From This Moment On

By:  Dolphin Princess

 

Author’s Note:  This story takes place after the Bodyguard and contains characters from that story. For better understanding and following capability, I would recommend reading The Bodyguard first.

Chapter 1

"Shannon Gregory?"

"Here."

"Mike Harrison?"

"Here."

"Stephanie Henry?"

"Yeah."

"Nick Kennedy?"

"Yo."

"Kevin Lane?"

"Here."

"Alexandra Larson?"

There was silence in the huge auditorium of the University of Florida's drama department. "Is there an Alexandra Larson here?"

Students were now looking around the room, trying to see if they could place the name with a face. One boy noticed a sleeping figure a couple of seats over from him. She was dressed in railroad overalls, white with blue stripes, blue Doc Martens, she had on a long sleeved, navy blue, T-shirt with RENT written down the side of her arm. Her long blonde hair was pulled haphazardly into a bun but strands had escaped so it looked like half of it was about to fall out. He leaned over and whispered loudly, "Psssst! Wake up!"

"Huh, oh here." The girl sat up straight in her seat, her bright green eyes, glancing around trying to place her surroundings, while going into auto-pilot and automatically answering the teacher.

"Nice of you to join us, Miss Larson."

"Alex, please, sir."

"Very good, Miss ALEX Larson."

She slumped back into her seat as he finished the roll call. I hate the first day of classes.

"Now that we know who each of you are, allow me to introduce myself to you. My name is Lynn Roberts and I teach lighting, stage design, and stage management. This class, however, is everything put into one, Stage Production. We'll be putting on one play a quarter and this quarter we have decided to do Peter Pan, so you'll all get a chance to play around with the harnesses and get a feel for them. This is a basic class so most of your work won't be too involved as the upperclassmen will be doing most of it, but you'll get lots of experience and the credit you need to take the upper level division classes. Now on to some of requirements of the class…"

Does he have to drone on and on about what kind of wrenches we need and about safety? You'd think that no one in this room had any experience whatsoever in a theater. What class do I have next? Psychology 201? Great. Why do Universities make you take classes you don't want to take just so you can graduate? Oh, what was it that my counselor said, oh that's right…" so that you can get a full rounded education, making you an asset to the community." Blech! All I want to do is live in the theater and…

"Larson! Can you please pay attention!"

"Sorry, Professor Roberts."

"Now as I was saying…"

Oh jeez, two times in a row. He is so going to hate me by the time this quarter is over. I just don't think I need to hear this as I've been working in professional theater since I was twelve. This is all kiddie stuff to me. This is going to be a long quarter, I think.

"That's all for today, class. Tomorrow, wear clothes that you can crawl around in and get your hands dirty in. We start the actual class work tomorrow. Thank you and I'll see you tomorrow."

Finally! Alex jumped out of her seat and grabbed her bag and practically ran up the aisle to get out of the theater and head to lunch.

"Hey. Alex? Wait up."

Alex stopped dead in her tracks and turned around. Who could possibly know her name on the first day of school except her roomate who she never saw and knew wasn't a theater major but social sciences. She noticed a tall, good-looking blonde guy running up to her out of breath. "HI" She said a little awkwardly, as she didn't know who the guy was.

"HI" He took a deep breath before continuing. "My name's Jason. I'm in your stage productions class with Roberts."

"OH, I'm Alex. Nice to meet you."

"I noticed your t-shirt and that's not a licensed merchandise shirt, is it."

Alex smiled brightly. "Nope. It's only for crew members." She turned around and pointed to the back of her shirt. "See RENT's 1998 stage crew."

"That is so cool. Have you done any other productions?"

"I've worked on Cats, Phantom, Guys and Dolls, West Side, Something Funny Happened on the Way to the Forum, and some smaller ones off Broadway."

They started walking to toward the commons. "You hungry?"

"Yeah, before you stopped me I was going to go in and grab a bite."

"Can I join you and then we can continue our conversation?"

"Sure." They stood in line for what seemed forever to get in and then Alex headed over to the deli station and got a turkey, swiss and lettuce sandwich and then grabbed a salad and apple before filling her customary drinking glass water. She looked around the room and found Jason sitting by the window with a huge tray of food in front of him.

"Do you always eat that much?" She asked sitting down.

"Yeah." He took a huge bite out of his hamburger. "Growing boy, y'know." He said mumbling through his food.

"OH right."

They ate in silence for awhile before she asked about his background in theater. "I'm not as advanced as you, but I've been doing local theater and high school plays since I was a freshman in high school, so for about five years."

"Five years? You're a sophomore?"

"Yup." He shoved some fries into his mouth. "I'll be 20 next month."

"That's cool. I'm only 18. Well, I got involved in theater through my parents. My mom's a singer and dancer and my dad's a director so during the summers, they'd fly me out to New York so that I could spend the time with them and in the meantime, I fell in love with everything that happened behind the scenes and got involved. It helped to know the right people of course, but a little known fact about Broadway, is that they are always looking for people to help that don't want to get paid. Volunteers, if you will."

"Really?! Wish I'd known that a couple of years ago. So, you're from New York?"

"Nope. California, but my parents lived in New York and Los Angeles and commuted on weekends."

"So, if they were gone during the week, who stayed with you?"

"I lived with my aunt and uncle while my parents were living the famous life. What about you? Where are you from?"

"I'm a born and bred Seattlite from Washington State. Volunteered a little at the 5th Avenue theater, applied at a school farthest away from home as I could and actually got accepted with honors and a scholarship. So, I'm now here."

"I love to visit Seattle. It's a nice place but too much rain."

"Definitely, but I do find myself missing it now and again."

"Yeah, I bet. Well, it was nice meeting you. I should get to my next class and maybe actually start some of my homework."

"What other classes are you taking?"

"Intro to Psych and Basic math to fulfill those requirements and then a basic acting class. They wouldn't let me take all stage craft classes, something about a 'well rounded education'."

"Stupid general degrees. I've taken those classes already if you need any help?"

"Thanks, I may take you up on that. I'm horrible at math."

"Well then, here let me give you my number and you can call if you have any questions."

"Cool, thanks, and here's my number if you have any questions about New York and stage craft."

"Now that is an offer I can't refuse. It was nice getting to know you Alex Larson. Just don't fall asleep in class tomorrow. I'd hate to have to wake you up again."

"Again?"

"See ya later." He walked off toward the door after dropping his tray off at the clean up station.

After a boring first day, Alex headed back to her room to find her roomate sitting there listening to some god-awful music. "Hey Alex, how were classes?"

"Fine. Wonderful. What are you listening to?" She threw her backpack on the floor next to her pile of dirty clothes.

"NSYNC, have you heard of them?"

"NO."

"OH! REALLY? Well…" Alex watched Amanda race to her closet and start digging through the posters that she hadn't put up yet. "Here they are." She came back with two posters and unrolled one. Five guys were on the front of the poster in a pose that looked like one had tripped and caused the rest of them to fall over with him and then the photographer snapped the picture. "This is NSYNC. They're actually from Orlando, but they're on tour right now otherwise last weekend, I would've driven down there to see if I could meet them."

"That's nice." Alex rolled her eyes.

"Well, the one with the black and white braids is Chris, he's the oldest at 27 and the craziest of the group, next is JC, he's 23, he's the most hyper but is also the serious one."

"Uh huh." Alex couldn't believe that this girl was telling her all of this. She wasn't even remotely interested.

"This is Joey, he's the flirt and he's 21. The two blondes are last, this is Lance at 20, they call him scoop cause he keeps track of their heinous schedule so well and then the last one if my favorite. That's Justin. He's 18, our age, and likes the color baby blue, basketball, singing, dancing…"

"Hey, Amanda… I really hate to interrupt but I've got some reading to do."

"Wait! You've got to see Justin up close." She unrolled the second poster, showing a close up of who she kept referring to as Justin. "Isn't he a babe!"

"Yeah, he's nice looking." If you go for that bleached look.

"Anytime you want to borrow my CD, feel free."

"I may take you up on that." In your dreams, does she actually like that bubble gum pop? YUCK! I'll stick to my musicals and Sting, thank you very much.

The next day, Alex was late for stage production. She tried to sneak into the auditorium but the door decided to announce her presence by slamming shut behind her.

"Nice of you to show, Miss Larson."

"Sorry." She said quietly and hurried down the aisle and sat down next to Jason.

"Looks like I didn't need to wake you up today, you just weren't going to show." He whispered with a laugh.

"Bite me."

"Is that an invitation?"

"Shove it."

He laughed softly and struggled to listen to Lynn.

"Today, I'm going to assign you to work depending on your experience so I'm passing out these forms for you to fill out and then tomorrow, you'll be assigned your schedule. Today, I'm going to show you around the dept, where things are, how to get up to the cage, where the booth is, and everything. So, fill out these forms and then we'll get moving."

Alex got her form and started to fill out the form. Name, address, phone number… doesn't want to lose us huh. Costuming… RENT and Phantom, Lights… oh yeah, High school plays for four years, Phantom, Cats…

When Alex was done filling out her form, she took it up to give to Lynn and noticed that everyone else was done. "You didn't need to write me a novel, Larson."

"I just gave you my experience, sir." She said and headed back to her seat.

After class, Jason and Alex went to lunch again. "What does he have against me?"

"He has a reputation for singling out students that he doesn't think should be in the department and making their lives hell. I think when he saw you sleeping in class, he chose you as his student of the quarter."

"GREAT! Just what I needed."

"Hey, don't worry. Once he sees your experience, he'll let up."

"Doubt it."

************************************************************************

"Larson! I need to talk to you."

"Yes, Lynn."

"I told you to write your experience down, not make up a bunch of stuff to look good."

"All of it is the truth, sir. I wouldn't make things up."

"Then tell me how as a 13 year old, you could have been working on the Phantom production."

"My mom was in the show."

"Yeah right and my parents are the Cleavers."

"I wouldn't lie. If you want to, I can call me dad up and have him call you when its convenient for him and verify everything that I've told you."

"Who's your dad?"

"Michael Grief."

"What?"

"Yup. He worked on a lot of plays before RENT but that’s where he got his big break as a director."

"There'd no need for him to call. I'm sorry that I doubted you, Larson. Ummm, any relation to Jonathon Larson?"

"He was my uncle. My mom's brother."

"Oh. I'm sorry."

'It's cool. Don't worry about. Can I get back to class then?"

"Sure, sure. Why don't you work on the harnesses? Have you worked with them before?"

"Once, but that was awhile ago. They had to use them in Phantom but I didn't actually get to work hands on with them but they showed me how they worked."

"Well now, you get to. Scott and Jason will be working with you."

"Great, thanks, Lynn."

"Uh, your welcome."

Alex walked over to where Scott and Jason were standing listening to the senior discuss the harnesses, safety and preparation. The student looked over at her and raised an eyebrow.

"Lynn sent me over to work with these guys."

"Cool, Alex, we get to work together."

"Yeah, Hi, I'm Alex."

"Scott." Scott was tall, with dark wavy hair and bright blue eyes. "Nice to meet you."

"Anyway, getting back to the harnesses…"

For the rest of the week, Alex, Jason and Scott learned how to strap a person safely into the harness and how to secure it against the ropes. "Ugh!" Alex grunted as she tried to lift the person into the air.

"No, don't lift there, try here on the rope. Now prop your foot, here and…" The girl who had volunteered to be the dummy was lifted somewhat effortlessly into the air. "Thanks Damon." Damon was the senior who was helping Alex and the rest of the crew with the harnesses.

Alex headed back to her dorm room after class on Friday and dropped onto her bed. I can't believe that was the first week of school. It starts out with a teacher hating me, a teenybopper for a roomate and then turns into me getting the sweetest position for stage crew, making my teacher worship the ground I walk on (an exaggeration I know) and making two new friends. What's the rest of the quarter to bring me??? Fame, fortune??? A boyfriend??? Yeah right. Sleep I need sleep.

Alex had just settled into a deep sleep before dinner when the phone rang.

"Hullo?" She said yawning.

"Hey honey, How was your first week of school?"

"Hi Mom. You are not going to believe what happened… First, I went to stage production and feel asleep and then…"

Chapter 2

"I am not putting that thing on until we get someone that can control it." Chris told his groupmates.

"We have a concert tonight, Chris, Sailing is a big part of the show and we have to do it. It's going to look really stupid if we're all flying around the arena and you're on stage dancing a jig." JC told him.

"I don't care. I objected from the beginning about this part of the show cause I'm scared of heights and every time they lose their grip on the cord and I start to plunge to the crowd, I get nervous. They did it again last night and I am NOT going up there."

"Yes, you are."

"NO, JC, I'm not."

"Guys?"

"Justin stay out of it." Chris and JC both sniped at him at once.

"Fine. Don't listen to my suggestion. Joe, wanna play Mortal Kombat?"

"Sure." Justin jumped off the couch and grabbed the controller that Joey threw at him.

Lance was asleep in the next room while everyone was discussing that night's acrobatics.

"Suggestion, Curly? What is it?" JC asked him.

"NO, you told me to stay out of it. Joey, you're cheating."

"No, I'm not. You're just bad at this game."

"I'm King and you know it, now if you'd just hold still…"

"Justin!"

"Alright, alright. I say we fire the two guys and hire some new people. We can put Sailing on hold until we can find some people who can actually work those things."

"We can't just put an important part of out show on hold, our fans are coming to see this stunt specifically."

"Well, we'll just explain and put it into our next tour. We've only got a week and a half left; I don't see the big deal. While we're on vacation, we'll find some recruits. Sound good, Chris?"

"Actually, I think the kid actually came up with a good suggestion."

"Alright, we'll run it by Johnny and then find a replacement song until then. What song should we do?"

"How about Giddy Up?"

"Joe, you know that song's not about horses right?" Chris called out to him. Three pillows flew at him from different parts of the room. "HEY! I was just making sure he knew."

JC walked over to him and smacked him again with the pillow. "Chris, get a life."

**********************************************************************

"JASON!"

"Huh? Alex, don't you ever knock."

"No, and if you don't want me barging in, start locking your door. Now, get up. I want to go and work on that new move."

"What time is it?"

"8."

"Uh, give me a few more minutes." He rolled over and went back to sleep. Jason was lucky cause his roommate had lost his financial aid and had to go home within the first two weeks of school, allowing him to have his own room. His room was also located two floors up from Alex so she was always dropping by for some reason.

She jumped on the bed and started bouncing on it. "Get up!"

"Why is it that when I want to sleep, I can't but when you want to sleep, I have to let you?"

"Those are the rules?"

"Uh huh, now get out. Come back in an hour."

"NO! You're the only one I can work with on this and you know it. I really want to get this down before midterms next week."

"OK, OK. I'm up. I'm… I'm not dressed. I'll meet you in the theater in 15 minutes."

"See ya in a few then." She smiled at him and went racing out the door, only to turn around and run back in to give him a kiss on the cheek then run out again.

Jason just laughed at her and shook his head, then tossed the covers off to go and take a quick shower.

"OK, beautiful, let's see this new move." Jason called out when he walked into the auditorium.

Alex stood on the stage, strapped into the harness and began to pull herself up.

"WOAH! You need a spotter, girl."

"I know. That's why you're here. Check this out and began to do flips."

"How are you doing that without someone controlling it?"

"That's the beauty of it, I jerry-rigged it so that the person flying has control of it, if they need it."

"How?"

"Just added another wire to the harness and lopped it through this wire here." She pointed to one at her belt.

"Nice." Jason jumped up on stage and helped her down. "Alex, you're incredible."

"I know." She flipped her hair over her shoulder with a cocky smile.

"So, show me how this works."

"OK. The stagehands still have control over the swing and height of the person in the harness, however with this extra wire, if a person starts to fall, they can grab this and stop themselves. Also, with this wire they can lower themselves back down to the stage at their own rate if they so desire. Basically, it’s a precaution for the person if they don't trust us wholeheartedly."

"Lynn is so going to love you."

"I know, I'm great. I just wish my parents knew." Alex's face grew dim.

"They still haven't called?"

"Nope. Dad's directing a new play with Mom starring in it so they're a little busy for me. I got a postcard though from London saying that they'd stop by at Thanksgiving and see me, but I don't believe them."

"You aren't going home for Thanksgiving?"

"Nope, are you?"

"Nope, too far. We should hang out together. Go to Denny's and get a turkey dinner or something."

"Yeah that would be fun. Or we could always go to the Hard Rock in Orlando, I bet no one would be there."

"How about this… we'll take a road trip to Orlando and spend the day there."

"Sounds like a plan, Stan." Alex held out her hand and they shook on it.

"Wanna go back up, Alex?"

"Do I? I should have been an actor."

"Nah, you're too good at the back stage stuff, don't short change yourself by trying to be that flaky."

Alex laughed. "Yeah you're right, I'm too intelligent to be an actor."

They both laughed as she flapped her arms as wings while she rose above the stage.

"Having fun you two?"

"Way too much, Lynn. I think you gave us the easy job."

"I just don't think I can challenge you two. You guys are the best students I've had in years. I'll just have to keep looking for a project for you guys."

"I'm up for a new challenge, now that we've got our entire quarter's project done by midterms. I guess I could concentrate on my other classes but this is so much more fun then learning about egos and Freud in Psych." Alex called down from the top of the auditorium.

Lynn just shook his head at her. "I don't understand why you didn't stay in New York and work on Broadway."

"Cause I didn't want to be hired as Grief's daughter but on my own merits. I've told you that before, Lynn."

"I know, but I still don't understand. Now, get down so that Peter can work on his fear of heights. Who would've thought that Peter Pan would be afraid of heights?" Lynn asked as he walked back to his office, shaking his head.

Alex and Jason just looked at each other and started laughing.

After class, Alex walked back to her dorm room to find NSYNC blaring on Mandy's stereo and her roommate dancing around the room. The two had gotten pretty close within the first couple of weeks but Alex still couldn't understand her obsession with bubble gum pop and boybands. Her side of the room was now plastered with NSYNC posters and various items on her corkboard such as ticket stubs, autographs, and pictures that she had taken herself. Her side was also very neat and tidy, in comparison to Alex's.

Alex's side of the room however, was covered in different playbills, posters of various musicals, and a couple music posters of Sting and Dave Matthew's. Her side also consisted of leftover dishes, clothes covered the floor and an even bigger pile was in front of the closet, her bed was unmade and the covers were thrashed around like she hadn't slept well the night before. Also, her desk was covered in bills and papers with various other items littering the top of it.

"Mandy, what are you doing?"

"Dancing."

"Why? Is there an occasion or was this just a random act of torture for your roommate?"

"Ha Ha, very funny. No, guess who is now off tour?"

"Hmmmm, NSYNC?"

"VERY GOOD!" Mandy started jumping up and down and ran over to give Alex a hug. "I'll make you a fan yet."

"Highly doubtful." Alex walked over to her closet and grabbed a sweater and tossed her coat on the floor.

Mandy wrinkled her nose. "Must you do that."

"Do what?"

"Toss everything on the floor. Would it hurt to hang it up every now and then or for you to just clean up your stuff?"

Alex wrinkled her forehead in thought. "Never really thought about it. Probably not, but I just do it out of habit." She smiled. "Does it bug you?"

"Yes and you know it."

"I know, I'm sorry Mandy, I'll try to clean up after myself."

"Thank you. Now what are you doing this weekend?"

"Studying for midterms and working in the theater as usual, why?"

"I was just curious to see if you wanted to drive into Orlando with me and go NSYNC hunting."

"Sorry, I'll pass but be sure and take pictures to bring back for me. Oh and if you meet Jacob, get his autograph for me."

"His name is Justin!"

Alex turned on her way back out of the room. "I know."

************************************************************************

"We's on vacation!"

"We know Justin."

"Just reminding y'all in case you forgot."

"Justin, all I really want to do is go home and sleep. Vacation can wait until then." JC said as he walked toward his Jeep parked in the Trans Con parking lot.

"OK, then there were four. What do you guys want to do?"

"I'm with JC, wake me tomorrow." Joey yawned and headed toward his car.

Justin watched him walk away and shook his head. "His loss, now you two, I was thinking…"

"I'm out too, Justin, I'm beat." Chris said.

"Fine. Lansten and I will hit the town then."

"Chris, don't leave me with him."

"Sorry, Scoop, I need my beauty rest."

"Don't you ever." Justin snickered.

"Shut up, Curly, you're fro is getting out of control."

"Yeah I need a haircut, one more item to add to my list of to do things this week, BUT, back to what I was saying…"

"I'll see you two later." Chris waved and walked toward his truck.

"I think we should head to the beach. It's Saturday so there will tons of good looking ladies there."

"J, I'm so white it hurts. You are not getting me on the beach till spring."

"Alright, then what?"

"Ummmm, let's go to Disney World, haven't done that in awhile."

"Sounds good. Grab your hat and glasses, boy cause we're going out tonight."

"Justin, you're too much."

The two of them donned their hats and glasses and climbed into Justin's Mercedes and drove to Disney World.

************************************************************************

"ALEX!!!"

"Mandy, I'm right here. No need to yell." Alex had been sitting at her desk reading for the last hour trying to understand psychology with the best of them, but nothing seemed to be penetrating.

"I saw them. I saw them at Disneyworld."

"Good for you." Alex said not really paying attention.

"They told me they're looking for people to help with the tour, I offered but I don't have what they're looking for."

"That's too bad."

"I know, but… I do know someone who does."

Alex looked up from her book. Mandy was standing there with a really saccharine sweet smile on her face. "What did you do?"

"Nothing." With that said, Mandy walked over to her desk and pulled out her book and started reading.

"Larson, Fuller… I need to talk to you." Lynn called out to them a couple of days later in class.

"Hey Lynn, what's up?"

"Found you two a project."

"Nice. I was starting to get bored just banging nails here and there." Alex laughed.

"Larson, has anyone ever told you that you can be a…"

"A great person. Oh yeah, all the time."

"Anyway, I got a call from a production company and they fired their crew for part of the show. They heard that we're the only school close by that works with harnesses and asked if we could loan some of our students to them. I don't know for how long you guys would be working if you wanted the job but they want you to go on tour with them next quarter, you should be done with finals by then."

"What show?" Jason asked.

"It’s a music group that flies for one of their songs. I don't know if you've heard of them but they're called NSYNC."

Alex grimaced. So that's what Mandy was talking about the other day. "I know who they are. They're some boyband that my roommate is in love with. She ran into a couple of them the other day and must have tossed our department their way."

"Tell her thank you, cause they are prepared to pay handsomely for you two and you'll get tons of experience to put on your resume with this too. I told them I'd let you make the decision but if you guys want the job, they need to know by the end of the week."

"I'm up for it." Jason replied.

"I'm…I'm in." Alex said faintly. What am I getting myself into?"

Chapter 3

Alex walked around her dorm room, tossing clothes into a duffel bag and random things into a box. "How much do I need for three months?" She said to herself surveying the room.

"Alex, just take what you need." Mandy laughed from the other side of the room. She was getting a huge kick out of her roommate as she paced the room, tossing things around while not really packing at all. "Plus, you’re not leaving for a few weeks yet. We still have finals after our week long break. Speaking of which, what are you doing for Thanksgiving?"

Alex stopped digging through a box to look at her roommate. "Well, Jason and I are going in to Orlando for dinner and then we’re going to commute back and forth to Trans Con to get used to the equipment, do our orientation if you will of the company."

"Sounds like you’ll be busy. Are you going to meet them?" Mandy asked nonchalantly, a note of eagerness in her voice.

"I’m sure we will eventually, but they’re on vacation why would they be at the studio?"

"I don’t know. I was just curious."

"Uh huh, sure you will. I still can’t believe you did this to me, Mandy!" Alex stood up, placed her hands on her hips, and glared at her.

"It’s a good opportunity for you, Alex. PLUS, now I’ve got an in and Justin will be mine, however, I’d settle for Lance or JC or…"

"You’d settle on Chris if he was interested."

"You know their names?!"

"I thought I’d do a little research since I’ll be working with them, plus you talk about them so much, I’m surprised I don’t know their show size by now."

Jason poked his head in at that moment. "Hey, Alex, you… WOW! Looks like a bomb went off in here."

"Alex is a little nervous and decided to start packing a few weeks early even though she’s not really packing so much as just moving her stuff around the room."

Jason laughed. "Isn’t that what she does best?"

"I’m still in the room, you two. What did you need Jay?"

"Just wondering if you were ready for the best Thanksgiving turkey dinner ever."

"Yeah, let me get my coat." She said looking around the room. "It was right…."

"Take mine, Alex." Mandy said, tossing her coat at her. "You’ll never find yours."

"Thanks. Have a safe trip home and I’ll see you in a week."

"Sure will, bye you two."

"Bye Mandy."

Jason and Alex drove to Orlando to find a restaurant that was still open on Thanksgiving. They drove for hours and nothing was open.

"SOMETHING HAS TO BE OPEN, JAY!"

"We’ll find something, Chill."

"I’m starving."

"Well we could go to a grocery store and grab something, then head back to the dorms."

"Sounds like a plan."

They drove back the way they had driven and found a supermarket. Alex jumped out of the car and ran into the store without waiting and grabbed a cart. Jason finally caught up to her and the two of them went down the aisles looking for food. Jason pushed the cart while Alex rode on the back. Just as they were turning the corner though, Jason pushed her down the aisle and before she could get control of it, she found herself on the floor holding her head and another person was lying on the other side of the cart, groaning and holding his head.

"Alex, I’m sorry. I thought you had it."

"I’m alright, Jay. What did I run into? A brick wall?"

"No, me." A young man was struggling to his feet, several feet away from her and holding his side and his head. He was tall, with a thin muscular build, but she couldn’t see his features thanks to the hat and sunglasses that covered his head. Located at his feet were cans of corn and cranberry sauce.

"I’m sorry, sir. We… Uh…" Alex stuttered.

Jason broke in. "We’re down from the college. We tried to find a restaurant to get dinner, but nothing was open so we came here. Sorry to have bumped into you."

"That’s cool. I was just running some errands for my mom; a last few minute items for dinner this evening. Don’t worry about it, no damage done." He flashed a bright grin at the two of them, then bent down and picked up his items and started to walk back down the aisle. At the last minute, he turned back around and saw the two of them looking at the fresh baked bread and counting money between the two of them.

Mom won’t mind two more. "Hey, why don’t you two follow me and come have dinner with my family."

Jason glanced back at the stranger and smiled apologetically. "I’m sorry, we wouldn’t want to inconvenience you, maybe another time."

Alex looked at Jason then back at the stranger who shrugged as if to tell them, it's your loss and turned to head toward the checkout. She slapped Jason in the arm and called out. "We’d love to join you, we’re starving."

The guy turned around again, laughed and motioned for them to follow him, which Alex promptly did, pulling Jason along with her.

After the guy paid for the corn and cranberries, he told them to follow him in their car, he was driving a red Mercedes and wouldn’t be hard to spot.

Jason and Alex got in their car and looked for the car. "There he is." Alex said excitedly, practically jumping up and down in her seat.

"Are we sure about this, Alex. I don’t know…"

"He looks about our age and he was nice enough to offer food even after we had knocked him down. We’d be stupid to pass up food."

"I just don’t want to intrude on some big family gathering."

"Well, if you get nervous, start practicing what our acting coach told us."

"I’ll try. I just don’t like being around people I don’t know."

Alex flashed him a grin. "I’ll take care of you."

The followed the car down a series of streets and finally pulled into a really nice neighborhood where the houses were bigger than either of them had ever seen. At the end of the cul de sac, was a huge brick house with a three car garage, two stories and trees lining the driveway and property lines. The house was beautiful, Alex thought.

They parked behind him and as she looked around and noticed all the cars, she began to get a little nervous. There was a jeep, a truck, another run down pickup, a couple cars, a van and then their car and the guy’s Mercedes.

"Alex?" Jason whispered. "There are a lot of cars here."

"I know. It’s going to be fun and its free food."

"That’s true."

The guy motioned them over and began to head into the house.

"Wait!" Alex cried.

The guy turned around and looked at her, but because of his sunglasses, couldn’t read his expression.

"We don’t know your name and you don’t know ours. I’m Alex and this is Jason."

The guy took off his sunglasses giving Alex a view of the most gorgeous blue eyes that she had ever seen. He took off his hat too; his blonde curly hair standing up every which way placed both the hat and sunglasses in one hand and then held out his other for a handshake. "My name is Justin, nice to meet you."

He looks familiar… "Nice to meet you too. Now you can introduce us to the rest of your family." She smiled big and cheekily.

"Yeah, actually most of tonight its just lots of friends and a few family members so that’s why I didn’t think it would hurt if I brought a few more in. Plus, Mom loves people."

"Cool. Alright, lets eat." Alex clapped her hands together, then because Jason was still standing as if frozen from nerves, grabbed his arm and dragged him in with her and Justin.

"I’m home!" Justin yelled as he walked in.

"Good, I still can’t believe I forgot those things when I went to the grocery store yesterday."

"It’s fine, Mom, really. I don’t mind running errands for you, plus there wasn’t anyone around, well a couple people but not a lot. Speaking of which…." He reached behind him and grabbed Alex who in turn grabbed Jason.

"This is Alex and Jason. I found them at the grocery store. Can I keep 'em?" He smiled his devastatingly handsome smile at his mom.

She laughed. "Justin, you can't keep them, silly. Hi, I'm Lynn, his mother. I take it you two are here for dinner?"

"Yes, ma'am." Alex replied. "We couldn't be with our families for Thanksgiving so we came into Orlando for dinner but found all the restaurants to be closed and ended up at the grocery store where we ran into your son. He invited us to dinner and here we are."

"Well, that's fine with me. What's two more mouths to feed with all this food." She gestured into the kitchen where a huge turkey sat. "Come on in and meet everyone. Some are in the rec room watching football but there are a few who stayed in the kitchen to help." She smiled at the young man who was trying to mash potatoes.

Alex noticed this young man had dyed blonde hair and when he smiled at the two of them, the palest green eyes she had ever seen. Once again, she got the notion of recognition, but then it passed. "Hi, I'm Alex and this is Jason."

"Hello. I'm Lance." He had the deepest voice, she noticed. "Everyone else is in the rec room if you want to meet them, or you can stay and give me a hand with these her potatoes. Who would've guessed that they'd be this hard to mash?"

Alex walked over and looked into the bowl. "Did they cook long enough?"

"I don't know. Lynn did it all and then asked if I wanted to mash them so I would assume so."

"Well there lies my expertise. I have no idea. I always just ate the food." She smiled at him.

"Me too. Oh well, guess I'll appreciate them more when I eat."

She laughed. "Probably."

She glanced behind her and found Jason no where to be found and assumed he was watching football, his favorite sport with everyone else.

"So, how did you meet Justin?"

"Actually, we ran into him, literally, at the grocery store and when he found we had no where to go for dinner, he invited us home."

"How come you didn't spend Thanksgiving with your parents?" He looked at her curiously.

Alex grimaced. "My parents decided that London was more fun then spending the holiday with their daughter."

"London, huh. I've always liked London. How come you didn't fly there to visit them?"

"My mom is starring in a play that my dad is directing and said they didn't need any distractions."

"Harsh."

"Yeah, oh well. This way I get to spend Thanksgiving with Jason and meet new people."

"Yeah, you won't find a better group of people than this bunch, but then again I'm biased." He smiled at her and then poured a little bit more milk and butter into the potatoes. "Hey, Lynn, I think they're done."

"OK. Put them in this and then put them on the table."

"Sure, thang. It was nice talking to you, Alex, maybe later we can finish our conversation."

"I'd like that."

She headed into what she thought was the rec room and found it filled with men from different age groups who all turned to look at her when she walked in. "Um, sorry to interrupt."

Justin jumped up and offered her his seat. "No problem. The Redskins are ahead of Dallas by 7 points."

"I take y'all are skins fans?"

Everyone shook their heads yes but paid no more attention to her since the game was back from commercial break. She watched the TV some but mainly took in everyone around her. There was a guy practically glued to the TV like a little kid that had short brown hair and glasses on, another was on the couch beside her with bright red hair and a brown goatee, with brown eyes that twinkled every time he cheered or screamed at the TV. She noticed an older gentleman sitting in a chair off to the side with a little boy on his lap; she figured this was Justin's little brother and dad. Sitting in beanbag chairs, were Justin and another guy, about the same age as everyone else in the room. He also had dark brown hair but dark blue eyes that were intent on the game. Jason was also laid out in the middle of the room next to the guy with glasses but not as close to the TV.

She was starting to get extremely bored with the TV, since she didn't like football. Just when she going to head back into the kitchen, she heard Lynn call, "DINNER and watched everyone jumped up from their seats and herd into the kitchen. She laughed at them and noticed how they all looked like pigs heading to the trough. She came in last with Jason, basically cause neither knew where they were really going and also because they didn't know where to sit.

Everyone sat down around the table and Jason and Alex just stood there awkwardly. Justin looked up and noticed the two of them and waved them over. "Alex, you sit next to Lance and me and we'll put Jason here next to Jon and JC."

They both looked relieved and sat down. "Has everyone met?" Lynn asked.

All the guys that had been in the next room shook their heads and glanced at Alex.

"Alex, this is my husband, Randy, our son, Jon top my right. Then going around the table, next to Jason is JC." She noticed he was the one that had been sitting in the bean bag chair with the blue eyes. She nodded at him in a hello.

"Next to him is Chris and Joey." The guy with the glasses and the guy with the red hair, she noticed.

"Let's see and you've met Lance and Justin. That's everyone. Randy, Hon, would you please say grace."

Everyone bent their heads as he began to thank the lord for their food and good company. Alex bent her head but didn't really know what else to do. She hadn't been raised this way, she'd always gone through the "bless it and get it" grace and started eating. She heard everyone say Amen and then the food started to get passed around the table.

Everyone was talking and having a good time and she noticed that even Jason was getting included into the conversation, while she felt uncomfortable and left out.

"Hey, Alex."

She looked up from her plate to see Justin looking at her.

"Having a good time?"

"Oh, yes. Thanks so much for inviting us."

"No problem. Mom loves guests and to feed people so this was nothing."

"I'm glad. We wouldn't want to impose or anything. Are you all related or just friends?"

He laughed. "No, they aren't all my brothers, just the little one over there I can claim. The rest… well, we're close and since we have work tomorrow, they couldn't fly to be with their families and so they're here with their surrogate family."

"That must be nice. My family is in London and Jason's from Seattle, so I guess we've got a surrogate family too now."

"You sure do. Plus, mom's always wanted a daughter so, there ya go."

She smiled softly up at him. "Thanks. I've always wanted a mother who was around, so I may take her up on it, if you don't mind."

Justin looked closely at the girl who was busy looking at her plate again and figured there was more to meets the eye there. She looked lonely but at the same time very sure of herself except for times like this when her parents were mentioned. I don't know what I'd do without my family. He looked over at his mom and Randy and then back to the girl.

After dinner, all the guys went back to the game and Alex helped Lynn clean up.

"Thanks, dear, but you don't have to help."

"No, I want to. Plus," She grinned at Lynn. "I'd rather be in here than in there." She said motioning towards the other room where everyone was yelling over a bad call. "I hate football."

Lynn laughed. "Me too. How come you're not with your family tonight, if you don't mind me asking?"

Alex told her about her mother's phone call and how they were very sorry but they couldn't make it back in time for the holiday, maybe Christmas. "Christmas?"

"Yeah and even that's a maybe."

"Well, you are invited here for Christmas if they can't come back again."

"Thanks I appreciate that very much." Alex's eyes started to fill with tears but she quickly blinked them away.

"Your welcome." Lynn looked over at her and had the greatest urge to hug this girl that she had just met, but shook it off.

Jason came into the kitchen just as they were finishing up and told her that they should probably get back, they still had quite the drive. "Thank you again, Lynn, and I'll call if I need a place for Christmas."

"You do that, dear." She grabbed a piece of paper and wrote their address and phone number down for her. "Call anytime if you need to talk."

"I will." Alex impulsively reached up and hugged the woman who acted more like a mother than her own to her.

The rest of the guys began to file out of the rec room and Chris and Joey were fake tackling each other and they came running into foyer. The skidded to a halt in front of the leaving guests. "You guys are leaving already?"

"Yeah, we've got to get back to the University." Jason answered.

Chris reached out to shake his hand. "Well it was nice meeting you, man, keep in touch."

"Will do." Jason laughed then reached over and shook Joey's hand too.

Each of the young men hugged Alex good bye, then headed into the back of the house.

Justin walked over to Alex and Jason. "Thanks for coming you two. Mom said she gave you our number, if you need anything, call."

"Will do." Alex reached up and gave him a hug too, then said goodbye to everyone else but one last person, grabbed her for a hug.

"We didn't get a chance to finish our conversation. Hopefully, we'll get another chance."

"Yeah, hopefully. Bye, Lance."

Everyone said good bye then headed in their own directions. Jason and Alex got into their car then looked at each other and started laughing. "Wasn't that the most bizarre Thanksgiving you've ever had?" He asked as they hit the freeway.

"Yeah, who would've guessed we'd be eating with a bunch of strangers and then make new friends."

"Yeah."

Justin sat in front of the TV watching the late night news, when JC walked in and sat down beside them.

"That has to be one of the weirdest things you've done in a long time. That was taking 'bringing home strays' to a new level, even for you."

"Yeah, but if you had seen them counting cash for a loaf of bread, you would've done the same thing."

"Yeah."

"Plus, it was cool that they didn't recognize us."

"I sure was expecting something from Alex as she is an 18 year old female."

"Yeah, but not all girls do like us, y'know, JC."

"Yeah the smart ones."

"Talked to Girlie today?"

"Briefly, she's still in LA."

"Bummer, dude."

"She'll be back soon enough. Can you believe that management called a meeting tomorrow and vacation is over."

"Nope, feels like it just started but then the new tour will start soon enough."

"Don't we know it. I'm off to bed. See ya in the morning."

"Night, JC."

Justin stared off into space for awhile longer, thinking about Alex. He was intrigued with her. She was gorgeous, no doubt about that. Her long blonde hair and green eyes had grabbed his attention in the grocery store when she had laughed at him and Jason. Jason, her best friend but not boyfriend. That was one of the first things he had asked the guy, during the game but made it sound very nonchalant. Her looks, though beautiful, weren't what still had him thinking though. It was the look of sadness and hope mixed when he had said that his mom wanted a daughter and he had told her they'd be there for her if she needed them. That look had really touched him. I wonder if I'll ever see or hear from her again.

Chapter 4

You Got It-I Want It

I'll Do Whatever It Takes

You Got It-I Want It

Your Love is What Makes My Heart Break

Alex walked across campus, bopping along with the song that she had stuck in here head.

Let Me Tell You How I Feel

I Need Your Lovin', Girl Give It To Me

Alex suddenly skidded to a halt and smacked herself in the forehead. "Dude, Mandy has got to stop playing that music. It's addictive. Another song, come on, I can think of another song."

She continued on, making her way to the auditorium but couldn't get that song out of her head. How is it possible for me to not think of another song? UGH!

"I hate NSYNC!" She yelled to herself as she walked up the stairs into the auditorium. She absolutely hated it when she got songs stuck in her head, especially when she didn't even like the group.

"Talking to yourself again?"

"AAAAAAAAGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHH! Jason!" Alex jumped about a foot into the air. "I hate it when you scare me like that!" Alex tried to get her breathing under control by placing her hand on her chest.

"Sorry, but when I heard you yell, I couldn't help it."

"That's cool. What are you doing here?"

"Taking a break from studying, you?"

"Taking a break from my roommate who won't let up about how I'm going to be hanging out with NSYNC for the next few months. She wants Justin's autograph, JC's shirt, Chris' something or other, a picture of Joey, and Lances'…. Oh, darn, I forgot that too."

"She's already making a wish list huh?" Jason said laughing.

"Yup. It’s a good thing I didn't tell her about Thanksgiving huh."

"Oh yeah, she would want their phone numbers and addresses in a heart beat, hope you hid it well."

"In the safest place imaginable from her."

"Where's that?"

"My desk." She said giggling. Alex's desk was the biggest mess. She was lucky to find ANYTHING in it.

"Good thinking. She's such a neat freak, she won't go near it."

"Exactly."

The two of them had driven back from Orlando late that night and had decided to make it a slumber party in her room. When they had turned on the lights and had seen the gang they had just hung out with several hours previously, plastered all over Alex's dorm room, they had both stopped in the doorway with their mouths hanging to the floor. They both looked at each other and then first Alex's mouth twitched and then Jason's and before either of them knew it, they were both rolling on the floor, laughing with tears streaming down their cheeks. They finally managed to pick themselves up off the floor and sit down. "They must think we're idiots for not recognizing them?" Jason had remarked.

"OR relieved that we didn't."

"Yeah, probably that one. I still feel like the biggest dork especially since I'm always hanging out here and have seen the posters."

"What about me… I live here."

That started the two of them off again. "Well, they did say to keep in touch, right?"

"Yup, now we'll just be living with them day in and day out."

"Instead of Mandy blaring their music all the time, we're going to be living in it. Someone help me."

Jason just laughed. "They're cool, not what I was expecting at all. I think this is going to be a good gig."

"Actually, I agree with you for a change. I was really apprehensive about the whole thing but I think they're going to be tolerable."

"Only you, Alex… Tolerable?"

"Well, just because the initial meeting went well, doesn't mean that being with them every day will be as good."

"That's true. Just think though, Alex, Justin's Mom will probably be around a lot and you can hang with her." He said quietly, looking at her with a serious expression on his face.

"That would be nice." She smiled over at him. He knew about how much she despised her parents for never being around and she hadn't stopped talking about Justin's family since they had left the house. She was one of the sweetest and orneriest people that he knew, but also one of the most lonely.

They discussed the tour some more and then settled down to watch a movie, both still in disbelief that they had spent Thanksgiving with their new employers without even being aware of the fact.

Alex snapped out of her reverie and looked at Jason with a dazed look on her face.

"Thinking about the tour?" He asked her giving her a weird look.

"Kinda, just remembering how we left that huge stain on my floor from the orange soda you spilled Thanksgiving night."

"Oh, yeah, sorry."

"Its cool."

"That was sure a weird night."

"With many more to come." They both laughed and headed into the auditorium to practice with the harnesses one last time before having to do it for real with an honest to goodness real crew.

************************************************************************

"I can't believe you're going!" Mandy cried, wrapping her arms around Alex from behind as she tossed a few last things into her duffel bag.

"I know. This quarter just flew by, but I'll keep in touch and if they don't assign you another roommate, I'll see you in the spring, but that’s still highly doubtful as I'm not sure how long they'll actually need Jason and I." Alex patted Mandy's arm with one of her hands as the other reached for a tennis shoe.

"I'll visit!"

Alex laughed. "I have no doubt in my mind that you will first chance you get."

Mandy let go and playfully smacked her in the arm. "Just wait. They'll get to you too."

"Uh huh, sure they will. They're normal people, Mandy. Treat them as such." She said zipping the duffel shut and standing up.

"But, what fine specimens of people they are."

Alex rolled her eyes. "Hear we go again."

"I'm done. I'm done." She laughed at Alex, who was always groaning about how Mandy went on and on about how good looking they were, their eyes, hair, lips, bodies, etc., etc.

"OK. Well, I'm supposed to meet Jason in the courtyard in ten minutes…" They looked at each other awkwardly, then Alex glanced back at her bags not really knowing how to say goodbye.

"You should get going then…" Mandy said looking down at the floor.

"Yeah…"

The two girls looked at each other and memories of the past quarter flooded their minds. The cake fight in the commons, Alex buying a Backstreet Boys CD for Mandy's birthday early in the quarter and the hissy fit she threw when she opened it, plus the hour long lecture on the differences between the two groups. The long night talks the two had shared, as well as the tears when Alex's parents had forgotten to call and the break up that Mandy had gone through with her high school sweetheart who had stayed behind in her hometown when she had left for school.

Alex's eyes welled with tears and as she looked at Mandy, they both started crying. "You better keep in touch, you here." Mandy wailed against Alex's shoulder.

"I will and you better write."

"I will. I promise."

Both girls quickly wiped away their tears and smiled at the other, both thinking how silly they were being because they knew they'd talk in a couple days time anyway. "Do you need help with your bags?"

"Nope, all I've got are these bags. My box is already outside and everything else is in storage."

"I still can't get over the fact that this room is finally clean." She said glancing around in awe.

Alex laughed. "Just think, now you can put MORE NSYNC stuff up, including all the pictures I'll be sending down from concerts.

"You should get going. I'm going to miss you," Mandy said with a sad smile on her face, pushing Alex toward the door.

"Yeah, Jason's waiting. I'll miss you too." Alex hefted up her two bags and turned towards the door, after taking one last look at her dorm room of a quarter and her roommate.

"Talk to you soon."

"Bye Alex." Alex quickly ran down the stairs to Jason's car before she started crying again. She was really excited about the gig but leaving was always hard for her once she settled in. I should be used to it by now though; its not like I've ever really had a permanent home, even though I was hoping that this would be it for awhile. I guess I was wrong again. Think of the experience, girl, and Jason's gonna be on this wild ride with you too. You're not alone this time. You're not alone.

Jason waved her down and they threw her bags into the trunk and hopped into the car. Both looked at the other and smiled, as he turned the key in the ignition signaling the start of the adventure.

************************************************************************

 

The two pulled into the lot of the studio and parked in front of the huge building with Transcontinental Studios written on it. Lynn had told them to report to the front desk and check in and they would tell them to go from there. They walked up front walk and Alex began to get nervous, what if she couldn't cut it, what if she screwed up, too many what ifs. Jason grabbed her hand and squeezed it, giving her a small smile to reassure her. Leave it to Jason to know exactly how I'm feeling.

She glanced down at herself and noticed that she had her green overalls, her Guys and Dolls crew shirt and Doc Marten boots on. Her hair had also been pulled into a bun was starting to slip out from the long trip. I hope I look…

Jason opened the door to the studio for her and glanced over at her, interrupting her thoughts. "You look fine, don't worry about it."

She smiled at him, took a deep breath and walked up to the front desk.

"Hi. My name is Alex and this is Jason. We're here as part of the NSYNC crew. You called for us over the University."

The lady behind the desk glanced at the two of them and pulled a piece of paper out of a drawer and started going through the list of names. "Alex Larson and Jason Pipps?"

Alex smiled in relief. "That's us."

"I'm sorry, I was told that Alex was male."

"No, its Alexandra Larson. Sorry, if you were misinformed."

"Oh, no dear, that's fine. Just a little mix-up that can be remedied. You'll be the only female backstage crew member though." She glanced over at Alex out of the corner of her eye to see if that would bother her as she typed into the computer that they had arrived.

"Oh, that's fine. I'm used to it. Used to being the only female and the youngest on the crew. I'll be fine, thanks for your concern though."

"No problem, dear. OK, you two are to report to Rick, the backstage manager, in an hour. In the meantime, I'm assuming that the two of you don't have a place to stay until the tour begins in a few days, am I right?"

"Yes, mam." Jason replied for the two of them.

"Well, we'll just get you settled onto your busses and you'll be able to grab a bunk before anyone else. My advice is to check each one and find the most comfortable one before the rest of the crew arrives."

Alex and Jason both grinned. "Thanks", they said.

"Well, my name is Marie and I'm sure we'll be seeing each other now and then." She stood up from behind her desk and motioned for them to follow her. "I'll show you where the busses are and then you guys can drive your car around back and get your stuff stowed away and unpacked before you get grilled by Rick about safety and his code about how to get things done efficiently." Marie laughed and leaned over to Alex with a conspiratorial grin on her face. "He's known for that lecture around here so if I were you, I'd think of an excuse to get out of it until everyone arrives because then you'll only have to hear it once, otherwise be prepared."

Alex and Jason both nodded in unison with eyes the size of saucers. What had they got themselves into?

Marie took them down a long hall to a big steel door and opened it up and ushered them through it. Jason and Alex stepped through the door and found themselves in what looked like to be a huge garage. Four maroon and white busses sat in a row, freshly washed and ready to go. Marie laughed quietly at their star struck expressions and walked to the wall and hit one of the door buttons to open it. The sound of the door opening snapped Jason and Alex out of their stupor and both turned back to look at Marie.

"Now, that the door is opened, lets head back and you two, can get your stuff stored."

They headed back down the hall and when they reached the main lobby again, Marie told them to take a left at the building and continue around until they saw the door. They couldn't miss it.

"Thanks Marie." Alex called out as they walked out to their car.

They drove around the building and parked at the nearest spot to the door. Alex jumped out of the car, grabbed one of her duffel bags and yelled, "Last one there gets to sleep on the bottom bunk!" and took off at a dead run for the bus.

Jason just casually got out of the car and shook his head as he watched Alex's hair fall out of her bun and stream behind her and her bag flop beside her.

Alex reached the bus and looked behind her to see Jason still at the car, getting his stuff out. She grabbed the handle on the door of the bus that said Crew and pulled it open. She climbed the stairs and noticed first the gray interior. Toward the front, there was a seating area and small kitchenette and then in the middle of the bus were the bunks. Alex checked some of the bunks until she found one that didn't have any lumps in the mattress. She tossed her bag on it and then decided to explore the rest of the bus until Jason got there and then she could go and get the stuff out the trunk.

The back of the bus was a small media center that was lined with couches and had a small TV/VCR combo in the corner and shelves for movies and books to be out on it. Alex knew where she was going to be hanging out during the trip. She felt the bus shift and yelled, "Hey Jason, you gotta check out the back here. Now, you can't get away from Titanic. I am going to make you watch it until you're sick of it."

"I don't think so, Alex."

"Want to make a little wager on that?"

"Not against you."

"Fine, take all the fun out of it."

"I will. Id this your bunk with the bag on it?"

"Yeah, take one close to mine so I'm totally surrounded by strangers."

"Will do. What time are we supposed to meet that guys again?"

"Ummm…" Alex glanced down at her watch. "Now."

"Let's get a move on then and afterwards we can finish unpacking."

Alex wandered out of the back to find Jason with his head stuck in his duffel looking for something. She grabbed his arm and pulled him out of the bus and into the hallway, practically running. "We don't want to make a bad first impression. Back stage managers can make our lives hell, if we're so much as a minute late."

"Thanks for the update, Alex."

They ran down the hall and finally found a room marked auditorium and opened it after taking a big breath. Several dancers were up on stage dancing along to Alex's most hated song, Tearin' Up My Heart, which is due to the amount of times that Mandy made it her listen to during the previous weeks. The two walked down the aisle and watched the choreographer work with the four female and two male dancers. They stopped when they noticed the two college students.

The choreographer walked to the edge of the stage and bent down to look at them. "Can I help you?"

"Yeah, we're looking for Rick? We're supposed to meet him here."

"You must be the two new crew members. Welcome to the family. My name's Darren. Let me find Rick for you." With that the man stood up and yelled Rick so loudly, it echoed off the walls.

"Just a minute," came a response that was just as loud but from up above.

A young man jumped down from a trellis on the side of the stage and strode over to stand next to Darren. "I'm Rick, can I help you?"

Alex couldn't help but stare. This was the back stage manager; he wasn't much older than she! The guy had brown wavy hair, dark green eyes and freckles. He looked to be a little older than Jason is but not by much. He had a tall lanky build and pretty broad shoulders.

Jason, looked over at Alex and almost reached over and chucked her mouth closed but didn't. "I'm Jason Pipps from the University. We were asked to come and assist you with the harnesses."

"Right, cool. This must be Alex then?"

Alex could nothing but nod. The guy was absolutely gorgeous.

"Let's head back and I'll show you the stage and the equipment and we can get everything set up."

Alex and Jason walked on stage and followed Rick behind the backdrop to the equipment.

"Now, obviously, these aren't what we'll be using on the tour since the stage is collapsible and we'' be doing outdoor and indoor arenas, plus most of the equipment will probably be the arena's. However, it's not too much different so this will give you guys a chance to become acquainted to the show and the Sailing number especially. That' [s the major reason why we need you guys, is for that particular number, but we'll probably have you guys playing gopher and possibly assisting in anything that needs to be done. Any questions?"

"When do we learn their choreography for the number since we leave in a couple of days?" Jason asked.

"We've pulled the guys in from their vacation early so that we can get this done and they can get used to your handling and you can get used to their weight." He looked over at Alex. "You sure you're up to handle this?"

She snapped out of her reverie to glare at him. "I've probably been working backstage longer than you. I can handle whatever you can throw at me."

His eyes sparked with laughter and showed in the curve of his lips. "Alright. I'll take your word on it, although I'll have you know, I've been working on shows for 13 years since I was 10."

Alex blushed. "Ok, well maybe you've got me by a few years bu6t I've been doing Broadway shows for 8 since I was 10."

Rick finally gave in and started laughing and looked over at Jason. "She's definitely a drama student. Ego to match the experience."

Alex glared at the two guys who both were laughing at her expense, but then gave in to the urge and laughed with them since Rick had pegged her correctly right off the bat.

Alex wiped her eyes and looked at Rick again. "When do we start?"

"Just as soon as… correction, now." He looked over her head and waved at whoever was standing behind her.

She turned around and found five guys standing behind her with smiles on their faces and some waving at Rick and the rest of the crew that was somewhat scattered about backstage.

"Alex, Jason, I'd like you to meet NSYNC or better known as JC, Justin, Joey, Chris and Lance."

Justin couldn't move. The girl that he couldn't get his mind off of since she had come to dinner at his place was standing in front of him, a new member of their crew. He knew he had a look of disbelief on his face, but he figured it was warranted. She lied about not knowing who we were and made fools out of us.

Alex stared back. Oh boy, I thought I'd get a chance to explain before this.

JC, the ever-diplomatic one, broke in. "It's alright, Rick. We've met." He walked over to Jason and shook hands. "Nice to see you again."

Jason laughed. "Likewise. Sorry about the other night, Alex and I had no idea who you guys were until we got home and saw her roommate's posters."

The rest of the guys, but Justin, who was still staring at Alex, laughed along with JC and Jason.

Chris stepped forward to shake Jason's hand too. "Must've been a shock."

"You said it, not I. Imagine our faces, if you will and we walk in to see the guys that we had just eaten with were really Alex's arch enemies."

Chris cocked an eyebrow and turned to look at Alex who was standing off to the side of the reunion. "Arch-enemies?"

"Yeah, her roommate is a huge NSYNC fan and since Alex isn't a fan at all, she was tortured all quarter."

The guys continued to get re-acquainted and Rick joined in the conversation too and got to hear the story about Thanksgiving.

Justin walked over to Alex and stood awkwardly in front of her. "Uh, Nice to see you again."

She looked up. "Yeah…. I'm really sorry about this whole thing."

He waved away her statement. "It's not big deal."

"You looked shocked and hurt though."

"Why would I be?" He gave her a questioning look.

"I don't know, why, but you did."

"Oh. I just had the fleeting thought that you had lied to me that night, but…"

"I honestly hadn't recognized you. I thought you looked familiar but I didn't know from what." She smiled impishly up at him and said, "If it makes you feel any better, I hate your music and am just here cause it will look good on my resume."

"Why you little brat!" Justin exclaimed drawing everyone's attention, only to watch Justin lift her over his shoulder and carry her out the door.

Jason looked at the guys. "What is he going to do to her?"

"Probably go and dump her in the pool."

The next thing they heard was a scream and the threat that Justin was going to die if she ever got her hands on him and then Justin came running into the auditorium with Alex close on his heels, dripping wet.

Rick smiled at the guys and watched Alex running around the auditorium. "I don't think we'll have to worry about personality conflicts. Ready to get down to work?"

Everyone nodded but continued to watch Alex chase Justin, who would stop every now and then to tease her about being slow and then continue on.

Chapter 5

"Can I come down now?"

"Chris, you have to stay still."

"I really don't like it up here."

"I'm not going to drop you."

"I'm going to fall, I know it."

"You are not."

"Am too."

"Are not."

"Am too."

"ARE NOT."

"AM TOO!"

"ARE NOT!"

"AM TOO!"

"I won't drop you."

"Will too."

"How old are you guys again?" Justin asked while flipping in the air over Alex and Chris.

Alex was standing on stage controlling Chris' harness while he went up but he was struggling so much from being in the air and not trusting her to not drop him, that it was a strain on her and him, plus the arguing wasn't helping either. They had been going back and forth for almost fifteen minutes and everyone was starting to get sick of it.

"5 years old, daddy." Chris replied, sticking out his tongue at the younger gentleman.

"Wonderful, Chris." Jason moved Justin away from the arguing duo so he wouldn't distract Alex anymore.

"Chris, hold still."

"I want down. Guys, lets take this out of the show."

Five voices around the auditorium yelled, "NO Chris, for the last time."

"Fine."

Alex lowered Chris back down to the stage. "Here, I've got an idea." She told him and wandered off to get a piece of rope.

She came back and measured his harness and noted the type of rope he was using and wandered back off, leaving Chris looking skeptical of what she was up to.

She climbed the trellis and went up onto the catwalk above the stage. She went over to where Chris' harness was secured, wrapped her legs around the banister and flipped over, so that she was hanging upside down. She looked down and waved at Chris, who when he looked up, turned the color of her overalls and ran for the bathroom, unhooking his harness as he went. Alex shrugged and went back to work on the rope, trying to hold in her laughter. That'll teach him to argue with me.

Justin looked over from where he was doing flips to see a head of blonde hair hanging upside down. What is she doing?

"Hey, Jason, should she be up there?" He called out to the man standing below him.

Jason looked up and smiled at her. "She's a cat, J. She's fine. Chris must be really panicked for her to be using that."

"What's she doing?"

"I figured out a way to make the harness more secure for those who are afraid of heights." She called out as she flipped back up, letting the rope fall. "It won't be as invisible as your guys' but at least he won't freak." She hopped back down from the catwalk and walked over to Chirs' harness that was laying in the middle of the stage.

JC walked over, waiting his turn. They were each working individually with Alex and Jason so that they could get used to the weight and make adjustments accordingly. "Will it work?"

"We made Peter Pan fly with it." She looked over from where she was sitting and smiled smugly.

"Huh?

"The guy who played Peter Pan in this quarter's production was afraid of heights so I rigged his harness to where if he got nervous, he had control and could lower himself to a suitable height, therefore giving him the illusion that he was in control. I got the idea from my psych class where I learned that most fears come from a lack of control. His fear should subside somewhat from just knowing that if anything goes wrong or he gets nervous, there's something for him to do about it, instead of just falling." She tied the last knot, jumped up and wiped her hands off on her pants.

"Nice, I think that may be the trick for Chris."

She smirked at him, knowing it was the trick, then broke into a huge grin. "Yeah, now if we could only get him back into his harness."

At that moment, Chris came back from the bathroom, looking very pale and had an almost clammy look to his skin. "I don't feel so good."

"Chris, Chris… time to go back up." Alex stated and pointed over at the harness.

He stopped and looked like he was ready to bolt from the stage. He backed up a few steps, shaking his head. "No. I am not…"

"Chris, just shut up for a minute, while I show you something." She stalked over to him and snapped the rope onto his belt, strapping him back into the harness. "OK, this little pulley here, " she pointed, "lowers and raises you. If need be, you CAN lower yourself all the way, but let me know with a signal so that I can tighten up the rope so it doesn't pool on the stage. Also, if you get nervous, grip here and you'll stand up on your own and won't go anywhere. It'll look like your standing on air with just as much support. Ready, for another try?" She lifted her eyebrows at him in question.

Chris turned a little green but nodded his head yes, reluctantly. Alex walked back to the controls and lifted him up in the air, a little at a time until he was at the height for the beginning of the number. She noticed he wasn't struggling too much, but he wasn't comfortable either. She moved him out over where the audience would be sitting and saw him lower himself to a much more desirable height. She swung him a little and saw him grip the rope and he was then in a standing position. She brought him back and noticed a small smile on his face so she swung him again and there he stood at attention one more time.

Once they got used to the feel of each other, she brought him back down so that she could work with Lance a little. When Chris' feet hit the stage, he ran over to her, picked her up, swung her around in a circle and kept saying thank you over and over.

She patted him on the back. "Your welcome, Chris. I take it that you feel more comfortable up there now?"

"Not for doing flips or anything, but just flying feels so much better now that I have at least a little control."

"Good. I'm glad."

"You're my lifesaver, Alex."

She smiled at him. "Just doing my job."

Justin stood over on the sidelines, watching the exchange. He couldn't figure out what it was about her that grabbed his attention. Once she had got on stage, she was a bossy little thing, with a huge ego and attitude problem. She knew she was good and proceeded to do what she did right without any help or comment from anyone. He was surprised that Rick allowed her to do it. BUT, then again, Rick seemed to be giving her the moon too. He was always going over to talk to her and offer a suggestion here and there but for the most part, he just talked to her. It was like she was the Queen of Sheba or something, the way people were carrying on. It was really getting to him.

They worked for another hour, just getting the feel of each other when Rick called out, "Break Time." Everyone scattered and went to get something to drink or eat. Alex walked over to the edge of the stage to rest her hands and just sit and veg.

"You're pretty good for a rookie." A laughing voice said from behind her.

She turned and saw Rick standing behind her. She blushed and motioned for him to sit.

"How old are you again?" He asked giving her a questioning look.

"18."

"Hard to believe you're that old and such an old hand at all of this. You should've stayed on Broadway and worked."

A shadow passed over her face. "The work isn't stable and at least with a degree I've got something to fall back on." And something to call my own instead of Grief's.

"That's true. Wish I had gone on to school."

"How old are you?"

"22. I'm old compared to you." He slanted a grin at her to let her know he was joking.

She smacked him lightly in the arm. "Yeah, old man. You're ancient."

"How did you come up with that trick with the harness?"

"I don't really know. I was just fooling around one day and came up with the idea… and it worked." She looked over at him with a huge smile on her face and froze. He is so cute!

Rick had the same look on his face and both blushed and looked away. "Break's over. Let's try working on the routine now. We've only got another day to get this down."

Justin stood in the wings of the stage, a bottle of water frozen right before his lips. He couldn't hear what had been said but he could easily pick up the signs that the two were becoming interested in the other, what he couldn't figure out was his own reaction to it. Seeing her look at Rick like he was the best thing next to sliced bread, just gnawed at hi stomach. I don't even know her! Why do I care if she liked Rick? Why can't she like me though? Woah, Timberlake! Where did that come from?

"Justin, lets go!"

He shook his head to clear it, yelled, "Coming," and walked over to where they were supposed to be at the beginning of the Sailing number, setting his bottled water down on the side of the stage.

*********************************************************************

Later that night, Alex was laying on her bed reading when she felt the weight of the bus shift. "Jason, you back?"

"Yeah. I brought some friends too." She heard shush and quiet but didn't think anything of it, knowing instinctively that it was the guys' but didn't know why they wanted it quiet.

"OK, I'm just going to sit here and read."

"Fine." She heard laughter as they walked toward the back but kept ignoring them.

She heard the TV turn on and then just silence and the occasional roar from the studio audience. She was just settling into her book, when loud angry male voices started shouting at the TV and she could have sworn, someone was jumping up and down cause it felt like the bus was rocking.

She pulled back the curtain and stomped into the back room, angry cause she had just reached the critical point in her book. "What on earth do you think you are doing back here?"

She found seven guys stunned into silence at her entrance. JC and Joey were on one couch. Rick, Lance and Jason were on the other. Chris was on the floor in his usual spot, almost right on top of the TV and Justin looked to be in mid-jump.

"We're watching wrestling." Jason said smugly.

"You do know that it's fake, right?" She asked her hands on her hips.

"Yes, dear." Jason shot back at her.

"Why are you watching this crap?" She asked glancing over at the screen.

"Cause we like it."

"All of you like it?"

Six heads bobbed up and down in unison. "Fine, just keep it down please."

She turned to walk out of the room but turned around again. "What is it about this "sport" that is so fascinating?" She'd always wondered what the fascination was behind canned wrestling.

"It's just like watching a soap opera." Justin said. He reached out and grabbed her arm, before he could stop himself, and pulled her into the room.

"Sit and watch and I'll explain." For the next two hours, Justin patiently explained each plot and character on the show and by the end of it, both Justin and Alex were screaming at the TV.

"Get 'em!" Alex yelled, jumping on the couch.

"Don't just lay there!" Justin screamed, pointing at the TV.

"Stay down!"

"Get up!"

The continued on, cheering for the opposite wrestler, when Lance leaned over to Rick and said, "I think we created a monster," nodding his head at Alex. Jason and Rick both laughed and ignored the two as much as they could.

Afterwards, they were all sitting, watching TV, but Alex was still on wrestling. "Jason, why didn't you ever ask me to watch this with you. It's great."

"I did, you were never interested. Always wanting to watch some musical or sitcom."

"You should have made me. So this is on every Monday?"

"Yes, Alex, for the third time." JC groaned with a grin, showing he was just joking.

She smacked him upside the head. "See if I ever watch with you again buddy."

She settled back onto the couch and noticed the state of the room for the first time. Blankets, bags of chips, pop bottles, pillows, coats and other random stuff were all tossed around the room. The floor was no where to be found. "We sure trashed this place good." She laughed.

Everyone looked at her in confusion, then glanced around and the entire room erupted into laughter.

RING RING

Seven people dove for their phones, but none of them knew where they were. The room started to look like a volcano was erupting as everything that had been on the floor, was tossed as they looked for their phones. One hand raised into the air as it grabbed a phone. "Not mine."

Another phone was found. "Not mine."

"Not me, either."

"Me…" a voice called out but, "Whoops, never mind," was then heard right after.

"Nope," came from across the room.

Alex scrambled around the room trying to locate the noise and finally unearthed the ringing phone. "It's mine."

She clicked the on button and answered. "Hello."

"Honey! It's so good to hear your voice."

Alex just about sank into the floor. Great… haven't heard from them in over a month and on the one good night I'm having, they have to call and ruin it. "OH, Hi Mom." Alex's voice drained of all emotion and she got up to go and get some privacy in the other room, cause she knew what this call was going to be about. She'd been expecting it.

"She sure sounded thrilled to talk to her mom…" Chris said looking puzzled. "If that had been my mom…"

Jason looked over at him, his face shadowed from worrying about Alex. "Yeah, but your mom doesn't desert you every chance she gets to perform on stage including leaving you alone for holidays. Why do you think we were in a supermarket on Thanksgiving?"

"Oh. What about her dad?"

"Her mom and dad are joined at the hip pretty much, and neither make time for her. They call and check up on her, but usually only if they have to break plans or shove some more bad news on her head."

"How can they treat their own flesh and blood that way? Does she have any brothers or sisters to help take away the pain?" Rick asked, concern showing in his face.

"Nope. She's an only child. They weren't going to have any kids, but then Alex came along and that was that. They haven't had any more though and they want it that way, leaving Alex, pretty much all alone."

"No wonder you two are so close." JC commented.

"Yeah, I don't have any brother or sisters either, so we kinda both adopted each other into that role." Jason glanced around the room full of men, glancing especially at two of them. "AND to get to get to her… you've got to go through me."

The two males in question quickly got the hint, looking away guiltily, but at the same time trying to figure out a way to get her to notice them. One of them, however, knew his feelings, while the other was still struggling with his earlier revelation.

They ceased talking about her and quickly changed the subject, when they felt the bus move again as she headed back.

"Hey." Alex looked really tired, Justin noticed, pale too, as she came into the doorway and stopped.

"You alright?" He asked, voicing the concerns of everyone in the room.

She looked up at him with what he could only describe as dead eyes. "Yeah, Mom was just calling to ask where I'd be on Christmas so that she could mail me my gift. They will be in Italy doing another show around Christmas and won't be able to make it back. I just wanted to tell you all that I'm going to head to bed. See you all in the morning." She turned and walked back to her bunk and crawled in and shut the curtain.

Jason looked into the hallway to make sure it was clear before hissing, "What a bitch! If I could get my hands on her and her dad…"

"Dude, calm down. It looked like she was expecting it even if it was a shock, besides, she can spend Christmas with one of us and our families. We'll take care of her." Joey clasped an arm around his new friend.

The guys started trying to figure out a way to cheer Alex up, but Justin just sat there deep in thought.

"Having a good time?"

"Oh, yes. Thanks so much for inviting us."

"No problem. Mom loves guests and to feed people so this was nothing."

"I'm glad. We wouldn't want to impose or anything. Are you all related or just friends?"

He laughed. "No, they aren't all my brothers, just the little one over there I can claim. The rest… well, we're close and since we have work tomorrow, they couldn't fly to be with their families and so they're here with their surrogate family."

"That must be nice. My family is in London and Jason's from Seattle, so I guess we've got a surrogate family too now, or am I being too presumptuous?" She looked up at him with wide eyes.

"You sure do. Plus, mom's always wanted a daughter so, there ya go."

She smiled softly up at him. "Thanks. I've always wanted a mother who was around, so I may take her up on it, if you don't mind."

He remembered talking to her at dinner at Thanksgiving and seeing the lost look in her eyes and also a slim bit of hope. He hadn't really thought about how much his words must have meant to her but after seeing her tonight, he really wanted to do something for her and make her feel better. What is it with this little slip of a girl that has gotten to me?! She's good-looking, no doubt about that, but not model perfect. She has an attitude and isn't afraid to stand up to me. But, that's just the exterior. Underneath, I keep seeing glimpses of a lost, little…

JC waved his hand in front of Justin's face. "Dude, you in there?"

"Yeah, just thinking."

"We decided that Alex should go to your place for Christmas since she and your mom hit it off so well."

"Mom offered to have her if something came up, so I'll let her know we'll be having an extra person."

"Great, that’s settled, phase one completed, onto phase three."

Justin looked at them frowning. "Phase three? Phase one? Huh? What about phase two?"

Chris looked up then with a huge grin and proceeded in a high voice. "Phase one: collect underpants. Phase three: profit."

Joey joined in. "But what's phase two?"

"Phase one: collect underpants. Phase three: profit. We don't have a phase two."

Justin looked at them disgustedly. "Stop with the South Park quotes and tell me what's going on."

"Well, while you were in LaLa Land, we came up with a plan to cheer up Alex and to let her know that we'll always be here for her, no matter what."

Justin leaned forward with an intent gleam in his eye. "OK, let's hear it." He then glanced at Rick and noticed that he wore the same look. He wants to help her as much as I do. Does he like her too? Wait! I'm not interested. Yes, you are, Timberlake, quit lying to yourself. But, am I going to do anything about it? Probably not. Now, wait, why not? She's not interested, she's interested in Rick. Asking doesn't hurt though, what's one evening spent together, getting to know each other. No time in my life for anything of that sort…

Rick looked at Justin and saw the conflicting emotions passing across his face as they discussed the plan for the next day. He liked Alex a lot, but he was still her boss and didn't know if he should do anything about it. Justin on the other hand, was in the clear. Although, as he glanced back at him again, it looked like whatever he had been arguing with himself about had not come to a favorable conclusion due to the slump in his shoulders. Maybe, I should ask her out. Doesn't have to be serious, just a get to know each other evening and whatever happens, happens. With that decided, he leaned back with a small smile and tuned back into the conversation.

 

Chapter 6

Alex awoke the next morning to something tickling her nose. She swatted at it, but it just bounced back, tickling her face even more. She didn’t even open her eyes, just stated loudly, that whoever was holding the thing was going to die. She didn’t her any noise or movement and slowly opened one eye. Her eyes were red and puffy from crying herself to sleep the night before and she had been glad that the TV had been turned up so that the guys wouldn’t hear her in the lounge.

The thing that had been lying on her face, fell back into her face, so she opened the other eye and glared at the pink feather that was tied to the top of the bunk, directly over her face.

She sat up and grabbed the offensive feather and tore it from the ceiling. "Who ever did this is going to die a horrible and painful death." She said out loud and swung her legs out of the bunk. She noticed a note tied to it and opened it.

Good Morning Sunshine

Did you like the feather? We thought it was a nice touch, instead of rolling your lazy butt out of bed. Anyway, we’ve decided to send you on a treasure hunt as well as a friend hunt. Your mission, should you choose to accept it is to follow the clues and com, find us at a designated spot for a fun-filled day full of sunshine and good times. It is our last day of freedom, you know. Your first clue is, you visit this place on a regular basis as you enter and leave the building. There is always a smile to welcome you whichever way you’re going.

Good Luck Sweets!

We expect you in an hour or two!

"What the…? What are they up to?"

Alex settled back in the bunk, trying to decide if she wanted to do this or not. She knew that when she didn’t show up in awhile, they’d come after her, but then again a day where she didn’t have to think about anything might be good for her. She got up, grabbed some clothes and climbed into bathroom that was the size of a closet to get ready. After she finished pulling her hair into her traditional bun, she sat down at the table in the kitchen with a bowl of cereal to try and figure out the place they were sending her first.

Enter and leave the building… regular basis… a smile always…. She sat there, repeating the clues in her head until it clicked. "The front desk of Trans Con. Marie."

She jumped up and ran out of the bus, excited for the first time in almost 24 hours, and ran down the hall to Marie’s desk, taking the last corner a little sharply and almost sliding into her desk.

Marie looked up with a smile at the disheveled young female. "Alex, how are you this fine morning? I hope you slept well for your first night."

"Yes, thank you. Do you have something for me that maybe the guys left here?"

"Actually, yes. JC stopped in this morning and left this envelope for you." She looked around her desk and found the envelope with Alex’s name written on it and handed it to her. "Here you are."

"Thanks. I gotta get going. See ya later, Marie." Alex waved and walked out the front door, tearing the envelope open as she sat down on the curb to read the note and a set of keys fell out.

Well, you’re a step closer than you were, Sunshine.

Next clue: Follow the yellow brick road to your balloon to get home, Dorothy. It’s just a hop, skip, and a jump over to the right.

Hurry Up!!!!

She looked down and noticed that the road outside had yellow lines painted in bricks instead of one long continuous line. She got up and followed the line to the right where she found a dark, green jeep sitting with a red balloon attached to the attenna. She tried the keys and finally unlocked the door. It’s a good thing, I know how to drive a stick.

She put the key in the ignition and started the jeep, after adjusting all the mirrors and the seat. She went to put the jeep into first, when she realized she had no idea where she was going. She looked around for the note but there wasn’t one to be found. I guess I’ll just sit here and wait then.

She reached down to turn the radio on when a cassette tape clicked on and laughter filled the jeep. "How long did it take you to turn this on, Sunshine? A minute, two…"

She looked down at the offensive machine and stuck her tongue out as Justin’s voice now filled the jeep’s interior. "Only a minute," she answered.

"Well, sunshine, you’re almost there. I’ll be giving the directions from here until the next stop so be prepared, I like to drive crazy and I’ll be taking you on my route."

Goodie.

"OK, Sunshine, drive out of the parking lot and take a left. At the stoplight… JC, she’ll be fine in your jeep. JC says to please not get in an accident and to drive the speed limit. Sheesh. Anyway, at the stoplight take a left and keep going straight. You’ll eventually come to a…."

She listened to his voice talk to her non-stop until she finally pulled into the parking lot of the Hard Rock.

"Now, we have an order ready, so go in and pick it up. It’s already paid for and the order is under Sunshine."

She shut the car off and strolled into the restaurant with a smile on her face. She couldn’t get over the fact that they had sent her on a treasure hunt of all things. She walked in and told the hostess that she was there to pick up an order for Sunshine. Two waiters brought out a bunch of food and handed it to her in two huge white paper bags, along with a Hard Rock menu. The hostess leaned over to her and smiled a dopey grin. "He doesn’t have this one, it’s new."

Alex shook her head and got back into the jeep, placing the food in the back. Justin’s voice filled the jeep yet again.

"OK, onto somewhere else. Now, go back the way you came and turn right. Now when you get to the stop sign, take a…"

She was now at the mall. The mall? I hate the mall!

"Sunshine, you have 20 minutes to go and get as much stuff as you can that follow these clues. Hope you’re good at riddles. We want blue, red, and yellow on a shield, things that eat hay, things that go boom, and anything that looks like it belongs to a baby boy. Now go!"

She rolled her eyes. After the Hard Rock menu, it wasn’t hard to figure out that she was picking things up for the guys’ cause they didn’t want to go out in public and probably also to keep her busy before whatever it was that they had planned.

She headed into the mall and went straight to the comic book section where there were plenty of Superman comic books sitting on the counter. The guy just smiled at her and waved, telling her to take them. Next, she headed to the music store and sitting in front was a new bass receiver, probably for Chris she thought. Onward….

The next store that had things sitting out in front was a sports store. Piled high were baby blue warm up pants, t-shirts, hats, and a pair of brand new Adidas shoes. Justin’s been busy shopping…

She walked around the mall and glanced at her watch, trying to figure out where Lance’s stuff would be. She spotted a poster store and inside was a huge poster of a horse on a ranch. Outside, a single poster was rolled with a huge red bow, so she grabbed that and headed back to the jeep. Piece of cake….

She jumped in and threw everything into the back, ready for the next step in her journey.

"We’re off again, Sunshine. Now we want to drive east, take a left out of the parking lot for quite a distance. You should head through several lights and then at the stop sign, take a right. We’ll sing for you while you drive…"

TORTURE!

They finally stopped in time with when she turned and they continued on. She finally turned into Universal Studios and parked, waiting for her next instructions.

"OK, this is your final destination. The only thing we can tell you now, is find us quick, cause we’re starving." She heard laughter in the background again and the tape shut off.

She climbed out of the jeep and looked around. The parking lot was full since it was a Sunday and she couldn’t see anyone around. She looked up at the sign to remember where she was parked and noticed that it was color coded. She was in purple, K, section 2. Colors… she glanced around and finally found the number five and the color baby blue together and ran toward that sign. It was the only thing she could think of where they might be. Sure enough, six guys were crowded around, pacing, laughing, and looking at their watches every now and then.

Jason looked up right when she had just approached, smiled, held open his arms, and said, "Alex, you made it!"

She leapt into his arms and started cracking up. "You guys are the best! Whose idea was this?"

Everyone turned and looked at Justin, who just shrugged and had a small smile, while inside he was reeling with jealousy at the way she had jumped into Jason’s arms.

"What can I say? They wanted to take you to Universal but I came up with the treasure hunt idea, thought you might like some time to yourself and a nice scenic drive around Orlando." Before he had finished his sentence, she had her arms around him and kissed his cheek.

She pulled back and looked at all of them. "Thanks. I really needed this after last night. You guys are the best."

They all started to head back to JC’s jeep to eat before going in, but Justin just stood there stunned after her kiss. She kissed me… He gently touched his cheek, then shook out of his stupor. Remember, just friends, just friends…

JC turned around to look at him. "Dude, you coming?"

"Yeah." He shook his head again and followed after the entourage.

"What first, madam?"

"I want to ride the rides, then go see the shows, oh and of course we’ve gotta go backstage and see how they do some of this stuff. I absolutely love talking to the technicians and the stunt men…"

They all laughed at her. "Alex, we’ve only got one day, dahlin" Chris told her.

"Well, let’s just do whatever then, I love it all."

They headed off toward the rides and while standing in line, Alex noticed that Rick wasn’t with them. "He’s working on some last minute stuff and couldn’t come." Lance told her.

"Oh." She was disappointed but quickly got over it cause she wasn’t really sure how she felt about him, he was a friend, but…"

"Penny for you thoughts?" Justin leaned down so that they were eye level.

She remembered how blue his eyes were from Thanksgiving but out in the daylight they shined. "Just thinking about how much work there still is to do before we leave."

He smiled. "Don’t worry about it, everything will come together, it always does."

He slung his arm around her shoulder and pulled her up to the front so that they could sit together. What are you doing, Timberlake?

Alex couldn’t take her eyes off his curls and then when he looked back at her and smiled as they climbed in, she stopped breathing completely. Oh boy, Alex, this is completely unexpected. Just friends…

Both looked at each other then quickly away, telling themselves that the look they just shared was nothing.

They walked around the park for awhile longer, enjoying the shows and the rides. Chris and Joey ran into a few friends that they used to work with and sat and talked with, while the rest of them went into the gift shop to screw around.

Lance and Alex were looking at hats when she noticed that they weren't in their disguises. "School's in session so we didn't think we'd run into many fans and besides even there were a few, we wouldn't mind signing an autograph or two."

"You guys are really good to your fans, you know that?"

He smiled down at her. "We try. They did put us where we are today."

She laughed out loud. "Well, I can honestly say that I wasn't one of them."

"You really don't like our music, do you?" He asked, looking at her curiously.

"Nope. Not into the whole pop scene. I much prefer listening to rock and alternative, something that has a good slammin' beat."

"Our music has a good beat."

"Yeah, it has a nice dance beat but the lyrics suck, I'm sorry to say."

"I guess you can't win them all, and we won't hold it against you." He put her head in a headlock and gave her a noogie. "Too much!"

"Ha ha, very funny, Mr. Bass." She said getting out of the hold. She looked around wondering where the guys were and saw JC paying for something at the counter, looked like a piece of jewelry.

She wrinkled her forehead in thought, cause she didn't think any of them had any girlfriends. "Hey, Lance, any of you guys' got significant others?"

Lance's eyes got wide. "Ummm, no, we're all single. No time to date or make that kind of commitment."

Uh huh sure and I'm the Pope. "That's too bad since you guys are such cuties." She reached over and pinched his cheek and went outside just in time to see Joey and Chris sprint by with a hoard of girls following them.

"Guys?" She yelled into the store. "Time to get going."

They all came out and headed out of the park. When a bunch of younger teenagers spotted them, that always signaled the end to their day.

They found Joey and Chris hiding behind the jeep, and when the coast was clear, they split up and headed back to Trans Con. JC, Alex, Justin and Jason rode in the jeep and the rest went in Chris' car.

On the way back, listening to the radio, the DJ brought up the NSYNC trial and how another boyband was going through a similar thing to what they had gone through and were hoping to have the same outcome.

Alex looked puzzled. "You guys don't work for Trans Con anymore?"

Justin shook his head. "Nope. You've probably noticed that you haven't seen or heard from Lou around the building. We're just here to finish the tour dates from the last tour and then we are full Jive employees."

"That's cool. So you really like Jive huh?"

"They're great. You can go in and talk to them, they actually listen. If we have an idea, they usually jump on it and have no problem actually using our ideas and allowing us to get involved. We've all got a lot more say in the album and more of our songs are also on the album. So, yes its been great."

JC jumped into the conversation too. "They're letting me produce some of the album which is something that Lou would never have let us do."

They pulled into the parking lot. "Well, that explains why you guys only go to the auditorium, our bus, and nothing else."

Both nodded their heads. Jason just sat in the back dumbfounded. "I never would have guess that you guys weren't employees here with the treatment you guys get around here."

"We get along great with everyone except Lou." Justin answered.

"He avoids us and we avoid him and everyone is happy." JC said.

They climbed out of the jeep and headed toward the bus. Alex shook her head. "It's really hard for me to believe all of this."

Justin laughed and slung his arm around her. "Don't worry your pretty little head about it. Its over and done with and when this tour is done, we never have to see or talk to him again."

"Well, you guys deserve the best" Jason said.

JC looked over at him. "Thanks. It was really nice to have all the support from the fans and our friends and families to get us through it and its nice to have it over with."

They climbed on the bus and heard laughter in the back, signaling that everyone else was there, probably watching TV.

Sure enough, Chris, Joey and Lance surrounded the TV watching some made for TV movie with some young thing on the screen.

Everyone sat down, pulled into the show when a phone started ringing.

They looked at each other and then looked to their waists where their phones were. Jason grabbed his phone, clicked it on and answered, "Hello?"

The rest of the group were laughing at the re-telling that Joey and Chris were doing about their run-in with the young teens at Universal. Apparently, they had been ambushed while Joey was hitting on a Marilyn Monroe look alike.

He got up and went into the kitchen so that he could hear his mom over all the laughter.

"Are you sure?" He listened to her talk some more and explain the situation.

"Do you need me to come home?"

"Uh huh. I'll take the next flight home. Bye, Mom."

Jason sat down at the kitchen table and placed his head in his hands. Alex walked in to get something to drink when she saw Jason. "You okay?"

He didn't answer at first. "No, but I will be."

"Need someone to listen?"

He shook his head. "Not right now. We'll talk when I get back."

"Where are you going?"

"Seattle. My dad's in the hospital and they don't know if he'll be okay so I need to be there."

She walked over and gave him a hug. "I'll be here if you need me and when you get back feel free to unload."

"Will do Alex. I don't know what I'd do without you. You're the little sister and best friend that I never had growing up. Thanks."

Moisture filled Alex's eyes. "I feel the same way, so you better hurry back."

"Will do. I'm going to go and let Marie know that they'll need a replacement for the tour and then make a plane reservation."

"Go talk to Marie and I'll find a flight for you."

"Thanks Alex." Jason jumped up before he broke down and went to find Marie.

Alex headed back to the back of the bus to get her phone and found five pairs of eyes on her. "He okay?" Chris asked.

"He will be. That was his mom, his dad's in the hospital and they need him home so he's pulling out of the tour."

"Damn, that's too bad. Hope his dad gets better." Lance said.

"They don't have much hope." She grabbed her phone and made him a reservation for a flight that night.

"What are we going to do about Sailing and finding another crew member? It's too late to hire someone and I don't know anyone else who can do it." Justin said.

"I'll teach Rick." Alex offered.

"That's a good idea, Alex. We'll ask him tomorrow and we can work on it all day long before our show in two days." JC said with a look of relief of relief on his face.

Justin just glowered at the floor. Great, another reason to shove them together.

Chapter 7

Early the next morning, the crew assembled and pulled the busses out to load them up. Alex glanced around and couldn't believe the amount of stuff that they were going to have to literally cram onto the busses.

She was so lost in thought that she didn't notice someone walk up behind her, until they slapped her upside the head.

She turned around to glare at the offender. Joey stood there with a real innocent look on his face. "Joseph, I should take you out of this world and save millions of women from ever having to meet you."

"Ouch. That hurt, Alex."

"It was meant to."

He started bouncing on the balls of his feet. "Aren't you excited?"

"No, not really." She looked down at the ground. Don't think about Jason being gone…You'll get through this on your own. You always have before. You just grew a little too dependent of him and have…

"Alex?"

She snapped out of her thoughts. "Yeah?"

"You were out there for awhile."

"Sorry."

"Its OK. Hey, they're loading our bus now, wanna come aboard little lady?"

"Nah. I think I'm just going to stand here and take everything in."

"Suit yourself." Joey shrugged and walked off to where the other guys were standing. They'd already said goodbye to their families and friends and were just waiting for last minute details before they left.

"How's she doing?" JC asked when Joey walked up.

"Not real good. I don't think she heard a word I said. Just kinda stood there and nodded."

"Joey, everyone does that to you." Chris said.

Joey just tossed a glare his way then ignored him.

"We need to snap her out of her funk." Lance said.

"How?" Justin looked up from where he had been standing outside of the group, watching Alex.

"Making her mad, always seems to work for me." JC said, then shrugged innocently.

Everyone laughed, knowing exactly what he meant.

"Yeah, Girlie, sure does have a temper."

"She doesn't get the nickname, Red for nothing."

"Heard from her lately?" Lance asked.

JC shook his head. "No, she's deep in some case from her supervisor said when I tried to call earlier this week. Maybe for Christmas." His face dropped in thought. It had been almost a month since he had talked to her and three since the last time he had seen her.

Justin clapped an arm around his shoulders. "She'll be fine. She's tough."

JC looked up in surprise. "I know that J. I was just missing her."

Chris shook his head in agreement. "We all miss her."

"Time to load up!" Johnny called out to everyone.

"Two more months and then we're free." Chris called out and then ran aboard the bus.

"What a freak." Lance laughed and followed him aboard.

Joey and JC laughed at the two of them and boarded behind them.

Justin just stood back and watched Alex. She had her hair down and it almost reached the middle of her back. The morning sun glinted off of it and it shined like spun silk. She reached a hand up and tucked a strand behind her ear then glanced around almost as if she hadn't realized everyone had already boarded the busses. She turned to look at him and he couldn't move. Her eyes were so bright with unshed tears, that he lost himself completely in them. She gave a small wave and then turned and boarded.

"Curly! Move it!" JC called from the window.

He shook himself out of his trance and turned and ran up the bus' steps.

***********************************************************************

No matter what was going on in Alex's head, she always managed to become herself again the minute she stepped on a stage and began to work.

"Rick, no. You're doing it all wrong. Clap your hand here and pull. No too much weight on that foot, it'll be dead before the nights over. Try this."

Rick shifted his weight and Justin fell about a foot in the air.

"Hey, I'd appreciate it if you didn't kill me."

"I'll try, J."

"Thanks." He threw a dirty look toward Rick and the young man just gave him an innocent look.

The trio worked together for a little longer before the pressure of working on a very tight schedule and the added stress of having not talked for almost 24 hours and feeling alone broke.

"RICK! Hoe in the hell could you have worked on so many shows and not have learned a single damn thing about working with harnesses and any of these contraptions. If you can't do it, I'll do it myself!"

"Alex, calm down. We'll get it."

"No, WE won't. I can't work with you, you don't understand a goddamn thing and I'm sick of working with people who don't listen." She stomped off.

Rick just stood there in shock.

"Um, I really hate to interrupt, but if we aren't going to work anymore, could someone help me down." Justin called down.

"Oh, sorry." Rick looked around at all the controls and ropes. "Uh, J?"

"Yeah!"

"We never got that far."

Justin slapped himself in the forehead and started yelling, "ALEX! ALEX, GET BACK HERE!"

Rick figured it had to do with the control that had taken Justin up so he pulled that one in the opposite direction than he had done before. Justin fell about three feet in the air at a rapid pace.

"RIIIIIIIIIIIIICCCCCCCCCCCCKKKKKKKKKKKKKKK!!!!!!!!!!!!! Stop!"

Alex came running when she heard all the screaming. She ran over and grabbed the rope before Justin could fall anymore. "You okay, up there?"

"Yes, now that you're back." Justin said in a small voice.

She lowered him until he was back on the stage and he immediately fell to the floor and began kissing the ground. She shook her head before turning around to face Rick.

"What did you think you were doing?" She said in lowered voice.

"Your job. You left and he wanted to come down." Rick stood up straight, finally realizing, that wait, he was the boss.

"My job?! My job isn't to kill people and you know as a stage manager not to touch anything that you don't know how to do. Even as a lowly member of the crew, you know that. You've preached it, I don't know how many times to the crew in the last DAY about safety. Once again, what were you THINKING!"

Rick looked to the ground, knowing she was right. This little slip of a girl was right.

"I don't know what I was thinking. Stage stuff has always come naturally to me and this was harder than it looked. Give me another chance and we can do this. We have to for the show."

"Fine." She turned to look at Justin. "Ready to go back up?"

He looked scared, she realized. She watched him back up, shaking his head. She sighed, "Fine, go get JC."

Justin turned and practically ran off the stage in his haste to get away from Rick and his skills on the harness.

She glanced over at him. "Happy… You just made another one scared of heights."

"I'm really getting sick of your attitude."

Alex tensed up. She had been expecting it. She knew she could be pretty controlling when she got in her element and teaching the stage manager of all people, something was bound to happen.

"What are you going to do, Rick, fire me?"

Justin stopped in the wings when he heard Alex ask that to listen to the rest of the conversation.

"I should but then that would leave a huge gaping hole in the show since we have no one else to run the equipment."

"If you don't want to do it, fine, I can run it myself." She spat at him.

"You think so!" He looked like he didn't believe her.

"Yeah, I can."

"You're on, short stuff." He looked her up and down in disgust. "And to think I thought you were something else, but in reality you're just a bitch with a power problem."

He went to walk off but Justin stopped him. "Apologize, man, tempers are high cause of the pressure but that was still uncalled for."

Rick shoved him off and left the stage area, muttering the entire way about how the bitch and the boss could get it on now all they wanted to without him.

Justin looked over at Alex and noticed that she was shaking. He walked over to her and went to put his arms around her when she shrugged out of his hold and put some distance between them.

Justin took the hint and backed off. "I just wanted to make sure you were alright. It's been a rough couple of days for you, especially yesterday and today."

"I'm fine. Things are clearing up real fast around here about the way things are supposed to be and I'll accept it eventually."

"How are things "supposed to be"?" Justin asked curiously.

Alex turned her back to him and almost started crying at the sincerity she heard in his voice. "With me alone. First my parents, then Jason, Rick doesn't even want to be around me anymore and I thought we had things in common and would get along great, once again Larson was shot down though."

He walked up behind her but didn't touch her even though his entire being was screaming to do so. "You still have us."

"The five stooges huh." A smile curved her lips slightly but he couldn't see it.

"Well that’s one way of looking at it. We all like and want you around, Alex." Especially me.

"Thanks, Justin." She turned around to look at him. "It's nice to know but deep in my heart I know you guys won't be around when it counts either. No one is. I have me to depend on and that’s it."

"Jason didn't want to leave you, he had to."

"I understand that in my head, but in my heart it still feels like desertion. He called today. His father passed on shortly after he arrived. He won't be coming back because he has to help his mom with things and he's event talking about transferring out there to University of Washington. He's leaving me." On that last sentence, she broke down and collapsed in tears.

Justin caught her before she fell and hoisted her into his arms. She clung to his neck like she'd never let go. Several crewmembers were watching them so he took her in the back to their dressing rooms so she could have some privacy.

He opened the door and found his friends eyeing him curiously but he waved it off and sat down on the couch with her in his lap. He let her cry it all out until she feel asleep and then he picked her up and moved her to the other couch so that she could get some sleep before the show. Her face relaxed in sleep and he could almost see all the worry and stress lines vanish from her face, leaving an angelic face behind. He gently brushed a strand of hair that had fallen out her bun behind her ear before he finally stood up.

The guys had left the room while Alex had been crying to give her some privacy.

"Did you see the look on the youngen's face when he brought her in?" Chris asked glancing around the group who was waiting patiently outside the door waiting for the youngest to show himself.

"Yeah, he looked like he didn't want to ever let her go." JC said.

"I've seen that look a couple times before." Lance said glancing in JC's direction.

Everyone got the hint, except for one. "I haven't, who?" Joey asked.

Chris slapped him upside the head and pointed at JC who blushed at the blatant jab.

Joey looked at all of them and then back to JC before the light bulb went off in his head. "Oh… So are you saying…" He bit off the rest of his sentence as the door opened and Justin walked out.

Lance looked at his friend and noticed the evident frustration on his face but underneath it all he could see worry, worry for the young woman lying in their dressing room at this very minute probably asleep. "Is she alright?"

Justin nodded, rubbing his hands across his face.

"What happened, man?" Joey asked.

Justin waved the question away. "I don't want to talk about it. Later, guys. Right now we have sounds check and then we need to wake her up for the concert but right now she needs some sleep."

They all nodded their agreements to let the matter rest at this time but everyone knew it would be discussed after the show. Alex had come to mean a lot to each of them and having something hurt her that bad, hurt all of them.

Sounds went off without a hitch as usual and the minute they were done, Justin jumped off the stage to go and wake Alex.

JC watched him walk off and shook his head. He looked at the guys and said, "He's got it bad."

Lance laughed. "I think that’s the understatement of the year. He's been like this about her since they first met or didn't y'all notice."

They shook their heads. "At least the boy has taste. She is one fine…"

"JOEY!" Three voices shouted at him.

He looked at his groupmates. "WHAT?"

Chris laughed at his expression. "Sure play the innocent, like you don't know why we're getting after you."

Justin creaked the door to the dressing open slowly, so as not to wake her. She hadn't moved in the hour that he had been on stage, except to roll over onto her side. He knelt beside her sleeping form and gently nudged her shoulder whispering, "Alex."

She murmured what he thought was leave me alone and rolled over. He smiled softly and nudged her again. She rolled back and opened one eye to look at the person who dared to awaken her. "People have dyed for waking me up, you know." She told him, closing her eye, only to open both of them tiredly.

"Yeah, well, I've got practice dodging bullets after waking JC morning after morning." He stared into her eyes, they weren't quite focused yet but he could clearly see the brown flecks against the dark green. Her eyes are so beautiful.

She stretched, tightening her clothes against her frame, then sat up almost directly in front of Justin. He ran a finger under his collar and sat back away from her and took a deep breath. "Concerts going to begin pretty soon. I just wanted to get you up so you…uh…" He looked at her and then away again. He stood up quickly and walked across the room to place some space between them. "So, you wouldn't be awakened when we came in to change."

She looked at him strangely. He's sure on edge tonight. "You okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine." He looked at her closely. He could see the faint tear stains against her cheeks. "How about you?" He asked softly.

She looked down at the floor and starting drawing designs into the carpet with her boot. "Yeah, sorry about that. I didn't mean to leak all over you like that."

"Alex, when are you going to learn… friends do things like that to each other. It's fine, I was glad to be there for you."

She looked up at him. He saw a small spark of hope in her eyes; she was giving him the same look as when he mentioned that his mother had wanted a daughter. "Really?" She asked quietly.

He walked back over to her and grabbed her nervous hands between his. "I'll let you in on a little secret. The first night you were here and you got that phone call from your mom…"

"Yeah."

"We all fought over who got to take you home."

"No, you didn't."

He put a finger under her chin to lift her gaze to hi and so that she could see that he was serious. "Yes, we did. Joey wanted to take you home and fatten you up. JC wanted you to meet his family and know what actual love was, Lance wanted to put a smile on your face, Chris, well… he had good intentions, he wanted to cook dinner for you, but don't let him near a turkey, K."

"What about you?"

"Me?" He smiled the smile he had given her in the supermarket. "I won. I told them I wanted to give you the gift you had always wanted. A family home for Christmas. Mom wants you to come and spend the holidays with us and I plan on giving her what she wants. Please, Alex, say you'll come."

She looked into his blue eyes, looking for something that would give her a reason to say no. All she saw in his eyes was sincerity, friendship, trust, and another emotion she couldn't define. "I'd love to spend Christmas with you and your family, Justin. Thank you."

She leaned over to give him a hug and he thought, well he didn't know what he was thinking but he leaned forward and kissed her before she could pull back.

Alex was too shocked to do anything but just sit there. She'd never been kissed before except for stage practice and those weren't real kisses. She didn't know how to respond but she relaxed against him.

When he didn't feel her pull away, he slanted his lips across hers, demanding some kind response from her. However, at that exact moment everyone decided to walk in.

Justin pulled away from her when he heard the door thrown open. Alex looked at him in shock then at the guys and ran from the room.

"Well, that’s one way to wake them up, J." JC told him as he walked over to the rack holding his clothes for the show.

"It's my preference," Joe said wiggling his eyebrows at Justin. "So…"

"Aw, man, what have I done?" Justin covered his face with his hands, sitting on the floor.

Chris walked over and sat down beside him. "You're doing what JC here did all last year. Looks to me like you're falling in love with a beautiful woman, Curly."

He looked up the older man in shock and shook hi head. "No, its just infatuation. I really like her, but its not…"

"Whatever you say youngen." Chris stood up to go and get changed.

Justin looked around at his group mates who were all looking at him like he was an idiot. "I'm not!" He stood up and walked over to his rack and started changing. "I'm not!"

"Who you trying to convince, us or yourself?" Lance called from the other side of the room.

The only answer Justin gave was to throw a bunch of jerseys at Lance, which resulted in a huge clothing war until someone knocked on the door and called out ten minutes.

Chapter 8

"Yeah baby, come to poppa."

"Joey, we're here to shop for Christmas presents, not for women." Chris said, walking ahead of the quintet.

They hurried to join up with him. "Is someone in a snit?" Joey said smirking at him.

"No, someone just has four sisters to shop for and none of them ever like what I get them and for a change I'd like to fine SOMETHING that they like. I hate shopping for them." He muttered the last sentence before falling silent into his thoughts.

Joey relaxed his stance as they walked, his eyes following every attractive female. "Steve is easy to shop for. Thank god for that."

Justin watched him following the path that his eyes had taken. "Yeah, but I don't think he'd appreciate getting some girl that you found in a mall."

Joey smacked him upside the head. "Dude, those are for me. Like I'd share."

JC smirked at him. "The holidays are for sharing, man. Didn't you know that?"

Lance laughed out loud. "I wouldn't want him to share his leavings though, dude, I wouldn't want them in the first place. He has the worst taste."

Joey scowled at the four of his buddies. "What is this, pick on Joe day?" I don't think so."

JC stopped laughing. "Yeah, I need help shopping. I have no idea what to get anyone."

Justin eyed a jewelry store. "I know what you could get someone."

JC paled. "Um, no. I don't think that was on the agenda for this year." He quickly picked up the pace.

The rest of the group started laughing at his retreating back before swallowing their laughter and adjusting their hats and glasses as a group of young teenage girls walked by, eyeing them curiously.

They walked into a music store and heard their song "Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays" over the store speakers. Justin looked at Chris and started raising the roof to the song. Chris just shook his head and pointed to the racks of CDs, blatantly telling him to give it up and look for gifts. Justin shook his head and started sorting through the soundtracks. He came across the score for RENT and Alex popped into his head.

Justin pulled away from her when he heard the door thrown open. Alex looked at him in shock then at the guys and ran from the room.

"Well, that’s one way to wake them up, J." JC told him as he walked over to the rack holding his clothes for the show.

"It's my preference," Joe said wiggling his eyebrows at Justin. "So…"

"Aw, man, what have I done?" Justin covered his face with his hands, sitting on the floor.

Chris walked over and sat down beside him. "You're doing what JC here did all last year. Looks to me like you're falling in love with a beautiful woman, Curly."

He looked up the older man in shock and shook hi head. "No, its just infatuation. I really like her, but its not…"

"Whatever you say youngen." Chris stood up to go and get changed.

Justin looked around at his group mates who were all looking at him like he was an idiot. "I'm not!" He stood up and walked over to his rack and started changing. "I'm not!"

"Who you trying to convince, us or yourself?" Lance called from the other side of the room.

I can't believe she's still not talking to me. It was just a kiss. To tell the truth, Justin hadn't talked to her in a week since he had kissed her. She avoided him like the plague but, then again, she avoided everyone. The one time he had seen her, she had dark circles under her eyes and looked like she had just got done crying. He knew she wasn't doing very well, but she wouldn't talk to him or anyone else and there wasn't anything anyone could do about it.

He had overheard Rick getting on her case about something but he had missed most of the conversation and couldn't discern the problem. Rick had an ego problem, knowing he was the best in the business, and having his ego bruised by someone new, had hurt him big time, and he was taking his attitude problem out on Alex. Justin was afraid that she was going to blow at anytime cause she was taking everything in internally and wasn't talking to anyone.

The crew had begun to refer to her as the mystery member due to the fact that she didn't show until right before the Sailing number to work the ropes and then the minute the guys landed after the show, she disappeared again. Justin had gone to her bus once to talk to her about arrangements for Christmas but was told she was asleep and couldn't talk. He had thought about calling her cell or paging her but didn't think she'd respond. One of the guys on her bus said he had heard her talking to her mom one night, but that had ended in tears and then silence from her bunk.

They were all getting really worried about her but no one knew what to do. I guess the only thing we can do is wait for her to break and then help pick up the pieces.

JC glanced over at Justin and saw him staring into space while holding a CD. He shook his head and went back to sorting through the pop/rock albums. He grabbed a few to get for his sister and then headed for the check out counter, passing Justin and bopping him on the head.

Justin snapped out of his trance and noticed the guys were ready to go. He placed the CD back into the slot and followed them out the door.

They had been wandering the mall for hours and were due back at the venue in less than two hours. They were standing in the food court watching Chris lose it. "What do I get them? I don't have a clue. I bought my mom the dish set she wanted, my dad wanted tools, and my sisters told me squat! How am I to shop for them?"

Joey glanced around the food court, tuning Chris out. He wasn't sure who he was looking for but he knew when he saw her, he'd know. "Bingo," he thought. He smiled to himself and walked off in the middle of Chris' tirade to go and talk to the red head sitting at a table by the chinese take out all by herself.

Justin watched him and shook his head, smiling to himself. What a hornball.

JC was also having a similar dilemma as Chris. What do I get her? She has everything she could possibly want, there's nothing special enough for her. BUT, there's got to be something.

Lance spaced out, mentally counting what else he had to buy. Will they ever shut up so that we can keep shopping. Mom wanted something in crystal, I bought that CD for sis, Dad…"

Chris glanced around what was left of the group. "Are y'all listening to me?"

Three heads bobbed in unison and gave him their full attention.

"Good, now where was I?"

Justin grimaced and grabbed his arm in the direction Joey had taken to go and save the poor girl. "We were continuing our shopping spree before the concert."

They made their way over to Joe and JC grabbed him by the ear, smiled politely at the young woman and pulled him after the group. "Hey… I hadn't gotten her number yet."

"And you weren't going to." Lance added with a small smile.

"And why do you say that?" Joe asked after he was finally walking on his own.

"Because she was packing up and looked like she wanted to slap the crap out of you." He said, finally giving into the laughter he had been holding in.

"She just needed some persuasion to leave her boyfriend." He said confidantly.

The group gave in to the laughter that they had all be holding onto and headed into the toy store. Justin found a basketball and teddy bear for his younger brothers and then stopped at a display window at the jewelry store next door.

He glanced past all the rings and was looking at the necklaces and found one that his mom would like. What he hadn't been expecting was the pendant in the corner that had captured his gaze. Alex would love that!

He hurried into the store before any of the guys could stop him to buy the two necklaces. JC reluctantly followed him in and got sidetracked by the rings. Maybe I should…

Justin paid for the gifts and turned around to find his best friend glued to the engagement ring section. He walked over and clapped an arm around his friend. "I personally think that one's perfect for her but I thought you weren't ready for this."

JC looked up at him. "Maybe I am…"

Justin sucked in a breath and took a step back. That wasn't what he had been expecting, he'd expected his commitment shy friend to pale and run out of the store like he had done for the past three months.

JC glanced back to the display case. "It doesn't have to be now, it could just be a promise ring and then when we're both ready and settled into everything then maybe…"

Justin glanced outside the store and noticed the rest of the guys playing with a basketball at the sport store across the way. He looked back to his friend. "I think she'd love that one and if you told her what you just told me about it just being a promise ring, then she wouldn't run either."

JC's smile lit up his entire face. "She is worse than me, isn't she."

Justin laughed drawing the attention of the customer service representaives in the store as well as the other shoppers. "That's the understatement of the year. Girlie girl is the most gun shy out of any of us."

JC motioned to one of the reps and pointed to the small princess cut diamond in the case.

He looked at Justin still smiling. "I love shocking her."

Justin smiled back, then shook his head, laughing slightly. "This is going to be one interesting Christmas."

JC slung an arm around his shoulders as they walked out of the store with their purchases. "You can say that again."

***********************************************************************

Alex watched the van pull into the venue with the guys. They were all laughing and pushing each other around. She watched Justin say something and point to JC and then they all jumped him and when they were done, Joey was spinning him around. He finally set him down and JC weaved slightly, but they all started clapping him on the shoulder and shaking his hand, which gave him enough time to get his balance back.

She shook her head at the games they were playing outside and turned her attention back to her bunk. She had finally put her playbills up on the walls and the few pictures she had of Jason, Mandy and herself were up as well. She stared at the pictures and started crying again.

She knew the crew had come with nicknames for her, baby and mystery member, were just a few of them. She didn't know how to control herself anymore. She couldn't get a grasp of the situation and it was confusing her. She thought she had finally figure out where she stood with everyone but then Justin had to go and kiss her and confuse her even more. Why did he do that?

She surely hadn't resisted but then she hadn't responded either. Well, I didn't know how for one either.

She picked up her phone and dialed a number she knew by heart.

"Hello?"

"Mandy? This is Alex."

"ALEX! I haven't heard from you since you left!"

"I know, I'm sorry. I've been busy."

"How's Jason?" Alex winced.

"He's well, I guess."

"You guess? You two are inseperable."

"Yeah, well. He had to go back to Seattle for a family emergency and now he's there for good."

Mandy got quiet. "I'm sorry, Alex. How are you holding up?"

Alex didn't answer for a bit. "Not well."

Mandy and Alex had talked at length about he separation anxiety.

"Honey, he didn't leave you on purpose, I'm sure."

"I know that. I just don't feel like I have anyone."

"Is everyone treating you all right? Do I have to come out there and beat some heads in?"

Alex laughed. Boy had she missed Mandy! "No, dear, everyone has been great."

"Do you know anyone's names yet though?" Mandy asked with a smirk.

"Um, well, there's the guys and then there's Rick and…"

"The guys? Rick?"

Alex explained about meeting Mandy's true loves and then the whole Rick episode.

"So you were ready to just about jump this guy before he turned into a total ass and couldn't take it that you knew more than him."

"Yeah, basically."

Mandy was quiet for a little bit before she spoke what she was thinking. "Alex, the guy is obviously an idiot and you shouldn't even think about it anymore. However…"

Alex could picture the smile that was probably making Mandy's entire face glow at that moment. "However?"

"Concentrate on NSYNC, forget Rick or whatever his name is, of course."

Alex laughed. That was what she had been expecting. "Uh okay."

"So what do you think of them?"

"They're all really nice and seem to be extremely easy going. Pretty much exactly how you described them."

"And Justin? Does any of them have girlfriends?"

"According to the recent poll taken, No they do not have significant others. However, I'm not really inclined to believe them, as they always look like little kids caught with their hands in a cookie jar when I ask. So maybe…" Alex shrugged even though she knew Mandy couldn't see her.

"But, Justin… you didn't really answer that one."

Alex was silent. Should I tell her? "He kissed me a week ago."

"WHAT?" Alex had to take the phone away from her ear.

"He kissed me, but then the guys all walked in and I left the room in a hurry."

"OH…My…GOD…"

"Mandy, don't tell anyone or anything, please…"

"I won't. So tell me everything."

Alex explained about breaking down on stage and then the whole scene in the dressing room.

"So, how do you feel about him?"

Alex placed her head in her hands, still holding the phone to her ear. "I don't know. I wasn't trying to get close to anyone cause of my fear of losing people. I mean, I know they won't be around forever so why get close. He's extremely attractive, his eyes… Your posters don't do any of them justice."

"But…" Mandy leaned back onto her bed with a smile on her face.

"But, somehow he got under my skin. Every day, I look forward to seeing him. I haven't talked to any of them in a long time, I haven't really talked to anyone. I watch them though. I watch their concert from backstage and always hope for a glimpse of him here and there."

Mandy let out a whoop of joy. "You've got it bad."

"What?"

"You like him."

"I do not. He's just a nice person and…"

"And you practically stalk the guy when he's not looking. You like him."

"Well, maybe I do."

"No, maybe… I want to hear you admit it."

"I like him okay."

Mandy laughed. "Louder."

"No."

"Yes."

"Fine. I LIKE HIM!"

"Pleasure doing business with you, Alex."

"Mandy, you're a hoot and a half. When are you coming to visit? I miss you."

"I'll be out for New Years if you want. Classes don't start until a week after that."

"Sounds good. I need someone."

Mandy sighed. "Hon, if you'd let yourself go, you'd have tons of people who would be there for you. All you have to do is let them in."

"I…"

"I understand about your parents and your trust problem, but dear, you've got to get over it. If you don’t… Justin may not be around to give you anymore kisses if you blow him off."

Alex looked at the blanket on her bunk and started pulling off imaginary lint. "I hear ya."

Mandy laughed. "Alright, then, you're first task to healing is when we hang up to go and Introduce yourself to the other crew members on your bus."

"I have."

Mandy was silent waiting for what she knew was going to come.

"Well, at least I thought I had." Alex thought about it then started laughing. The first genuine laugh she had let out in almost two weeks. "I guess I haven't. I promise."

"Good, now let me tell you about my great decorating job I've done to our room."

Alex sat back and listened to Mandy talk and told herself to do this more often. She truly missed Mandy and her friendship. Less than a month till I see her…

Chapter 9

"Guys? I know its you. Can you PLEASE tell me where we're going?"

"Shhhh. The prisoner isn't allowed to talk." Alex heard a voice say from the right of her.

"Joey? I know its you. What do you guys think you're doing?"

"No talking." Someone lightly tapped the hood she had over her head.

She still wasn't sure how she had come to be blindfolded and tied up in the back seat of a car but what she could remember is five bumbling idiots trying to make their way quietly to the bunks in her bus this morning. When she had woken up to look out through the curtain though, someone had clamped a hand over her eyes and another had grabbed her feet and proceeded to tie her up while the other person placed a hood on her head, while tying her hands behind her back.

She remembered people laughing as she was carried out, but so far no one had answered her questions but she wasn't stupid and she knew who her "kidnappers" were.

Well, if they weren't going to answer her, she wasn't going down without a fight. She was sitting up in what she assumed was the back seat of a car and when she felt the car begin to turn she slammed all of her weight into the person beside her.

"Ooomph." She heard someone say. She kept slamming into the two guys sitting beside her on every turn until they figured out that she was doing it on purpose and grabbed her arms to hold her still.

She pouted under the hood. "Fine, take away my fun."

She heard a stifled laugh from up front and smiled. The car finally came to a halt and she heard a door slide open as well as two doors. Not a car, a van.

She was lifted out and thrown over someone's shoulder and they carried her a ways, then the person gently set her down.

"Are you guys going to tell me what this about yet?"

No one answered her but she heard doors slam and then the engine turn on as the van left.

She was stunned. They left me?! They really left me. They dumped me somewhere to get rid of me. All they had to do was tell me, they didn't have to do this. She felt tears begin to burn behind her eyelids and she sniffed quietly, trying to stop the flood of tears.

Maybe its just a big joke. They like to joke around. They wouldn't do this to me, would they? I can't believe Justin would do this after the couple of conversations that we've had. He knows how much I fear people leaving me. Although, I don't really know them all that well, I just can't see any of them really doing this. What is going on? The tears began to flow down her face and now her sniffling was clearly audible.

She jumped a foot into the air when she felt a presence next to her begin to move. They reached over to untie the knots holding her hands and when they had finished untying her feet, she clenched her hand into a fist and lashed out at the person in front of her. How dare they tie her up and then pretend to leave her? What kind of cruel joke was this?

She tore off the hood, only to see Justin laying on his back, holding his nose to stop the stream of blood that was coming out of it. She glared at his prone form and jumped to her feet.

"What is going on?"

He groaned and rolled over, spitting blood out onto the grass. "Jeez, girl, next time warn me that you've got a right hook that can kill. Now I know what JC felt like."

She didn't say a word, just stood there clenching and unclenching her fists, waiting for him to respond to her question. Her first inclination was to run and help him, but she stood firm, he had done this to himself.

He looked up at her, holding his nose. The sun was shining behind her, making her hair glow. Her green eyes were shining bright with suppressed anger at him but there was still that hint of fear from thinking she had been left behind. "Alex, you've got to get over this fear."

"FEAR?!" She took a step toward him not even thinking about being afraid anymore, as her anger took over.

He leaned his head back until the blood stopped then looked up at her again. "Yeah, fear. I told you we don't let family down and you ARE considered family no matter how much you protest. We weren't going to leave you out here alone."

"Then what the hell is going on?" If looks could kill, he would be obliterated on the grass, he realized.

"I wanted to spend an afternoon with you." He smiled up at her, his blue eyes twinkling impishly.

She sank down into the grass. "An afternoon?"

"Yeah, we've got the day off before the show and I wanted to spend it with you, getting to know you better. I was thinking about you last night and realized that I don't really know all that much about you."

She looked down, ashamed that she had doubted them, and began to pick at the grass.

He scooted closer to her and stopped her hand. "Don't feel guilty. We're the ones that screwed up. It was a joke that we've pulled a couple of times on other people, but it was usually after the person knew us pretty well. We didn't think. We should've, but we didn't. Sorry."

She looked right into his eyes. "No, I should've known. I'm the one who's sorry. I've got to start trusting someone sometime and you've never given me a reason not to… so…"

Justin shook his head in disbelief and started laughing. Alex looked at him like he was losing his mind and when he saw her expression, it only made him laugh harder.

Alex just sat back and waited for him to finish. He finally picked himself up and wiped his eyes. "Sorry."

She raised an eyebrow at him. "What on earth was so funny?"

"Our conversation." He said, trying not to laugh again.

She went over the conversation in her head, trying to figure out what was so funny about it. She replayed what they had just been talking about, when it clicked. Her lips started to twitch and then when she looked at Justin and saw that he was doing the same thing, she lost it. They both cracked up at sight of the other but finally managed to get control of themselves.

"We're just a mutual guilt club, aren't we."

"Guess so."

Alex took a deep breath and decided then and there that no matter what happened, she was going to learn to trust this young man. "So, what's the plan for the day?"

Justin glanced quickly at her, stunned that she was willing to go along this fast. He had figured that he would've had to convince her to stay because of her shyness.

"A picnic. The guys had catering pack a lunch for us, it's actually behind the tree and then whatever we want to do. No plans, although I'd really like to hike down to the lake past the trees over there."

She looked toward where he was pointing and noticed a lake that sparkled in the noon day sun. "Sounds good. I'm starving, by the way." She curved her mouth in what he thought was a smile but couldn't be sure.

"Me too." He jumped up and grabbed the basket. He pulled out a blanket and set it down and then reached into basket. "Let's see what we've got here."

He pulled out a couple of tupperware dishes and put them up to his face to see what they were. He made a face and said, "Looks like leftovers from dinner last night. Guess we'll survive." He winked at her and that one spontaneous gesture made her laugh.

His eyes widened at the site of her laughing at something that was second nature for him to do to people. He smiled to himself and vowed to make her do that more often, laugh that is.

He pulled out two plates, forks, and Pepsi bottles and started to dish up their plates with rice, vegetables, and chicken breasts. He looked over at her and noticed that she had made herself comfortable by leaning her back against the tree, with her eyes closed. He shook his head and went back to dishing up his plate.

"Here you go." Her eyes popped open and she noticed a plate in front of her.

"Thanks." She hadn't realized that her eyes had been closed that long while she was enjoying the sun, granted it was cold since it was December but there was nothing like a crisp, sunny, winter day.

They ate in silence and when they were finished, they packed their stuff back into the basket. Justin glanced at his watch and figured they had about two hours before the guys came back for them.

He stood up and offered his hand to pull her up. She looked at it like it was a snake but then shrugged and placed her hand in his. Justin smiled inwardly, that was a huge step for her. I'm wearing her down.

The two walked down to the lake and sat down on the embankment. "So what is Alexandra Larson really like?" He asked to fill the silence as he leaned back against a rock, watching her.

"There's not really all that much to say."

"Fine." He glanced over at her with a sly smile. "We'll do it your way. 20 questions."

She wrinkled her forehead in dislike but didn't protest, no matter how much she wanted to.

"We'll start easy. What's your favorite color?"

"Purple."

"Purple? Purple is such… is such a pansy color. Now, Baby blue is where it's at."

She looked over at him like he was crazy. "It's my color. Don't knock it."

He shrugged and continued on. "Favorite food?"

Her face lit up. "Chinese."

"Well, you'll get along great with JC. That's about all he eats."

"Oh." She got silent again.

He ducked his head so that he was looking into her eyes. "They're not that bad, you know."

"I know." She took a deep breath to try and explain.

"You got along fine with them on Thanksgiving."

That statement broke her line of thought. Her eyes widened and she smacked him on his arm. "Will you let me finish?"

He laughed and motioned for her to continue, trying to steer his face back into a serious expression but she amused him endlessly and it was hard.

"It's hard for me to explain. I've only been able to do it once before with my roomate, Mandy, and that was only because she made me stay up all night until it came out right and made sense. So I'll try."

He smiled to encourage her.

"I grew up with my aunt and uncle, my mom's sister, in California. My parents were always gallivanting around Hollywood, New York, wherever there was a party or a new show that needed them. I always felt like a burden to my parents because I let them from doing what they wanted but then again I was a burden to may aunt and uncle too, cause they were already feeding my cousins, Brandon, Sarah, and Michelle and then me. They hated me. Don't shake your head at me either. My cousins lived like spoiled brats while I always had to do the housework to pay my keep. I think they resented me for some odd reason but I do know that they had never wanted me. My aunt reminded me of that fact every day that I lived there."

"So you began to think of yourself as a nuisance and unloved."

She nodded. "Every summer my parents sent for me and wherever they were, I got to travel with them but I never saw them. They were always busy with something so I got raised by the crew members. They taught me everything that I know and then some."

"Well that should've shown how loved you were. They wouldn't have taken time out to do that unless you were something pretty special."

She shook her head. "No, I was just the boss' daughter, someone they had to entertain."

Justin nodded but inside he didn't believe her.

"Finally, when I turned 17 and graduated from high school, I moved out of my aunt and uncle's." She stopped unable to really keep going.

"Well, you're 18 now, so what happened this past year? Did you go to live with your parents?"

She shook her head no. "I packed up all my stuff into one little suitcase and went to New York to try and make it on my own. No one would let me work, unless I used my dad's last name and then of course I was given preferential treatment."

Alex picked up a rock and skipped it across the lake's surface. All the trees were bare, with a few leaves here and there. Despite the death of most of the green plant-life around the lake, the moss and grass kept up the appearance that there was still life around it.

Justin waited until she was ready to speak again. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. No one had wanted this gorgeous girl. It was no wonder that she was afraid to trust anyone and allow them to get close. She had depended on herself and in the meantime had built up a wall of protection so thick, it actually amazed him that he had been able to crack it enough to get her to talk to him.

"I lived in a run down apartment for a couple of months, working and contemplating college. I didn't have the money for it, but I applied anyway and actually got into the University of Florida on a drama scholarship and so, here I am."

He didn't say anything at first. He knew she was leaving a lot out of the story about her New York trip but he wasn’t going to push her. This was a start. She surprised him though, by continuing.

"I should explain something else. You've probably noticed but if you haven't then I want you to know."

He raised his eyebrows at her in question and that gave her the encouragement she needed. "I built up a wall around myself. I was comfortable around people so long as they didn't get too close, and the minute they did or tried to, I shut down and became a different person. Jason and Mandy have been the only two people to successfully get past my barrier. Jason became my lifeline and that’s why I shut down so bad after he left. I didn't know how to get on without him. Mandy is my… how to describe her… when I get too serious, she's there with a joke to remind to enjoy life."

She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. "I'm trying to become one complete person, instead of a big jumble of emotions and nerves, but I'm not sure if I'll be able to."

He smiled at her to let her know that it'd be okay. He glanced down at his watch again and got to his feet. "We should get back, the guys will be here shortly."

She stood up and dusted off her pants. She let her gaze wander around the lake again and sighed at how peaceful it was. Her gaze sought Justin's subconsciously and when her eyes met his, her breath froze in her chest at the expression on his face. It was a look of complete understanding and sympathy, but there was a look of protection in his eyes too.

He walked over to and ever so gently enfolded her into a hug. "You have nothing to fear or worry about anymore. You have us and we'll take care of you." He whispered against her ear and then let go. He wanted with all his being to wipe away the look of desolation that she had on her face from reliving her past but he'd wait. He'd wait a lifetime for her. She was special and he didn't want to lose her, she just didn't realize yet that he'd be around for good.

He slung an arm around her shoulders and steered them back toward the road and where they'd ate lunch. He saw the van waiting there for them. JC was leaning against the van watching Chris and Joey wrestle in the grass. Lance was sitting in the driver's seat, his head out the window, cheering the two on.

He glanced at her and saw her solemn expression as they neared the van. "You're a smarty pants aren't you?"

That got her attention. "What?"

"Graduating high school at 17. You graduated early."

He watched a blush begin to steal across her face. "Yeah, I wanted out of that house so bad that I knew that was the only way."

"I graduated early too. By the way, they won't bite. Remember what you said… you're going to relax and let things happen."

"I said that?"

"No, but we're going to work on that." He pulled her closer to his frame.

"Uh, all right." She looked at him curiously but didn't pull away which cause the smile on his face to grow even wider.

As Justin and Alex neared the foursome, JC waved and said something to the trio to get their attention and they all looked up as they reached the van.

"Did you two youngens have a nice day off?" Chris asked as he dusted himself off.

"Yeah old man. Did you?" Justin asked.

"No." Chris glared over at Joey who shrugged innocently at him.

"What happened?" Justin asked, trying not to laugh cause he could only imagine what had gone on.

"We drove to the mall to finish our shopping and I finally figured out what to get Emily. There was a fondue shop and I was going to get her a pot but dufus over there had to go and flirt with the owner of all people and got us kicked out. CHIRSTMAS IS IN LESS THAN A WEEK AND I HAVE NO GIFTS FOR MY SISTERS!"

Justin burst out laughing. "Dude, its going to be fine. If you want, I'll go and pick it up for you."

Chris turned a hopeful expression to his group mate. "Would you really?"

Justin shrugged. "Sure, why not. There's a couple of things that I still need to get."

Chris ran over to him, picked him up and swung him around. "I owe you big for this, youngen."

"No, you don't. All you need to do is put me down."

Chris dropped Justin and turned to Alex. "And how are you, dearest?"

She raised an eyebrow at him. "Dearest?"

He shrugged. "It’s the only thing I could come up with on short notice."

"Oh."

"Did you have a good time?"

"Yes, thank you for springing me."

Chris smiled. "My pleasure."

"Our pleasure you mean." Three voices broke into the conversation.

"What, you peons, thought you had a hand in planning this? I think not. You were just my brute squad."

"I'll show you brute squad." Joey jumped Chris, which started another wrestling match.

"Guys, we need to be back at the venue and if we're going to stop at the mall again, we need to get going." Lance called, while turning on the ignition.

Everyone jumped into the van and Alex followed, still overwhelmed by the display of affection that they showed each other. At thanksgiving, they had all been glued to the television or stuffing their faces for her to realize what they were really like. It was like being run over by a steamroller when everyone was together. She just shook her head and clicked her seat belt on.

They arrived back at the venue and hurried backstage. Alex ran one way and the guys ran another, the minute their feet hit the pavement.

The guys ran into their dressing room and clothes started flying as well as the conversation.

"So, how did it go?" JC asked while trying to fit an arm through a sleeve.

"Really well. Thanks for the suggestion of the lake. I had totally forgotten you had taken Girlie there on your guys' first actual date after the whole ordeal."

JC looked over at him. "Yeah, it’s a good spot to talk and get to know a person."

Justin sat down to tie his shoes. "We had a really nice talk. I mean she's beautiful but she's so… she seems so capable and independent, but in reality she's so fragile."

"She looked scared of us, when you guys walked up to the van." Lance said.

"I think you guys make her nervous."

"Why?" Chris asked.

"I don't know. I didn't get the whole story but enough for me to understand her better. She's really been hurt."

JC nodded. After going through everything he had with Red, he could see a hurt soul from a mile away.

"Well, at the party at your mom's on Christmas Eve, she can get to know all of us and then she won't feel so overwhelmed by our presence."

"PARTY!" Joey cried from behind his rack of clothing

"Not for a week, Joe." Chris said patiently, like he was talking to a two-year old.

Joey looked around the rack, over at him and pointed a finger at him. "You just wait. Your time is coming."

"I'm shaking in my boots."

Joey laughed. "I bet you are, shorty."

"HEY!"

Lance ignored the two. "What time does your mom want us there?"

"Probably around 8. I haven't talked to her for a few days, but I know she's planning something big."

JC jumped and down, trying to get limbered up before they headed out. "She's always full of surprises. I can't wait to see what she's got up her sleeves this time."

Justin grinned over at the older man. "I've got an idea but I've been sworn to secrecy."

"It's still a dress up party right?" Joe said, clapping a hand on Justin's shoulder.

"Oh yeah."

"You warn Alex about it yet? Chris mumbled while trying to fit his head through the sleeve of the shirt he was putting on.

Lance walked over to help and finally got Chris' head through the right hole, all the while muttering something about dressing a child in the dark.

Justin shook his head. "I think she's nervous enough about everything as it is. I didn't want to send her packing before she even arrived. Once we get to my mom's, mom will prepare her and everything will be fine."

"You hope."

Justin thought about it then smiled slyly. "Always."

"Show time." They heard a voice call through the door.

"Well, guys. I personally can't wait for Christmas Eve and to party it all up with you guys and our families. By the way, your mom invited a bunch of babes right?"

Justin slapped Joey upside the head as they walked out the door. "It's the same bunch as always, Joe. Sorry to disappoint ya."

"Darn. I guess I'll just have to bag my own babe before that evening's festivities."

"Or not." Chris said.

"What you don't think I can do it?"

"I KNOW you can't."

"Can you two please stop bickering long enough for us to go and perform?"

"No daddy, we can't." Chris and Joey said in unison to JC's request.

They all burst into laughter except for one who just shook his head at his best friends as they ran onto stage.

Chapter 10

"Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle All the Way…" Joey sang as he ran around the bus grabbing clothes and assorted items.

They had a week off for Christmas and they were all running around trying to get all their stuff packed for their flight home. After their week off, they were flying out to Hawaii for their New Year's concerts and for the Millenium.

"Has anyone seen my UNC sweatshirt?" Justin called out from his bunk.

"You sure it's not in there somewhere?" JC asked watching Justin dangle from his top bunk.

"Would I ask if I could find it in here?"

"No, guess not." JC said, smiling as he bent down to pick the aforementioned sweatshirt up off the floor, right beneath where Justin's feet were dangling.

Justin jumped down. "I can't believe I can't find it. It was here yesterday."

JC just held the sweatshirt out to the younger man and walked away laughing to finish his own packing.

Justin stared down at the sweatshirt in a stupefied trance but snapped out of it when Chris smacked him upside the head singing Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer, as he walked by.

The group had really gotten into the spirit of Christmas the past two days by buying little gifts for the crew and caroling the buses every night, much to the amusement of everyone. This was their favorite holiday and they were finally going home after being on the road for almost a month.

JC sat down and dug his cell phone out of his cargo pants. "Come on, pick up."Hu muttered anxiously. The number just continued to ring and rung until the answering machine picked up.

"Hey, Red. It's me again. Just checking to see how you were. I haven't heard from you in almost a month and if you don't call me back soon, I'm going to hop the next flight out there and make sure you're still alive. I don't like not being able to talk to you for long periods of time. Where are you?"

He hung up the phone and almost threw it across the room before a hand stopped his arm. "That's some expensive merchandise you're holding there. Plus, if you break it, she won't be able to call you back on it."

Lance let go of his arm and sat down across the table from him. "Still no word?"

JC shook his head. "NO, I'm really getting worried. Usually she at least calls and leaves me a message to let me know that she's fine cause she knows how much I worry about her and that damn job of hers."

"She's tough."

JC smiled. "I know and I'm proud of what she's accomplished. I just can't live without her or at least without hearing her voice."

"We all miss her. Will she be home for Christmas?"

JC shook his head. "The last time I talked to her, she said no, cause she was knee deep, trying to gather evidence on this guy and its not like she can come home whenever she wants to while she's undercover."

"Well, when you talk to her, let her know she's in our thoughts."

"Will do, man."

They looked up as they heard running feet coming from the back. Joey came running through with mistletoe and a mischievous glint in his eye and straight out the door of the bus. Two seconds later, Justin was hot on his heels his face red with anger. "Where'd he go?"

The two pointed at the door and watched Justin run out there, yelling, "When I get my hands on you, Fatone, you're going to wish thinking I was a girl was a figment of both of our minds."

Chris poked his head out from the back, reindeer antlers adorning his head, smiled and then went back to packing.

JC looked at Lance and said, "I am so glad we get time away from them every now and then."

"Me too."

Chris sat down beside the two and slung his arm around JC's shoulders. "Aw, you love us."

He rolled his eyes. "Of course, Chris, what would I do without all of you." He eyed the antlers, reached up, grabbed them and stuck them on his head.

Chris' eyes widened. "What, the great Chasez, is actually demeaning himself to wear Target merchandise?"

"All in the name of the holidays. Plus, they look better on me." Chris grabbed a pillow off the couch and belted him one.

************************************************************************

Alex stood looking at her bunk, trying to figure out what to take to Justin's house. "It's only a week but..."

She heard yelling and screaming outside and pulled back the curtain to see Justin and Joey, running around. Actually, now that she thought about it, Justin was chasing Joey.

She walked toward the front of the bus and got off to watch the show. She always got a kick out of the guy' antics and she was expecting a show with this one due to redness of Justin's face. She couldn't hear what was being said but Joey kept waving something in Justin's face, then taking off.

She saw Justin look around with a disgusted look on his face, then yell out, "Where'd you go, Fatone? Come out and take it like a man!"

She was so intent on watching Justin, that she didn't hear the footsteps behind her.

Two arms wrapped around her from behind and she squeaked, drawing Justin's attention.

"There you are. And you even had the nerve to take an innocent hostage." He said as he walked toward them, his gaze fastened on Joey.

"But, a beautiful one that I know you won't want to hurt." She couldn't see Joey but she saw Justin's mouth tighten.

"Umm, what is going on here?" She asked.

Justin pointed at Joey. "Someone had bought some mistletoe on our last trip to the mall for the ladies he said, well while I was finishing grabbing some stuff from the bathroom, Romeo here grabbed me from behind and kissed my cheek. All in the name of the holidays, he said. I don't think so!"

She laughed. "Justin, it couldn't have been that bad. It could have been much worse, he could've kissed you on the mouth." She felt Joey laughing behind her and nodding his head.

"Listen to the lady, J. The thought did cross my mind."

"Ugh! I give up." He threw his hands in the air and went to walk off but Joey's next sentence stopped him.

"Speaking of the holidays," he held up the sprig of mistletoe, "One for Christmas?"

Justin turned around quickly to see Alex's gaze dart around the parking lot and then shrug helplessly. "Sure, it won't kill me."

He froze, watching Joey's head drop in slow motion while still holding up the sprig above her head to gently kiss Alex's mouth ever so slightly. His mouth went dry and the first thought that went through his mind was that Joey really was going to die this time.

The entire episode lasted only about two seconds but for Justin it was an eternity. Joey whooped, grabbed Alex around the waist and then ran off to find his next victim.

She shook her head slightly and made a move to board the bus, when she noticed Justin still standing there, his mouth hanging open. "What?"

He shook his head. "Nothing. You all packed yet?"

"No, I can not figure out what to take with me."

He bounded over. "I'll help. I'm almost done and we can't have you confused about what to bring."

"So what's the problem?" He asked, following her to the back and then he saw the mess.

"Oh." Clothes were strewn all over the floor, the bunks, the tables, everywhere.

"I don't know if I need dressy stuff, casual stuff, shorts, pants, sweaters, shirts, shoes…"

He put a hand over mouth to shut her up. "You're nervous, aren't you?" His eyes twinkled into hers.

Her whole body relaxed. "Yes, how did you know?"

He tapped his head. "I know these things."

He walked over to the dress pile, looked back at her, and then at the pile. He flipped through a couple and then held up a dark green dress and a dark red one and tossed them to her. "Those will do for the dressy stuff and if not, we'll go shopping."

"Alright." She set them aside to pack last. "Anything else, fashion expert Timberlake."

"Do my ears decieve me? Was that a sarcastic tone coming from Miss Larson?"

"Never." She walked to another pile and grabbed some overalls and pants and threw them into her bag.

"Its going to be fine, Alex. Mom loves you and my family isn't anything to be initimidated by, you've met all the people who will be there so what's the problem?"

She sat down on her bunk. "I honestly don't know."

Justin sat down across from her and watched her intently. "Yes, you do."

"Fine, I feel like I'm a girlfriend going home to meet the parents. When I first met your family, it was nothing, I was basically a bum off the street that you were feeding, but now…"

"Now, you're family."

She looked up at him. "Yeah, I guess so."

"Don't worry about it." He stood up and pulled her up with him. "This is going to be great. You're going to have a great time. We always have a huge celebration and the guys will be there for Christmas Eve and…"

He stopped talking after he realized that her eyes had grown wide at his mention of the guys. "What now, Alex…"

"About the guys…"

"Yes?" He said impatiently. He still couldn't understand her deal with them because they had gotten along so well in the beginning and now she wanted nothing to do with them unless it was for only short periods of time.

"I… I just feel awkward after my whole falling apart episode."

"They don't care. They like you and want to get to know you as well as I have." He leaned his head down so that his face was level with hers. "See this girl is pretty special and they can't stand it when I get special people all to myself."

She pushed him away. "Whatever, Justin." Secretly, though, that comment made her feel all warm inside and actually special.

He smiled down at her, then reached out and pulled her into a hug, but immediately let go. "OK, just grab a couple of things here and there and finish up. We leave for the airport in an hour and we can't be late. I've got a few things to finish up and then we're going home."

She smiled up at him, her heart beating in anticipation of what she didn't know. "Thanks for the help."

"Your welcome." He gave her one more smile before waving and practically running off the bus.

She sat down heavily on a pile of clothes, trying to catch her breath. What was happening to her? Every time she saw him, her breath got caught in her throat and her heart started beating faster than normal. This had never happened to her before and she didn't know what was going on. I'm probably just getting sick!

She stood back up feeling better that she had determined she was just coming down with a cold instead of just losing her mind.

************************************************************************

On the van ride over to the airport, Alex thought she was going to kill Chris and Joey. They were bouncing the entire way while singing Christmas Carols. You'd think that they were 10 not the 22 and 28 year olds that everyone knew them to be.

They finally reached the airport and everyone poured out the van to grab their things and hustle to their flight. The guys were sporting their everyday out fit of glasses and hats but that didn't stop fans from stopping them and asking for autographs, but Mike and Lonny put a quick stop to those by ushering them on.

Alex just walked quietly beside them, forgotten in the shuffle of everything but that didn't bother her. She was too busy watching the fans to notice that no one was paying attention to her. She'd never dealt with them first hand; she'd always been backstage away from the action and screams.

They finally got all checked in and were waiting to board their flight when one of their cell phones rang. Everyone reached for their phones but by the time everyone had checked theirs, JC was already on the phone. "Hello?"

"Oh, Hi Mom."

"Yeah, we're almost ready to board."

"A couple of hours."

Alex watched him all slumped down in his chair as he told his mother where to meet him and at what time. He looked really disappointed when he answered the phone, but now just looked exhausted.

She shrugged it off and then jumped when the sound of another phone went off next to her. Justin grabbed his phone and answered it.

"Hi, sweetheart."

Alex's head swiveled to stare at him with her eyes wide before she could catch herself.

Justin didn't notice Alex's look of shock and continued to listen to the person on the other end of the phone.

"Made into town, OK?"

"Good."

"No, he doesn't know a thing."

Alex watched him cock hi head and listen to the caller.

"I miss you too."

"Uh huh. We should arrive in a couple of hours and I'll try to stop by tonight."

"Ok. Don't forget Christmas Eve at my house…"

"Yes its dress up"

"No jeans."

"Fine, just look nice. I know you can, you know."

"OK, I'm going to get going."

"Uh huh, love you too."

He hung up the phone, smiled to himself and leaned back in his seat, only to notice Alex giving him a weird look.

"What?"

She shook her head. "Nothing."

"Its something, little one."

She cocked an eyebrow at him. "Little one?"

He shrugged. "Well you are little…"

"So…"

"Quit trying to change the subject. What was that look for?"

"Didn't know you were seeing someone." Her mouth twisted without her knowledge, showing her distaste.

Justin's heart leaped up into his throat. She's jealous!

"Well, we're close but its not official or anything." She is so going to kill me if she finds out about this.

Alex looked away. "Oh. Must be nice to have someone who you love."

Justin looked at her profile. "Yes it is." He said quietly.

She looked at him out the corner of her eye and saw the dreamy look in his eyes and turned away again. Snap out of it! What is wrong with you today? Where is this frustration and anger coming from?

"Flight to Orlando, now boarding."

************************************************************************

"Chris, sit down!"

"I can't sit still."

"Well, leave me alone."

"Daddy, would you sing me a song?"

"CHRIS!"

"Jeez, JC. Relax."

"Go, bug someone else."

"I don't want to."

"If you don't leave in two seconds, I will seriously make you sing higher than you ever have before."

"Someone sure woke up on the wrong side of the bed. Justin, my man…"

"Chris, don't even start with me."

Chris looked around the cabin of the flight, trying to find someone who would talk to him. Lance was asleep, being the smart one, Joey was up in first class hitting on a lady he had spotted when they had boarded and Justin and JC were working on some music for the new album and weren't being any fun. He looked across the aisle and noticed Alex engrossed in a book. "Bingo."

He stood up and sat down in Mike's seat that he had vacated to go to the bathroom.

"Hola."

She looked up at him in bewilderment, then glanced around only to fasten her glance back on him.

"You're talking to me? Why?"

"Cause no one else will talk to me."

"Oh."

"Whatcha reading?"

"Wuthering Heights. It's my favorite book out of all the classics."

"I myself preferred Pride and Prejudice."

"You've read Jane Austin?"

"I went to college, thank you."

"What class did you read that in?"

"Women's literature."

Alex and Chris were still about school and the different books that they’ve read, so when Mike got back, he sat in Chris' seat and went to sleep.

Justin and JC finally finished a section of a song and decided to take a break. Justin stretched only to find his arm didn't move very far. He looked over and saw Mike sitting next to him. He glanced across the aisle to find Alex and Chris laughing about something. His forehead wrinkled in bewilderment but he shook it off.

JC glanced across the aisle too. "Finally someone to occupy him."

"Do you think he's being a nuisance?"

"Nah, she can hold her own. She's been hanging around you long enough, she should be able to."

Justin stuck his tongue out at him but kept one eye on the two laughing about something across from him.

"We'll be landing in ten minutes. Please fasten your seatbelts and return to your seats."

Alex looked up in bewilderment at the speaker and couldn't believe that the hours had flown by. I wasn't even nervous.

Chris looked at her expression and laughed.

"What?"

"You had this bewildered expression on your face and it was funny."

"Oh. I just realized that I had talked to you for almost two hours and…"

He looked at her curiously. "And…"

She took a deep breath. "And I wasn't nervous."

"Why would you be nervous? We're harmless."

"I know. It's just… I tend to feel uncomfortable around people who have seen me break down."

"Oh. I understand. We just get used to people getting homesick and having break downs and such while on tour so we don't think about it but I guess a new person would."

Her entire face brightened up. "Really? You guys don't care at all?"

"No, in fact I had totally forgotten about it except that you've been weird for a couple of weeks. Was that the problem?"

The plane landed without them knowing it and people began to get off.

She nodded her head. "Uh huh. Oh Chris, thank you so much." She leaned over and hugged him.

"Ahem. I hate to break up this touching moment but we need to get off." Joey said leaning back against a chair watching the two.

Chris and Alex looked around to see everyone standing, watching them. Chris laughed and jumped up to grab hi carry-on. Alex struggled with her bag but an arm reached out to help her and she jerked back in surprise.

"Sorry, I was just going to get that for you." Lance said pulling away.

She handed the bag over with a huge grin. "Thanks."

The smile shocked him so much cause they had grown used to her always pulling away that he dropped the bag. She leaned down to help him and they ended up knocking heads. "OUCH!" They both cried and fell backwards, Alex into her seat and Lance into the aisle.

She sat up rubbing her head to see Lance with her bag, a smile on his face and a hand out to help her up. "Thanks."

They were the last two to get off, following the others. Lance leaned over and said, "It's nice to see you back to normal. Whatever, Chris said to you, I'll be sure to thank him later. We've missed you, Alex."

She looked over at him in shock but didn't get a chance to say anything because the group was enveloped by their parents as they stepped off the ramp from the plane.

She watched JC get hugged by his mother while his dad, brother and sister stood to the side, awaiting their turn. Lance, was also immediately enveloped by family members. She saw Joey standing off to the side talking animatedly to a guy who looked like an older version of him and Chris was talking to a bunch of girls who she assumed were his sisters.

Justin was looking around the terminal for his mother when he saw a woman with blonde hair come running. "Obviously late again," he smiled to himself and opened his arms out for his mother to run into.

Alex saw the touching reunion between mother and son and wished that someone were there to greet her as well. She looked over at Mike and Lonny, well where they had been but they had disappeared but she knew they'd be back, they never left their boys in a dangerous situation.

She walked over to the seats to wait until everyone was ready to go but someone grabbed her arm before she could sit down. "Alex, I want you to meet my parents." JC said excitedly.

"It's nice to meet you, Alex. We've heard a lot about you and were disappointed when Josh here said you'd be spending Christmas with Justin instead."

She sent a shocked look over to JC, who just smiled and shrugged. She talked a little with Karen and Roy but was then pulled around by the rest of the NSYNC members to meet their family members. Justin finally saved her from Chris' sisters, especially the youngest, Emily, who wanted to know all the dirt on the boys.

"Ready to go, little one?"

She looked up at him dazed. "Yeah."

He laughed and threw his arm around her. "See I told you family…"

She didn't say a word except nodded her head, still reeling from the shock of being accepted despite the way she had treated them all over the past few weeks.

This movement only caused him to laugh harder as they walked down to baggage claim with Lynn and Mike.

Chapter 11

"Hey, Alex? You okay. We're home." Justin asked, peering into the back seat of the car.

Alex slowly came out of her deer in headlights look to gaze at her person who was talking to her through the fog that she called her brain at that moment in time.

They had reached the parking lot, looking for the car, when Justin noticed that his mom had left his baby, the Mercedes, at home and immediately through a fit cause he wanted to drive. His mom threw the keys to her car at him and he jumped to catch them, smiled at Alex and practically hopped into the driver's seat.

Lynn looked at Alex and smiled an apologetic smile and held the door to the front passenger seat open for her. "I can't bear to watch him drive so I always try to sit in the back."

Alex just looked at puzzled and climbed in.

She now knew what she had been talking about. The boy cut people off at every opportunity, drove way too fast over the speed limit, and just overall drove the car like it a rocket heading to mars. She couldn't begin to count the number of times that she had seen her life flash before her eyes.

She shook her head to clear the fog and noticed that Justin was now peering into the car as he had opened the door for her.

"You okay?"

She nodded and climbed out. "Yeah, you're driving just has a lot to be desired."

He laughed. "That's what everyone says but I just don't see it. Nothing's happened to me yet, haven't even been pulled over once by a cop."

"That's because they can't catch you."

"That's what Girlie always says."

Alex raised an eyebrow at him but didn't ask who "girlie" was and she didn't think she really wanted to know who she was.

Justin ushered them in to the house and ran up the stairs, leaving Alex in the living room to take hi stuff to his room.

Lynn was standing in the kitchen and noticed Alex.

"You've got that pale "I've ridden with Justin" look to your face. Come in and talk to me while I cook dinner."

Alex sat down at the kitchen table and watched Lynn stir whatever as in the pot.

"Do you like soup, dear?"

"Yeah, it's easy to fix."

Lynn laughed. "Exactly. So do you cook then?"

"Some, but not well. Just enough to get me by if I needed to." Every night.

"I wish Justin would learn but all that boy does is tear my house into shreds when he gets home and then runs back out the door to either play basketball or to run to the studio."

"He's messy? I guess I hadn't really noticed since I was on another bus."

"Child, he's a tornado. I'll give him another two minutes for him to come running down the stairs and out the door and then go up and take a look at him room."

True to her word, a couple minutes went by and Justin came tearing down the stairs, carrying a basketball. "I'm off, Mom. I'll see you in an hour…" He skidded to a halt. "Oh, Alex… do you want to come?" In his rush to go and see Girlie, he had forgotten the blonde haired girl sitting in his kitchen.

"No, I think I'm going to stay here."

"Suit yourself." Out the door he went, grabbing his keys off the wall.

Lynn and Alex looked at each other and laughed, making Alex feel relaxed and the most comfortable since Jason had left.

"Do you want to go and get settled in the guest room? You're probably tired after the flight with those boys."

"Yeah, that would be great. I haven't slept well in a while and I need a nap."

"That's fine. It's up the stairs and the first door on the right."

Alex walked up the stairs and noticed the family pictures all along the wall. There were pictures of Justin from the age of two on up and Jonathon was plastered all over the wall too. There a couple portraits done with Paul and Lynn, but for the most part, it was just the boys.

As she reached the top of the steps, she realized the extent with which Lynn had been talking about with Justin. There was a trail of clothing from one room to the next and back again. She peered into one room and saw a room that looked like it hadn't been lived in except for the explosion of clothing and the next room was the bathroom, and you could see that he had already left his mark there too as his stuff was already on the counter. Must have been excited to go and see his girl.

With that thought, came a wave of sadness that Alex couldn't fathom the reason why and she headed back to the guest room to unpack and get some rest.

************************************************************************

"Alex, wake up."

She turned over, trying to block the voice that was coming through her consciousness.

She fell back into her dream where someone was dancing with her on a beach, making her feel like the most precious thing in the whole world.

"Alex."

She wrinkled her forehead in disagreement and snuggled farther down into the pillow, still in dreamland.

Justin watched her fall back to sleep and shook his head. "I didn't want to have to do this, Alex."

He left the room and came back with a glass of water. He tossed it into her face and waited for the explosion.

Her beach dance had turned into a Tsunami soaking the two of them and Alex sat up with a start. She ran a hand over her face and realized it was wet. She heard laughter from the other side of the bed and turned to glare at the offender.

"Why did you throw water on me?" She asked in a low voice.

Oh this was going to be fun. He had forgotten that she had a calm temper, instead of a loud one like JC.

"Cause you were moaning something fierce and plus Mom said dinner is ready." He said leaning back in the chair he was sitting in.

He sat back forward when he saw a blush creeping up her throat to cover her face.

She gulped. "Moaning?"

A smile started to creep across his face. "Uh huh. Soo… what were you dreaming about?"

"Nothing." She jumped off the bed and headed toward the bathroom.

"I don't think so, little one. You are not getting off that easily." Just as he finished that word, the door slammed in his face. "Or maybe you will… See you downstairs."

He walked down, laughing. "Timberlake, you are good."

***********************************************************************

After dinner, Alex stayed in the kitchen to help Lynn clean up, while Paul went upstairs to finish something for work, leaving Justin and Jonathon to entertain themselves by watching TV.

"Ok, little man, what do you want to watch?"

"I don't care, Justin. Just not teletubbies. They are always on."

"Fine by me." They flipped channels until a basketball game came on that grabbed both of their attentions.

When it was halftime, Justin checked to make sure Alex was still in the kitchen and grabbed the phone.

"HI! I'm home."

"Yeah, I'm sure he's home too."

"No, you can't call him. It wouldn't be a surprise then would it?"

"What?"

"No, you can't kill him."

"WHY? Cause we need him."

"NSYNC can not be NSYN"

"Well, ok, you've got me there, we could technically be in sin with Joey, buy that’s not the point."

"You'll see him tomorrow."

"I know, girlie."

"It's been a long time for all of us."

"How was the case?"

Justin sat back on the couch and listened to her talk about LA. But, the next thing she said made him sit straight up. "You did what?"

"No. No, I'm not keeping this to myself. You said you were going to kill HIM, after he finds out about this, you better be running, cause he'll have first crack at you."

"I still can't believe you tackled an armed man. Maybe I'll get first crack at you…"

"I know, I know. You can handle yourself. We just all still you…"

"Fine, we won't bring that back up."

"Change the subject… to what?"

"Oh all right. What are you going to wear tomorrow?"

"You don't know? I think you should wear that to for green dress that you own."

He laughed. "I've noticed. I'm a guy, we always notice."

Alex stood in the hallways, listening to the conversation. Parts of it, she didn't understand but she could definitely tell that Justin was very close to the girl and cared deeply for her. As she realized that he was taken, her heart wrenched hard and she slid down the wall, trying to stop the flow of tears and the pain in her chest.

She ran up the stairs to her room and shut the door quietly so that no one would hear her crying. She threw herself on the bed and buried her head in her pillow. She started crying for not being with her family for the holidays, for losing her best friend and for losing her first love without even getting a chance to…

She stopped to stare at the wall. "My first… love?"

Tears kept trickling down her face but she knew in her heart now that she had admitted it that it was true. She had fallen in love with Justin, the caring and thoughtful person that he was. She should have realized it when she looked forward to him butting into her life everyday and always peeking onto the stage so that she could see him perform.

She also should have known when the girl called and it had felt like someone had punched her in the gut, the same feeling she had gotten out in the hall.

Justin looked up when he heard someone running up the stairs but shook it off and went back to the conversation.

"Uh huh. He is going to be so surprised. You should have seen him this morning on the bus. He tried calling but couldn't get through and almost threw the phone at the wall."

"It's worth it. No, don't feel guilty and call, it'll ruin everything."

"Good, then his mom called at the airport and he was hoping it was you and… okay, I'll stop."

"There's someone I want you to meet too."

"Yes, it's a girl."

"Tall, blonde, green eyes, reminds of you in certain ways but a lot more vulnerable."

"No, she hasn't kicked the crap out of me. She did hit me though and I had a bruise across the bridge of my nose for days."

"Oh thanks, I need that every now and then huh. You just wait."

"Oh, please don't teach her how to hit properly."

"Maybe I'll call him just to get you off my back."

"Get that hopeful tone out of your voice."

"I'm not a brat, girlie girl. You are."

He listened for a little while longer to her talk. "I'm going to get going. We'll talk tomorrow night."

"Yes, there's a basketball game on."

"Shut up, I don't want to hear it."

"All right, will do."

"Love ya."

Jonathon turned to look at him. "Alex was sitting in the hallway, is she okay?"

Justin jumped off the couch, looked at his little brother then ran to the hallway, she was no where to be seen.

"She went upstairs."

"Thanks, little man."

He walked up the stairs and was going to knock but the light was out and he didn't want to wake her if she was asleep. I'll talk to her tomorrow. Coming home always makes me a little out of it and I didn't spend any time with her. Tomorrow, everything will change tomorrow.

***********************************************************************

Alex woke up the next day and tried to wipe the grit out of her swollen eyes. She rolled over and saw that the clock read 11:30. "Ugh. I never sleep this late."

She slunk out of bed and walked to the bathroom to shower and get cleaned up.

She threw on a pair of jeans and a red button up shirt and pulled her hair back. Might as well try to look festive for Christmas Eve if I can.

Lynn was baking in the kitchen when she came down and she noticed all of the decorations that were up around the house. "WOW. Someone's been busy."

"Justin and Paul woke up early to get the house decorated for tonight."

"Tonight?"

"Yeah, we always have a party on Christmas Eve for friends and family. Didn't Justin warn you?" She asked, turning around to look at the girl.

"No, he must've forgotten to mention that fact."

"He probably just didn't want you to be nervous about it. All the guys and their families will be here as well as other friends of the family. It's something we did for the guys after they got signed to celebrate but then it turned into an annual tradition. Everyone looks forward to it and it is a lot of fun."

"No wonder he picked out dresses for me."

"Yeah, we do tend to have it be a dressy occasion, but what's Christmas without it."

Alex smiled. "I wouldn't know."

She sat down at the table and watched Lynn pull some cookies out of the oven.

Lynn turned to look at her again. "That's right, your wonderful mother."

"She's been good to me."

"In a backhanded sort of way."

"I guess."

"Well, you're family now as I'm sure Justin has told you, so don't worry, we'll take care of you."

"Thanks, Lynn."

Alex's phone decided to ring at that moment. "Hello?"

"Hi, Mom."

Lynn turned away so that Alex wouldn't see her look of disgust.

"What? Okay."

"Let me ask. Lynn, Mom wants to know if she can have the phone number here in case she needs to get ahold of me."

Lynn nodded her agreement and Alex gave her mom the number. "Will I talk to you tomorrow?"

"Oh. That's fine. Afterwards then?"

"Ok. Love you, bye."

She hung up and set the phone on the table.

"She called to tell me that they wouldn't be able to call me tomorrow but that they'd call in a few days."

Lynn turned around and saw the tears that she was trying to hold back. She wrapped her arms around the girl and pulled her close and that comfort made Alex break down again, twice in less than 24 hours, she noted.

Justin came in from putting the lights up outside and saw the two women, one comforting and one crying and stopped with a questioning look on his face. His mother saw him and waved him by and he mouthed tell me later to her and went upstairs to change.

He came back down freshly showered and anxious to get out and do something but he didn't want to leave Alex this time. He wanted to show her Orlando before they had to get ready for the party and everyone arrived. Basically, he wanted to spend some time with her but he wasn't sure if she was up for it after the scene he had walked in on earlier.

He walked into the kitchen to find Jon running around with a set of antlers on his head and JC and Alex sitting at the kitchen table talking.

"What's up, JC?"

"Just came by to see your family and to check up on Miss Alex here, see if you were neglecting her."

"He's been great."

"Have you seen him much?"

"Well no, he's been catching up with… people."

JC sent him a curious look and Justin just shrugged.

"OH, well you want to go and check out Orlando, I'll give you a guided tour, m'lady." He asked, holding out his arm.

"I'd love to. Going to school around here, I didn't get much time to site see so I don't know all the good spots."

"Well, we'll remedy that. Later Curly."

"Bye Justin."

He watched them walk out the door and was at a complete loss at what had just happened. Now what was he going to do for the rest of the day?

**********************************************************************

JC brought Alex home in time for her to get ready and for him to run home and change.

She stared at the green and red dresses in her closet, trying to figure out which one to wear. The green one was knee length and had 3/4 sleeves and an off the shoulder neck line while the red one had a full skirt and came down to her knees but was fitted through the chest.

She grabbed the red one and put it on, figuring if she was going to meet Justin's girlfriend, she was going to look her best.

She let down her hair and stared at in the mirror. Her mouth twisted as she tried to figure out what to do with her mop. She picked up the curling iron and started to curl each section into long ringlets and sprayed them to make them stay.

Next came her make-up and she outlines her eyes in brown and added a touch of brown eye shadow and outlined her lips in red that matched her dress. She added the final touched by putting on the matching mary janes that she had bought to go with the dress.

She looked at the overall effect of the outfit and twirled around to make the dress billow. Well, it'll have to do.

She walked downstairs to find music Christmas music playing, the Christmas tree turned on and guests already arriving.

Chris was standing in the corner looking nice in a dark gray suit, talking to Joey, who's navy blue outfit somehow managed to compliment the atrocious red hair that he had acquired over the tour.

Other people who she kinda recognized from the airport were milling about but she kept looking for Justin but didn't see him.

Someone tapped her on the shoulder and she turned around to find Lance smiling at her.

He whistled softly and said, "Wow. You look nice, Alex."

Alex blushed and said, "Thanks."

"Quite the turn out, huh."

"Yeah, I don't think I've ever seen so many people gathered in such a small area."

"That's the Harless' for you, they know everyone and everyone loves them. They're great."

Alex remembered the hug from this morning. "Yes, they are."

"You see Justin yet?"

"Nope. I was just looking for him."

"Justin had to go and pick someone up." Chris said walking over and butting into the conversation with Joey following him.

"Oh." Alex said, looking down at her shoes.

Lance sent a puzzled look toward the other two, but they just shrugged. They didn't know who he had to pick up either.

JC and his family showed up at that time and he joined the group "Where's J?"

"He had to go and pick his date up." Chris said jokingly.

"Huh?"

"I don’t know. He said he had to go and get someone and took off."

"He's not seeing anyone though."

"We don't know where he is man, drop it."

"OK."

Alex sat listening to their conversation, wondering why Justin was keeping his girl a secret from the guys.

Lynn took that time to welcome everyone and to let people know that there were drinks in the kitchen and food everywhere and to help themselves to whatever they felt like.

While Lynn was talking, Justin snuck in the back with his guest and hung up her coat.

"Justin, I'm going to kill you. Next time, I drive."

"What? We got here in one piece."

She sent him a glare that should have had him dead on the floor at her feet.

He swung her up into a hug. "Boy, did I miss you."

"I missed you too. Now put me down, I've got someone to see."

"No, not yet. Everyone's looking this way cause Mom's talking, wait just a little longer." He poked his head out the door and saw everyone start milling around and JC turn his back to talk to Alex and the rest of his bandmates.

His breath got stuck in his throat however, at the site of Alex. The dress fit her like a glove and her long hair was cascading down her back in tight ringlets, that she had pulled back to frame her face. She was laughing about something and he wanted to go over to her and take her away from his friends so that he could be the one to make her laugh.

He felt someone hit him on his back and then push him out of the way. "I'm going to see him now, moron. It's been over two months since I last saw him and a month since I talked to him."

She looked closely at him then out to the girl who was talking to her boyfriend. "Ohhh, she's cute. You always did have good taste. Coming?"

"Yeah. Let me go first."

"Lead the way." She said cheekily.

The two walked over to the group who hadn't even noticed them coming, they were so engrossed in the story that Chris was telling.

They listened to the ending and the girl with Justin just shook her head.

"Chris, you never could tell a story worth a damn." She said smiling at the group.

Alex studied the girl standing there beside Justin. She was shorter than her, and had bright red hair and blue eyes that seemed to glow with laughter and confidence. She had a sprinkling of freckles on her nose and had on a navy blue dress that fell to her ankles, around her neck was a crystal necklace with pewter sunflowers intertwined.

Everyone was staring at the girl and JC was the first to speak up.

"Erin?"

"Hi, hon." She walked over to him and threw her arms around him and kissed his cheek.

Alex watched her step back and scan the group, her gaze touching each member, when she looked at Alex, she winked at her. "Surprise, all, did you miss me?" She said, then looked over at Justin, which cracked the two of them up.

Chapter 12

Alex looked the girl over as she laughed at the guys' expense. She was dressed in a long navy blue dress with a wide neckline and long sleeves. Her short, red hair faintly reminded her of Meg Ryan and her blue eyes sparkled with confidence and hilarity. There was a smattering of freckles along the bridge of her nose and her gaze fell on each of the guys' faces before finally settling on hers.

Erin stopped laughing and wiped the tears from her eyes as her gaze sharpened on the new face. "I don't believe we've met. I'm Erin. I used to be their bodyguard on their last tour." She held out her hand in acknowledgment.

Alex reluctantly held out her hand, to the girl she believed to be Justin's girlfriend. "It's nice to meet you." She said unable to meet her gaze.

Erin shot Justin and the guys a curious look at the girl's actions and they shrugged. They didn't know what had caused her to turn off.

"Girlie, I need a hug. It's been way too long since the last time I saw you." Joey said grabbing Erin into a huge bear hug.

"I missed you too, Joe." She wrapped her arms around his neck and held on like she didn't want to let go.

"My turn. My turn." Chris repeated while bouncing on the balls of his feet.

"All right already. Men are so demanding." Erin winked at Alex but the girl didn't smile in return and almost seemed to become even colder to her.

Chris grabbed Erin up into a bear hug of his own and then passed her into Lance's arms when he tapped the older man on the shoulder.

"My, my, so much attention for little ol' me, huh. I should go away more often."

"You haven't seen attention yet, m'dear." JC plucked Erin out of Lance's arms and spun her around in a circle, burying his head into the curve of her neck. The scent of her vanilla perfume just about brought him to his knees but he was able to catch his breath and reluctantly let her go until they could get some time alone.

She patted his cheek in understanding and turned her attention back to the guys, while making a mental note to toss Josh into the nearest closet and follow him in when she got the chance.

Alex had disappeared during the reunion and she raised an eyebrow at the youngest member of the group. "What did you do, Curly, tell her horror stories about me?"

"Actually I haven't mentioned you at all to her…" He said, finding the pattern in the carpet very interesting, trying to figure out his feelings due to Alex's actions..

JC came up behind Erin and put an arm around her waist, not wanting to let her out of arms reach or his sight.

"Someone mentioned something, cause I sincerely think she wanted our dear Erin here dead on sight." Joey said patting Erin's head.

She raised her head from where she had been resting it against JC's chest to glare at the man. "Watch it, I can still take you down."

He held up his hands in surrender. "I don't doubt it." Then he spoiled her mean look by winking at her and she burst into laughter.

Erin looked at Justin closer and when he met her gaze, she could have sworn she saw guilt lurking foremost in his eyes.

"What did you do, Justin?" Erin asked with a huge sigh, disentangling herself from JC to stand in front of the younger man.

"I…I… nothing."

She grabbed him at the throat by the tie and brought him down to her eye-level. "Look me in the eye and tell me that, boy."

He met her gaze and grimaced.

"That's what I thought. How about this question… what didn't you tell her?"

"That you were together with JC." He muttered, expecting a smack of some sort by someone in the group.

"What?" Everyone asked him in shock.

"I… Erin called at the airport to tell me that she had arrived and the plan to surprise JC was all set and Alex asked me who it was and I could see a green tinge in her gaze and I…" He looked back down at the carpet unable to continue.

Erin let Justin go and shook her head. "You let her think I was with you to make her jealous."

He nodded his head slowly. "She said she didn't know that I was with someone and I told her it was unofficial."

He ducked his head again expecting something but when he peeked to see Erin's expression; he sighed in relief when he saw understanding in her gaze. He grabbed her in a hug saying, "Thank you for not being mad," over and over.

JC watched his girlfriend not accepting the hug nor struggling to get out of it and smiled to himself. She was mulling things over in her head before she let the kid have it. He leaned against the back of the couch to watch the show.

Erin pulled in a deep breath and disengaged herself from Justin. She leveled a glare at him and jabbed a finger into his chest. "I will not be used Justin. You gave that poor girl in there the wrong impression for your own selfish reasons and you are going to set her straight by the time this evening is over. You guys have finally moved to a management where Josh and I don't have to hide and I won't do it."

Justin held out his hands in surrender as he saw the intent look in her eyes and the jabbing on his chest was beginning to hurt. "Working on your trigger finger there, Girlie?" He joked, trying to get out of what she had said.

"You are so asking for it, man." Chris said softly from where he was standing back, next to Lance. Lance snickered to himself at Chris' comment but not enough so that it would set Erin on him.

"It's my first day back, kid. I don't want to have to spend it angry with you. Fix it. That's an order not a request." Erin slapped him upside the head and turned back to the rest of the guys to find them all, waving white handkerchiefs at her in defeat.

"Ha Ha, very funny. I'm hungry." With that said, she muttered to herself about men and the games they play for girls and why can't they just be up front and walked over to the buffet table to eat some of Lynn's wonderful cookies and to cool down.

Heather and Tyler spotted her from across the room and intercepted her to ask how LA was and to say Hi and she got sucked into what seemed like almost an hour long conversation with Josh's siblings that she hadn't seen since the trial.

JC shook his head at his girlfriend. She sure was a whirlwind to have around and was glad that he hadn't been the one to set her off for a change. He looked over at Justin to find a still stunned expression on his face.

Lance clapped an arm around Justin's shoulders and shook his head. "You really did it this time, didn't you?"

Justin sighed and ran a hand through his curls. "Guess so." He looked up at JC. "You're not mad at me are you?"

"Nah, I think Erin said what I was thinking very nicely and now I just think it's kinda funny." JC smiled at the younger man, knowing it would irritate him.

Justin wiped a hand across his face. "Yeah, real funny. I just love having two women mad at me."

Chris laughed. "I'd think you would be used to women fighting over you by now. Oh wait, that's Joey. Nevermind."

"Very funny, dreadless boy."

"Oooh, real original there buddy."

"Why I oughta…"

"Oughta what…"

"Boys, not in my living room." Lynn said carrying a tray of empty drinking glasses to the kitchen as she walked by the arguing duo.

"Sorry, Lynn." They said in unison and then stuck their tongues out at each other.

"Plus, Justin," Lance said giving the two a weird look. "Only one's actually mad at you but I'm sure the second will be well on her way, once she either figures it out or you tell her. I'd vote on you telling her cause she's more likely to be more mad if she figures it out on her own."

JC nodded his head in agreement, not really listening as he watched Erin.

Chris watched JC and looked back at Justin. "You might want to do it soon cause this boy is about to devour your supposed girlfriend and Alex isn't stupid enough to not pick up the vibes."

Justin slumped into the nearest chair. "I just wanted her to realize that she liked me and jealousy was my only option."

Joey looked at him incredulously. "Only option? Why didn't you just tell her you liked her and go from there?"

"That would be the smart choice, Joey. We never said Justin was smart." Lance remarked with a smooth voice.

Justin narrowed his eyes at his groupmate. "You're on my list, albino boy."

"Well, you're on mine until you're straight with Alex because until then I can't kiss my girlfriend cause for some reason, I'm willing to help you out of the jam you put yourself into." JC sighed, took one last glance at Alex before turning back to the group.

Justin looked up in relief. "You are the best, JC, I owe you."

"Yeah, at this rate, I'm going to own you body and soul."

"I'll be honest. Just let me milk this a little longer…"

"Timberlake, I don't want to hear another word."

Justin put his head back in his hands. "She would've had to have been nearby to hear."

Erin put an arm around his shoulders. "I've been thinking…"

A collective groan ensued from the group and was rewarded from a glare from the short, red head.

"You are all asking for it after I get done with the youngen, y'know."

JC grinned and raised his eyebrows up and down at her. "I'm looking forward to it."

Erin looked him up and down and licked her lips. JC's eyes went directly to her lips and his pupils dilated in response. He watched her lips curve into a half smirk and his gaze met hers.

"Works like a charm, every time." She said and raised her eyebrows at him in challenge.

"You are vindictive." Chris said. "I like that in a woman."

"Gotta shut him up somehow otherwise his head gets too big for his shoulders."

They all had a good laugh at JC's expense but focused back on the Alex subject.

"Justin, what good does making Alex jealous accomplish really?" Erin asked him while squatting down so that she could see his face.

"I don't know." He mumbled into his hands.

"As a woman, we like our men to be up front and honest. We don't appreciate games in the least and if what you've told me is true, that girl has enough problems without having more heartache dumped on her by you." She said then ruffled his hair.

He looked up at her and nodded. "How did you become the voice of reason, Girlie?"

"Years of knowing him." She said, pointing at JC. "Someone had to be, cause he certainly wasn't."

"Hey, I seem to remember tons of arguments that were solely your fault."

She raised an eyebrow at him. "Name one."

"Well, that one… or how about…"

"I rest my case."

Justin stood up suddenly. "I'm going to go find her and tell her the truth."

Lance sighed and sat down on the back of the couch. "It's about time, go get her slugger."

"That's two Lance." Justin said, holding up two fingers, but the tilt at the side of his mouth gave him away that he didn't really mean it.

Justin looked around the party and didn't see her and headed into the kitchen. His mom was putting glasses into the dishwasher and pointed to the backdoor without even looking up.

He opened the door and found the blonde beauty curled up in the hammock with a blanket wrapped around her. He felt like the lowest possible bacteria on the planet for driving her out into the night on what should have been a night she wouldn't forget.

He walked over to the sleeping figure and gently shook her awake. "Alex?"

"Hmmm. Oh hi, Justin. What are you doing out here, shouldn't you be catching up with…people?

"Uh, I wanted to check on you and Erin is inside, pretty busy with the guys."

"Oh. Well don't worry about me and go back inside and have a good time." Alex pulled the blanket tighter around her and rolled over, placing her back to him.

"I don't want to be inside." He sat down on the hammock and swung his legs up so that he was lying beside her.

Her eyes were starting to focus, as she slowly became more awake. "How come?"

"Cause I want to be out here with you." He said, trying to be honest with himself and her for the first time, as he swung his arms behind his head and looked at the stars.

"Why? Why me when you have someone that gorgeous inside?"

He cleared his throat and stargazed before answering her question.

"We're just friends, have been and never anything else." He mumbled not looking at her still, while locating Delphi, the dolphin constellation.

"What I didn't hear what you said?" Alex pulled herself into a sitting position so that she could see his face and hear him more clearly. Her heart was pounding double time and she wanted to make sure she heard him correctly.

"I said, Erin and I are nothing more than friends as we always have been."

"But, I thought…"

"And I let you believe it." He rubbed his hands over his face before driving them through his curls in his normal nervous habit.

"Why?" She was trying to read his eyes but he wouldn't look at her.

"To make you jealous." He said softly.

She sat up straighter and just about tossed them both out of the hammock and onto the backporch.

"Did I just hear you right? To make me jealous?"

He nodded his head jerkily. "I'm sorry."

Alex's first response was joy that he was single and that she still had a chance with him but as his words sank in, anger followed closely beside it. He had played with her emotions for fun!

"Once again, why?" She said slowly, trying to get everything she was feeling under control.

"It's complicated."

"Answer the question," she said firmly.

"At the airport, well I could tell that you didn't like the idea that I had a girlfriend and…"

"I couldn't have cared less if you did or not."

He raised his head to look at her for the first time since he had laid down. "That's a blatant lie if I ever heard it. It tore you up inside."

"I don't know what you're talking about." She said not looking him directly in the eye, but focusing on his baby blue tie.

He grabbed her chin and forced her gaze to meet his. "It bothered you just as it bothered me how good of friends you and Jason were and when Rick asked me if it was all right to ask you out before the tour. It's because we both like each other and can't stand to see the other with someone else."

She sat stunned at his own confession of feelings of jealousy. She never would have guessed.

"Alex, I thought you were the most beautiful girl that I had ever met when you came to dinner a month ago and then when I saw you again that first day we worked on Sailing, it just reinforced my opinion. Then, the more I got to know you and became friends with you, the more I fell for you. I think you are the most wonderful person in my life right now."

"What are you saying Justin?" Her eyes flitting back and forth over his features.

"That I think I'm falling in love with you."

She sucked in her breath and almost stopped breathing altogether.

He saw the shocked look on her face and muttered something about killing Erin but continued on. "I'm not asking anything of you, just a chance to get to know you and see if the feelings are mutual. If I'm totally wrong please tell me now so I don't keep making a fool of myself. I thought you did, but now, I'm not so sure…" he kept rambling on until she placed a finger on his lips to silence him.

He looked up in bewilderment and was once again struck by her beauty. She chewed on her lower lip, trying to put her feelings into words. The movement of her mouth drew his gaze downward and when she saw where his eyes had settled, she stopped.

"These last two days have put me through an emotional ringer." She started out and took a deep breath before continuing on.

"I didn't even know that I was feeling anything for you except friendship until yesterday when I heard you on the phone say I love you to someone else and it slapped me in the face."

Justin's face lit up when she said that and he reached out for her hand. She pulled her hand back and continued.

"I do like you, Justin. I don't have much experience in relationships or feelings or anything of this sort but I do know I'd like to try." She lifted her green eyes to look into his blue ones and saw what she had been hoping for, happiness and relief.

He grabbed her hand before she could away again and brought it to his lips. "I can do slow. I can wait for you forever."

She melted right then and there at the look of complete adoration on his face and smiled shyly at him.

"Ahhhhhh, ain't that cute, ma? They done made up." A voice interrupted the moment.

Justin and Alex whirled around to see who it was and saw a head of dark brown hair duck back in the door in a hurry, but not before they saw another head of red hair quickly follow.

Justin smiled in apology at her and stood up. "Ready to head back into the party now?"

He reached down for her hands and pulled her to her feet.

She nodded then looked down at where he still held her hands.

"You better get used to this. Like I said, I can do slow and I'll wait until you're ready for more, but until then I'm going to be around until you're sick of me."

"I don't mind."

"Then can I ask what's on your mind then?"

"I was just wondering where we stood?" she said, confusion clouding her green eyes.

He brought her fingers to his lips and kissed each one individually, the sensation making her shiver. He smiled knowingly and linked his finger with hers and pulled her toward the door.

"Wherever you want us to be, little one. I'm at your disposal."

She smiled in relief and together they walked back into the party.

"I like that idea. Taking it day by day."

"I do too, little one, but first…wait." He stopped before opening the door and ever so slowly pulled her into his arms, his eyes on hers the entire time. His head bent down and only when he saw her own rising to meet his, did he close his eyes and ever so gently bring his lips to hers. They both froze at the sensations that coursed through their bodies and broke apart.

Justin smiled down at Alex's stunned gaze and shrugged his shoulders, before bringing his lips back to hers for a sweet small kiss. Her lips tasted like strawberries and he didn't want to let go but he had promised slow and until she told him she was ready, he would always pull back.

He held the door open and the two walked back into the party to find everyone singing Christmas Carols.

The First Noel

The angel did say

Was to certain poor shepard in fields where they lay

In fields where they

Lay keeping their sheeep

On a cold winters night that was so deep

Noel, Noel, noel

Born is the king of Israel

They looked up

And saw a star

Shining in the east beyond and far

And to the earth it gave great light

And so it continued day and night

Noel Noel Noel

Born is the king of Israel

There was quite the line

From that same star

Three wisemen came from countries far

To seek before the king

Was their intent

And to follow that star wherever it went

Noel Noel Noel

Born is the King of Israel

Born is the King of Israel

Justin tugged Alex by the hand into the room and immediately joined in the singing. He looked around the room and found most of his group mates around the piano, singing as well, however he didn't see Erin and JC and figured they had wandered off to be alone.

Lynn was playing the piano and waved him over. He pulled Alex along with him because he didn't want to lose the feeling of her small hand in his.

He sat down beside his mother and the two began to sing in perfect harmony.

Oh holy night

The stars are brightly shining

It is the night of our dear savior's birth

Long lay the world in sin and their pining

Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth

The thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn

Fall on your knees

Hear the angel voices

Oh night divine

Oh night when Christ was born

Oh holy night

Oh night divine

Oh holy night

Oh night divine

The thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn

Fall on your knees

Hear the angel voices

Oh night divine

Oh night when Christ was born

Oh night divine

Oh night divine

Oh holy night

Night divine

When Christ was born

Holy night when Christ was born

By the chorus of O Holy Night, everyone had joined in, including Alex who really couldn't sing but felt after Chris had slung his arm around her shoulders, she felt comfortable enough to open her mouth and join everyone.

She looked around the room and noticed families with arms around each other and friends making faces at each other while everyone sang.

Justin noticed Erin and JC sneak in from another room, both attempting to right their hair with no success. He smiled to himself and motioned for them to join them. They made their way through the throng of people to the piano and both joined in as well.

Alex sat stunned as the two new voices joined the harmony. Erin and JC sang very well together and he had his arm around her waist and leaned down to kiss her cheek, then whisper something in her ear that made her blush. She kept singing but had to stop every now and then to deliver a glare at him, which he reciprocated with an innocent look.

She smiled to herself, if she could have gotten past her jealousy she would've noticed the looks and the more than apparent electricity that coursed through the two of them when they were together.

As the song ended, everyone began to mill around again and talk. Alex leaned back against the piano and listened to Chris and Joey discuss who had gotten their parents the better gift.

Alex debated with herself before losing and walking over to the corner where JC and Erin had relocated themselves to talk. "Erin?"

Erin looked up and found Justin's dream girl standing in front of her looking extremely uncomfortable. "Yes?"

"I… I wanted to apologize for how I treated you earlier."

Erin didn't say anything at first, but let her stew in her unpleasantness. JC looked between the two girls and tried to make himself scarce but Erin had grabbed his belt loop when she noticed Alex walking toward them so he wasn't going anywhere.

Alex's shoulders slumped in defeat and she turned around to walk away but someone grabbed her arm. "It's not a big deal, Alex. If its forgiveness, you're looking for, you had when Justin opened his mouth to explain."

Alex turned back around to face the couple. "He did manipulate the situation nicely, didn't he?"

Erin laughed. "That's the youngen for ya, he does that well."

Alex nodded her head but was at a loss as to what to say to the confidant woman standing in front of her.

Erin reached and grabbed both of her hands in hers. "I haven't seen Justin hung up on a girl this bad ever. Girls have come and go but none of them have ever stayed long enough in his life to warrant him to have to make them jealous. They've always just fell out of the bushes, trees, the sky… his backseat, practically in his lap. You're making him work for it and confusing him just as much as you go along."

Alex kept her gaze on Erin's trying to understand what the older girl was telling her.

"Honey, you're confusing her."

Erin whirled around to glare at JC but then turned back to Alex. Alex raised her eyebrows at JC and he just shrugged with a huge smile on his face then stuck his tongue out at the back of Erin's head.

"I saw that Josh. Anyway, what I'm trying to get out is that I think you're good for J over there, you're making him human instead of a super star. Its about time he found someone that could do that for him."

"Thank you, I think." Alex said.

Erin grabbed the taller girl into a huge hug and laughed. "Welcome to the family."

"Why does everyone keep saying that to me?"

JC and Erin looked at each other then back at Alex. "It’s a way of saying that you've been accepted." JC explained.

"Oh. Thanks."

"Anytime."

"Alex?"

"Yeah, Erin?"

"If you need someone to talk to… I'm told I'm a good listener."

Alex contemplated the polite gesture and nodded. "I may take you up on it, thanks again." She turned around, automatically looking for Justin and saw his curly head located near the punch bowl.

She made her way over to him and reached for the same punch glass as he was and upended it all over the table. Justin jumped back before it spilled all over his slacks and pulled Alex with him.

"Klutz."

"Just taking after someone I know…"

"Are you implying…"

"I'm not implying anything."

"Sure you're not, little one." He leaned down so his mouth was level with her ear. "A little feisty are we?'

She pulled back from him, her face aflame in embarrassment. "NO. I just… just wanted some punch."

Justin laughed and slipped an arm around her waist and pulled her to him for a quick squeeze.

They guys were scattered around the room but every one of them noticed and raised their eyebrows and the new development. Seemed to them that Alex and Justin had worked things out quite nicely.

JC noticed that everything seemed to be going well for everyone and fingered the box in the pocket of his coat. It's now or never.

He took a deep breath and pulled the small box out of his pocket and handed it to Erin. "Merry Christmas, sweetheart." He said softly into her ear.

Her eyes widened to the size of salad plates as her shaking hands opened the box to reveal a small, princess cut diamond set on a gold band with two small diamonds on either side of the center diamond.

She lifted her eyes back to him and said, "Please tell me this isn't what I think it is…"

She noticed the disappointment in his eyes and wished with all her heart, she could take back her knee jerk reaction.

"It’s a promise ring."

"Oh."

"Erin, I love you with all my heart. If I could, I would marry you tomorrow." He grabbed both of her hands and the box in his, while looking deep into her eyes.

"I didn't think I was ready for this commitment and you can ask the guys that every time we passed a jewelry store, I ran for cover. But, I can't live without you nor do I want to. When this gig is over, I want you for life Erin, or just tell me when you're ready and I'll follow you home. You are my life, my heart, and the other half of my soul. Will you marry me? Not now, not soon, but when the time is right for both of us."

Erin's eyes welled with tears. "Chasez, how is it that you still manage to surprise me after all these years?"

"Just special that way I guess."

"I guess." She wiped the tears from her eyes and nodded. "Yes, not now, not soon, but when we are both ready. I love you, Josh."

"I love you too." He cupped his hands around face and gently pressed his lips to hers. She reached up and wrapped her arms around his neck to deepen it, both forgetting that they were in a corner in the Harless' house in the middle of a party.

Erin jumped about a mile high when someone cleared their throat next to them and they looked up to see Justin, Joey, Lance, and Chris all standing around them nonchalantly.

"I take it was a yes, old man?" Justin asked with a sly grin.

"Yes, it was, you nosy brat." Erin exclaimed and smacked him on the arm.

Joey whooped and grabbed her to swing her around and everyone started in on the congratulations.

Alex still stood in the middle of the room talking to Steve, Heather and Emily, watching the group on the other side of the room. I hope I become as close of friends with them as she is. Maybe one day…

Chapter 13

Morning sunlight filtered through the windows of Alex's bedroom and she rolled over with a small smile crossing her face. She slowly opened her eyes as the light and the sound of running feet penetrated the darkness and brought her back to reality. She swung her legs out from under the covers and placed her head in her hands and groaned as she noticed that the clock read 8 AM. "Who gets up at this hour," she said out loud as she fell back against the pillows.

She sat back and rubbed her hands across her face to try and rub the fuzziness out of her brain but decided that the only cure was a cup of hot coffee and a shower. She opened the door to find Jonathan with his head of curls sticking up every which way, running down the stairs with Justin hot on his heels to see who could beat whom down to the gifts.

She shook her head at the two of them and headed into the bathroom and turned on the water. She stood under the stream of hot water, letting the hot water run over her shoulders and back as she thought about what had happened the night before.

Remembering how Justin had bared his feelings to her the night before and their somewhat tentative relationship. She couldn't believe that in one night, she had gone from wanting to actually kill a girl to getting the guy at the end. Last night, after everyone had left at almost two, the two had gone back out on the back porch and pointed constellations out to each other and talked. Really talked, telling each other their fears, embarrassing moments, likes, dislikes, some things they had already known but just trying to get close to the other emotionally.

He had walked her to her bedroom door and softly kissed her goodnight and then whispered, "Take your time. I'll wait." Then turned and walked down to his own room, before blowing her a kiss and shutting the door behind him.

She had changed into her pajamas and feel on top of her bed with a loud sigh before falling asleep with a smile on her face.

Alex settled her forehead against the tile in the shower and blew out a loud breath. Did she really know what she was doing? This was Justin, the guy that everyone liked and loved in the world and he wanted her? She couldn't figure it out.

"Alex, stop analysing the situation and just enjoy it. You wanted this and now you've got it." She said to herself as she shut the water off and towel dried her body off.

KNOCK KNOCK

"Yeah?" She called out, shrugging into her robe.

"Alex. We're going to open presents, hurry!" Jon called through the door with a slight whine.

"Give me a minute, little Jon, I just want to change into some clothes."

"All right, but if they're all opened without you, it wasn't my idea but Justin's."

"Ok, little man. I'll know who to come after."

She heard a giggle from behind the door and then little running feet head down the stairs as she put a brush through her hair.

She finally was finished putting her hair up and putting some make-up on and decided to go get dressed and hustle downstairs for the action. She opened the door to find a freshly shaven and showered Justin standing in the doorway with a very seductive grin on his face.

He looked her up and down and with a slight smile said, "Fancy meeting you here."

"Yeah, it’s a bathroom, dolt. Want in or something?"

"No, just the person coming out of it." He smiled and wiggled his eyebrows up and down.

She blushed and ducked under his arm to head for her room.

He caught a whif of raspberries as she walked by and felt his knees weaken. He got control of himself and followed her down the hall.

"Excited about it being Christmas?" He asked.

"No, not really. Its just another holiday."

"Just another holiday? You must be sick or something or just never spent it with my family before. It’s a big deal around here."

She sent a smile over her shoulder as she reached her room. "I noticed last night."

"Well, you're going to have so much fun today. After, we open our stockings, we'll have breakfast and then open the rest of our presents and…"

"Justin…." She reached over and placed a finger on his lips to silence him and he nipped her finger. She blushed and jerked her hand away. "I don't need a play by play of today. I'm sure I'll find out soon enough, but thanks."

He looked up and down the hallway before pulling her into his arms and kissing her nose. "I just want this to be special for you."

"It will be," she took a deep breath before continuing, "because I'm with you."

His eyes lit up at her statement and he brought her even closer to him and nuzzled his face into her neck, breathing in deeply her shampoo and the scent of fruit.

He brought up his head and looked into her eyes. "Our first Christmas."

Her knees started knocking in nervousness at his bold look. Was she ready for this? She wasn't sure but she was willing to try. She just had to learn to trust him and realize that he wouldn't leave her ever.

Before she could say anything, he pushed her into her room and told her to get dressed and that he'd meet her downstairs in five minutes and walked off, leaving her confused but happy at the same time. The guy would drive her hot then cold in less than a minute and it was because she had asked him to go slow and he was trying with all his might to but it was against his better judgement.

She changed into her jeans and a red sweater and headed downstairs to living room. When she entered, she had to turn around and go back in due to the fact that the room had changed again in less than two days but instead of it being all decorated, it looked like a bomb had gone off.

Paper, tissue, ribbons, bows, and boxes were thrown around the room in complete disarray. She looked around the room with her jaw on the floor but snapped it shut when she heard soft laughter behind her.

She turned around to find Lynn standing behind her with a huge smile on her face. "Have you seen my sons yet?"

Alex shook her head. "I saw them upstairs briefly but…"

"I know they're in that mess somewhere." Lynn looked into the room and her eyes narrowed on some paper rustling in the corner. "Jon?"

A head of blonde curls poked his head out from under a piece of paper. "Yes, Mom?"

Lynn laughed at the younger boy. He had a bow stuck to the side of his head and some ribbon wrapped around his neck. "Just making sure you were still around in this mess."

"I wouldn't let him drown, Mom." Another identical head of blonde curls popped out from under some more wrapping paper on the other side of the room.

"Oh dear, Justin! I should've known you were in here too."

He flashed her a sheepish grin. "Sorry. Jon started in and I…I just couldn't help myself."

Lynn placed her hands on her hips and glared at her older son. "Sure ya couldn't. You probably placed the first gift in his hands and dared him to go for it."

Justin's eyes widened at how well his mother could read her two sons. He glanced over at Alex who was struggling not to laugh by holding a hand over her mouth and flashed her a big grin.

"Justin!"

"Sorry, Mom."

She shook her head at him and smiled. "Merry Christmas, dear."

"Merry Christmas, Mom." He jumped up and ran across the room and threw his arms around her in a big bear hug and spun her around.

"Justin, dear, put me down."

He set her down and kissed her on the cheek and pulled a present out of his back pocket.

He walked over and handed it to Alex.

"What's this?" She asked her hands shaking as she reached for the gift.

"It’s a present from all the guys."

"Oh."

She looked down at the slim box and the bright green paper and red bow and didn't want to open it.

"Hurry up, little one." Justin said motioning impatiently to the gift.

She pulled the bow off and slowly pulled the paper off. Inside was a white slim box, and as she pulled the top off to reveal red tissue paper, she heard Justin make an impatient sound.

"You open gifts like my mom…"

She smirked at him and went even slower. She unwrapped the tissue paper and pulled out two tickets. Her eyes widened as she read the title of the show.

"You got me tickets to a sold out RENT show in New York City?"

For one night on Broadway, the show was bringing back the original cast for an encore performance and it had sold out in record time and she had been unable to get tickets to see it. The only problem was that her parents would be there too.

He nodded his head to her. "We're flying out tomorrow for the performance and then flying back before we have to be in Hawaii for the show."

She reached up and threw her arms around his neck. "Oh, thank you, Justin! This is the best gift!"

It's not the only one, little one. He wrapped his arms around her waist and just listened to her breathe.

"Justin, Jon, Alex? Breakfast."

Justin pulled back and smiled down at her. "Now, prepare yourself for the Timberlake/ Harless Christmas Breakfast feast."

She followed him into the kitchen, giggling to herself as he practically bounced into the room. She shook her head. "The way to man's heart is definitely through his stomach," she muttered and then sat down at the table.

***********************************************************************

After the night before, Christmas Day was pretty low-key for the Timberlake family. After breakfast, everyone went out to sit in the living room and finish unwrapping what presents were left after Jon and Justin had finished with them. Lynn and Paul exchanged their gifts, little things that both had asked each other for. Justin looked over at Alex and rolled his eyes as Paul leaned over and kissed Lynn, but then he smiled to show that it didn't bother him at all. Jon was practically jumping up and down in anticipation of something but Alex wasn’t sure what. She was sitting on the couch, trying to stay out of the family's way and just take everything in.

Lynn finally nodded at Jon and he ran for the tree and grabbed a big box. It was wrapped similarly to the one she had gotten from Justin before breakfast but around the bow had tinsel and bells on it.

Jon ran over and dumped it in Alex's lap, sitting beside her. "Merry Christmas, Alex."

"Thanks." She said hesitantly, looking around the room.

"That's from all of in the family, Alex. We couldn't leave you out, dear." Lynn said and smiled at her encouragingly.

Alex looked at the huge box and almost began to cry. She hadn't even gotten the supposed gift from her parents that they had sworn up and down that they had mailed the day she had arrived but this family that she had known for only a short time and bought her something.

Justin scooted over closer to her when he saw her eyes start to tear up. "You know, if you don't open it, Jon here is going to open it for you. He can't stand it."

"You mean that you'll jump in and help cause you can't stand it." She looked up at him and raised an eyebrow.

He leaned back, his hands crossed over his heart. "Ouch, woman, you wound me. I would never do that."

"Sure Justin, just like you almost didn't practically rip the wrapping off my gift earlier." Lynn said reminding Justin about how he had hovered over her shoulder when he had given her his gift.

"I would never… I just wanted to make sure you liked it." He said smugly.

Everyone is the room groaned. "Uh huh sure, J." They all said.

He gave them a hurt look and focused back on Alex's gift. "Are you going to open it or just admire the really nice wrapping job that my mom did."

"Admire it."

"ALLLEXXXXXX."

"Whining is not becoming, J." She told him and began to pull off the ribbon.

Lynn and Paul sat back and laughed at the duo. She looked over at her husband at smiled. She knew the look that was in her son's eyes when he looked at Alex cause it was the same look that Paul always gave her. Alex was beginning to open up, she knew, but she still had a long way to go before she understood what she was feeling.

Alex unwrapped the gift ever so gently and opened the box. She pulled back the tissue paper, only to find another box wrapped in it. She raised her eyebrows and looked around the room and they all laughed. She set the box on the floor and started on the next one. After she had unwrapped the second box and opened it, she found a wood box that when she pulled it out, she realized was a jewelry box.

She looked over at Lynn who was snuggled up against Paul watching her. She motioned for her to open it and there lay a necklace with an oval shaped pendant attached.

"My mother gave that to me and my grandmother had given it to her. I wanted you to have it Alex. I put two pictures in it." Lynn told her from the other couch.

Alex opened it to find a picture of Justin on one side and a picture of Lynn, Paul, and Jon on the other.

Her eyes began to fill with tears again but she managed to get them under control and smiled over at Lynn. "Thank you." She whispered.

Lynn stood up and walked over to her and pulled her into her arms. "You're welcome sweetheart. It's so you won't ever forget us, cause you've become a part of the family and I know we wont forget you."

"I will never forget your kindness." She smiled at everyone and picked up the jewelry box to take it upstairs.

Justin looked overt at his mom and she nodded her head in the direction that Alex had taken and followed her up the stairs.

He found her in her room, sitting on the bed with the necklace in her hand. "You okay, little one?"

She looked up, her eyes brimming with tears. "You are so lucky, Justin to have a family like that. I've always dreamed that one day my mom and dad would actually care about their own flesh and blood and make an effort. But, you… it’s an every day occurance for your mom to ruffle your hair, for you and Paul to be outside playing ball, for Jon to get hugs and carried outside for a wrestling match. You aren't afraid to show your love for one another and you always know that if you need someone, they'll be there for you."

He sat down beside her on the bed and clutched her hand in his, listening to her stream of words. "I've never… I've never felt that until I came to this house. I don't want to leave Justin. I want to be a part of your family. I want your family."

"OK. I'll trade you." He said in mock seriousness.

She pushed him with her shoulder. "No, silly."

"It's okay, Alex." He wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "You're finally understanding what family is about and I'm glad that I could be the one to show you."

She smiled a half smile at him and hugged him. "Thank you for giving me this wonderful gift."

"Your welcome." I'd do this for the woman I love any day of the week, little one.

She wiped her tears away and stood up. "I got you something. It's not much but…"

"I'm sure I'll love it."

"I don't know about that. You've probably got ten million of them but I saw it and knew it was perfect for you." She walked over to her bag and pulled out a wrapped package and handed it to him.

He smiled a little kids grin at her and tore into the wrapping paper telling her this was the only way to unwrap gifts. She laughed and shrugged at him.

Inside was a white teddy bear with a UNC baseball hat on, Alex however had added a few items to make the bear into a replica of Justin though. She had found a small UNC t-shirt and put it on the bear and a set of diamond studs and put them in its ears. The bear was also wearing a pair of really baggy jeans and tennis shoes to finish the outfit off.

Justin laughed when he peeked under the cap and saw yellow marker squiggled all about. "You thought of everything!"

"Every boy needs a toy, y'know." She smiled smugly at him. "I thought it would give you something to sleep with at night while on tour to remind you of home."

"It will definitely remind me of home. Thanks Alex." He pulled her into his arms and kissed the top of her head. You have no idea how much.

"Justin, phone call!" Jon yelled up the stairs.

She watched Justin take off to his room and heard him say, "Hello?"

"Yeah."

"She loved it."

"I'll tell her, Joey. You're idea."

She walked down the stairs and saw Lynn picking up and jumped in to help. After all the wrapping was picked up and taken outside to the garbage can, they headed into the kitchen to start dinner. Jon followed them in and sat on the counter, watching Lynn mash potatoes and Alex toss the salad.

"Can I help?"

"Sure, little man, hop up her on this stool and out in the croutons for me." Alex told him.

Justin walked into the kitchen holding Alex's cell phone to find her with her arms wrapped around his younger brother, ruffling his hair and pointing to spots in the salad that needed more croutons. His mom was standing and watching too, smiling at what a cute picture the two of them made.

She glanced over at her older son and saw the complete look of adoration on his face and wanted to pull him close and hold him as she had when he was younger, but he was growing up before her eyes and when she looked closely at his eyes, she saw the man that he had become.

Justin shook his head to clear his thoughts and cleared his throat to get everyone's attention. "Alex, your mom…" he held out the phone.

She let go of Jon and rushed over to take the phone. "Hi, Mom. Merry Christmas. This is a surprise."

Lynn and Justin sent each other both disgusted looks before Lynn went back to dinner and Justin went over to make sure Jon didn't fall off the stool.

"You couldn't call me tomorrow so you called today…."

"Oh right, the get together in New York tomorrow. Figured you've be too busy huh…"

"Mom, you and Dad are ALWAYS too busy for me."

"Don't get smart? It's true."

Justin raised his eyebrows at his mom and nodded his head over at Alex. She gave him a dirty look and mouthed, don't listen, it's rude. Justin picked Jon up and threw him over his shoulder to take him out back. He couldn't stay in the kitchen any longer without wanting to hit something over the way she was always treated. How could anyone not want to be around a daughter that was gorgeous inside and out?

"Yes it is mother. You care more about your socialite Hollywood friends than your own daughter."

Alex ran a hand through her hair, trying to get frustrated. "I understand. Yes you love me. I know."

"Tell Adam and Anthony Hi for me. Wish I could be there with you."

"I KNOW Mom. If you could fly me out, you would."

"Happy Holidays to you too. Love you. Bye."

"DAMN YOU!" Alex shouted and threw the phone against the wall, shattering it.

She wiped furiously to stop the flow of tears but to no avail. She crumpled in the kitchen, crying as if her heart would break, rocking back and forth. Lynn dropped the spoon into the bowl and walked cautiously over to Alex. She got down on her knees and wrapped her arms around the young woman, rocking with her, comforting her as only a true mother would know how.

Justin came in later to find him mom picking up pieces of metal and looked at her in question. She just shrugged and said it was nothing. At dinner, Alex didn't come downstairs and Justin was beginning to get worried. No one had said a word about her mother's phone call to him and he didn't even know if she still in the same house.

He finally couldn't stand it anymore when he realized that he couldn't even focus on the basketball game. He got up to go upstairs to see if she was still around when his mom stopped him. "I gave her a sleeping pill earlier after she got off the phone. She'll sleep til morning."

"What happened?"

Lynn shook her head. "Don't worry about it honey, she'll be fine."

"If you say so." He slumped his shoulders and went upstairs anyway.

He stopped in front of her door and opened it slowly. A stream of moonlight was coming through the window and rested on her face. He could see the tear tracks running down her face and the puffy eyes, but she still looked peaceful as if a load had finally been taken off of her shoulders.

He closed the door with a sigh and headed into his room to read.

**********************************************************************

Alex finally woke up at almost noon the next day and stretched. She was going to New York today.

She jumped out of bed to shower and pack when a knock sounded on her door.

"Yes?"

Justin stuck his freshly showered head in. "Just checking to see if you were alive or still dead to the world."

She smiled. "I'm awake."

He laughed. "I noticed. Hurry up and pack, we need to get going. Our flight leaves in two hours and we need to get on the road shortly."

"That was the plan."

"See ya downstairs then." He gently shut the door, still curious about what had been said the night before.

Alex rushed through her shower and started tossing things into a bag. She gently folded the green dress that Justin had picked out for her before on top so that she'd have something to wear. She zipped the bag shut and looked up to see her reflection in the mirror. "It's time that you and I had a little chat….mom." She thought to herself and shouldered her bag and headed out the door to meet Justin.

Chapter 14

"We'll be arriving in New York City in about 15 minutes. Please return to your seats and buckle up. Thank you, this is your captain speaking."

Alex looked over at Justin who was sound asleep in the seat next to her with his mouth hanging wide open and she was sure that if she didn't have her headphones on, she would be able to hear him snoring.

She shook her head and changed the song on her CD player. Track seven was next and the words just seemed to hit home on this particular day.

I guess you could say I'm a little afraid

What if you go away?

I've seen it before, I've been here before

If I have to love myself, tell me how to love myself

What’s there to love about myself?

I just want to see that as a person you want me

But I'm feeling the pain of all these bags in the way

And I'm thinking you're just gonna run away and I can't catch you

I guess I would say that I want you to stay

Cause you have this strange knack

Adds a glow to my black as you chase it all away

And I hope that you can see I will someday leave these things

I am waiting to be free

But I'm feeling the pain of all these bags in the way

And I'm thinking you're just gonna run away and I can't catch you

Oh I want to catch you

~I Can't Catch You, Sixpence None The Richer

Alex reached over and grabbed Justin's hand and squeezed. From the knot in her stomach, she knew that this trip was going to end in disaster but she wasn't sure how.

*********************************************************************

"Alex? You ready?" Justin knocked on the door of her hotel room.

"Just one minute." She called out.

He leaned back against the wall and thought about their day. She had taken him sightseeing to all the parts of New York that he had never been able to see due to his image but they played it low-key and had only been recognized once outside the mall. He had been a little worried then about having convinced Mike to stay at home, but now he could breathe a sigh a relief and say that it had a been a GREAT idea to leave him at home.

He heard the door unlatch and stood up from the wall. But, when he turned there was only empty space. "Justin, just come in. I'm going to be a few more minutes." He heard from the direction of the bathroom.

"Ok, little one." He went and laid down on the bed and picked up the remote, automatically flipping channels until he came to a sports station that was going over the day's highlights.

"Is that all you watch?"

He nodded absently, trying to listen to the sportscasters.

"Justin? Are YOU ready?"

"Yeah." He still didn't get up.

Alex walked over, grabbed the remote and hit power. "Now, you are." She said with a smile.

"Hey!"

"We have to go."

"Oh. Right." He stood up and finally got a good look at her and immediately lost all feeling in his legs and sat down.

"You’re…ummm…that’s what…" he gulped and tried to get his tongue to work properly again. "That’s what… shouldn’t you have a coat or…ummm… something."

She raised an eyebrow and looked down at the dress. "You picked it out for me, remember?"

He nodded absentmindedly. "Right. Go change."

"I’m not changing, Justin. We’re going to be late if I change, plus I didn’t bring anything else to wear."

"Oh…" he said, not taking his eyes from her dress.

"Justin, my eyes are up here." She said pointing to her face.

He looked up at her face for the first time since she had come out of the bathroom and found her green eyes sparkling in laughter at him. He blushed a deep red and moved his gaze to the floor then the wall, as long as it wasn’t anywhere on her.

The green dress that he had picked out was form fitting with ¾ length sleeves and came down to mid thigh, flaring gently around the hips, however, the scoop neck was so deep that the only thing he could focus on was her chest.

"Wear this." He shrugged out of his coat and handed it to her without looking.

"Justin, you’re being ridiculous. It isn’t that bad." Alex said, handing him back his coat and grabbing her shawl, before opening the door for him,

He watched her struggling not to laugh and grumbled out the door about not wanting everyone to be staring at her the entire night.

"They won’t be." She closed the door and locked it. "I’ll be modest compared to the actresses. Relax."

She linked her arm through his and steered him toward the elevators, as he dragged his feet in embarrassment.

 

They arrived at the theater just as the curtain was rising, so they hustled to their seats so that they wouldn’t miss any of the show.

As soon as the characters, Mark and Roger, sang their opening notes, Justin was drawn into the show. The emotion and sheer power behind the words had him sitting motionless in his seat as he took in every step and word, taken and sang by the actors on stage.

Alex, on the other hand, was noticing all the things they had changed since she had worked on the show. The lighting was set up differently and the crew and actors had all gained maturity and a certain comfortableness with their roles. She was amazed by how far they had come since that first show right after her uncle had died. Even after working on different tours and projects, they were still the most amazing cast she had seen work this show. It was awe-inspiring to see her uncle’s work come alive under their craft.

By Act Two, neither Justin nor Alex had said an entire sentence to each other, let alone a single word since they had sat down. Both were just to involved in the stage performance to even realize that a person was sitting next to them, for their own reasons.

Angel’s death scene was very emotional for Alex because it was too close to the way her own uncle had fought his own disease and lost. She didn’t realize that tears were falling down her face, until she felt a hand reach up and wipe them away then clasp hers in theirs.

She sent startled eyes up into the person next to her and realized that Justin was smiling down at her before reaching over and giving her a quick kiss on the cheek before directing his gaze back at the stage. He didn’t relinquish her hand though until the end.

The cast, of course, got a standing ovation from the entire theater. Alex stood up and whistled as Anthony walked to the front of the stage to receive his own acknowledgement for his work that evening.

Justin just watched Alex’s face light up as she watched her friends get the attention that they certainly deserved for that night’s performance. He could really tell that she cared for everyone that was standing on that stage, especially for two in particular.

As everyone cleared out of the auditorium to head down to the lobby for the after party, Alex sat down and waited. Justin sent her a confused look but sat down beside her, waiting for her to explain.

She stared down at the stage for a long time, just taking everything in. Justin watched her profile for a long period of time before settling back into the seat to wait.

"What did you think?" She asked tentatively, picking at her skirt while staring at the stage still.

"It was amazing. The power behind the words and the direction… stage performers are the best in the business and they still continue to amaze me."

"They’re great. Especially this cast…"

He looked over at her, trying to catch her eye but she had all her attention focused on stage.

"Alex? Are you okay?"

She looked up at him then. "Yeah, I’ll be okay." She tried to smile but it came out as more of a grimace.

"Okay, little one, I’ll take your word this time. You ready to go and see your friends?" He stood up and offered her a hand and pulled her to a standing position, after she had placed her hand in his.

She picked up her purse and wrapped her shawl around her shoulders and gave a nervous glance toward the stairs. She hadn’t told anyone but Lynn that her parents were going to be here this evening and it was nerve racking to know that she hadn’t seen her parents since… actually she couldn’t really remember when her parents had taken the time to come and visit her. Was it at Christmas last year or the summer before that?

Justin watched a play of emotions cross her face as they headed down the stairs from the balcony. Fright, then nervousness, then determination flew across her face in a matter of seconds. He didn’t understand what was making her feel these things but he figured it had something to do with something downstairs. He linked his fingers through hers and squeezed to show her that he was here for her.

She gave him a small smile and squeezed back.

The entered the lobby downstairs to find buffet tables set out on the sides. A band was playing songs and some people were out dancing on the make shift dance floor. Everyone else was milling about and waiting for the cast to make an appearance after they showered.

Alex glanced about the room, trying to locate her parents but she didn’t see them in the throng of people gathered in the middle of the room. All of a sudden a pair of arms wrapped around her waist and spun her around. She squealed, drawing Justin’s attention. He raised his eyebrows at the young man standing behind her.

The guy raised his own back but focused his attention back on the young woman he had wrapped in his arms.

"Beauty, when did you get into town and why didn’t you call me?" The guy asked her as he set her down.

"ANTHONY! You scared me!"

He grinned at her. "I know, that was plan." He looked over at Justin. "I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Anthony, I play Roger."

"Justin, nice to meet you."

"Beauty, you mother didn’t tell me you were coming tonight."

"Last minute gift from this guy." She smiled warmly over at Justin.

Justin frowned in confusion. "Beauty?"

Alex laughed. "These guys call me Sleeping Beauty or Beauty for short cuase of my blonde hair. I was Rapunzel but when Adam tried to climb my hair one day and just about ripped it out of my head, we changed it."

"Oh."

"So are they here, Tony?" She asked cautiously.

He nodded, his eyes showing sympathy. "I just ran into them over there by the food. Adam is running around too. You should go say Hi."

She threw her arms around his neck and he clasped her to him. He knew how much her parents had hurt her over the years and he had been the one to pick up the pieces more time than he wanted to remember. He just didn’t understand how anyone could not love the blonde elf that had tagged along with him and the crew for years.

He slowly let her go and rubbed his knuckles across her cheek. "How you holding up kiddo?"

"She’s fine." Justin cut in, jealousy starting to gnaw at his gut at their closeness. Alex had always run to him for comfort and it hurt to see someone had been there before him.

Anthony sized up the guy that had moved to stand protectively behind her while they had been speaking. He looked him over from the top of his curly head to the expensive wing tips adorning his feet. The look in his eye stopped him from saying anything though, because the love in his eyes was different from how the cast saw Beauty. This kid would lay down his life for Alex if anyone asked him too and she definitely needed that in her life for a change, cause her parents certainly wouldn’t.

Justin watched the guy look him over and he must have passed inspection because he didn’t say a word except to nod in his direction.

"Wanna go mingle and see the crew again?" He asked linking his arm through Alex’s while keeping an eye on Justin at the same time.

She patted his arm. "Not right now, Tony. I think we’re just going to hang out here and look around."

"Okay, but I do need to mingle but I’ll be around." He squeezed her arm and walked into the crowd.

"He’s interesting."

Alex laughed. "He’s been around for as long as I can remember, I guess you could say that we kinda grew up together. Every time something happened with my parents, he helped pick me back up."

"I didn’t think you had anyone to help you?"

"Anthony is always working but he’s there when he can. I think he and Adam kinda adopted me as younger sister."

"He seemed to really care about you."

"He does, but…"

"But?"

"It’s just really hard when you’re not around people very often. I haven’t seen him since RENT first came out a couple of years ago. I’m actually surprised he even recognized me."

"Maybe you’re parents were showing pictures of you."

She shook her head. "They don’t have any of me that I know of."

Justin craned his head, looking around the room. "So they’re here huh?"

She nodded in agreement.

"This should be interesting then."

She smiled wryly at him. "Maybe, but personally…" She spotted another familiar blonde head in the crowd making his way toward them. "This next encounter could be even more interesting."

She stuck an arm in the air, waving her hand madly at the fellow that was coming their way. Familiar blue eyes lit up at the sight of her and he dashed across the room, picked her up and spun her around.

"I missed you too, Adam."

"BEAUTY! When did you get into town and how come no one knew about it?"

"Just arrived today and take off again tomorrow for Orlando and then Hawaii."

"Hawaii, what’s the gig there?" He shot a questioning glance in Justin’s direction but didn’t say anything.

"NSYNC concert." She smiled brightly up at him and tugged Justin to her. "This guy is performing with his friends and I work backstage."

Adam stuck out his hand. "Nice to meet you, I’m Adam. Am I going to have to take you out back and shoot you now for touching Beauty or are you on your best behavior?"

Justin’s eyes got huge. "I…uh…"

"I’m just kidding, man. I know Beauty wouldn’t be hanging around someone that she couldn’t handle."

"Uh…right. I’m Justin."

"Nice to meet you."

Alex sat back and laughed as they postured for the male dominant position. She knew Adam well enough to know that he was kidding but the boy would do anything for her.

"Beauty, I just ran into your parents over by the dance floor. They didn’t say anything about you coming to tonight’s performance."

"They don’t know." Her face fell as she remembered her last phone call with them.

"Cheer up, babe. Anthony told everyone that you’re wandering around and they’re all excited about you being here."

She reached over and grabbed his hand. "I’m excited to see them too. How are you though?"

"Things couldn’t be better for me…" He then told the two of them about getting an audition out in London and how he’s been working there ever since and doing some walk on stage performances and doing the London RENT show on weekends.

They talked for a little longer before some girl across the room yelled for Adam and he had to go and see what she wanted.

Justin and Alex stood awkwardly on the side watching everyone mingle and most of the cast get out on the dance floor and dance. Justin watched Alex begin to move with the music out of the corner of his eye and smiled to himself. She was in her element tonight and was beginning to loosen up, he could tell.

He heard the strains to a familiar song start up, a song that he hadn’t been able to get out of his head for days after he had heard it on the radio two weeks ago. The lyrics just seemed to jump out at him when he was with her.

"Alex? Would you like to dance?"

She sent startled eyes up to meet his. "Sure."

He grabbed her hand and led her onto the floor where other couples were dancing. He turned her in his arms and brought her gently toward him, wrapping his arms around her waist and settling his head against hers.

They swayed to the beat of the song and both were drawn into the music and the words that were being sang.

I can feel the magic floatin' in the air
Being with you gets me that way
I watch the sunlight dance across your face and I, oh I've
Never been this swept away

All my thoughts just seem to settle on the breeze
When I'm lying wrapped up in your arms
The whole world just fades away, the only thing I hear
Is the beating of your heart
And I can feel you breathe, it's washing over me
Suddenly I'm melting into you
There's nothing left to prove, baby all we need is just to be
Caught up in the touch, the slow and steady rush
And baby, isn't that the way that love's supposed to be
I can feel you breathe
Just breathe

In away I know my heart is waking up
As all the walls come tumblin' down
Closer than I've ever felt before and I know and you know
There's no need for words right now

I can feel the magic floatin' in the air
Being with you gets me that way

~Faith Hill-Breathe~

Justin just listened to her breathe, felt the rise and fall of her chest against his and savored the moment of having her in his arms. He pulled back his head so that he could look at her face and noticed that her eyes were closed with a small smile on her face.

She felt him lift his head but waited a moment before opening her eyes. Her eyelids lifted to find his piercing blue eyes staring directly into hers with an expression that she couldn’t define on his face.

"Alex…"

She tried to figure out what had made him so serious but was still at a loss to understand the emotion that was coursing through his eyes. "Yes, Justin?"

"I…I just wanted to tell you that I…" He paused in his statement, trying to make sure that this was the right time to tell her or if he was just going to be making an ass out of himself.

"Justin? What is it?"

"I…" He took a deep breath and with a whoosh, released it heavily.

Alex was starting to get nervous just by the serious signals that Justin was giving off. "Come on, you can tell me."

"I don’t know how it happened…" he began. "One moment you were this bright happy girl that I had met in a grocery store and then that girl was replaced by someone sad and withdrawn. But, both girls kept drawing me closer and closer to the real person. Neither of the girls I had met were the real you. The real you is both girls and more."

He watched her eyes widen a bit before narrowing in thought as she tried to understand the point he was trying to make. "I wanted to get to know you because you something about you drew me to you, a look would make me curious to find out what had caused the expression or your laughter would make me want to do something silly just so that I could hear it again."

She nodded her head, trying to encourage him to skip to the end so that she could understand what he was trying to say.

"I’ve never met a girl like you, Alex. You’re vulnerable, innocent in a way, but strong and passionate at the same time. You’re a wonderful and amazing person and although we’ve only known each for a short time, I feel closer to you than anyone else except for a very few select people. Alex, I think I’ve fallen…"

A voice cut through the rest of his sentence, drowning out the rest of his words. "Alex, honey! Oh, Michael, look. It’s Alex. Dear, what are you doing here?"

Alex turned at the sound of her mother’s voice and paled. "Mom…"

She was swept up into her mother’s arms, but released quickly, after receiving a quick peck on the cheek.

"Alex, why didn’t you say you were coming when we talked to you on the phone?" Her father asked her when he joined their small group. He too, gave her a small quick hug before returning to her mother’s side.

"I wanted to surprise you." She said quietly, then looked at the floor.

Justin couldn’t believe the transformation that came over Alex when she was in her parent’s presence. If he thought she withdrew after just talking to them on the phone, then when she was around them, she became a veritable turtle. She practically tried to make her body invisible while they looked at her.

"Well, dear, it’s a nice surprise. Have you talked to all your old little friends?"

"Yes, I’ve seen Anthony and Adam."

"They were certainly excited to know you were here when we ran into them a few minutes ago."

"Well, it has been years."

Justin watched the three talk back and forth like if he were at a tennis match. He couldn’t get over the way they talked and acted towards each other, flesh and blood who acted like they were acquaintances to say the least.

"Yes, I guess it has."

"How’s college, dear?"

"Great."

"And the tour, honey?"

"Fine. Oh by the way, this is one of the singers I work for. Justin, these are my parents, Michael and Judy."

Justin stuck his hand out to shake. "It’s nice to meet you."

"Were you the one, Alex spent Christmas with?"

"Yes mam."

"That was such a nice gesture, dear, thanks for taking care of her for us."

"It was a pleasure."

Alex watched the exchange take place and couldn’t help but compare them to Lynn and Paul and only found her own parents lacking. She listened to them spout small talk to Justin and talk about their trips to London and Paris, never even offering to introduce them to the friends that they had come with even though she was their only daughter.

Justin couldn’t wait to get away from them. They had to be the most shallow people he had ever met and both gave a bad name to people in the business. All they cared about was prestige, money, bloodlines, and image. They talked about crews, extras, camera people as if they were hired hands. It kinda helped him to understand the way they saw Alex and the work that she was doing but it was still only an excuse for them.

"Alex, it was nice to see you again. While you’re in town, we should go and have lunch and catch up. When are you going back on tour?"

"We leave tomorrow and the fly to Hawaii soon after that."

Her mother pouted. "Oh well, another time then."

"Yeah…another time."

Her mother wiggled her fingers at the two and then turned to leave and go back to being a social butterfly. Working the room as a member of Jonathon Larson’s family and Michael Greif’s wife.

Alex just stood there and watched her mother turn her back on her for umpteenth time and felt the anger well up inside her. She looked at Justin and couldn’t believe the way that her mother had treated her in front of him and even her own treatment to him. Her father trailed behind her mother, caught up in his own little world of who and what he was.

She watched the ideal couple and parents walk away from their only child and felt the tears well up behind her eyelids. She blinked them away, took one last look at Justin, before tearing across the room after her mother.

Justin watched in slow motion as Alex grabbed her skirt in one hand and sprint across the lobby. He sat stunned, not knowing what to do and did the only thing that came to mind. He took off after her.

She grabbed her mother’s arm and wrenched her around to face her. Her mother looked shocked at Alex’s display of emotion. "What’s wrong, dear?"

"What’s wrong? WHAT’S WRONG!" She said almost hysterically, getting right up into her mother’s face. "You’re what’s wrong."

"Alex, you need to calm down. You’re making a scene." Her mother was trying to wrestle her sleeve out of Alex’s grasp, but Alex’s anger had taken over and her grip wasn’t about to loosen.

"I haven’t even begun to make a scene, mother dearest." Alex said quietly while staring intently into her mother’s face. Her mother’s eyes narrowed in displeasure at the way Alex was acting.

"Alex, why don’t we go outside and talk about whatever is bothering you." Her father tried to interject into the conversation. Alex glared at her father and turned back to her mother.

Her mother finally wrenched her arm away from Alex while she had been focused on her father. Justin arrived about that time behind them and saw Alex’s mother hiss something to her daughter. The next thing that happened, Justin would still be amazed about for months later. He watched Alex’s eyes narrow in disgust and anger and in front of the entire lobby, friends and family, hauled back and slapped her mother full across the face.

Chapter 15

After the slap reverberated through the lobby, Alex took a step back from her mother. Her eyes widened in shock as she focused on the spot on her mother’s cheek that just seemed to grow redder as time passed. "Mom…"

Her mother’s eyes narrowed as her hand slowly moved to her cheek. "Alexandra…"

Her father rested an arm across the back of her mother’s shoulders and drew her closer to his side, effectively cutting her off. "I’m very disappointed in you, Alexandra. We’ve only wanted the best for you."

Alex’s eyes widened. It was time to be honest. "The best for me, daddy? You call leaving me to live with my aunt, the best when all I wanted to do was live with you? Or how about never calling unless its to tell me you won’t be able to make it out to see me or never writing unless its about YOUR social climbing? What about missing my sixteenth birthday cause another actor’s daughter was getting married? Why did I end up raising myself if all you wanted was the best for me?"

Her mother watched her face closely not saying a word, just watching her husband and daughter react to each other.

"Alexandra, you know we would’ve been there if we could and Ann was the best option for you to stay with."

"My best option was you! Why can’t you realize that?" Alex asked her voice raising in almost hysterics at finally getting this out in the open. "I never wanted to be with her and every time I told you so, you pushed me away."

Alex had tears streaming down her face by this time. "Every time I tried to get close to you, you moved farther away and called less frequently. Don’t you love me? Have you EVER?"

Her mother finally had enough. "Alex, this is not the place. You are making a scene."

Alex looked her mother straight in the eye and sneered, "But, mother, that’s what you live for is scenes. You don’t live for your daughter, obviously."

"That’s not true. Lets take this some place else and discuss this like adults."

"You know what…I’ve had enough with acting like an adult my whole life. For once, I’m going to act my age."

"I refuse to discuss anything with you, Alex, until you become rational again." Her mother sniffed and turned her back on her, trying to weave her way through the shocked crowd.

Alex was stunned. Her mother had turned her back on her. Tears started to well up again in her eyes as she watched her mother walk away and she swiped furiously at them. "You know what, mother, you can be a real bitch sometimes."

She saw her mother’s back stiffen but she didn’t turn around and kept walking.

Her father turned sad eyes on her. "I’m sorry, Alex. We haven’t been the best parents in the world, but we honestly…"

He reached out to her and she brushed his arm away and took off through the lobby. Her moment to finally tell her mother off and she had turned her back on her. Had she ever loved or cared about her? Or was she just a duty, something to have to fulfill the life of an actress?

Justin rocked back on his heels as he watched the entire exchange. He wanted to jump in there and lend his support but he was still a little stunned to find out that Alex’s parents were even here. Why hadn’t she told him? Didn’t she trust him?

He figured she had wanted this confrontation to happen but he didn’t understand the secrecy. The moment her mother turned her back on her, he watched her crumble. The backbone of steel she had, turned to mush in an instant and he as well as everyone else saw her bat her father’s offer of forgiveness away and tear out of the ballroom.

He didn’t know what to do. Should he follow her or give her time?

"Someone should go and make sure she’s all right, don’t you think?" A voice said from behind him as he stared out the door.

He turned around and found Anthony leaning against a pillar. After Alex had run from the room, everyone went back to the party, trying to forget the dramatic scene that had taken place.

"Yeah, someone should." Justin said, eyeing the older man.

"I’m thinking someone who’s close and truly cares about her should go."

"But that could be one of many people."

"True, but only one person in this room would do just about anything for her, don’t you agree?"

Justin hesitated. Would he do anything for her? To see her smile again, to watch the sadness disappear as she mood lifted, to take all her worries away from her and shoulder them himself? Yes, he would do all that and more for her.

Anthony watched the boy hesitate and struggle with his answer. "She probably ran to her favorite spot. Try Central Park but then again she might have gone to her hotel room, she does tend to hole herself up when she’s upset."

"I’ve noticed that about her. Thanks."

"I just want her to be happy and it’s nice to see her smile like she does when she’s with you."

Justin nodded his head and took off out the door toward Central Park. He wanted to try there first, cause he figured she’d want to be outside, and then he’d head back to the hotel.

He caught a taxi and after they pulled up, gave the driver a twenty before jumping out and sprinting into the park. He walked up and down the trails, looking for a blonde girl in a green dress but hardly anyone was out that night in the park. He saw a couple walking hand in hand and wished he could find Alex at that moment but still no luck.

He headed over to the rink and saw people skating. Some were holding hands, some were playing chase and the little kids kept falling down but picking themselves up with a big grin. He thought he saw a lone figure watching the skaters from the other side but he couldn’t be sure if it was she from where he was.

He walked around for another hour before giving up and heading back to the hotel. He had even called once but no one had answered. Holding his coat in one hand and her shawl tossed over his arm, he walked slowly into the hotel, hoping she was there and that she was all right.

He punched the button for the tenth floor and sighed as the doors closed. He ran a hand across his face in frustration and then jammed his fingers into his curly hair. I hope she’s here.

He walked down the hall and paused in front of her door. He didn’t know what he’d do if she wasn’t there but he had to make sure. He raised his hand to knock just as the door swung open to reveal a fully dressed Alex carrying her suitcase, that he didn’t notice at first.

"Justin?" Alex eyes widened in shock as she took in the body standing before her.

He leaned against the doorway for support as he slumped in relief but then he noticed the suitcase. "That’s me, the guy you ditched two hours ago. Where are you going?" He asked tiredly, trying to get his emotions under control.

"I…I…"

"I have just spent the last two hours looking for you in Central Park and beyond. The whole time you were here and I was searching. I tried calling and you didn’t answer, and, NOW you were going to leave without saying goodbye…"

"Justin, let me…"

He held up a hand to keep her quiet. "I’m not finished. Since I’ve been out looking, I’ve also had plenty of time to think things through. I still haven’t come up with a reason for why you didn’t tell me your parents were here but I do know that it has pissed me off. I was going to let it go, because you’re you, but…" He gestured toward the suitcase. "I think its time to talk."

He looked up at her for the first time and she could see the frustration and pent up anger in his eyes.

"I have given you everything. I have given you time, patience, trust, as much attention as you needed, and all the love in my heart and all you do is toss that back in my face by not trusting me enough to stand by you."

His stare seared into her eyes then he pushed himself from the doorway and moved her out the way as he stepped in and closed the door behind him.

He took one look at her dressed in her coat, suitcase forgotten at her feet and stalked to the window and stared down at the lights of New York City. "I gave you everything I had to give in the hope that you would someday return it and all you can do is run. Why Alex? Is it me? Is it something I did? Wasn’t I enough?"

He gripped the window hang until his knuckles turned white then brought his hand down hard on it in frustration as he sighed in defeat.

 

"Justin, I’ve just always…"

He whirled around to face her. "You’ve always been on your own and never have had to face up to the fact that there are people who care about you. You aren’t on your own, never have been, and never will be. Just because your parents ditched you and don’t love you enough, doesn’t mean that others feel the same way. Open your eyes and realize that, little one. People DO care." He spat at her before turning back to the window.

"I never knew…" She started, unprepared for his attack.

"Yeah, well, maybe cause all you see is yourself." He said quietly.

Alex flinched. "That was a little harsh, Justin."

He turned back to look at her. "Maybe that’s what you need. Someone to show you the truth instead of coddling you all the time."

"I’m not selfish, if that’s what you’re trying to say." Alex said quietly, trying to contain her own temper so that she didn’t say things that she might regret. His was boiling beneath the surface; ready to explode, and having them both battle ready wouldn’t help the situation any.

"No, you are just so caught up in your own pain, that you can’t see what’s right in front of your face. I am so sick of coming in second to that. All day you are all I think about, how to help you, how to get you to see me as a guy instead of the person who is always there to bring you back up. I’m sick of it! You are such a strong individual, and tonight proved it to me, but you just can’t see it, all you see is pain. I don’t even know if I want to try any…" He stopped, unable to go on because of the look on her face.

Alex flinched again at his words and all the blood drained from her face. She wrapped her arms around her stomach, trying to hide inside herself. She felt like her world was crumbling around her. First her parents and now Justin…Everyone was turning against her just as she had predicted from the beginning.

Justin walked up to her and stood about an inch from her. He reached out and grabbed her chin, bringing her gaze up to meet his.

He looked into her green eyes and saw helplessness, despair and hurt, but also anger. The same things that were rolling around in his own heart were mirrored in her gaze. His anger drained away at the hurt in her eyes and all he wanted to do was wrap his arms around her and protect her.

"Alex, I…"

She wrenched her chin out of his hand and took a few steps back. "Don’t you apologize to me. Don’t apologize for finally being truthful after all this time. You told me you’d wait, that you cared about me, but you’re just like everyone else. You can’t take being around me."

Justin watched her stalk around the room. "That’s not true. I love…"

She whirled around to face him. "No, you don’t. Otherwise, you couldn’t have said what you just did to me."

"Just because you love someone, doesn’t mean that you can’t be truthful." He questioned, thoroughly confused.

"So you see me as a selfish person, too caught up in her own problems to care about anyone else? Is that what you’re saying!"

"NO, that’s not what I said."

"Yes it is."

"Okay, maybe I did say that, but what I was trying to say is…"

"Don’t even bother. I’ve heard enough from you. Get out." She turned her back on him, shutting him out from her vision and life.

Justin ran his hands across his face, trying to gain control of the situation. How does this always turn back on me? We almost lost Erin due to our anger and now I’m losing Alex too because of it.

"Alex, listen, I didn’t handle this very well. Some things I probably shouldn’t have said and I’m sorry I hurt you. That wasn’t my intention. I just wanted to make sure you were all right but then I saw the suitcase and I flipped and now…" He rushed the words out, getting desperate because he had heard the finality in her words.

He walked over to her and settled his hands on her shoulders. "Just listen to me."

She shrugged out of his grip and walked over to the bathroom. She paused on her way in, resting one hand on the doorjamb, and said, "You said I can’t see anything besides my own pain, but that’s not true. I was able to see you and I was able to let you into my heart. I may not be able to say the words like you did this evening but they are there somewhere."

Justin felt like someone had ripped his heart out and danced a jig on it when he heard the deadness in her voice. "Alex…"

She held up a hand. "Now, I’m not finished. I went through a lot tonight and I may not have handled the situation well either but what you said…you had NO RIGHT. Honestly, I don’t know why I didn’t tell you that they would be here. Maybe I thought you already had figured it out due to their ties to the play or maybe I just thought you would talk me out of it. I don’t know, but what happened, happened."

She took a shaky breath and gripped the doorjamb tighter. Justin saw her shoulders begin to shake and wanted to go to her so bad, but he had screwed up.

"I don’t think it would be wise for us to see each other again, Justin. I… When I come back out of this bathroom, I want you gone."

"But, just let me…"

"You’ve explained enough. Goodbye." She walked into the bathroom and shut the door quietly.

Justin lost all feeling in his knees and sank to the floor. He buried his head in his hands, taking deep breaths to get himself under control. After several minutes, he picked himself up and walked to the door. He paused for the briefest of seconds, debating whether to go or stay. He stuck his hands in his pockets, finding the box that held Alex’s gift from him. He crossed back to the small bedside table and set it there for her. He stopped outside the bathroom and whispered, "For what its worth, Alex, I’m sorry." Then left the room, shutting the door behind him.

Alex slid down the bathroom door, no longer trying to stop the tears. "I’m sorry too, Justin." She whispered.

She knew in her head that it had been worry and anger mostly speaking from him just a moment ago, but in her heart, it had cut her deeply, and she couldn’t understand what could have possessed him to say those things. He had always been very considerate and caring of her feelings and she had told him in the beginning, it was going to take time. Time for her to come out of her shell and to be able to trust again.

She did trust Justin and was beginning to open up with the guys instead of just being a superficial friend, and then all hell had to break loose.

She picked herself up off the floor and looked at herself in the mirror. Her hair had fallen down and her make-up, well there was no saving that. Mascara was smeared almost all the way down to her cheekbones and the paleness on her face made it stand out like she was raccoon.

She grabbed a washcloth and began scrubbing the make-up off. She rubbed one cheek and then the other and when she finished, she was stunned at the expression that was on her face. The only way to describe how she looked was to say that she looked dead. She knew that she was numb but to see it on her face drove home the fact about how much she was hurting.

She ran a hand through her hair and it got caught in a snag about midway through and that’s when she lost it. Her face crumbled and the tears wouldn’t stop. She gripped the side of the sink until her knuckles turned white, but even that didn’t stop the pain.

She side swept everything on the counter and tossed it on the floor, breaking most of the bottles. She picked up a perfume bottle and threw it as hard as she could at the mirror because she couldn’t stand to look at herself any longer and watched it shatter. Shards of glass went everywhere from where it hit and then the rest splintered into long streaks.

She looked around at the room, staring at the destruction in shock. She caught her reflection in the broken mirror again and the wide-eyed look on her face scared her. She had always been able to control her temper but this time as she surveyed the room, she hadn’t been.

She didn’t hear anything coming from the other room and figured Justin had left and opened the door. She wiped furiously at the tears that were threatening to fall again and crossed the room to pick up her suitcase. She walked over to the phone and picked it up, dialing the desk.

"Has my cab arrived yet? This is room 1034."

"Yes mam, it has."

"Thank you."

She sat down on the bed and pulled out a number from her purse and dialed what was written.

"Hello?"

"Erin?"

"Yes, this is she."

"Hi, this is Alex… Justin’s Alex?"

"I know who you are, silly girl. What’s up? Thought you two were supposed to be in New York or something."

"We are. I…I need a favor."

Erin heard the desperation in the girl’s voice and wondered what had happened. "Sure, I told you, if you ever needed anything…or just wanted to talk…"

"Can you come and pick me up at the airport in a few hours and maybe let me crash on your couch until we all leave for Hawaii? I know it’s a big thing to ask and everything but I have no one else to turn to." Alex rushed out before she lost her nerve.

Erin leaned back on the couch stunned at the request. "Sure, honey. I’ve even got an extra bedroom for you. What flight will you be on?"

Alex gave her the details and hung up. She surveyed the room one last time and her gaze fell on a small wrapped box that was almost hidden behind the phone. She slowly picked it up, unwrapping it carefully. Inside was a black box and when she opened it; she found a small necklace with the theatrical masks, one happy, one sad, as the pendant. The tears that had been threatening spilled over but she pulled it together long enough to put it in her pocket and walk down to the lobby to catch her cab.

The next morning, Justin awoke with a splitting headache. He glanced over at the clock, grimacing as the digital read 9 AM. He had hardly slept at all and was paying for it this morning.

He reached over and grabbed the phone, dialing the desk. "Good Morning, This is Mary."

"Hi, Mary, this is Justin in room 1036. Can you tell me if Alex Larson in room 1034 has checked out yet."

"Just a moment, sir. I’m sorry, sir, but she checked out late last night. Is there anything else I can help you with?"

"No, that’s it, but thank you." He slowly hung up the phone and leaned back, throwing an arm over his eyes to block out the light.

How did it get so messed up last night? Well, Timberlake, obviously you pulled a real smooth move there last night. How could you have been SO stupid?

He rolled over and grabbed the phone again, dialing a number he knew by heart.

"Someone had better be seriously injured or dead."

"Morning, JC."

JC groaned and rolled over to check the time before putting the phone back to his ear. "Justin, what’s up? Aren’t you supposed to be in New York, getting it on with a certain blonde female."

"Yeah well, that little bird has flown the coop and I need someone to pick me up at the airport. After yesterday, I don’t think I’ll be able to look my mom in the eye so I needed someone that won’t say anything to get me."

JC raised an eyebrow at this statement. "And you called me because…"

"Look, I just need a friend right now, can you do it?"

"Sure, J. No problem. You alright?" He asked, concern written all over his face, although the younger man couldn’t see him through the phone.

Justin ran a hand across his face. "Yeah, I will be. God, JC, I screwed up so bad last night."

"Look, get yourself cleaned up and take it easy on the way to the airport. I’ll see you in a couple of hours and we’ll talk then."

"Thanks, I knew I could count on you."

"Later."

Justin hung up the phone and slowly rolled out of bed. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and just about died. If only his fans could see him now. His curls stood up every which way, dark circles were apparent under his eyes, he needed to shave and he basically looked like death warmed over.

Oh, Alex, I’m so sorry…

A few hours later, Justin walked off the plane and saw his friend standing off to the side, trying to be inconspicuous. They were both wearing baseball caps pulled low over their eyes, sunglasses, even though the lights were low in the airport, nondescript sweatshirts and jeans. Their outfit of choice when without bodyguards.

JC waved him over and the two left without saying a word.

Justin slumped back into his friend’s seat in his Jeep, wishing that he could crawl into a hole. He kept replaying last night’s events in his head, trying to figure out what he could have done differently and playing the what if game.

"Do you want me to take you home or is there somewhere else you want to go?" JC asked, breaking into Justin’s thoughts.

"Home, I guess. I doubt she’s there, although I don’t know where else she could have gone. Maybe back to her roommates or somewhere…" He muttered softly.

JC glanced over at Justin and noticed how tired and ragged his friend looked. "You want to talk about it?"

Justin leaned his head back against the seat and sighed. "I screwed up. That’s it in a nutshell. Alex’s parents were there, which I had no idea about, and they got into it in the middle of the party and she took off. I searched for almost two hours for her and when I found her, she was just about ready to leave to come back here. I flipped and went off on her and then we got into it and now she’s not speaking to me." He rushed out trying to fit the story into its simplest terms.

JC didn’t say a thing for awhile, just letting the story wash over him. "Why did you flip?"

"I don’t know." Justin stared out the window, watching trees and roadside pass by.

"I think you do."

Justin looked over at the groupmate who probably knew him better than anyone else besides maybe Chris. "I love her, JC"

"We all know how you feel, man, but does she?"

"I told her last night, but then turned around told that she was only concerned about her own and no one else."

"Oh, I’m sure that made her sit up and take notice of you."

"Yeah, it made her sit and up and throw me out of her room."

"We all do stupid things when we’re running scared and are out of our minds over someone."

"Yeah I seem to remember you telling Erin that you could fire her whenever you felt like it and all of your fights…"

"We’ve had some doozies, alright."

Justin laughed. "I think that’s an understatement if I’ve ever heard one."

"I’m just trying to tell you that it happens and everyone moves on, just give her time."

"I don’t know if I have time."

JC frowned as he checked his mirror and changed lanes. "What do you mean?"

"Her last night of work is New Years, the tour is done and she goes back to school." He looked back out the window, his thoughts returning back to Alex.

"Then you had better do something by then or you’ll lose her."

"I know, but what?"

"You’ll think of something, J. You always do. You helped Erin and I out more times than I can count, all you have to do is ask and we’ll return the favor."

JC pulled into Justin’s driveway and cut the engine. He looked over at his young friend and saw him staring at the door of his house. "Your mom isn’t going to kill you, y’know." He told him smiling.

"I know. She…Alex… they…"

"They get along but your mom will understand."

Justin nodded. "Right."

He opened the door and stepped out. "Thanks, man." He walked up the driveway to the front door, pausing outside before taking a deep breath and opening it.

JC watched him enter the house before turning the Jeep back on. He backed out of the driveway and headed the opposite direction from where his apartment was to an apartment complex across town. It was time to get the other side of the story whether she wanted to give it or not.

Chapter 16

He whirled around to face her. "You’ve always been on your own and never have had to face up to the fact that there are people who care about you. You aren’t on your own, never have been, and never will be. Just because your parents ditched you and don’t love you enough, doesn’t mean that others feel the same way. Open your eyes and realize that, little one. People DO care." He spat at her before turning back to the window.

"I never knew…" She started, unprepared for his attack.

"Yeah, well, maybe cause all you see is yourself." He said quietly.

Alex flinched. "That was a little harsh, Justin."

He turned back to look at her. "Maybe that’s what you need. Someone to show you the truth instead of coddling you all the time."

"I’m not selfish, if that’s what you’re trying to say." Alex said quietly, trying to contain her own temper so that she didn’t say things that she might regret. His was boiling beneath the surface; ready to explode, and having them both battle ready wouldn’t help the situation any.

"No, you are just so caught up in your own pain, that you can’t see what’s right in front of your face. I am so sick of coming in second to that. All day you are all I think about, how to help you, how to get you to see me as a guy instead of the person who is always there to bring you back up. I’m sick of it! You are such a strong individual, and tonight proved it to me, but you just can’t see it, all you see is pain. I don’t even know if I want to try any…" He stopped, unable to go on because of the look on her face.

Alex jerked awake as she re-lived Justin’s words from the night before in her dream. Her head pounded and it took every ounce of strength that she had to even lift her head off the pillow to look over at the clock. 11 AM, it read, she groaned and rolled over, pulling the pillow with her to cover her head. If she had stayed at the hotel, she would just be touching down at the airport with Justin. As it was, her fight had gotten in last night at almost four and then she had cried herself to sleep at about six that morning.

She was just about asleep when a knock on the window woke her up. She pulled the pillow off her head and glanced at the window but no one was there that she could see. She listened for a little bit, wondering if the person would knock again but it was silent. She pulled the pillow back over her face but right before she dozed off again, a knock on the window was heard.

She sat straight up in bed and glared at the window. "Go away, no one is home." She yelled and flopped back under the covers, burying her head against the bright sunlight.

KNOCK

Alex groaned and reached over, grabbed the extra pillow and threw it at the window. "I said, there isn't anyone home so go away." She mumbled, trying to tune out the next knock so she could get some sleep.

KNOCK

Alex's eyes popped open. "That's it! Whoever is on the other side of that window is going to die."

She threw the covers off of her and stalked to the window and yanked it open. Just as she pulled the window up, a bird flew into the room and started flying about. Alex screamed as the bird tried to land in her messy hair, then tossed her hands in the air as she made a mad dash to get away from the bird.

Erin rolled over, shrieking penetrating her subconscious. Her hand reached out of its own volition, grabbing the clock and throwing it across the room until it hit the wall and broke into several pieces. When the noise didn't stop, she opened one eye then the other, trying to get her bearings.

She rubbed her eyes, trying to wake up and place the sound of shattering glass. The last time I heard a noise like that was when Chris placed one of those bald wigs on JC"s head while he was asleep and he woke up thinking that Chris had shaved his head.

She slowly climbed out of bed and padded down the hall, intent on shutting the noise up so that she could go back to bed.

She was just about to Alex’s door when it flew open and Alex emerged batting at her hair.

Erin crooked an eyebrow up at her. "Are you alright?"

Alex glanced up to find the older girl staring tiredly but amused at her. "No, I'm not. I have a robin nesting in my hair."

She stopped batting at her hair and pointed to the bird that was now perched on the top of her head, picking strands and wrapping them around it while fluttering its wings and pecking at Alex every time she moved her hands.

Erin's eyes widened at the site and then she dissolved into giggles. She pointed at Erin and tried to get anything intelligible out but it was useless. "You…Oh… That's just...I can't...Impossible."

Alex stopped batting at the bird to glare at Erin. "Well, you are certainly a big help."

Erin just kept giggling before sliding down the wall, clutching at her sides.

Alex sent another death glare at Erin before stomping into the kitchen. "Do you have any scissors?"

Erin stopped laughing at that statement. "Scissors, what for?"

"To get this mess out of my hair."

"Oh no, you can't cut your beautiful hair. There has to be another way." Erin jumped up and ran into the kitchen to stop her.

"I don't think there is." She said with tears in her eyes and pointed to the top of her head that looked like a huge knot with a bird planted in the middle.

Erin looked at the younger girl and sighed. "Let me do it."

She grabbed the scissors out of a drawer and took Alex into the bathroom and set her down on the toilet. The robin's feet were all tangled up in Alex's hair, the reason behind the bird not flying off, and Erin carefully pried the bird loose and walked into Alex's room and sent it back out the window.

She walked back into bathroom and saw Alex gently pulling at strands that were not going to come un-done.

"Don't watch." Erin said softly and after making sure Alex's eyes were closed began to snip away at all the tangles.

**************************************************

JC pulled into the parking lot of Erin's apartment building and parked. He walked up the two flights of stairs and hoped that his hunch about Alex being here was right, but if it wasn't…well he wouldn't mind seeing Erin anyway at this time in the morning, he thought with a grin and knocked on the door.

"Would you mind getting that, while I finish with this?" He heard yelled from within and congratulated himself for being so smart.

His celebration was short-lived though when the door opened. "What did you do to your hair?" He blurted out before he could stop himself.

Standing before him was Alex, but instead of having long hair to the middle of her back, it was cut about chin length with very frayed edges and some chunks were longer and some shorter. In essence, it looked like a meat cleaver had been taken to it.

Alex eyes welled up with tears again for the millionth time that morning. "A…well…see…"

Erin came to the door, drying her hands. "Way to be smooth, slick." She stated, pulling him inside.

JC allowed Erin to pull him inside but his eyes remained on Alex’s head. "Is someone going to explain?"

Erin looked at Alex and smiled sympathetically and then launched into the tale of the robin and its idea of a nest.

JC tried not to laugh and it took every ounce of his being not to crack a smile while Erin told him about her morning wake up call and finding Alex in the hall. But, one look at Alex’s face and the way that she gently pulled at the strands as if to try to make them longer, broke his heart. Her hair was her trademark.

He leaned over, trying to catch her eye. "It’ll look better once we get Erin’s handiwork all cleaned up. It was just a shock."

She smiled. "Yeah for me too."

Alex stood up and excused herself to the bathroom, giving Erin the perfect opportunity to ask JC why he was there.

"So…" She asked, eyeing him inquisitively.

"What?" His eyes widened in innocence.

Her eyes narrowed as her body leaned forward. "You know something. What’s up?"

He leaned back, placing his hands behind his head. "I know nothing."

Erin had to crack a smile at that comment. "Ain’t that the truth, sweetie."

"Hey!"

"Just agreeing with you." She smiled. "So, seriously, why are you here at this early time? I didn’t think you knew how to get up before noon on your day off."

He grimaced in remembrance of HIS early wake up call that morning. "I don’t, but some miserable 18 year old curly headed friend of ours does and needed to know if someone could pick him up at the airport this morning."

"Ah, yes. The brat who doesn’t know when to shut up and just keeps digging himself a bigger hole." Erin frowned.

"Red, you know he meant well, he just kinda…"

"Lost his temper? Yeah, I know a few of you who tend to do that."

"I don’t have a temper."

"Right, keep telling yourself that. I seem to remember a few times when…"

"Okay, you’ve made your point." He said, interrupting her. He grew serious before continuing. "He’s really hurting."

"So is she." Erin told him. After Alex had explained in the car on the ride home, Erin had wanted to take a baseball bat to the kid for his timing and his mouth. He just didn’t know when to stop.

"Well, she could’ve…" JC began.

Erin held her hand up to silence him. "Josh, don’t even start there. You and I both know Justin really well, the kid has no tack when he’s either worried about someone or upset. He was both that night and was completely in the wrong. Yeah, maybe Alex shouldn’t have packed and fled but after going through that with her parents and then Justin, well… I think she needs some time to figure things out and find out where she belongs. I know she certainly doesn’t feel comfortable around any of us, including me because of association, but I was her only hope."

JC nodded. "She needs to find out who she is and move on. I don’t think her and Justin can even be together until she does that."

"It’ll be good for her to get back to school and everything after New Years."

"I still think they should talk though before we leave."

Erin shook her head. "I don’t want him near her right now."

JC raised an eyebrow at her. "Are you protecting her from the big bad wolf or the Justin that we know and love?"

"Josh, I’m serious. Don’t tell him you know where she is."

"And if I do?"

She looked him straight in the eye. "I’ll never talk to you again." She stood up and left the room in search of Alex and to see if she was ready to go and get her hair cut yet again, leaving JC with his mouth hanging open in shock and Alex running back to the bathroom, trying not to be caught eavesdropping.

 

Two days later

"Should I call her…" Justin sat on his bed, holding the phone in his hand. "It's been a couple of days, plenty of time to cool off."

He looked up at the ceiling and flopped onto his back. "What am I going to do?" He said aloud. "Call or not to call, that is the question…"

"You really are pathetic if you're changing quotes to suit yourself." A voice called from the doorway.

He looked up to see Lance standing in his doorway. He motioned him inside and Lance shut the door behind him.

Lance sat at Justin's desk and looked at the younger man. "What's up?"

Justin shook his head. "Haven't called her yet. I want to but…"

"But your scared she's going to tear every one of your precious curls out of your head?"

"No, Alex wouldn't do that. She'd just stare through me and act like I didn't exist and then cut me down at the knees when I wasn't looking."

Lanced laughed. "Vindictive…I like."

Justin glared at him but didn't say anything.

"So… are you going to call?" Lance asked, leaning back in the chair.

Justin took a deep breath and nodded. He grabbed the number for her old dorm room and dialed.

"Hello?" An unfamiliar voice answered.

"Hi, Alex there?"

"I'm sorry, no she isn't. Can I ask who's calling?"

"Do you know when she'll be back?" Justin asked, dodging the question.

"Not until next quarter, but the next time I see her I'll let her know you called, and this would be…"

"Justin. Tell her Justin called."

"Well, well, well. If it isn't THE Justin Timberlake… How does it feel to be the biggest ass in the world?"

Justin wanted to hit his head on the table. "Not great. Since you know who this is, may I have the same opportunity?"

"This is Mandy. You'll be seeing me tomorrow." Mandy wished he could see the sly grin on her face.

"Tomorrow? Um, you're coming to Hawaii?"

"Yup, its been planned since the beginning of the tour. It's really too bad that Alex is upset though. I don’t like it when Alex is upset, so you better watch it boy-o. You may be God's gift to the teeny-boppers but that won't phase me." Too much.

"Great…uh…it'll be nice to finally meet the girl that Alex always talks about."

"Sure that's what you were thinking… but, anyway, she's not here, hasn't been here, and won't be here until after the tour. Wrong number, Justin. Try, try again." Mandy laughed and then hung up on him.

Justin heard the dial tone in his ear and stared at the reciever. What had just happened? He looked over at Lance who was trying not to laugh at the shocked expression on Justin's face and shrugged. "Guess she wasn't there?"

Justin frowned. "Well, where is she then… you don't think she went to Seattle do you?"

Lance turned the option over in his head. "She and Jason were pretty close. It's worth a shot."

Justin nodded and dug through his address book, looking for the number that Jason had given him if he had ever needed to get a hold of him. He finally found it and dialed.

"Hello?"

"Hi, may I speak to Jason?"

"Sure, just a moment."

After a few seconds, a voice he hadn't heard in a long time answered.

"Hey Jason. This is Justin."

"Hey! How are ya?"

"Good and yourself?"

"Doing all right. I'm enrolled at the University of Washington for next quarter and working part time at my parent's shop. I miss everyone but this was a good idea, all things considering."

"Good, good. Um, you wouldn't have heard from Alex by chance, would you?"

"Alex? No, I haven't heard from her since I called to tell her that I was staying out here." Justin could hear the sadness in his voice but his question had been answered.

"Well, we're having a hard time trying to find her before we leave for our last concert and thought maybe she had gone to visit you."

"She's not answering her cell or anything? That's not like her."

"I'm sure she's fine and just hiding out. Well, it was nice talking to you man. Take care out there in the territories. Don't let the Indians and Cowboys get ya." Justin teased.

Jason groaned. "Oh gee thanks. Yeah it was nice hearing from you too. Keep in touch, K."

"Will do, later."

Justin hung up and glared at the phone. "I finally get the courage to call and she disappears off the face of the earth. Where could she be?"

Lance shrugged. "I dunno, dude." He looked at his watch. "But, we do have rehearsal in less than an hour so we should get going."

"Right. Just let me grab my clothes and we can go." Justin got up off the bed to grab his dance clothes. Where is she?

"Justin! Get it together!" JC called from across the dance studio. "We've done this a million and one times, how can you be screwing it up?"

"I've just got things on my mind."

"Well focus."

"Yes daddy!" Justin said sarcastically then saluted before getting back in formation for 'I Want You Back'.

JC shot him a dirty look but didn't say anything. Darren counted off the beats for them and the first strains of their hit song filled the studio and as soon as Justin's voice came over the speakers they began the choreography, but for the third time in a row, Justin was late and got behind by three beats.

They all stopped and stared at the younger man. He looked around the room. "What?"

Darren shook his head. "J, you never miss a beat. What's up? Need a break?"

He shook his head no. "I'm fine. Just give me a few minutes to clear my head and we can start over."

Darren nodded and held up five fingers meaning five minutes.

Justin walked over to the fountain to get a drink of water and could feel his group mates eyes staring at him while he walked away. He slowly took a drink, taking his time, before standing up and turning around.

"WHAT?!" He threw his arms out wildly to the side showing his exasperation.

Lance just shook his head and walked over to his bag to grab a towel while the rest of them continued to watch Justin and to see if he'd finally tell them what was up with him.

"There's nothing wrong guys." He told them as he walked back across the studio.

"Seriously nothing." They still weren't saying anything, but all headed in different directions, to their bag, to the fountain, to sit down.

"I don't know what you guys are so concerned about." Justin continued, rambling on in the quiet of the studio.

Joey glanced over at JC and Chris but both shook their heads no, then nodded over at him. He'd break soon. Darren watched the kid wander around the studio, talking to the guys and himself about how he was fine and nothing was wrong and decided to give them some more time until he finally got whatever was on his mind out in the open.

"Okay, maybe I do have some things on my mind. I'm a little concerned about how the show is going to go in Hawaii, I mean some of it will be live and what if something goes wrong cause the crew messes up or something."

JC gave him a weird look. "The crew isn't going to mess up. They're arriving ahead of us to get everything in order and to scope the place out."

"I know, but still…"

Chris smiled evilly at his group mate that was now pacing back and forth in the studio. "Maybe it might make you fell better, reassure you if you will, if you call a certain blonde and tell her not to drop us and then you'll be okay."

Justin ran his fingers through his hair. "If I could get a hold of her I would…" He muttered but loud enough for Joey to pick it up.

"Problems…" He grinned.

Justin shot him a dirty look. "None that concern you, clown."

Chris laughed. "You're going to die, clown." He said in his best Adam Sandler impersonation.

Everyone laughed but Justin. "He doesn't know where she is and its eating him up inside." Lance said from his spot against the wall with his eyes closed.

"Ah… now we're getting somewhere." Joey rubbed his hands together in eagerness.

Chris wrapped an arm around Justin's shoulders. "Let us help… "

JC watched Justin give up and almost slump against the older man. "I've tried everywhere I can think of. I don't know where she could have gone. I realize that I'll see her in Hawaii but she's good at hiding and I just want to apologize. I have to make everything better because I can't lose her, she means everything to me."

JC wanted to help but he had promised Erin. Justin had to find her on his own and they had to work through their difficulties on their own.

Chris thought long and hard. "So the last time you saw her was at the hotel… call the hotel up and ask if they can look up who she called or who called her."

Justin's eyes widened. "Brilliant, Chris. Absolutely brilliant!"

Hr ran across the room and practically slid to where his bag was to grab his cell. The reciept was still in wallet and he pulled that out, dialed the number and waited for someone to pick up.

"Hello? Four Seasons hotel, how may I help you?"

"Hi, my name is Justin Timberlake and I was a guest at the hotel a few days ago…"

"Justin Timberlake….THE Justin Timberlake?! Oh My GOD! I am such a fan!" The girl began to shriek and he had to hold the phone away from his ear. The guys laughed at his grimace but held it back when he finally put it back up.

"Thanks. I need some help. A friend of mine was also staying at the hotel at the same time but I can't get a hold of her and thought that maybe an emergency came up. I was wondering if you could take a look at the phone calls that she made or were made to her room and give me the numbers."

"I'm sorry. That's against hotel regulations, I could get fired."

Justin's face fell. "Um…Thanks. I wouldn't want you to get fired. I'm just really worried about her is all. Thanks for your time."

He almost hung up before he heard a faint, "Wait." "Yes?"

"What they don't know won't hurt them. What was her room number and name?"

Justin smiled triumphantly over at the guys. "Alex Larson in room 1034."

JC began to sweat. Erin will believe me, I hope. Justin did find her on his own. No help from me at all.

"So, only one long distance phone call was made. Can you read that to me? Uh huh… uh huh…" Justin wrote it down and paused after the last digits were written down before turning slowly to look at JC.

"Thanks, sweetheart. You've been a big help. Good bye." Justin hung up before turning around to look at the guys and especially at JC.

"You knew!" Justin stalked over to stand in JC's face. "Why didn't you tell me?"

Chris, Lance and Joey all looked at each other and shrugged. "What number did she call, Curly?" Joey asked.

"ERIN'S!" Justin shouted. "And this guys knew it the entire time and didn't say anything!"

JC held up his hands in defense. "I couldn't, J. It wasn't my place."

Justin didn't say a word as he started dialing the number he had called to many times to count. He continued to glare at JC as he listened to it ring, once, twice, three times before the machine picked up.

"Hi, You've reached Erin. I'm not hear to take your call but if you leave a brief message and your number, I'll get back to you as soon as I can."

"Erin, this is Justin. I know you're harboring the fugitive. I'll be over tonight and there's no stopping me. I need to talk to her." He hung up and walked over to grab his bag and walked out of the studio.

"Well, so much for practice guys." Darren called from his perch on a stool on the far wall. He had watched the entire exchange and was a little lost on particulars.

"Guess so. Sorry for ruining rehearsal." JC called as he went to grab his bag too.

"No problem. You guys can do this in your sleep. Just be ready for the show."

They all nodded and waved as they headed out.

************************************************

Justin jumped into his car and drove to his spot. It always took a long time to get there but was always worth it. He had found this place right before NSYNC had been created by chance one evening while driving around. It was a small, secluded cove that you could drive right into and then walk down right to the water. He pulled into his parking spot and stared out at the water. It sparkled and almost seemed to jump out at a person as the waves crashed against the sand and the white caps bobbed about farther out.

He rested his forehead on the steering wheel, trying to calm down and figure out where he had messed up in the scheme of things. Too many things had gone wrong in the few months but one thing was for sure, he was still willing to risk it all for her.

He got out of the car and walked down to the edge of the water. He figured JC hadn't told him because of Erin. She meant well but always managed to stick her nose into other people's business if she cared deeply about them, she wanted everyone to be happy but she also protected those that she cared about like a wolf protects her cub. One thing you had to give her was that was she was fiercely loyal.

The sun was starting to set and the colors glistened off the water in multiple tones of orange, red, yellow and pink. The yellow reminded him of Alex's hair and how he loved to run his fingers through it. He looked around him and thought he saw another silhouette down the beach but when he looked again, they were gone. Probably just a shadow.

He sat down on the sand and watched the sun set against the water. There was nothing in the world more humbling than watching nature in its finest moments. He thought about Alex and their relationship, what there was of it. He had messed up, he knew by telling her to take her time and that he'd wait. It wasn't that he wouldn't wait. He'd wait forever for her, what he had done wrong was not confessing the entire truth of his feelings for her and not being her rock. She needed someone who could listen but tell her honestly if what she was feeling was right or wrong, someone who would be there to hold her when she down, but to laugh with her as well. She needed someone that would coddle her when she needed it but also be able to stand up to her at times. But, what she hadn't needed was someone to play her friend at all times and then try to step in as a boyfriend when it was allowed. It was either all or none. He could be her friend but he wanted to be her lover, in essence, at all costs. He'd known that from the first moment they had met.

He took a deep breath and stood up and stretched. He was ready to talk to her now and apologize for handling things poorly. Their entire relationship was a big mess and he was just as much at fault as she was. He just hoped that they'd be able to repair the damage before it was too late.

He arrived on Erin's doorstep a little while later and hesitated before knocking. Was this the right time or should he wait? Timing was everything.

He shook his head to clear his thoughts and knocked on the door. He heard rustling from inside before a rumpled Erin answered the door.

"This had better be good!" She told him. "You just woke me up from a very nice nap and my dream… I'll never get back to that fantasy now."

He smirked at her while trying not to be too obvious about glancing into the apartment. "Dreaming about Carson Daly again huh?"

She smiled. "You know it baby."

She motioned for him to come in and stepped aside to shut the door behind him. "SO, what brings you to my humble abode this evening…."

"Is Alex still here? I'm sure you heard my message."

"Relax, pop star. I haven't seen you in ages. Lets sit and catch up." She walked over and sat down on the couch.

He followed her and sat down. "What's up, Erin? You're stalling."

She sighed. "You always could read me like a book, better than Josh at times."

"That's because I'm not head over heels in love with you like he is."

She raised an eyebrow. "And why aren't you? Is there something wrong with me?"

He laughed. "No, its because a tall, blonde has taken over my heart and won't give it back to let anyone else in."

Erin expression sobered. "I'm sorry, J."

"For what?"

"She's not here."

"What?"

"She was, but she left this afternoon."

"To go where?"

Erin's heart just about broke at the heartbroken expression on his face. "She left early to go to Hawaii and to meet her roommate."

"Oh." Justin didn't say anything else but dropped his head into his hands and sighed. Erin reached over hugging him to her side, trying to take her friend's pain away from him.

"It's going to be okay, J. It has to be." She whispered.

Chapter 17

Justin looked out the window of the airplane, transfixed with the expanse of blue water that was below them. It was hard to believe that they were spending New Years in Hawaii of all places but he wouldn't trade it for the world.

The person next to him moved, trying to find a more comfortable position while sleeping, causing the person next to him to move as well since her head was resting on his shoulder. Justin glanced at the sleeping couple and banged the chair in front of him.

Chris and Joey popped over to look behind and Justin grinned slyly and pointed at them. Joey's eyes widened and he shook his head furiously in disagreement. Chris, however, smiled at Justin and held up a finger to his lips for silence. He got out into the aisle and grabbed Erin's bag, digging around in it until he found what he was looking for.

Justin tried to see what he had grabbed but couldn't lean over far enough without bumping JC.

Chris leaned over Erin and lifted her and JC's entangled hands and fingers and snapped the handcuffs around one wrist and then the other. Justin's eyes widened and he quickly covered his mouth before he burst into laughter. Chris tossed his the keys and returned to his seat, but not before tying their shoelaces together for good measure.

He sent a hand back over the seat and Justin gave him a high five. He thought this was probably one of their best pranks yet.

He glanced back over at the duo before looking back out the window. He could barely see the main island of Hawaii coming into view. The night before he hadn't gotten a wink of sleep and so today he was wired from sleep deprivation and the knowledge that he was finally going to see Alex and get to talk to her.

When he had arrived at Erin's the night before, primed to talk to Alex, he had been devastated to find her gone. Erin had been nice up until the point when she realized who was actually sitting on her couch with her. She was always easily confused and passive when she first woke up due to she was just as heavy a sleeper as JC and always walked around in a haze for about an hour until her consciousness returned.

His ears still burned from the abuse that he had gotten from her. She had ripped him up one side and down the other, telling him exactly what she thought about the entire situation and how he had handled it. He had tried to explain that he knew what he done wrong and was going to fix it, but she hadn't let him get a word in edge wise until JC had showed up at the door and then she started in on him. Something about him breaking his promise to her and her never wanting to see or hear from him again.

She had stomped into the bedroom and slammed the door, effectively telling them to get the hell out of her house, but JC had gotten stubborn and stomped after her, opening and slamming the door behind him. He had gotten out of there as fast as he could when he heard angry voices, but they must have worked things out as they were together on the flight.

Erin still wasn't happy with him, but she had told him this morning when they left that she supported him in whatever he had decided to do, but with a stern look, had told him that she didn't want that girl to be hurt anymore than she had already, otherwise he would be dealing with her. She had then boarded the plane and fallen asleep immediately. JC following her soon after. They must not have gotten much sleep the night before, he thought before looking back out the window.

"Please, if everyone could to their seats. The seat belt light will be turned on shortly and we'll be landing in a just a few minutes. Thank you for flying American Airlines." The voice of the pilot came over the loudspeakers.

Chris wiggled his fingers over the back of the seat, making Justin laugh. They started their descent and only when the wheels touched the ground and the plane started to slow down, did the jolt awaken Erin and JC.

Erin lifted her head off JC"s shoulder and looked around sleepily. Justin watched her lift her arm up to rub her eyes without even noticing the extra weight of another arm attached to hers. The aforementioned attached arm, however, did.

"Huh?" He muttered sleepily, while trying to figure out why his arm was moving on its own.

Mike and Lonny were sitting a few rows up ahead and told them to wait until everyone else was off and headed off to check on security.

Justin waited for Erin and JC to clear out of the row before grabbing his stuff, plus this way he had ringside seats for the show that was about to happen.

Erin yawned and stood up, yanking JC half out of seat and into the aisle and wide awake. "What the...ERIN!"

That made Justin, Chris and Joey crack up as Erin looked down, a dumbfounded expression on her face as JC stated incredulously back at her.

Erin, now also wide-awake, stared at their hands and turned to glare at the mischief-makers. "Chris, when I get my hands on you..."

He spread his hands out to the side. "What? I'm innocent."

JC snorted. "Yeah right. You and your co-conspirators here, better let us go or otherwise..."

Justin leaned over to where he was half sitting on the floor and his chair. He pulled the keys out of his pocket and dangled them in front of his face. "What will you do for these..." He smiled and pulled them back when JC went for them, clucking his tongue, "Uht uh, I don't think so."

JC's eyes narrowed but he didn't say anything. Erin, however, was trying to go after Justin for all she was worth, but couldn't get to him because of JC and the seats.

Justin climbed over the seats that Joey and Chris had been occupying and laughed as he grabbed his bag and stood behind the laughing hyenas. Lance was still in his row with his head-phones on, completely unaware of what was going on, until he heard a screech and jumped a foot in the air, yanking the headphones off at the same time.

"Timberlake, if you don't get me out of these in 10 seconds, I'm going to..."

Someone cleared their throat at that moment. "Am I interrupting something?" Mike asked, standing behind Justin.

"Mike, make that kid give me my keys so that Josh and I can get ourselves free." Erin demanded, one hand on her hip and one holding the offending arm in the air with JC's hand dangling from it.

"Ouch, Erin, quit yanking."

"Quit yer whinin', pop star." She yelled at him, frustrated with the whole situation.

"Don't yell at me, I didn't do it. The pranksters that can't breathe from laughter over there did it." JC yelled back at her.

"I'm not yelling!"

"YES YOU ARE!"

Mike put two fingers up to mouth and whistled loudly, silencing everyone. "Perfect. Now whoever has the keys, please release them so that we can leave the plane and head to the hotel."

Justin sighed and tossed Erin the keys. She gritted her teeth and tried to smile but it looked more like a grimace to him. "Better run, Justin...." The grimace turned into a smile as she thought about what she was going to do to him when she caught him.

Justin glanced quickly at Mike then back at Erin and took off for the front of the plane as soon as he saw her turn the key. He skidded to a stop and turned around when he heard more laughter, and an angry scream. He saw Erin and JC in a heap in the middle of the aisle, arguing, as they tried to unknot their shoes. He smiled, gave a thumbs up to Chris and exited the plane to one huge shrill scream that came from all the fans that were being held back by security as he walked into the airport.

*************************************

"Are all the hotels you stay in this nice? Damn, girl, maybe I need to change majors and go on the road." Mandy asked walking into their room from the bathroom.

"No, some are better and some are worse. It just depends." Alex shrugged while staring out the window.

Mandy flopped backwards onto the bed and let herself bounce. "What time will he be here?" She asked quietly while staring at the ceiling.

"Anytime." She said without thinking.

Mandy propped herself up on her elbow to stare at Alex. "So, you're going to stand there like a love-sick puppy until he gets here and then ignore him?"

Alex turned around to stare at her. "Huh?'

Mandy smiled and flopped backwards again. "You heard me."

"No, I didn't."

"Sure, ya did. I was asking if you were gonna stare out that window for the rest of the day or if we were going go and do something before those delicious boys of yours show up and we have to go to sound check or whatever it is you have to do today."

"That's tomorrow, today is our screw off day so we can do whatever you what to do." Alex said, sitting down in one of the chairs.

Mandy sat up with a start. "Grab your bikini cause we're going to the beach." She jumped off the bed, dug into her suitcase and headed back into the bathroom, leaving Alex shaking her head in amusement.

Alex saw the limo pull up in front of the hotel as shrugged into a short sleeved button up shirt over her bikini top. When a curly head began to emerge, she jumped away from the window, just as

Mandy appeared out of the bathroom, clad in a lime green bikini and matching shorts.

"Ready?" She asked.

Alex nodded and grabbed her bag and the two headed toward the elevator and to the beach.

"Come on, Erin. You can't ignore me for the rest of the trip."

She turned her head to glare at him in the elevator but then turned back around.

Justin stuck his face into hers, sticking his lower lip out in a pout. "Please, forgive me. It wasn't even all me, y'know."

"Oh, sure, J. Drag me down with you." Chris cracked from the other side of the elevator.

JC laughed along with everyone else but quickly cut it off when he caught Erin's eye. "Yes, dear?"

"Don't, Yes dear, me. You are still in the dog house after yelling at me earlier." She said snippily, causing everyone including JC to raise his eyebrows.

"What? You were..."

"No I wasn't."

"Were so."

"Was not."

"Were so!"

"Was not!"

"You're doing it again!"

"I am not!"

"Hey, guys?"

"WHAT?" They yelled in unison.

"Are you two going to do for the rest of the trip? Cause if you are, please do it somewhere else so that you don't ruin my vacation, please." Joey said before turning back to stare at the wall.

Erin and JC"s mouths dropped open in disbelief. Justin reached over and tapped both shut before turning to look at Lance. "Guess that was one way to shut them up."

Justin and Lance bounded into the room they were sharing. "Can you believe this place?"

Lance shook his head. "Calm down, its just like every other hotel we've been in."

"Yeah, but the view, the concert, New Years in Hawaii... what a great way and place to see 2000 in."

"I guess." Lance hung up some of his shirts in the closet.

"Oh, man. Come check out the view we've got from this window."

"What is it?" Lance walked over and immediately began to gape.

"Oh, man..." They both breathed out. Directly below their window was the beach and litterally thousands of bikini clad women.

"God certainly spent a little more time on all of them...." Justin said cheekily.

"Uh huh..." Lance commented.

"That was certainly cheesy, J." Laughed a voice behind them.

Shut up, Joey and come take a look. You'll enjoy it, believe me."

"Fine, what are you two hormonal boys looking...Oh MOMMA!"

"Exactly." Lance and Justin said at the same time.

Joey looked at them. "What are we doing up here? Lets go!" He took off for his suite next door, running at full pace and knocked JC on his butt.

"What was that about?" He asked, dusting himself off.

"The view got him excited to be in Hawaii." Lance grinned.

"What view?"

"Come here and look." Justin motioned for him to join them by the window.

"Okay, but I don't know how looking at the water could.... Oh."

Joey came running back in. "I'm ready, come on guys."

Justin and Lance looked at each other and grabbed their suits and went to change, leaving JC still staring down at the sand.

"Dude, you're gonna catch flies standing with your mouth open like that."

"Uh huh."

"Uh, Erin just walked in, you might want to..."

"Right, Joe."

"Actually, he's serious this time."

His head whipped around to find Erin standing in the doorway, a smile on her face.

"Something fascinating down there?" She asked walking towards the window.

"Um," he swallowed audibly.

"Lots of scantily clad women adorning the beach. No wonder this window needs to be cleaned." She pretended to wipe the drool off the glass.

"We were just admiring..."

She flicked his nose. "Just don't be touching." Then she turned and walked down the hall to who knows where.

"Oh, dude. I really thought you were in for it." Joey breathed out after catching his breath.

JC shook his head. "I've been in it since this trip started. Something's wrong and I don't know how to fix it."

Justin and Lance grabbed Chris before he could fall asleep and the five guys headed down to the beach. Justin caught a glimpse of navy blue and lime green heading into the elevator next to them but shook it off and headed out to the beach.

Alex came out of the bathroom, toweling her hair to find Mandy sitting in front of the television.

"You're turn."

"Wasn't that nice?" She smiled up at her.

"Yeah, it was. To just sit without having to think about anything and just soak up the rays."

"Oh yeah and to watch all the guys walk by..."

"Hornball." Alex tossed the towel at her.

"Just voicing what you were thinking..."

"Actually..."

"I know. You only have eyes for a tall, good looking blue eyed curly mopped boy who broke your heart."

"That's not what I was going to say."

"But it was what you were thinking..."

"No, it wasn't."

"Fine, deny it all you want but..."

"Mandy!"

She looked up from the television. "Yes?

"I'm not denying how I feel about him. I...but what happened, happened and we can't change it and so what we were, whatever we were is over."

"If you say so..."

Alex threw her hands up in the air. "It's impossible to talk to you. I'm going for a walk."

"Okay, but be back in time for dinner. I'll be starving in a half hour. You know you love me"

"I know. I'll be back in time, later." She laughed before closing the door behind her.

"You okay, Curly?" Lance asked.

Justin was stretched out on his bed, watching the sunset. "Yeah, just thinking."

"You could always go find her, it wouldn't be difficult."

"I know...I'm just..."

"Nervous? Worried? Upset? Concerned?"

"Can I pick all of the above?"

Lance smiled. "You certainly can."

"Then I will."

"Okay... just let it happen. The perfect time will present itself, you know."

Justin nodded. "That's why I'm laying here and not breaking down every door in search of her. She can't hide forever and we will talk, I know it."

KNOCK KNOCK

"Yo, Dinner! I'm starving!" Joey yelled through the door.

"We're coming, hold your horses." Lance called.

"I cant, they're too strong. We'll meet you down there."

"Fine."

Justin threw some shoes on and the two headed down to the dining hall. They walked in and saw their group mates sitting at a side booth, holding two seats for them. They weaved their way through the crowd and sat down.

"Can I take your order or do you need a few more minutes?"

Justin looked up. "A few more minutes miss, thanks."

He noticed the table was very quiet and wondered what had happened before he and Lance had arrived. No one was talking, Chris and Joey acted as if they were trying to hide, JC was glowering at the water glass and Erin looked as if she was about ready to cry.

"UH..." he glanced around the table, a questioning look on his face.

JC met his gaze and shook his head and rolled the glass between his hands, back and forth.

Justin looked around, trying to focus on something besides the problem at his table and that's when he saw her.

She and a tall brunette were moving through the crowd, following a waitress toward a table across the room. He was so intent that he didn't even realize the commotion that was going on at his own table, not until the water sloshed all over JC and the table.

"That's it! I can't do this anymore!" She yelled and stood up.

Everyone sat there stunned. "What?" JC whispered.

"You. Me. US. This." She swung her arms wide. "No more, I can't do this."

JC tried to grab one of her flailing hands. "Let's go somewhere and talk this over, please, just not here."

"No. I've been thinking about this since last night. I'm... I'm not happy. I’m sick of fighting, I’m sick of crying and I’m sick of you." She shook her hand out of his grasp and swiped at the tears running down her face. "I'm going back to my room, don't follow."

She turned away just as JC reached out to grab her but missed, catching her shadow instead and watched the love of his life walk away from him.

Everyone sat there stunned. "What the hell just happened?" Chris whispered to Joey.

"I'm not sure."

JC stared at the piece of jewelry that was sitting on the table in front of where she'd been sitting unable to speak or even breathe. The ring he had given her was laying in front of him, not on her hand where it was supposed to be. He slowly picked it up, turning it over and over between his fingers.

Lance watched him, the guy wasn't even blinking. "You okay, man?"

JC raised his head toward the voice and nodded. "I'm just gonna..."

Justin stood up. "We're just gonna head back to the rooms and do some talking, right, Big Daddy?"

JC nodded again and stood up shakily, slipping the ring onto his pinky as far as he could as they walked away.

Alex watched Justin escort JC out of the room and her heart broke in two. Mandy leaned forward.

"Were they..."

Alex nodded. "I always wanted what they had." She whispered.

"Oh honey... do you want to go check on them?"

She shook her head no. "It's not my place. Justin will take good care of him."

"Like he did with you?"

Alex's head jerked up and fire burned beneath the green depths. "He was a perfect gentleman and helped me see a lot of things in me that I hadn't seen before, so he screwed up one time but..."

Mandy held up a hand. "Did you just hear yourself?"

Alex looked shocked. "I...I...oh lord."

"Go talk to him, Alex. Let him know that its' not all his fault. So you both messed up, fix it and move on. He cares about you, you care about him...give yourselves a chance to be happy."

Alex sighed. "I'll think about it."

"That's all I want... it's more than you were willing to do yesterday."

"I know. Let's finish dinner and go out tonight."

"Like to a club?" Mandy's face lit up.

"Sure, why not. I don't think I've been dancing since Jason and I went..."

"Have you talked to him?"

Alex shook her head.

"Oh girl, you've got a lot of loose ends to pick up don't you?"

"Guess so."

Alex and Mandy walked down the hall toward their room when they heard pounding and saw a guy standing outside a door, far down the hall.

"Erin, please!" JC called, resting his forehead against the door.

"Go away, Josh. I don't want to talk right now."

"But, why? What went wrong? I LOVE YOU!"

"No you don't, you just think you do."

"WHAT? That is the biggest piece of garbage that you've ever fed me, this whole thing is."

"Please, just go away."

"Erin..." He cried brokenly.

Justin came out of his room and tried to pull JC into the room and away from Erin. He looked up and met Alex's tear-filled eyes and his own filled in sympathy at the situation going around them and their own.

Alex's eyes widened when she realized Justin had seen her and lowered her gaze and turned around. This wasn't the time or place. She opened the door and Mandy and her entered and shut the door.

"You still want to go out or stay and watch a movie?"

"I'm sorry, can we just stay in tonight?" Alex whispered as she sat down on the bed.

Mandy sat down beside her and pulled her close. "Of course, sweetheart. Just remember tomorrow is another day and we are going to get through this and so is everyone else."

"I know...so what do you want to watch?"

"I don't know, just flip until something good comes on."

They finally decided on MTV until the nine o clock movie came on. "Oooooh look, another crossover star!" Mandy cried. "Doncha just love Jennifer Love Hewitt?"

Alex chuckled. "No not really, change it."

"No, I actually kinda like this song, listen to it, Alex."

"I'm not in the mood for cheesy pop."

"Please..."

"Fine, turn it up."

Everyday I wake up to another day gone by

Nothing but the open roads and a never ending why

Anything can happen, yeah, but nothing ever does

I try to change, it's kinda strange

Same as it ever was...

But look at us.

And how do I deal with you

How do I deal with me

When I don't even know myself

or what it is you want from me

And how do I deal with us

How do I know what's real

When I don't even trust myself

Or what it is I feel

And how do I deal...

"Hey JC, you okay man..."

"No." He was sitting in a chair in the corner, holding his shaking hands against his head. "What happened, J? how did I lose her? I can't lose her. She's everything to me. WHAT THE HELL WENT WRONG?"

Yeah...

Every night in the dark I lie awake in bed

How am I supposed to dream

with all the static in my head

Torn in all directions and I, pray for some relief

What can I do but feel the weight I'm underneath

And grit my teeth

And how do I deal with you

How do I deal with me

When I don't even know myself

Or what it is you want from me

And how do I deal with love, (Why do i)

Why do I have to choose

Everybody's tellin me

what the hell I have to do...

And how do I deal with us

How do I know what's real

When I don't even trust myself

Or what it is I feel...

Now how do I deal...

Erin layed on her bed, curled up, spent from crying. "I'm so sorry, Josh. I'm just so scared. What if we're wrong and this isn't meant to be? How can we be sure?"

(How do I deal) How do I deal with you

(How do i deal with me) When I don't even know myself or what it is you want from me.

(How do I deal with love) How do I deal,

(Why do I have to choose) When everybody's telling me what the hell I have to do...

How do I deal with you, (How do i deal with you)

How do I deal with me, (How do i deal with me)

When I don't even know myself, or what it is you want from me.

How do I deal with us,

How do I know what's real, (How do i know what's real)

When I don't even trust myself,

Or what it is I feel,

And how do I deal...

Yeah...

How do i... how do i... how do i deal...

How do i... how do i... how do i deal with you...

At night i lay in bed, with static in my head...

How do i trust myself when i don't know what's real...

~How Do I Deal by Jennifer Love Hewitt~

Chapter 18

Mandy sat on the bed watching Alex run around the room, grabbing articles of clothing, her pager and cell, and other items that she was going to need that day. "So, while you're at the venue all day long, getting everything set up and running through sound check, what am I supposed to do with myself?"

"Umm, I don't know." Alex mumbled, not really paying attention.

"Alex, stop for a minute would you…"

She stopped and looked at Mandy. "What?"

"I need details. Am I coming to the concert tonight, what am I supposed to wear, how am I getting in, at what time, where do I meet you…"

Alex laughed. "Okay, stop, enough questions." She walked over to the desk and pulled out a piece of paper. On it, she wrote down her pager and cell phone number, the name of the venue, and all the details she'd need to get in.

"Here ya go, Mandy, all I ask is that you come for sound check at 5 this evening and we'll grab some dinner before the concert. In the meantime, I'm late and you're on your own…" Alex waved and ran out the door to go get on the bus before it left without her.

Mandy lay back on the bed. "What can I do to amuse myself until five?" She smiled and went to go and get cleaned up.

She brushed her brown hair into a pigtail and pulled on a pair of shorts and a Hawaiian flower print shirt and some sandals before heading out the door and locking it behind her. She wandered down the hall, pausing at the end, trying to figure out which rooms were which. She had narrowed it down to two when all of a sudden she heard a commotion, a very loud grunt, and a yelled expletive.

"DAMMIT! Chris, when I get my hands on you!"

"Joe, you love me, I know you do."

"Not when you jump on me to get me up."

"But, we have all day to screw around before five and I don't want to laze the day away in the hotel. All the fans are going to be at the venue expecting us to be there so let's NOT be."

"You have a point, but could you have waited one more hour before voicing it."

"No."

"Go bug Lance, I'm going back to sleep."

"Fine."

She looked at what door the conversation was coming from and walked up to the door next to it and knocked.

The door flew wide open and a bare-chested, curly mopped figure stood in the doorway, squinting. "Can I help you?" He mumbled.

"Actually…"

He held up a hand. "I'll sign whatever you want me to as long as I can go back to bed very soon, last night I was up really late."

Mandy shook her head with a smile on her face and stuck out her hand. "Nice to meet you too, Timberlake. The name's Mandy, we’ve spoken a few times on the phone."

He seemed to wake up right before her eyes. "Did you say your name is Mandy?" His eyes darted down the hall, hoping Alex would appear.

"She's already left for the day. I just thought I'd stop by, introduce myself, and say Hi, tell you what a pleasure it is to finally meet you."

"Uh, well…"

"Right, under the circumstances, you can't say the same thing but I understand. I just thought maybe you and I needed to sit down and have a chat, if you know what I mean."

He nodded. "I'd like that."

"Good. I'm going downstairs to get some breakfast, want to meet me there in say an hour?"

He nodded again. "Sure, just…yeah I'll be there in an hour."

She waved her fingers at him. "See ya in a few." Then turned and walked down the hall, leaving a stunned Justin in her wake.

He shook his head and headed back into the room, just in time to see Chris jump on a very sound asleep Lance. "Huh? Wha… Get off me Chris!" Lance stuttered as he pushed Chris off him.

"Hey guys…" Justin called.

"Yeah?"

"Could you hold it down so that JC could get at least another hour of sleep. He didn't sleep very well last night."

Chris and Lance both sobered up at that statement and nodded their heads before glancing to the figure all curled up on the couch with a blanket over him, that Justin had placed over him after he had finally fallen asleep.

"What do you want to do today?" Chris whispered.

Lance shrugged. "I don't care."

Justin shook his head. "Me neither, but I do have plans for breakfast in a little bit."

"What?" Lance and Chris both asked loudly, causing JC to stir and roll over and Justin to send them a dirty look.

"Who with? Is it the one and only Miss Alex?" Chris asked, wiggling his eyebrows up and down.

Justin shook his head. "No, her friend Mandy just came to the door and asked me to breakfast…"

Lance gave him a questioning look. "What for?"

Justin dug through his suitcase looking for some clothes and his bathroom stuff. "I'm assuming to tell me what a bastard I've been and to talk about Alex."

"Do you need some support?"

Justin glanced up. "Yeah, please. I kinda get the feeling I'm walking into the lion's den."

Lance headed over to his suitcase to grab his stuff. "No problem, what are friends for."

"What am I going to do then?"

Justin and Lance looked at each other. "Go entertain Joey, but keep it down."

Chris smiled widely. "Sounds like a plan, see ya guys." Then they heard him say in a singsong voice as he walked into the next room, "Oh Joey…"

"No, Chris…I just…CHRIS!"

The two looked at each other, laughing, before hustling to get ready to meet Mandy.

The waitress had brought her coffee to her when she saw the two of them walk in. She watched the way they walked and licked her lips. "Oooh, I just love watching delicious men come to me."

They stopped at her table and she motioned them to sit down. "I see you brought a recruit with you." She looked over at Lance and smiled.

"Yeah, well, after our charming conversation on the phone when you hung up on me, I wasn't sure if I could trust you not to strangle me."

"Oooh, feisty. I like that."

Justin looked over at Lance and rolled his eyes. "So why did you want to eat together again?" Although he knew, he just wanted to get the conversation over with.

"No reason."

"What?" His head swung around to stare at her.

"I just wanted to see if you cared enough about Alex to come down and eat breakfast with a virtual stranger to try and see if things could get worked out. Apparently, you care a lot more about her than she thinks."

She raised a hand and motioned for the waitress to come back so that she could order. After her order was taken, she focused back on Justin. "I've been doing some thinking…"

"Yes, what now?"

"Patience, m'dear, all in due time. Now as I was saying…I've been doing some thinking. At first, I was really happy for Alex when she told me you were pursuing her. I mean THE Justin Timberlake was interested in my roommate, Alex, but then later after everything, all I wanted was for you to disappear out of her life. You'd hurt her more in one night than her parents had hurt her for nineteen years."

She watched the shadows enter into Justin's eyes and knew he was hurting. "BUT," she continued, "I've been listening to her speak about you when the hurt disappears for a time and she truly likes you, maybe even loves you. And then there's you… The boy wonder. The boy who said he would do anything, even wait for Miss Alex, and failed."

"I'm human."

She smiled. "Exactly. You tried to be her knight in shining armor when really what you should have done was just hold her and love her. Which I think you do, love her I mean."

No one at the table said anything for a moment. "If I'm wrong, Justin, I'll get up and walk out of here and help her forget you, but if you do… I'll help you get her back."

Justin didn't say anything, just watched her face to see if she was trying to trick him. Then he nodded and stood up and left.

For the first time in the whole meeting, Mandy lost her composure and her jaw dropped in astonishment. "He left?"

Lance shrugged. "What did you expect, you, a person he barely knows, bared everything that he was feeling in a few short sentences, you did what a lot of us have been trying to do for years…you made him speechless."

"Oh. Well…"

He reached a hand across the table. "Lance Bass. Nice to meet you Mandy."

"I know, but nice to meet you, too. So, do you have a girlfriend?" She asked slyly.

Lance threw back his head in laughter. "No, but I haven't been exactly looking either."

"Well then, will you stay for breakfast?"

"I'd love to." They smiled at each other before both, at the same time, signaled the waitress that there would be one more to eat.

"Alex concentrate…" a crewmember told her at sound check.

"I am, sorry." She called to the person behind her, while moving the controls of the bodies flying in the air.

She watched Justin float in the air, JC do flips, Chris do the moon walk, Joey act like Superman and Lance hang upside down. Darren was onstage, running through some last minute instructions before nodding at her to let them down. They disengaged their harnesses and listened to Darren as they started to work on the new number, Bye Bye Bye. Alex lifted the harnesses back up and put them away so that they'd be ready for that night.

"I am starving! How could you keep me from food for this long?" She heard from behind her.

She smiled before turning around. "Is that all you think about?"

"No, I also think about good looking boys who should be thrown in jail for being able to dance like that."

Alex followed Mandy's eyes and watched the new performance. This new song was going to be their next single and after the world saw them perform it, she'd bet her next paycheck that it was going to be bigger than Tearin' Up My Heart. She hadn't seen them working on it at all since this was a new addition just for New Years and they had practiced the choreography over break, hence the reason why Darren was there.

Alex couldn't take her eyes off of Justin. Each step, each arm movement, held such energy and you could tell that they were enjoying themselves. Her eyes flickered to one member who was dragging; all were enjoying themselves except one.

"Alex, you in there…" Mandy waved her hand in front of her face, talking so loudly that the guys could hear and looked over.

When blue eyes met green ones, Alex jumped about a foot into the air and turned around quickly acting as if she had been talking to Mandy the entire time.

Justin just shook his head and sighed. He wished he could go and talk to her but he didn't know what to say. He could hear Darren's voice as if from a distance but all he could focus on was her. He took one last look over his shoulder at her before getting in place to run through the dance again when he really noticed her hair.

"What the hell did you do to your hair?" He yelled before he could stop himself.

Alex whirled around, her eyes widening in shock. Was he talking to her?

He stalked across the stage before anyone could stop him and grabbed her hair that fell in different lengths from her chin down to just above her shoulders. Every time he had seen her since New York, her hair had been pulled back.

"I…I…cut it?"

"Why?"

"Because…"

"JUSTIN!" Darren called, "Can this wait until later?"

Justin turned and looked at the choreographer and his group mates as if looking at them for the first time. "I…I guess."

He turned and looked back at Alex who still had a shocked look on her face. "I'll talk to you at the party tonight?"

She nodded jerkily before turning and walking away as quickly as she could while grabbing Mandy on the way.

"What was that about? Doesn't that guy ever do anything expected!"

Mandy laughed. "Apparently not, but it was really kinda cool how he reacted…"

"Yeah sure whatever…"

"So… you'll be talking to him tonight…."

"Yeah, I guess so." Alex said softly, starting to get nervous.

"Any ideas on what you're going to wear?"

"MANDY!"

"Just curious." She laughed, pulling Alex into the nearest restaurant.

************************************************************************

"Erin… please." JC sat on the bed, holding the phone to his ear. This was the only way she would talk to him and it was driving him insane.

"Not with you, Josh. I…Give me time."

"At least you didn’t leave…"

"I was planning to last night, but Mike convinced me to stay and help with security for the party. Apparently it’s going to be short handed and they needed someone else just to keep an eye on you five if they could. Nothing big, but I told Mike I would so I am."

"I guess I’ll see you tonight then." JC sighed.

"Josh… I… I’ll see you tonight." Erin hung up before he could say anything else.

JC stared at the wall until the dial tone broke him out of his stupor. He slammed the headset back into the base and stalked into the bathroom to take a shower and get ready for the party that was in a few hours.

Justin watched his groupmate slam the door behind him and sighed. He walked out into the hall and down to one of the rooms that was near the end. "Girlie… Can we talk?" He asked, knocking softly.

"Justin… I don’t even want to talk to you right now. Please, another time."

"You’re killing him, you know that right."

He heard movement inside as she must have moved closer to the door cause he could hear her more clearly. "It’s killing me too. I… I do love him, J. I’m…" He could tell that she was starting to break because of the crack in her voice. "I’m just not sure if this is right and if I’m what’s right for him and everything… I know that we weren’t getting married anytime soon, but I felt…"

"Unsure?"

"I just need time to make sure if this is the right choice for everyone. I’ll see you later Justin, Mike is escorting me down so I’ll see you in a few."

"Erin, open the door and talk to me…talk to someone…"

The door creaked open and her face peeked out. "Is he with you?"

"It’s just me, girlie." He held open his arms and she fell into them. He picked her up and carried her into the room and sat down with her on his lap. He’d never seen her like this before, not even when Gary had gotten her and she’d finally gotten away. "What’s going on?"

"I’m confused and I couldn’t handle it anymore."

"What… you two hadn’t fought in months so you had to go and blow a gasket? I do know how you two love to fight...and make-up." Justin smiled trying to make a joke and cheer her up.

She smacked him. She took a deep breath, trying to get herself under control. "His life is perfect, J. He has everything he wants and I still can’t get over the fact that he wants me. I’m not right for him. I don’t know how many times we’ve fought over that issue but I still believe it. I… This is going to sound horrible… I feel weak with him and sometimes it scares me."

"You feel weak? I don’t understand."

"He’s my weakness. I would give up everything for him in a heartbeat and in my profession that’s a weakness. If I was undercover and someone found out about Josh, I wouldn’t be able to handle it and would give myself over in a minute, even knowing that they would probably kill us both."

"Nothing is going to happen, you know that."

"That ring… I…"

"Girlie, we use to tease him about how commitment shy he was and then we’d all laugh because he had found the perfect mate for him, you were even more so than he was which takes a lot. Are you sure you’re not just scared of the end result and not everything else you’ve been spouting?"

She looked down at the floor. "I don’t know. You tell me, O wise one."

"There’s the spunk we all love. Personally, you’ve got cold feet and the wedding isn’t even planned yet."

"Are you sure?"

"I don’t know, I’m not you. BUT I really wish you’d tell him everything you just told me and tried to work things out. You’re my two best friends and you belong together." He chucked her under the chin. "Despite all the problems you have up there in your head."

She rolled her eyes. "I don’t know how you manage it, but you always make me feel better."

"I do my best. Okay, Girlie I’m heading back now, and you’re promising me a dance, right?"

"Of course."

"Talk to him."

"In due time…I’ve got to work some things out first.

 

Justin walked out of the bathroom and heard a whistle from behind him. "My, my, you look good enough to eat. Will you honor me with a dance tonight, JuJu?"

"Chris…get a life."

Lance laughed. "But, look how your suit brings out your eyes…"

All the guys were sitting at the table or on the beds waiting on Justin and security. For once, Justin was ready before security.

"Leave the kid alone… he wants to look nice for his honey." Joey called out.

"And you don’t?" JC mumbled.

"Nah, I want to look nice for my hon-eys, get it right, Jace."

"Oh sorry."

Chris looked over at Justin, his eyes inquiring if JC was going to be alright. Justin nodded. He knew JC better probably than anyone in the room. The man was hurting but he’d pull through. He knew the rest of the guys were wondering about him too, but for some reason, all the hurt and pain from him and Alex had paled in comparison to what JC was going through. He knew he’d be fine, but JC was another story and he was going to make sure the man survived.

A knock sounded on the door and the group got up figuring it was security. Lance shot to the door and opened it. "I figured it was you."

Mandy laughed. "Well, wanted to make sure my date was ready before all his big bad soldiers got here."

Lance laughed and turned around. "Guys, this is Mandy. She’s my date this evening."

She smiled. "Nice to meet you."

Justin leaned against the wall and watched her. She looked nice. Lance had made a good move on this one. Tall, brown hair and eyes, dressed in a red brown dress with matching shoes. Very nice, however, there was one accessory missing. "Where’s Alex?"

Mandy’s eyes met his. "As soon as she found out that I was going with Lance, she headed down with Mike and Erin, she ran into them in the hall."

Justin and JC both flinched in pain, but Mandy only noticed Justin’s.

"Oh well, I guess we should get going though. Security here?"

"They’re outside. Justin…"

He held up a hand. "It’s alright Mandy. I’ll talk to her later."

"Okay, but…"

Lance pulled her away before she could finish. "He knows. Let him work it out himself"

She nodded and the group headed out into the hall to go down to the party.

They arrived to find the ballroom decorated in black, white and silver. Confetti was strewn all over the floor and tables as streamers and silver and white balloons were hung about.

There was a DJ in the corner playing music and already there was a huge group dancing on the dance floor.

The minute the dance music washed over the group, they began to move and get antsy to be out there. Justin’s eyes scanned the room and he soon found Alex out on the dance floor, with some of the crewmembers. Now that’s a little different from the beginning of the tour, he thought to himself before scanning the room again looking for a table to sit at.

They soon found one and they headed over to sit and put their stuff down. As soon as Mandy had set down her purse, Lance linked her arm through his and pulled her out on the dance floor.

Chris smiled at the couple. "Look at that, even Lance found himself someone to kiss at midnight."

JC groaned. "Damn tradition."

Joey looked over at him in disbelief. "Good tradition! Just think of all the women…"

JC glared at him. "All I want is one women on this earth and I can’t have her. I’m not about to go searching for another especially tonight… so it’s a damn tradition."

Joey took a step back. "Sorry, man, it’s going to be okay."

JC ran a hand over his face. "I know, I hope… sorry to jump on you like that."

"Not a big deal."

Justin heard the conversation going on around him, but he didn’t pay attention. He was too busy staring at Alex to comprehend anything else. She had on a blue-green dress that swirled around her knees as she spun and danced on the dance floor. Her hair was pinned up as best as she could do with the lengths but still most of it was down around her chin. It looked messy but on her, it looked good.

Alex glanced over at the guys, as she had known exactly when they had walked in. She kept sneaking glances at Justin because he looked good enough to eat. Ever since he had dyed his hair back to normal, she couldn’t seem to stop drooling. The suit he was wearing didn’t help much either. The navy blue coat and brown slacks just seemed to do wonders for his hair and eyes and she knew that he had planned that. When his eyes met hers, hers widened and she glanced away. She quickly looked back though, to find his still on her.

Alex, remember you’re supposed to be mad. But, look at him… no, that’s not what you want, remember. But, just look at him… Oh lord, what am I going to do. She took one long look at him and subconsciously licked her lips. She saw his eyes widen and then he stood up and then sat down again, as if he had been drawn to her before getting ahold of himself.

The girls around Alex were all talking about the guys and how nice they looked but Alex couldn’t pay attention to them. She was still lost in her own thoughts. Should I forgive him? Mandy told me it was probably just anger in a heated moment and for me to grow up and get over it. It happened, now move on. But, how do I feel about him? Do I like him, or is he just someone like Anthony for me to lean on until I can stand on my own?

She watched some girl dressed in a skimpy black dress ask him to dance. They stood and headed out onto the dance floor. Before she knew it, Alex had moved to get a better look at the couple. The music had slowed down, so Justin pulled the girl close to slow dance. Alex saw green. How dare he do that to me? After claiming all this stuff about how it may be love… and what does he do, picks the first girl to come along and…

Alex’s eyes widened at the path that her thoughts were taking. She’d never seen him with another girl except Erin and when she thought back to that, her thoughts had been similar. She walked off the dance floor and took a seat in the nearest chair not even realizing where it was. Had she really fallen for Justin? Was he the one and in all her stupidity pushed him away? Was Mandy right and she did love him? Could this explain her feelings?

Obviously he was staring at me, but why didn’t he try to talk to me? Probably because he was hurt and unsure, I did up and leave him in New York. What am I doing? I could go and talk to him? Am I ready to forgive though? I don’t know. How do I feel about him? He’s a good friend and I get jealous of other girls…is that love? Like maybe? I don’t know. I’ve never known what love is. Next question… do I want to take a chance at being happy if he’s what I need to be happy? Is it worth the risk? What am I getting myself into? I’m not sure of anything anymore, what I’m feeling, what I’m doing… I’m not even mad anymore.

Justin watched Alex put her head on the table, not even realizing that she was sitting next to JC and Chris. I hope she’s okay. He excused himself from the girl and walked over to table and gently placed his hand on her back. "Alex, are you okay?"

Her head swung up at the sound of his voice. "Uh...I…Yes…Thank you for asking?"

Justin smiled at her glazed look. "Do you want to go somewhere and talk?"

She blinked a few times at him and finally met his gaze full on. Everything he was feeling was in that gaze and she nodded. "Yeah, I would really like to."

He held out a hand to her and she took it and the two walked out of the ballroom, holding hands.

Mandy smiled at the sight and nudged Lance. "I think everything is going to be okay with those two."

Lance watched them walk off. "I hope so."

Justin pulled Alex out of the hotel onto the beach. The sun had set a long time before they had even finished their concert but the moon was out, giving the beach walkers a romantic glow for the talk that was to come.

Neither said anything at first, both preferring just to be in each other's company after being apart for over a week.

Justin glanced over at Alex out of the corner of his eye and saw a soft wistful smile cross her face as they walked. He gritted his teeth, then took a deep breath. "Alex…"

She looked up at him. "Shush. Just enjoy the evening right now."

He nodded and released her hand so that he could wrap an arm around her shoulders. They continued on down the beach until they reached a huge sand dune, overlooking the water. Alex pulled him up the dune and sat down, setting her heels beside her that she had taken off at the beginning of the walk. She smiled and looked up at Justin and patted the sand beside her.

He sat beside her and stared at the water, trying to gather his thoughts and figure out what to do and how to go about it. His eyes followed each wave as they crashed on the bank. A sudden movement caught his eye and he heard Alex gasp beside him, both having seen the dolphin jump out of the water.

All of a sudden a couple more did a few flips before spyhopping then diving back down to continue their search of food and fun. "I've only seen then in captivity." Alex said in awe.

"I've seen them out a few times since we started traveling but it still gets me every time."

"Justin…"

"Alex…"

They both spoke at the same time and they laughed softly before Justin waved at Alex to let her know to continue. "Ladies, first…"

She looked out to the water before looking back to meet his eyes. "I wanted to apologize."

Justin's eyes widened in shock. "NO, you don't have anything to apologize for, it was me. I stuck my foot so far down my throat that JC and Chris both needed shoehorns to help me get it out."

She shook her head. "I still shouldn't have left and listened to your explanation. I'm sorry."

He set his hand on hers and squeezed. "I'm sorry too. We screwed up somewhere along the way didn't we?"

"Justin, I wasn't even sure of the whole "we" thing. It was like I just beginning to trust you and then we got together but we weren't really together cause I didn't feel like we were together and then my parents and…"

"Shush, yourself." He said placing a finger on her lips to silence her. That one gesture made Alex shiver in anticipation and her eyes were immediately drawn to his mouth.

He laughed. "Oh no, you aren't distracting me yet. Alex, I want to be completely honest with you. From the first moment I laid eyes on you in the grocery store and especially later at my mom's house on Thanksgiving, you have completely overtaken every thought in my head and captured every feeling that I experience as yours. When I first began to notice that you were starting to feel similar feelings, I jumped the gun, telling you exactly what you wanted to hear that I'd wait and when you were ready, everything would work out. However, I knew in my heart how I felt and I should have told you in the first place. I don't know where I stand with you, I don't even know if you wanted to talk to tell me to get completely out of your life or if you are willing to take me back. All I know is that I fell in love with you the moment I saw you and I can't let you go. I'm in this too deep and I want you as long as I can have you."

He looked down at their linked hands as soon as he finished so that he couldn't see the rejection in her eyes.

He heard her sniff and looked up to find tears, streaming down her face. "Ju...Justin…"

He cupped her cheek. "What? Don't cry. It's all true. I do love you, Alex. Only you, no one else, never anyone else."

She wiped her hand across her cheeks, trying to get herself under control. "How do you always know what to say to make me feel better?"

He smiled. "It's a gift I have with everyone."

She smiled then launched herself into his arms. "I didn't know how I felt about you until I lost you. I don't know what love is or if that's how I feel but I do know that I can't go another day without you. I need you Justin, you're the only one that understands me and makes me feel alive."

He pulled her close, snuggling her face into the crook of his neck, while resting his on top of head. "I need you too, Alex, you don't know how much I need you." He whispered before kissing the top of her head and pulling her even closer.

She pulled back to look into his face. "I go back to school after this you know."

"You don't have to. I can talk to JIVE and see if you could be placed on our tour and…"

She laughed. "Justin, I WANT to finish school."

"Oh, well… I'll call and write, and when I'm home I'll visit so much, you'll swear you'll want me to leave again. It'll work out, little one. With me, how else could it?"

"You could open your mouth again and then insert foot…" She teased.

"Why, you little…"

"ACK!" She screamed as he lunged to tickle her. She jumped up and began to run down the dune with him hot on her heels. He finally tackled her into the sand.

She tried to catch her breath. "You're heavy, you know."

At that precise moment, both realized the position that they were in. Justin was lying on top of her, looking down into her face. The minute they noticed, Justin looked to Alex's lips and bent down to capture them. She met him halfway and they shared a small, intense kiss before Justin pulled away, only to lean down and kiss her again.

"Well, Timberlake, I do have to say that you know how to kiss." Alex smiled up at him.

Justin laughed and rested his forehead against hers. "Thanks I think."

"Oh it was a compliment, believe me." She smiled again.

Justin smiled then bent to kiss her again quickly before standing up and pulling her with him. "We should get back."

She nodded. "Justin…"

"Yes?" He grabbed her hand and they started to walk back to the hotel.

"While you're gone, will you mail me kisses…I think I just became addicted."

They laughed the entire way back to the hotel while stopping every few feet to steal a kiss here and there.

************************************************************************

JC sat at the table, watching everyone dance and turning down every girl that walked up. He stared at the tablecloth, twirling Erin's ring between his fingers. He felt numb. That was the only way to describe how he felt after Erin had left him at lunch the day before. He had no indications that she was anything but happy and then she had broken down before him and left, left him holding his heart in his hands and his future on the table.

"You okay, Jace?" Mike asked, sitting down beside him.

JC looked up at the person who usually held his life in his hands at most social occasions. "No, but I'll live."

"You want to talk?"

"Not really, there's nothing to talk about. I don't know what happened, I'm confused and am now suddenly single."

"Boy, you're not single by a long shot. Try going and kissing some girl at midnight and seeing how long it takes you to get another black eye."

JC smiled slightly. "I'm not even sure that would work at this point. She left me holding her ring, Mike."

"She has her reasons, I'm sure. Have you talked to her?"

JC shook his head. "She won't come near me."

"She's standing over there near the wall all by herself. Why don't you go and try to work things out? She's miserable without you, y'know. She always is."

JC looked around the room, trying to find her. He couldn't see a thing through the thick crowd on the dance floor. "Where did you say she was, Mike?"

Mike pointed over toward an area but all JC could see were people. "That's where she was the last time, I talked to her and she said she wasn't moving."

"OH, well…Maybe I'll head over there and try to…" He stopped as the crowd seemed to part to give him a view that he wasn't expecting.

"What the hell is she doing?!" He practically yelled before stalking across the room toward her.

Justin and Alex walked in just in time to see JC jump up from the table and push people out of his way, as he tried to make his way across the room. "I don't think that is a good thing." Justin said, before sprinting across the room after his friend.

Chapter 19

"Hey Buddy! Watch it!" A guy yelled at JC who didn’t hear him. His only focus was to make it across the dance floor and to Erin. He couldn’t get the picture that he had seen out of his head. How could she…

He pushed another couple out of the way and was once again rewarded with a dirty look but he ignored them, thinking only of the picture playing over and over through his mind.

Mike had been pointing in the direction of the tables near the corner of the dance floor but he hadn't seen her at first due to all the couples out on the floor and then for a split second he wished he hadn't. His reaction was first disbelief, then devastation, and then anger. Was she drunk?

It was only for a fleeting minute that he had really seen what had happened and he was sure there was a reasonable explanation, but he really couldn’t think of one. What explanation could there be for her to be sitting on another guy’s lap, rubbing her knuckles down the side of his face, while talking intimately with him.

He finally cleared his way through but was immediately halted at the edge of the floor, as if someone had grabbed the back of his collar and forced him to stop in mid-stride. His heart dropped into his stomach and immediately broke into thousands of pieces. His love, his true-love, the one he wanted to spend the rest of his life with now had her lips attached to someone else’s. She’s…She’s kissing him…

Justin ran into JC’s back as he stopped suddenly. He couldn’t see what had caused JC to stop at first but the moment he lifted his head and noticed the red head engrossed in kissing some guy while sitting on his lap, his mouth dropped to the floor in shock. He couldn’t believe what his eyes were telling him was happening. That has to be someone else; that’s not Erin…

Th two men watched as she lifted her head then kissed the guy on his forehead before sliding off the guy’s lap, awkwardly. She patted him on the head then tried to make her way back to her seat, but her coordination was a bit off and she ended up sliding to the floor right in front of her chair before cracking up at herself for falling on the floor.

Justin shook his head at her. She’s drunk! He looked over at JC who was still frozen in shock, but then he saw his face darken in anger. Justin knew that JC never liked to be made the fool and that was what Erin had done, even if she didn’t realize what she had probably done, he reflected.

JC took a step forward but Justin placed a hand on his arm. "I don’t think you should talk to her right now, she’s drunk."

JC’s eyes flashed at him. "Do you think I don’t realize that?"

"I’m sure you do, I just don’t want you to do anything that you’ll regret."

"Why it’s already over. She handed me back my ring, she threw everything in my face, why not make one final scene." He sneered at the younger man.

"Because you love her and despite everything that’s happened, still do and still want her back."

Justin watched his friend’s face flinch in pain before turning back into the mask it had been for the past two days.

"Fine, I’ll behave, but I’m taking her upstairs where she won’t embarrass herself anymore."

Justin sighed. "Okay, do you need help?"

JC shook his head no, then strode over to the drunk couple who were still laughing at the fact that Erin couldn’t seem to find her chair and kept sliding off onto the floor.

JC looked at the table and was astonished at the amount of empty glasses adorning the middle of it. There had to be at least 5 shot glasses and several other tumblers and mixed drink glasses.

He looked over at the inebriated red head and shook his head. "Erin?"

She glanced up in mid giggle and smiled. "JOSH!"

He bent down so that he was face to face with her. "Come on, Red, party’s over, time to head upstairs."

She shook her head in disagreement. "Haven’t heard the countdown yet, plus I’m not done drinking with…with… what’s your name again?" She asked looking over at the other guy.

"Brad."

She looked back at JC. "Right, with Brad." She smiled happily at figuring out his name.

JC narrowed his gaze at her. He was riding a very thin line between anger and normalcy and any mention of "Brad" would probably send him over the edge.

"You and Brad are done for the evening, dear." He grabbed both of her hands and pulled her to a standing position.

She weaved a little before gaining her balance and looked up at him to stare him down. "You don’t own me, Josh. I’m done when I say I’m done." Her happy-go-lucky attitude changing to that of one who's stubborn.

He leaned down until he was almost nose to nose with her. He could smell the alcohol on her breath and almost gagged from the potency of it. "No, you are not capable right now of making ANY decision. Upstairs with you."

She pushed him away. "I’m so glad that I broke up with you. You don’t know anything about me." She sneered as best as she could though it mainly sounded slurred.

"Erin, stop before you really push me over the edge right now."

She didn’t know what she was saying but the words came out before she could stop them. "Why should I? It’s over Josh. I want nothing to do with you, I don’t love you, and I…"

"That’s it." He grabbed her around the waist and threw her over his shoulder and began to walk away from the crowd that had gathered around to watch the festivities.

Brad must have realized what was going on finally because he stood up and grabbed JC’s arm to stop him. "Hey, you can’t do that… she said she didn’t want to leave and… and you can't make her."

Justin groaned from his position. Could that guy be any stupider at the moment? Justin watched JC’s face sneer at the other man then in one swift move, haul back and punch the guy before turning and waking out of the ballroom, still holding Erin on his shoulder.

Alex ran through the crowd, having missed the commotion because she had been caught in the fray on the dance floor as soon as Erin had begun to get belligerent. "What happened?" She asked staring at the man on the floor, who was trying to stop the bleeding from his nose.

Justin turned and looked at the beautiful young woman standing next to him, staring up at him with wide trusting eyes and pulled her to him. "I am so glad we worked everything out as best as we could for right now." He whispered into her hair.

Alex wrapped her arms around his waist, resting her head on his chest. "Are you alright?"

"Yeah, just glad I'm not JC right now."

Alex pulled back. "What happened?"

Justin shook his head at the memory. "I don't understand girlie right now. Before she left for LA, JC and her were fine. More than fine. She's been gone for five months working on some case and then she comes back and boom…she's different. Every time I talked to her, she was always talking about Josh that, Josh this… even when she first got back and we surprised him…all she wanted was to be with him."

Alex pulled him close again and rubbed his back. She knew that Justin and Erin were close but she hadn't realized just how much. She could hear the love he felt for her in his voice and also the worry. "I'm sure everything will be fine, Justin."

He looked into her eyes. "I'm not so sure of that, little one. Through everything, I was always the one that stuck by them and made sure that they were talking, either to each other or just to someone period, and I've never seen Erin and JC this far apart from each other. I mean, they can be in the same room looking at each other and they seem continents apart."

She cupped his cheek and smiled. "Justin, if we can work things out, I'm sure that they can."

He rested his forehead against hers, bring her back into his embrace. "I hope so… we're far from perfect but I wouldn't trade what we have to go through to be together to what they have to."

She kissed him softly. "Me either."

*********************************

"Josh, put me down!" Erin slurred while hitting him on his back.

"Well, at least you remember my name." JC said angrily, punching the buttons to the elevator.

"I always remember you, I don't know what you're talking about."

He didn't say anything, waiting for the elevator doors to open to take them upstairs.

"JOSH!" Erin whined. "Please…"

"Erin, whining is not attractive on you, so knock it off."

"You always liked it before."

"No, as I recall, I've never liked it. But, then again, this is only something you recently picked up tonight."

She pouted. "Well, if you aren't going to put me down…"

JC rolled his eyes and got a disgusted look on his face. "You are not funny…"

"I'm not trying to be…"

"No, you're just drunk, so shut up." He growled as the elevator doors opened.

"Oohhh, someone's mad." Erin sang as they walk toward the hotel room, and JC shifted her to grab his key from his pocket.

"Erin…I'm this close to losing my temper so don't push me." JC sighed and tossed her onto the bed.

He went into the bathroom, leaving her still bouncing on the bed. She rolled over and groaned as the room began to spin.

JC came walked out of the bathroom and found Erin with her head in the garbage can, throughly sick.

He looked up at ceiling, then turned and headed back into the bathroom, grabbing a washcloth and wetting it down. He walked across the room and sat down beside her, waiting for her to finish. "You feeling any better now?"

"Ugh…mrph bkrgh larfura…"

JC raised an eyebrow and eyed the red head that sticking out of the can. "Run that by me again?"

Erin sighed and rolled over, her back on the floor. "I said… I'm fine now that I puked."

He smiled tightly, then reached over and began to run the cloth lightly on her face, neck and forehead. "Good, now I can leave and go back to the party if you're feeling better."

He stood up to leave, brushed his pants off then took one last look at her, before handing the cloth to her. "Are you going to be all right?"

She groaned from the pounding of her head and shook her head yes. "You're leaving?"

His face tightened. "Why shouldn't I… you showed me where I stand in your life and…"

"Josh, I'm sorry."

"For what? Not loving me?" He swallowed hard. "I'll live Erin. I just don't understand what went wrong."

She shut her eyes against the rush of tears. She wasn't capable of discussing anything at the moment, but obviously he needed to talk, even if she wasn't ready yet.

"I…I still love you Josh. I never stopped." She said quietly.

He looked over at quickly. "Then what…"

"You don't want to know what happened. Just know that I never stopped loving you but it's just not going to work out." She rolled over into a ball, trying to stop the flood of tears.

"Why won't you talk to me? Every time something happens, you shut me out!" He almost yelled at her.

She groaned and put a hand to her head. "Not so loud."

He stalked over to her and knelt beside her on the floor. "Why did you feel the need to get drunk tonight?"

"To escape. To escape everything."

"Me included? Is that why you kissed that guy?"

"I…I didn't kiss that guy. He kissed me but I… didn't protest. I don't know why…I…"

"I'm sick of your excuses. I'm sick of begging you to come back, to talk to me, to treat me as an equal. I'm sick of you protecting me from things that you don't think I can handle and I'm sick of you shutting me out. Every time something happens to you in your life, at work, or on your trip to whatever, I have to pry it from you. You say you love me but…. I'm not so sure of that anymore. I asked you to marry me…not now, not tomorrow, but when we were both ready. I know that you are the love of my life but the timing…neither of us can be together due to our careers and obviously emotional readiness." He sat down on the bed and put his head in his hands. "What happened to us?"

"I don't like to tell you what happens with work cause I don't want you to hurt like you did last time." She said quietly from behind her hands.

"That's my problem to handle. I hurt not knowing."

She rolled over into a ball and mumbled something.

"What was that?"

"Something happened in LA…"

His eyes widened. "What? Were you hurt?"

She shook her head. "No, but my undercover was blown and that month you didn't hear from me, I was being held hostage."

He sank onto the floor nest to her and grabbed one of her hands. "How?"

"I don't know. Someone must have ratted me out, but I was put in this dark room for days, weeks…I don't know. They found my wallet and ID and… your picture. The last week, someone came in and knew all about you and I. They told me they had you and if I didn't give up and drop the case, they'd kill you. I didn't know if they did or not cause I'd been locked up…I dropped the case, Josh, everything. They got away because of me."

"Erin…I…"

"Don't know what to say? Neither did my supervisor. I was fired! That's why I was able to come here for New Years."

JC was speechless. He didn't know what to say or do.

She started crying. "I lost everything because of you. Because of my love for you. I don't know what to do anymore. They fired me right before Christmas. I thought I was going to be able to handle it, move on. Then the ring… I love you Josh and I would do…did do anything for you but now….the more I think of it, the more…"

"The more you blame me…" He said quietly.

She shook her head. "No, the more I realized that I'm not good enough for you. You need someone who won't compromise their morals or themselves. Someone who… someone good like you."

"Erin…"

"Just drop it, Josh. Now you know what's been going on and why we can't be." She crawled to the couch and pulled herself up on it and laid down.

He moved from the floor and grabbed a blanket to put over her. He sat down on the edge and tucked her in. "If it makes you feel any better…I would've done the same for you." He said softly then leaned over and kissed her forehead before getting up to leave.

Erin watched him leave bleary eyed… she fought with herself as she watched him walk to the door in slow motion. She knew this was it for them. They couldn't go back and couldn't go forward. Her heart broke as his hand settled on the doorknob and the door opened.

"Josh…" She said softly.

**********************************************************************

Alex and Justin sat at a table, talking. "So, see this bird had been knocking on the window and I had let him and what does he decide to do but NEST in my hair. I woke up Erin and she laughed her butt off until we ended up having to cut most of it out. She actually cried while cutting it. But that's the story behind my hair…Justin! Stop laughing!"

"I'm….sorry….but…I…can't…help it." He choked out between laughter.

She fake glared at him. "How would you feel fro-boy if some bird nested in your hair and we had shave all your curls off?"

Justin choked. "Hey, not fair. Plus no bird would land on this head of fine hair."

"No kidding cause it'd be like landing on a brilo pad."

"J, this girl's got some spunk." Chris laughed and sat down, Lance sitting down as well. Joey was still out on the dance floor.

Lance looked around. "Anyone seen Jace and Erin?"

Justin shook his head. "Oh boy, you missed it. Erin was trashed and JC hauled her upstairs."

"They still up there?" Chris asked, concerned.

Justin looked around the room. "Probably."

"I hope everything is alright between them or at least gets worked out."

"I think we all do." Lance sighed.

Alex looked at each of their solemn faces. "Should someone go check on them?"

Chris shook his head. "Let them work it out."

Lance looked at Alex and Justin who were sitting close by each other, holding hands. "So from the looks of things, you guys fixed the problem…"

Justin looked at Alex and winked. "We hope so. Actually… we've talked and are in the process of working things out."

Alex smiled and nodded her agreement to this statement.

Chris grinned and reached over pulling Alex into his embrace. "I'm so glad you found your way back home to us."

Alex rolled her eyes. "Okay, Chris, thanks Chris…"

Everyone laughed. "Dang, Alex, when did you get so mouthy?" Lance asked.

Justin's mouth dropped open, feigning shock. "Just got mouthy? She's always been mouthy."

Alex glared over at him. "HAHA funny, Timberlake. Do you want a kiss at midnight or not?"

Justin smiled over at her. "Little one, don't you even dare go there. You might not like the consequences."

Alex blushed before shutting her mouth.

Lance and Chris looked at each other and smothered their laughter. "You two are too much, I've got to find me someone to kiss too." Chris stated and got up and left.

"Speaking of that…" Lance looked at his watch. "Only ten minutes to go and then I have an excuse to…" His eyes widened.

"An excuse to do what?" Mandy asked sitting down, after thanking her dance partner.

Alex and Justin began to laugh as Lance's face turned bright red and he began to stutter.

Mandy turned and looked at the laughing duo. "Good to see you two worked things out."

Justin reached over and pulled Alex's chair closer to his so that he could put his arm around her. "In all honesty, its not totally worked out, but we're trying."

Alex smiled up at him. "Yeah, we have to work on his ego first and foremost and then we'll move on to do something about his hair and then…"

Justin looked over at her in shock. "That's not what I meant…"

Lance, Mandy, and Alex all began to laugh at the dumbfounded expression on his face.

***********************************************************************

"Josh, I don't feel so good again."

He nodded and reached over and grabbed the garbage can for her. When she was finished, he set it back and continued to rub her forehead with the washcloth that he had grabbed.

"So, you ever going to be drinking again?"

She groaned and buried her head in his lap. "No, never…"

He laughed.

"Not so loud, please."

He smiled. "So, you learned your lesson tonight?"

"I learned my lesson in college, the lesson just had to be re-learned."

"Sorry, red, I wish you weren't feeling so crappy."

"Yeah, me too. Thanks for staying."

"I'd do anything for you, you know that."

She was silent for a time before speaking. "I know, Josh… I know."

She was silent again and then shut her eyes trying to sleep.

He looked down at her still face and moved a strand of hair behind her ear so that he could see her eyes. "Erin…"

"Mmmmm?"

"What's going to happen to us?"

She opened her eyes. "I… Let's just take it one day at a time."

He nodded. His eyes began to drop so he shifted her over so that he could slide in behind her on the couch. He lifted her head up gently, moving his arm underneath it to give her a pillow, then settled down behind her and started to drift off to sleep.

They could hear the sounds of the party growing louder and then the sky lit up as the New Year countdown with fireworks.

"Josh?" She asked sleepily. "You awake?"

"Mmmmm, sorta."

"Happy New Year."

He smiled into her hair. "Happy New Year."

He wrapped his arm more tightly around her and their fingers entwined and both feel asleep.

********************************************************************

10….9….8….7….

Justin and Alex were out on the floor dancing when people began the countdown. He looked down into her laughing green eyes and brought his hands to cup her cheeks.

6….5…4….3…

He leaned down to where their lips were just about to touch, waiting for the New Year.

She looked into his eyes and whispered. "Happy New Year."

2….1…

"Happy New Year, little one" Then he closed the distance between them and claimed her lips as his own for as long as she would have him.

Chapter 20

5 Months Later

"Hello?"

"Hi, little one. I miss you."

Alex settled back onto her bed with a smile. She hadn't heard from him in almost a month due to promotions that they had been doing in Europe and Asia, and it had been even longer since the last time she had seen him, but apparently now he was back.

"I miss you too. What's up?"

"Getting ready for our next American Tour for NSA."

She reached over and picked up a BOP magazine. It had been her one indulgence this week but she couldn't help herself, his picture was plastered all over the cover and she had been missing him something fierce. She flipped to the interview inside that she had memorized.

"So, you're not single and ready to mingle anymore, huh…" She smiled into the phone, re-reading the interview.

"Huh?" Justin asked puzzled.

She laughed and began to read. "According to NSYNC's Justin Timberlake, the 19 year old pop star is involved with a special young lady and is no longer single and ready to mingle. Sorry girls, this one is taken. However, when we sat down with the rest of the group, the rest were eager and willing to take over his fan base."

He laughed. "Oh that interview. Yeah you should have seen his face when we all sat down and the ever annoying girlfriend question popped up and all the guys looked over at me and I smiled and said I'm not longer single and ready to mingle. The interviewer's jaw dropped to floor I swear."

"Did the guys know you were going to say something?"

"Yeah, I told them the night before if the question came up, I wasn't going to lie. You're too important to me."

She smiled softly into the phone. "You're important to me too. I wish I could see you."

"Soon. We're getting a week off before the new tour to get things together and also so management can get the new crew together and hired."

"Sounds like fun. You going to come visit then?" She said smugly.

"You, no. But I will be there to see your gorgeous roommate."

"Jerk. Mandy's taken, you know. You can't have her."

"OUCH! Yeah, I know she is, and her boyfriend just rudely reminded me to keep my hands away from her and to keep them on my own girlfriend."

Alex giggled. Mandy and Lance had gotten together a few days after New Years and had been going strong ever since. "How is everyone?"

"Good, very good. Lance is dying to see Mandy, Joey and Chris are their never changing selves, and JC… JC well, he's doing a lot better than he was."

After New Years, JC had closed himself off from everyone and wouldn't talk unless spoken to. He never referred to what had happened on New Years and no one had heard from Erin in months. "Are you sure he's alright or are you just saying that?"

Justin sighed. "There were times when we didn't know if he was going to be all right but he's talking and that's what counts."

"Have you heard from her, J?"

"I've talked to her a few times. She found a new job but she's not telling what it is. I don’t think she’s called him though…I think they needed a break in a big way, but I wish they would talk and work things out.

"I wish they could too.. They are so prefect for each other…I'd hate…"

"We all would, little one, believe me, we all would."

The door opened to her dorm room and Mandy walked in, carrying her book bag and coffee mug. She raised an eyebrow at Alex, who was all curled up on her bed smiling. She mouthed "Justin?" at her as she walked over to her closet.

Alex nodded then directed her attention back to the conversation. "What did you say, I'm sorry, Mandy just walked in."

Justin laughed. "Fine, ignore me, see if I care."

"Justin…."

"Sorry. No, I was just telling you about our cool intro for the next tour."

"Oh. What are you going to be doing?"

"Puppets."

Alex sat up. "Puppets, like what you did for the music awards."

"Uh huh. It's going to be so cool, but we have one minor problem."

Mandy smiled at the gleam in Alex's eyes. Things were going to get interesting again.

"A problem that maybe I could fix…" Alex asked.

"I'm hoping." Justin laughed. "We don't have enough crew members and I know you'll be out of school by then and I was hoping…"

"YES! Of course I will. I'd love to go back on tour with you guys."

"We'd love to have you too, that's why we asked for you specifically."

"Oh Justin. We'll get to spend all of summer together, just when I was thinking…"

"I know, little one. Me too. I didn't want to be apart from you for months again either. I told you we'd find a way."

"Yes, you did."

"So...when's your last final?"

Alex flipped up her calendar. "Next Friday…"

********************************************

Alex ran through the entrance of JIVE, waving at the secretary as she passed her on her way down the hallway. She had finished her last final this morning and had then jumped a plane to New York, with supposedly enough time to make the first crew meeting/party before the tour kicked off Monday. But, fate wouldn't allow that. Her flight was first delayed for two hours and then when she had finally landed and found a cab, traffic backed up to delay her for another two hours and now here she was, running into NSYNC's first JIVE crew meeting, almost two hours late. I hope Justin's not mad…

She got to the end of the hall and heard music coming from the back conference room. She could hear Justin and Joey’s voices coming through the door as well, and figured they were close by. Not to be heard, she grabbed the doorknob and slowly turned it, opening the door as quietly as she could, so that she could sneak in. When the gap was wide enough, she slipped in to the party without anyone knowing that she hadn’t been there since the beginning.

SLAM

The door closed hard behind her, causing her to jump and everyone to look at the late comer. Nice entrance, Alex.

Her face lit up to rival a tomatoes and she waved to the onlookers as people glanced curiously in her direction, wondering who the person who could be so rude as to show up two hours late. She hurried over to where Justin and the guys were laughing at her predicament, and immediately slugged Justin in the arm.

"OUCH! What was that for?"

"For being you!

Lance laughed at Justin’s pouting face before pulling Alex into a hug. "Glad you could make it. We’ve missed you."

Alex pulled Lance close. "I’ve missed you too. It’s so nice to be back around my family."

Lance stepped back allowing Joey to pull her into his embrace and swing her around. "Well, it’s good to have our little sister back with us."

"Ah, Joey. Picked up any good looking women lately, or have they all been little girls?"

Joey stepped back. "And as with all little sisters, you’re asking for it, shortstuff."

"I’m shaking in my boots. Chris, where’s my hug?"

Chris laughed and hugged her. "Right here. Just waiting my turn."

Alex laughed before turning to JC. He looked tired, withdrawn, but at least the sparkle had returned to his eyes. "Hey you, how are ya?"

JC shrugged. "I’ve been better. Glad you’re back with us on the team."

"Me too." She reached up and gave him a hug. "If you need to talk…" She whispered into his ear.

He pulled her closer. "I’ll come find you." He kissed her cheek before releasing her to Justin.

Alex was swept into Justin’s arms and the familiar smell of his aftershave overtook her. "Oh, J, I missed you."

"I missed you too, little one. Two and a half months is way too long."

"I agree."

After New Years, she and the guys had grown closer and they had even managed to bring her out of her shell, more so than Justin had been able. She considered them all to be her brothers, well except Justin of course, and it was nice to be back where she belonged.

"Have you heard from your parents?" Justin whispered into her ear from behind as she went to get some punch.

She shook her head. "Nope, not since New York. I haven’t tried, they haven’t tried and I don’t think either of us ever will." She said sadly.

"I’m sorry, Alex."

She turned and wrapped her arms around his waist. "Don’t be. Your mom and Paul have been great. Anytime I need a thing, they’re there for me."

"But what if we…"

She put a finger up to his lips to silence him. "I’ll be fine and your mom and I have talked about that and it won’t change our relationship."

"Good."

He pulled her close to him again and nestled his face into her hair, thankful she was back in his arms. He hadn’t realized how much he had missed her until she had walked into the conference room.

A tap on their shoulders drew them apart. A guy stood off to the side awkwardly, kind of shuffling his feet. "Sorry to interrupt but…"

Alex’s eyes widened in disbelief. "Jason???? What are you doing here?" She almost screamed before jumping into his arms.

Jason looked at Justin over her head in amusement. "Guess I didn’t have anything to be worried about afterall."

Justin reached out and shook the older man’s hand. "I told you she was doing a lot better."

"Should’ve listened."

Alex looked up. "Once again, What are you doing here?"

"Finished my quarter early at the U and got a call from your man here, wanting to know if I needed a job for the summer. Man, J, here knows how to get what he wants too. See, he calls me up and the first thing out of his mouth is when are you coming back to get your share of the female population? How can you answer a question like that without saying as soon as you want me."

Alex laughed and swatted Justin.

"What?" He said innocently.

"So, we talked about the new tour and he was telling me about their ideas for the show and wanted to know if I’d be interested in coming back to work for them, and since it was with JIVE it would be a lot better and more hands on."

"So here you are…" Alex smiled.

He held his arms out wide. "Here I am."

Alex’s smile disappeared. "It’s good to see you, Jason. I’m sorry I never called."

"Don’t worry about it. I understand. I’m probably one of the few who understood too well and that’s what kept me from calling as well."

She held out her arms for a hug. "All’s forgiven and still friends?"

He yanked her to him. "There was never a doubt in my mind."

Justin watched the friends reunite and smiled to himself. He and Alex had talked more times than he could count about how much she missed Jason and he was glad that he could do something to help that situation out and put that smile back on her face.

"Thank you, Justin." She said, tears shining in her eyes and she flew into his embrace.

"Your welcome, little one." He said quietly, kissing the top of her head.

 

Erin opened the door, quietly and slipped in, holding the door until it clicked shut behind her. The party was going full swing and the amount of people who were laughing and talking was incredible. The guys’ are finally getting the recognition that they deserve.

She looked around the room for familiar faces and saw Justin and Alex dancing at the far end of the room. Joey and Chris were at the buffet table, Lance was talking to what looked like an executive of JIVE and JC was sitting at a table by himself staring off into space. Oh, Josh…

She looked around the room again and finally found Mike standing off to the side with Lonny. She made her way through the crowd toward them and jumped into Mike’s arms. "I missed you!"

"ERIN! What are you doing here?" Lonny asked surprised.

"Surprise!"

Mike and Lonny exchanged looks. "Surprise?"

She grinned mischievously at them. "Oh come on…I know you guys, you’ve already poured over every crew list and I’m sure you came across E.L. Kinsela on there somewhere, and it didn’t click?"

Mike grinned. "Should’ve known."

Erin laughed. "No kidding, you should’ve."

"How have you been, girlie?" Lonny asked seriously.

"I’ve been better, but I’m…I’m back where I belong."

Mike looked across the room at JC. "He misses you."

Erin followed his gaze. "I miss him too, that’s why I took this job."

Mike looked back at her. "And what job would that be missy?"

"JIVE needed another bodyguard after Steven quit, so they looked through TransCon’s lists and my name came up so they called."

"Just like that?" Lonny asked incredulously.

"Just like that. I was waiting to hear from a precinct in California but since… because of my last job, they didn’t want to take a chance that I’d blow another case, even though Josh was out of the picture. I was a liability."

"I’m sorry, Erin." Mike said.

She shrugged. "My own fault. I should’ve known better, plus I was missing Josh so much… anyway, I’m here, it’s a job, and…"

"And maybe now you and JC can work things out, or at least you’re hoping."

She nodded. "I love him so much. I tried to stay away, I tried to get over him, but… "

Lonny pulled her into a hug. "He feels the same way. After you left, he hasn’t been the same. Everyone sees it. He tries to cover it up and the only time he ever resembles his normal self is when he’s in the studio."

She looked over at him. "Do you think he’ll forgive me…"

"If he doesn’t….he’s a fool to give up what you two have. Although, you were a fool to give up what you two had, but at least you’ve come to your senses." Mike stated.

She smiled. "Thanks Mike, leave it to you to put it in perspective."

Lonny pushed her towards the table where JC sat. "Go and talk to him."

She glanced back at her two friends. "Thanks guys. It’s nice to be back working with you two, blockheads."

She weaved her way through the crowd, coming up behind him. "Is this seat taken?"

He shook his head, not even looking up to see who it was. "No, go ahead."

She sat down and looked at him closely. To those who didn’t know him well, they’d see the circles and withdrawn look as him just being tired, but for her, it looked like he had given up on life. "Josh…"

His head shot up and he stared at her. "ERIN?"

She smiled shyly. "Hi…"

He drank in the sight of her then turned away. "What are you doing here?"

She fiddled with a button on her coat before answering. "I work for JIVE now."

"What?"

"They hired me on as a bodyguard. Permanently, if I want." She said softly.

He didn’t say a word, just stared at her in complete confusion. "Why…why did you take the job?"

She sighed. "Because I was broke, because I hadn’t worked in months and was living off unemployment and needed a job. No precinct was willing to hire me so I took the next best thing."

She watched his eyes cloud over at her words. "Oh, so this is just a job huh…"

He sighed and turned back away, his gaze falling on Alex and Justin goofing off, before Justin pulled her into his arms and kissed her. His mouth twisted in regret and he turned back to Erin. "What happened to us?"

She reached over and put her hand on his. He jerked his back and she went back to fiddling with the button. "I…I don’t know, Josh."

He leveled his blue eyes on hers. "Why are you here?"

She looked over at Mike who gave her a thumbs up before taking a deep breath and turning back to JC. "I took this job because I miss you. I messed up. I…I still love you with my entire being and I’m….I guess I’m hoping that maybe we can work things out." She trailed off slowly, not able to look him in the eye .

He watched her eyes fill with tears and she brushed them away. "I’m a fool to think we can try again, Josh. I’m sorry for bothering you." She said softly, when he hadn’t said anything for a period of time.

He watched her stand up and begin to walk away and his heart broke at the devastated expression on her face.

"Erin?" He whispered, not knowing if she would be able to hear him or not. "I still love you."

She whirled around and began to weep openly at the softly spoken words. He jumped out of his seat and pulled her to him as the tears began to run down her face.

At the sound of the chair overturning onto the floor, five eyes followed his movement to the broken girl.

"It’s about time." Justin whispered into Alex’s ear.

"I’m so glad they found each other again."

"Want to go say HI?" He said.

Alex shook her head. "Give them time…"

She looked back at the couple, who were now both crying in each other’s arms. She watched JC lift a hand and gently wipe away Erin’s tears before settling his forehead against hers while he tried to hold himself in check. He said something to her that Alex couldn’t make out but she saw Erin nod and the two walk out of the conference room, JC supporting Erin by wrapping his arm around her waist as they walked. They’ll work everything out; I know it, or at least I’m hoping.

Justin wrapped his arms around her from behind and watched the couple walk off. "Thirsty?"

Alex looked up. "Please."

"Can I have everyone’s attention please?" A voice rang out above all the music and conversations.

Someone turned the music off and everyone grew quiet.

"Thank you. I’d just like to say thank you everyone for coming today and being a part of our newest group to join JIVE. It was a long haul but things have finally come together for Justin, JC, Lance, Chris and Joey. They worked hard to get where they’re at today and from what I’ve seen, will continue to do so and strive to be a success."

"Who’s he?" Alex whispered.

"Our new tour manager and also one of the top executives at JIVE. He’s pretty cool." Justin whispered back.

"I don’t want to take up much more of your time, but I do want to say thanks again for everyone who helped and I think this new tour is going to be a blast to do. I’ll see everyone bright and early Monday morning. Enjoy the rest of the party."

Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep

A hand snaked out of the curtain to grab the machine that was sitting on the floor beside her bunk. She picked up the little travel alarm clock, pulling it through the curtain to look at it. The girl across the bus, opened up her curtain to take a peek. She began to snicker as mumbles of "early morning", "gonna kill who ever set this" and "I need more sleep" filtered over from the other bunk. She watched the alarm clock sail through the curtain, missing the wall where it was supposed to have landed, entering the bunk next to hers.

"Erin…." Another sleepy voice spoke up. "Must you do that…"

"Sorry, 'Chelle… meant to hit the wall."

"I know, but I'm really getting tired of my own wake up call that consists of flying objects."

Alex pulled back her curtain and rolled to a sitting position. "Girls… girls… hotel any minute. Can we wait till there's coffee in our systems before arguing." She rubbed her head, trying to silence the headache that was coming on as she headed to the bathroom.

Erin poked her head out, red hair going every which way, as the younger girl closed the door behind her. "She still down in the dumps?"

"Ever since Justin forgot their one year anniversary, she's been sullen and crabby. All they do now is fight and make everyone else miserable, so of course she's still down in the dumps. Until that boy does something to make it up to her…" Kachelle said, climbing out of her bunk, pushing her long black hair out of her face. She shook her head, not continuing the sentence. "They're young and will figure something out. How's Jace?" She asked, changing the subject.

Erin glanced over at her out of the corner of her eye, as she sat up. "Must you bring up that hardheaded, repulsive, stuffy, obnoxious, stubborn…"

"Boyfriend of yours?"

Erin waved a hand through the air as she made her way into the kitchen. "Yeah yeah… if you can call that fool that…"

Kachelle jumped up and hurried after her. "Do tell… last I heard you guys had worked everything out and were starting over…"

Erin grabbed a box of Apple Jacks out of the cupboard and poured some into her cereal bowl. "That was before stupid head had to go and start talking about the future again…"

Kachelle slapped her forehead. "Girl… that boy is so in love with you as you are with him, just commit… you are not going to find anything better, believe me. I dress that boy and have to let out a few things… if you know what I mean when I alter those pants." She grinned over at the redhead who was now choking on her cereal.

"Anyway…." Erin looked up after getting her breath back. "We'll see…. Today is our day off and he wants to go do something… won't tell me what."

"Ahhhh…. Something romantic?"

Erin groaned. "I hope not. He gets crazy when he tries to do something like that…"

"But you love it." Kachelle leaned back in the booth.

Erin looked up and grinned. "Of course… I love to see him squirm."