week so he could eat breakfast and get out of the dining room before anyone else came in. "The hell?" Lance muttered the first day, groping for his clock. "Justin?"

"Shh, you can sleep more," Justin said. Lance's eyes fluttered closed again.

Downstairs, the waitress touched Justin's shoulder or hand four times and brought him a paper to go with his coffee. He ate a roll because it was the easiest thing to get and tried to puzzle out some of the headlines before folding the paper back up. He did get tired sooner in the afternoon, but still it was a nice, quiet way to start the day.

The stage crew guy had dark hair, smooth-shaven cheeks, and elegant, languid eyes. In another twenty years he would have typical German jowls, too, but Justin didn't have to worry about that. Justin opened his mouth and closed his eyes, and the warm, damp hand on his dick wasn't really a surprise. He licked a little at the tongue pressing against his, and it wasn't difficult at all to slide his own hand down and squeeze.

"Hey, J," Joey said later in the dressing room, "you might wanna wash up a little first. Y'know, before you put that on." Joey was grinning slyly.

"Oh," Justin said. "Right." He caught the washcloth Joey tossed him and looked around for a sink to wet it at. Joey held up his palm when Justin came nearer. After a momentary hesitation, Justin smacked him a sharp high five.

Justin went to his mom's room to ask her about the next week's schedule. He found her sitting at the spindly hotel desk, bent over a letter. Chris was sitting in the armchair next to the window.

"Um," Justin said. Chris was leaning back in the chair, with one leg crossed over his knee and his elbows on the armrests.

"What is it, honey?" Lynn said without looking up.

"I just, um. I wanted to ask you what all we're doing next week."

"Look in my purse and get my datebook out. I've got it all written down in there."

Justin pulled out the green notebook and read through the dates. Then he read them a second time to be sure. He started on a third time and stopped himself abruptly.

"Thanks," he said loudly. "Well, uh. I'm gonna go to bed."

"C'mere and give me a kiss," his mom said, turning around. He went over and kissed her cheek. She took his chin in her hand for a moment, studying him, and then let him go. "Sleep tight, now."

"I'd better hit the sack, too," Chris said. He stood up and stretched his arms over his head. "Good night, Lynn."

"Good night, Chris," she said.

Chris walked next to Justin down the corridor towards their rooms. Justin glanced sideways at Chris's face, his round cheeks and the narrow bridge of his nose.

"Night, J," Chris said when they reached Justin's door.

"Night," Justin muttered.

When the afternoon performance was done, they tumbled into the van and headed for the evening venue. Justin found himself squeezed in next to his mom in the corner of the middle seat.

"What'd you think of the show?" he asked her, a few minutes down the road.

"It was terrific," she said.

"Really?" he said.

"Yes," she said. "You're getting more and more solid on the bridges, and you're all balancing each other well on the harmonies. Plus, the timing is really coming together with the choreography."

"Oh," he said. "Cool."

He leaned his head against her shoulder and shut his eyes. She let him stay like that for the rest of the drive.

"Justin, listen. I'm planning to go back home."

"You are?" he said. "For how long?"

She gave him a tired smile. "To stay, sweetheart. You boys are all settled into this tour, and you're old enough to travel by yourself now. Lance has done fine since Diane left. And I just need to be at home again."

"With Paul," he said.

"Yes," she said. "With Paul."


"Are you worried about touring on your own?"

"No, it's cool," he said. "I'll - I'm gonna miss you."

"I'll miss you too, baby," she said. "But I think it's time."

"Yeah," he said. "I guess you're right."

They had a show in the afternoon again, so they couldn't go to the airport to see her off. They all helped carry her bags down to the taxi, though, making a little crowd on the curb. "Y'all take care, now," she said. "No shenanigans just 'cause my back's turned."

"We'll be just as good as we've been up till now," Joey promised.

JC swatted Joey on the back of the head. "Have a good flight, Mrs. Harless," he said.

"Thank you, JC," she said, laughing.

She kissed JC, Joey, Lance, and Chris each on the cheek, and Justin on the forehead. He wrapped her up in a hug, his arms crossing behind her back, and then let go.

Justin had almost found his door when Chris tackled him in the hotel corridor. "You're pouting, baby boy," Chris said when Justin opened his eyes. "Feeling lonely?"

He was crouched over Justin, knees squeezing Justin's sides. The ends of his braids bumped the edge of Justin's cheek.

"Chris," Justin said, and Chris's eyes were hot and brown and right there for a long moment before Justin strained his face up to reach Chris's mouth. Chris drew back and sat up.

"Don't, Justin," he said.

"Shit," Justin said.

Chris raised an eyebrow. "J?"

"You're not -" Justin said with difficulty. He turned his face to the side and looked at the molding at the base of the wall across from him. "I'm sorry. You're not gay, I know."

"No, that's not it," Chris said. Justin glanced back. Chris sighed. "Look. You don't want me, really. I'm way too old for you. A-a-ah," as Justin opened his mouth, "I am sage and wise, and I know whereof I speak! Fear me now, and believe me later!"

"I think that's supposed be 'Hear me now,'" Justin said, distracted.

"Whatever," Chris said. "Why are we still fucking around in the hallway when there's beer and cookies in Joey's room?"

"What kind of cookies?"

"One way to find out." Chris got to his feet and held a hand out. "You comin'?"

"I'll be there in a minute," Justin said.

Chris studied him briefly and then nodded. "Don't be too long, or JC'll eat all the marshmallows."

Justin let his head drop back to the floor, keeping his eyes open to watch Chris walk away. Chris's shoulders and back looked very tall from the ground, and his legs took long steps going down the hall.

After Chris turned the corner, Justin rolled over and stood up. He pressed the heel of his hand to his forehead. Then he glanced down at a bruise darkening on his knee, frowned slightly, and set off carefully down the center of the hallway.