Time's Fickle Glass

© 2001, Julie Orlando

 

As the episode of TRL drew to a close, the members of *NSYNC all took deep breaths. They knew which topic Carson would be getting to next. They'd given up on hedging it a long time ago, but answering still made them nervous.

 

"Alright, guys, you know I have to do this. Girlfriends, wives, kids.... dish it all out to me. Joey, you first."

 

"I'm, ah, still single." Joey looked down at his feet, then up at the camera with a smile.

 

"Still living the life of a bachelor," Carson commented.

 

"You got it." Joey's smile widened, and he laughed.

 

"Good for you. Justin?"

 

"I'm... not single," he said slowly. The crowd's reaction was an even mixture of cheers and moans. "Sorry ladies." He shrugged and gave his best innocent smile.

 

"Awww." Carson pretended to sympathize with the crowd. "But as long as she's good to you. Is she good to you?"

 

"She is, she's wonderful."

 

"Then there you go. Now Chris, it's been a couple of years, hasn't it?"

 

Chris' answering smile was a contented one. "Yup, two years last month."

 

"And no kids yet?"

 

"None that I know of. Why, what have you heard?" Chris cocked an eyebrow at their host, who laughed.

 

"Nothing. Well, just that your Mom called, she'd like to know when she's getting grandkids."

 

Chris hung his head and shook it. "No... not here, too...."

 

All the guys laughed at him, and Joey clapped him on the back a couple of times. "I take it you're getting that a lot?" Carson asked.

 

"Ohhh, yeah. Every day. I tell ya..."

 

"Sorry, man. I'll move on, then. JC..."

 

"Yeah?"

 

"JC, you've been pretty serious the last couple of times we've talked."

 

JC blushed. "Yeah."

 

"And?"

 

"And....?"

 

"And.... any wedding bells, a trip down the aisle?" The crowd screamed. "Come on, you can tell us."

 

JC's blush deepened. "No, no, not yet. All in due time."

 

"Okay, but you'll tell us, won't you, when you do?"

 

"Oh, of course, yeah, you'll hear about it." JC tugged at his ear and scratched his hair.

 

"Alright, good deal. And finally, Lance. What's up with you?"

 

Lance paused a moment before answering. "I'm not involved with anyone right now," he finally said.

 

"Oh, you're not?" Carson sounded surprised.

 

"No, I'm not. I, uh, think I'm staying out of the dating scene for awhile." He made a "no more" motion with his hands and tried to laugh lightly.

 

The crowd "awwwww"ed in response, and Carson said sympathetically "She was pretty hard on you, huh?"

 

Lance looked down and cleared his throat. "Yeah."

 

"I'm sorry to hear that. But hey, thanks for sharing with us." Lance only nodded, and Carson blissfully moved on to introduce the final video of the show. "As you all might have guessed, these guys are #1 *again* this week, so here you have it, their latest video, 'Trying Too Hard'. Send in your votes, and we'll see you all on Monday here on Total Request Live!"

 

The cameras and floodlights all turned off, and Carson shook the guys' hands one by one. "Hey, Lance, sorry about all that. I didn't mean to harp on you."

 

Lance shrugged. "Naw, it's okay. I knew I'd have to face it eventually."

 

"Yeah, but still." Carson clapped a hand on his shoulder. "You take it easy."

 

"Thanks."

 

Carson waved at the group as he backed out of the room. "You guys all take care, make sure you stop by next time you're in New York."

 

They all waved and shouted goodbye at him, then filed out to the waiting van. Once inside, Joey turned to JC.

 

"No wedding bells yet? What was that?"

 

"What? We only just got engaged last week! I'd like to keep it to ourselves for at least a little while."

 

"Yeah, well warn us next time. I almost looked surprised when you said no."

 

JC laughed and rolled his eyes. "Sure thing, Joe."

 

They all talked and joked for the rest of the short ride back to the hotel where they were staying. On their way to their rooms, Chris shouted out to them all.

"Hey you guys have fun tonight. I'll see you at the meeting next week."

 

Justin turned from where he'd been fumbling with his keycard. "You're not coming out with us? I thought we didn't have to leave 'till tomorrow?"

 

"Nope, I changed my flight, I'm going home tonight."

 

Joey laughed from his own doorway. "You just can't wait to keep trying for those grandkids your Mom wants."

 

Chris wiggled his eyebrows and grinned, then ducked inside his room to pack.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

When Chris snuck into his bedroom at home later that night, he could tell by his wife's even breathing that she was already asleep. A glance at the clock told him it was just after midnight, which meant she'd probably only barely fallen asleep. He felt bad waking her, but he'd been gone for 2 weeks and was feeling frisky. 'Tomorrow's Saturday,' he thought, 'we can sleep in.'

 

He stripped off his travelling clothes and peeled back the covers on the bed slowly so as not to wake Julie. He had other plans for how to do that. She reached down in her sleep to pull the covers back up, but he just chuckled lightly and dragged them out of her reach. Her alternate response to the sudden cold air surrounding her was to roll onto her side, away from him, and curl up into a tight ball. Chris sighed. "You're not gonna make this easy for me, are you?"

 

He knelt by the bed and started a trail of feathery light kisses along one bare shoulder. She wasn't moving. When he reached her neck, his tongue darted out to tickle her spine. He heard her sharp intake of breath, followed by a tiny sigh, but she still didn't move. He slid one hand around her waist to her front, loving the feel of her smooth skin beneath his hand, and gently tugged so she rolled onto her back.

 

One eyelid finally fluttered open, and when Julie registered the presence of someone near her, she gasped and tried to slide away.

 

"Shh, shh, it's just me." Chris pressed his lips to her shoulder and gently rubbed his hand across her stomach, moving up onto the bed beside her. He continued kissing along her collarbone as she slid over to give him more room.

 

"Shit, you scared me," she panted. "I didn't expect you home 'till tomorrow."

 

"Mmm... should I leave?" he murmured against her neck, then reached his tongue out for the spot just behind her earlobe that he knew drove her wild.

 

She wrapped her fingers in his hair. "Good God, no."

 

Their lips finally met, and their tongues traced and explored each others' mouths as if they were kissing for the first time. He shifted on top of her, resting his weight on his elbows. Their kisses deepened from searching to hungry, and she ground her hips against him.

 

He groaned. "God, I've missed you so much." He moved down and started ravishing one breast with his mouth while teasing the other with a skilled hand. He switched sides, and soon the sounds of her moans and cries combined with the feel of her writhing beneath him was driving him crazy. He finally moved down the length of her body, taking her panties with him. He slowly kissed his way back up her legs, parting them gently with his hands as he went. He inhaled her scent and sighed. He was never leaving for 2 weeks again, not if he had anything to say about it.

 

He slowly licked a line along her lips, bringing a small scream from her. He flicked a couple of times at her swollen clit with the tip of his tongue before bringing it into his mouth and sucking on it gently.

 

"Oh, fuck, Chris..."

 

He could hear her breathing quickening, but he left her centre to resume his path upwards. She whimpered at the loss, but he silenced her with a deep kiss. She pushed his boxers down as far as she could reach, and he kicked them off the rest of the way. She ran her fingers along his length before he positioned himself at her opening, teasing her with just the tip of his cock.

 

"Please..." she whispered.

 

He needed no further invitation, and entered her smoothly. He paused to get his bearings, muttering something unintelligible as he felt her walls clenching him. Slowly he began to pull out of her, pushing back in at the same maddeningly slow pace. He nibbled at her neck and she scratched his back, both of them gradually increasing the speed of their movements. She wrapped one leg around his waist and started to swivel her hips in time with his thrusts.

 

"Shit, Julie.... yes... fuck...."

 

She answered with her own cries. Soon he was driving into her furiously. She grabbed his ass to pull him harder against her, and they came one after the other, screaming each others' names.

 

Chris collapsed, panting, next to Julie. He rolled onto his back and pulled her close to him.

 

"You need to go away more often."

 

"Excuse me?"

 

She smiled up at him wickedly. "Welcome home sex is incredible."

 

He laughed. "Shorter trips, though."

 

"Oh, definitely. Shorter trips."

 

They continued making love long into the night, until they finally fell asleep tangled in each others' arms.

 

 

Johnny looked down at the sheet he'd been scribbling on. "Okay, we're down to... 20 songs. We need to cut at least 3 more. Whaddaya think?"

 

The group was gathered at the WEG Compound to start planning their next concert tour. They had 5 albums to draw material from now, and every tour narrowing down their song list was harder. They ran through the pieces in their minds.

 

Lance wrinkled his nose. "I'd like to take out 'I Want You Back'."

 

"But everybody loves that one," Justin protested.

 

"Yeah, but we've been doing it for, what, 8 years now? And we've already got 2 songs from the first album, we need to focus more on the recent stuff."

 

Justin acquiesced. "Okay, okay, you're right. That's one. What about Space Cowboy?"

 

JC rubbed his temples. "We cut that one an hour ago."

 

"Oh. Damn...."

 

They went on debating which songs to leave in and which to take out, and after another half hour had finally settled on a final set list. They were just moving on to what they wanted for the stage when Justin's cell phone rang. He stepped out in the hall to answer it.

 

"Hello?"

 

"Justin, sweetie, I'm so sorry, I missed my flight." His girlfriend started talking all in a rush.

 

"What? Lara, what happened?"

 

"I'm sorry. There was an accident on the freeway ahead of me, and traffic was backed up for an hour. I tried, but I just couldn't make it to the airport in time."

 

"That's okay," he reassured her. "It's not your fault."

 

"I know, but I wanted to see Michelle. I know she's going back home tomorrow."

 

"It's alright, I'm sure she'll understand. When does your new flight get in?"

 

"Not until 11 tonight. I'll take a cab in."

 

"No, I'll be there, don't worry."

 

"Thank you," she sighed, relieved. "Say hi and sorry to everyone for me. Love you."

 

"I will. I love you too. I'll see you tonight."

 

Justin returned to the living room where they'd been meeting. "Lara missed her flight, she won't be able to make the party tonight." He went on to explain about the accident on the freeway, and relayed her messages to the group.

 

"Aw, that's too bad," Joey said. "But at least she wasn't the one *in* the accident."

 

Justin nodded. "Yeah, that's true. Silver linings, I guess."

 

The meeting went on, and an hour later JC's phone rang. They were wrapping up by then, so he didn't bother leaving to answer it.

 

"Hell-o.... Woah, woah, wait, slow down Michelle. Say that again... No, her plans changed, she's not getting in until later now... Holy shit..." He turned his face away from the phone. "Hey, guys, turn on the TV, put it on CNN."

 

Chris grabbed the remote and did as JC said. A woman was on the screen, talking seriously.

 

"...all 263 passengers on the flight are presumed dead, and there have been a number of injuries reported from the ground as well. For those of you just joining us, United Flight 1126, from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to Orlando, Florida, exploded in the air over Atlanta at 4:25 this afternoon. The cause of the explosion is not yet known, and foul play has not yet been ruled out. We will be staying with this story, and we will give you any news as it is relayed to us...."

 

Everyone in the room stared at the screen, stunned.

 

"Oh my God..." Lance finally said.

 

"That was supposed to be Lara's flight," Justin whispered. "I have to call her...."

 

JC turned his attention back to the phone still in his hand. "No, it's okay, she wasn't on that flight.... yeah, I'm sure....."

 

Chris' phone rang then, and Justin was across the room talking earnestly into his own.

 

"Hey, baby, I just heard."

 

"Oh my God, Justin, what... what if there hadn't been that accident on the road? Or what if I'd left half an hour earlier and been ahead of it? I wanted to, but I slept in and was running late. Or what if I'd taken a different route...." Lara was sobbing as she ran through all the awful possibilities.

 

Justin tried his best to comfort her over the phone. "Shh, it's okay. None of that happened, you're okay...."

 

"But *what if*?"

 

"Don't think about that. Just don't worry. You're okay," he repeated.

 

"I know." She paused and took a few deep breaths. "I'm sorry, sweetie. I'm not sure if I can fly tonight. I just... I don't know."

 

"That's okay. I understand. You can delay your trip a few days, or see if you wanna come down another way."

 

"I'll see. I might get on the plane tonight. I'll.... I'll see," she said again.

 

They all gradually filed out of the compound, some having finished their phone calls, others finishing them as they walked.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Between Lara's absence and near-miss that afternoon, and the fact that Michelle was leaving the next day, the small gathering they had planned for that evening was rather subdued. Everyone pooped out early, Julie and Chris being the first two to file out of JC's house.

 

Michelle hugged her friend goodbye at the doorway.


"I'm gonna miss you," Julie said. "When are you coming back?"

 

"Three weeks. I'll just be here for a weekend, then home again for 3 more weeks, then I'm back to stay." Michelle beamed.

 

"Oh you're moving down here already?!?"

 

"Yup. My lease is up on my apartment at the end of September, so I figured rather than renew for a short contract, I'd just come down. Besides, planning the wedding from back home was going to be a nightmare. It'll be so much easier when I'm right here."

 

"Oh, this is so exciting!" Julie took both Michelle's hands in her own, and was practically jumping up and down. "Well, when you're here in a few weeks, you and Lara and I are gonna *have* to go for lunch one day. Just us girls."

 

Michelle nodded eagerly. "Absolutely. I can't believe I missed her this trip." She rolled her eyes. "Wouldn't you know, right when I come down for a few days, she goes to visit family."

 

"Oh I know. Fate's working against you."

 

"Not too badly, I hope." Michelle shuddered, remembering how Fate had smiled on them that afternoon.

 

Meanwhile, Chris and JC were standing at the doorway watching their women. Chris shook his head.

 

"I shoulda known not to even bother coming out here yet. Why can women sit quietly for hours, then when it's time to go, they just can't stop talking?"

 

"I heard that," Julie said.

 

"Yes, it worked!" Chris grabbed JC's hand. "You take it easy. I'll see you next week."

 

"Sure thing. When's that meeting again?"

 

"Tuesday," Lance said from the archway to the living room. "Everything'll be priced out, and we get to narrow down what we want and what can go." He gave Michelle and Julie each a kiss on the cheek on his way to the door. "I'm beat. I'm outta here. Thanks for the beers, JC. See y'all later."

 

Chris followed Lance out the door with his wife in tow. They heard Justin calling out behind them.

 

"Hey, wait up, I'll follow you guys out!" Justin trotted to catch up to them. "I need to get to the airport, I'm almost late." Lara had called him earlier; she had gotten herself onto the plane that night after all.

 

Back inside, JC and Michelle returned to the living room where Joey still sat. He looked up from his chair and saw the couple snuggled on the couch. He rolled his eyes and stood.


"Yeah, okay, I'm gone. You two be good."

 

"Bye, Joey," JC called absently.

 

He hollered back from the foyer before shutting the door behind him. "Take 'er easy! And if she's easy, take 'er twice!!"

 

"Joey!!"

 

 

Chris rolled over and hit snooze on the alarm by the bed. Julie still hadn't moved from her spot curled up tightly next to him. This wouldn't be unusual, except it was the third time he'd hit the alarm.

 

"Hey there....." He traced a pattern on the side of her neck with a fingertip, and she tensed. "You getting up?"

 

"Mmmm..." was her only response.

 

"Mind if I jump in the shower first, then? I've got that meeting to go to."

 

"Mmmm..." again. It seemed to have a positive note to it, so he got up and trotted off to the bathroom.

 

Ten minutes later Chris was back in the bedroom, picking clothes out of the dresser. The lump on the bed still hadn't moved, though he noticed it was now shaking slightly. He sat down on the edge of the bed and stroked her hair.

 

"Are you okay?"

 

"Mmmm..." This one sounded negative.

 

"Do you want me to make some breakfast and bring it up to you?"

 

Another groan, very negative.

 

"Okay. Do you want me to call the college and cancel your lessons for the day?" When she wasn't providing backup vocals at local studios or performing with the symphony, both gigs that were few and far between, Julie taught voice lessons at a small college nearby.

 

"Yes please..." she barely mumbled from under the covers.

 

"It talks!" Chris shouted triumphantly. He was granted with another groan. "Damn. And I thought we'd made progress."

 

"Shut up," he barely made out coming from the pillow.

 

He laughed and bent over to kiss her forehead. "I'll go call the college." He got up and went around the bed to his side. He was just reaching for the phone on the bedside table when he heard Julie gasp behind him. He turned to see her leap out of bed and bolt for the bathroom. "Damn...."

 

He followed her in, sat on the floor next to her and started rubbing her back. She tensed and tried to pull away from him.

 

"Don't touch me."

 

He yanked his hand back. "Sorry."

 

She could hear the hurt in his voice. She sighed. "No, it's okay, I'm sorry. I just can't have anything touching me from waist to neck when I'm sick. It makes me feel worse."

 

"Oh. Okay..." He thought for a moment. "Can I touch your leg?"

 

"What?"

 

"Can I touch your leg? It's below your waist..."

 

Julie turned her head and smiled weakly at him. "Yeah, you can touch my leg."

 

He started to gently massage her ankle and calf, feeling a little more useful being able to do *something*. When she was sick again, he moved so he was high on his knees behind her. He reached around her and began slowly stroking her arms, moving only to pour her a glass of water, until she finally collapsed against him.

 

"Better now?"

 

She nodded. "Mm-hm. Still feel like shit, but better."

 

He kissed the top of her head, still stroking her arms. "I don't think I've ever seen you sick before."

 

She shook her head. "Prob'ly not. A bunch of my students have had the flu the past couple weeks. I must've caught it from one of them." She paused, trying to breathe deeply. "God, I haven't had the flu since I was 12. I hate this..."

 

They sat quietly for a few more seconds, then Chris said "You okay to get up?"

 

She nodded again, and he slowly helped her to stand. She leaned heavily against him.

 

"I need to go make those phone calls. Do you wanna go back to bed?"

 

"No, I'm gonna stay here for a bit. I want to brush my teeth." She grimaced.

 

"Okay." He shifted her weight so she was leaning against the countertop, then gave her hand a squeeze before heading back into the bedroom.

 

After talking for a minute to the secretary who handled the scheduling at the college, he hung up, then picked back up right away and dialed JC's number.

 

"Hello."

 

"Hey Jace, it's Chris. I'm not gonna make the meeting today."

 

"Oh, how come?"

 

"Julie's sick. She's caught that flu that's going around. I'm gonna stay home and take care of her."

 

"Awww, how sweet and domestic," JC teased.

 

"Yeah, get used to it buddy. You're next."

 

JC laughed in response. "You tell her to take it easy, though. This is a nasty one. My brother's just getting over it, he was laid out for a week."

 

Chris winced. "Thanks, man. Call if you need anything from me for the meeting."

 

"Will do. Catch ya later."

 

He hung up and turned to find Julie back on the bed. She was sitting up with her legs pulled up loosely, her head resting against her arms crossed over her knees. When she lifted her head he took one of her hands and started stroking her knuckles with his thumb, trying to calm her shaking.

 

She sighed and tried to relax. "You don't need to skip your meeting, Chris. I'll be okay."

 

"No, I wanted to. I've never seen you like this, you've got me worried." She smiled at him. "Besides, these meetings are so boring anyway. I was looking for an excuse to get out of it."

 

She laughed, though it came out jerky through her quivering. "Glad I could help."

 

He smiled. "That's better. Now, can I bring you anything? Blanket, chicken soup..." She clenched her teeth and shut her eyes at the mention of food. "...or not. We can go downstairs and I'll put your favourite movie in."

 

"You would actually sit through that with me?"

 

"Who said I was gonna watch it with you?" She stuck her tongue out at him, and he just laughed. He got up and pulled out her lounging-around-the-house jammies. "Come on. Once you get moving, you'll feel a lot better."

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Two weeks later, Julie was still sick. She could barely leave the house, something that was becoming a problem now that the fall semester was starting up at the college. Some students continued all summer, but of course there were more in the fall.

 

She trudged down the stairs late one morning and crawled into Chris' lap where he was sitting on the couch watching TV. She burrowed her face into his chest with a groan, and he wrapped his arms around her.

 

"You know, I really wish you'd go to the doctor about this," he finally said.

 

She sighed. "It's the flu, Chris. There's nothing a doctor can do about it."

 

"Maybe it's not the flu. Maybe it's something more serious. It's been two weeks and you're no better."

 

"Yeah, and all the medicines say 'if symptoms persist beyond *three* weeks, consult a doctor', plus...."

 

"You are way too literal sometimes."

 

She glared at him. She hated being interrupted. "PLUS.... other people have had this lately, and they've been knocked flat for weeks."

 

"Look, I'm just worried about you. That's all."

 

"Well don't. I'm fine." She got up and huffed towards the kitchen.

 

He followed her. "No, you're not fine. You've barely eaten a thing in weeks. You're losing weight."

 

"Something I could probably handle anyway...."

 

"Hey now, don't say that. I think you're perfect."

 

She scoffed. "You have to say that, you're my husband."

 

"No, it's parents who have to think their kids are perfect. Spouses can be honest."

 

"Pfft. Not if they wanna live." They stared each other down for a second, then both broke out laughing. Julie rolled her eyes. "This is stupid."

 

"Pretty much, yeah." Chris sighed and leaned on the counter next to her. "You know, I was, uh, looking at the calendar this morning. I noticed that you're way past the dot, but there's no little slash mark."

 

"Huh??? Oh.... oh! Come on, Chris, get real." He just raised an eyebrow at her. "No. I've been under a lot of stress lately, that always delays it. Plus I'm totally irregular in the first place, and I'm sure being sick doesn't help. Besides, we've barely touched each other since I've been sick."

 

"Believe me, I know," he muttered. "But maybe that's why you're sick?"

 

"No," she said again. "Look, I've been missing so much time at the college because of this flu, I'm worried I might not even have a job there any more. That stress is just totally throwing my body out of whack." He gave her a look. "Would you quit LOOKING at me that way?!?" she snapped, and he took a surprised step back. She sighed and rubbed at her forehead with one hand. "Have I mentioned I'm under a lot of stress? Plus being late, it's just like Ultra PMS. And I am so FUCKING hungry...." Her face crumpled and she leaned her elbows against the counter, breaking into tears.

 

Chris quickly wrapped her in his arms, and moved her so she could rest her head on his shoulder. "Hey, hey, shhh, it's okay. Come on, now, don't... don't cry..."

 

"That's n-n-no excuse.... I'm s-s-sorry I y-yelled at you..." She was babbling between sobs, and he just tried his best to comfort her. Her sobbing calmed to sniffling, and he waited another moment before speaking.

 

"NOW will you go see the doctor?" She nodded. "Good." He pulled back and looked her in the eyes. "I love you, you know that?" She rested her forehead against his and nodded. "And that's why I'm doing this."

 

She nodded again and sniffled. "I know," she whispered. "I love you, too."

 

"I know. Now go call the doctor."

 

 

The only time the doctor had available for the next 3 weeks was just two days away, but right when Chris had a major meeting for FuMan Skeeto with some retail corporations. Rather than wait, they decided she should go alone, as much as they hated the idea.

 

Chris was in his study going over some paperwork after the meeting when he heard the front door open and close. "I'm up here," he answered the shouted hello. When Julie appeared at the door, he pushed his chair back from the desk. She bounded over and sat in his lap, draping her legs over one arm of the chair. He wrapped his arms around her waist to keep her on, and she wrapped hers around his neck before kissing him soundly. "To what do I owe the pleasure?" he said with a smirk when she finally pulled back.

 

"Because I love you. And because you're gonna like what the doctor told me."

 

"I am?"

 

"Oh, yeah."

 

He noticed the sparkle in her eyes, and already the pieces were falling into place. "No way," he whispered, a smile starting to tug at his mouth.

 

"It's not the flu. And it wasn't just stress. And I'm not Ultra-PMS-ing." She teased him with the hints, her eyes shining.

 

His face finally split into a grin. "No WAY!"

 

"Way," she laughed through the tears that had started falling.

 

Chris' voice was hushed, as if there was some spell he didn't want to break. "Oh my God... We're having a baby..." He kissed her gently, the wetness on both their faces mingling. Then he laughed and screamed, spinning the chair around quickly.

 

Julie braced her hands on the back of his chair. "Woah. No spinning. I still feel sick, remember."

 

"Right. Sorry. What'd she say about that, anyway? I mean, you've been *awfully* sick. And more than just in the mornings, too. Is that bad?" He looked worried.

 

"Well, she said it's not normal, but it's not totally uncommon, either. I just have to keep a closer eye on my nutrition and stuff. She wants to see me every week for awhile to make sure everything's okay."

 

Chris nodded, relieved, then looked up at her suddenly. "Oh, I just thought! That means you're not gonna get over this 'flu'" – he made little quotie things with his hands – "for... for... how long? How far are you already?"

 

She could have laughed at the roller coaster he was on, with every new thing occurring to him setting him off again, except she had just gone through the same thing that afternoon with Dr. Carson. "Almost 4 weeks," she said.

 

"Four weeks?!?"

 

"It was bad timing. If this hadn't happened right during flu season, I probably would've clued in sooner. I also could have gotten started on fixing my vitamins sooner." A look of alarm crossed his face, so she quickly amended. "No, it's okay. I just have to be extra careful. She gave me some special supplements to take, and an anti-nauseant that's safe."

 

"Good." He smiled. "That's good. I know how miserable you've been." He held her in his arms for a few minutes, absorbing all the information she'd given him. He cupped her face in his hands, staring deep into her big brown eyes. "Wow," he breathed. He moved one hand to her stomach and looked down at it. "Wow."

 

Julie covered his hand with her own, and ran her other hand through the hair at the nape of his neck. "I know. Pretty amazing isn't it?"

 

"Oh yeah." He cocked his half-smile at her, and she felt giddy. "I can't wait to tell everyone! Our families are gonna flip. And the gang's all gonna be over here on Saturday, so we can tell all of them..."

 

She laughed at his exuberance. "We can call our families tomorrow. Tonight... Let's leave tonight for ourselves." She nibbled at his earlobe and started to slowly unbutton his shirt with one hand.

 

"Mrs. Kirkpatrick.... are you getting fresh with me?"

 

"You better believe it."

 

"And what would your husband think?"

 

"I won't tell him if you won't."

 

"Deal."

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Mid-afternoon on Saturday, Julie was getting ready to meet Lara and Michelle at a local café, and Chris was sitting on the bed watching her move around the room. Even though she didn't look any different than she had two days ago, he thought he could see a change in her. The way she walked, the way she carried herself... he could have sat and watched her for hours.

 

"Are you sure you feel up to going? I mean, you could get them to come here instead."

 

He was being so sweet, she couldn't help but smile at him. "I'll be fine, Chris. I feel a bit better today. Those pills seem to be helping a little."

 

'A little' was the key phrase. They'd actually done barely more than take the edge off, but she was determined to get out of the house before she went stir crazy.

 

"Are you gonna tell them anything?"

 

"Nope. I want us to be together when we tell everyone." She walked over to him and cupped the side of his face with one hand. "Tonight." Her eyes shone. As Chris had predicted, their parents had been beyond thrilled when they'd phoned them with the news the night before. She couldn't wait to share it with their friends.

 

He turned his head and kissed her palm. "You are so beautiful." He pulled her closer and kissed her stomach. "And so are you," he whispered. He looked up at her standing before him; he could see her blinking back the tears that had formed at his words. "Okay, go on now. Have fun, do girl things." He swatted her behind. "Be good."

 

She smiled again. He always knew how to make her laugh, and just when to do it. "I always am," she said with a wink, then she sauntered out of the room.

 

 

Julie bounced around the house, waiting for everyone to arrive. It had taken everything she had not to burst out with the news to her two closest friends that afternoon, but she had made it. Chris just sat on the bench of the baby grand piano in their living room and watched her pace, shift knickknacks around on the shelves, check out the window, then return to step one. He laughed at her and reached for her hand when she passed by him.

 

"Would you sit down? I don't think I've seen you with this much energy in a month."

 

She sat next to him on the bench and bounced one knee. "I know. I feel good. I'm just so excited, I can't wait to see what everyone says. How are you so calm? You're usually the one flying."

 

He shrugged. "Someone's gotta balance you out."

 

She got back up again and went to the window. "Oh, there's Justin and Lara." She danced to the door and waited for the couple to make their way up the driveway. Julie greeted them both with a hug and ushered them into the living room. The guys sat across the room while the girls sat on the loveseat by the window.

 

Lara looked at Julie. "So do we get to find out what's going on, or do we have to keep guessing?"

 

"What do you mean?" she asked innocently.

 

"Oh come on, Jules. All afternoon, it was like you'd start to say something, then you'd catch yourself. I can see it in your eyes. Something's up, now spill."

 

Julie couldn't keep from smiling. "Later. As soon as everyone gets here. I'm so glad everyone was already coming over tonight, it's going to make this so much easier. Oh look, there's Lance." She jumped up when she saw him pull into the driveway, leaving Lara behind her, shaking her head.

 

Joey was right behind Lance, then JC and Michelle arrived a few minutes later. Julie sat next to Chris on the piano bench, and he placed an arm around her waist protectively. Or maybe it was just to hold her down. Everyone settled around the room and looked to their host couple.

 

"What?" Chris said. He was expecting to have to call for an announcement. He wasn't expecting this.

 

Joey rolled his eyes. "You guys are more transparent than a window. Out with it, so we can start the party."

 

Chris blushed, but Julie just beamed. They looked at each other, and Chris shrugged. "I guess I should just say it, then." He looked around at their gathered friends. "We're pregnant."

 

Chaos erupted as congratulations, hugs, and kisses were exchanged. A few tears were even shed for good measure.

 

"Do you need us to rearrange the tour schedule?" JC finally asked. Rehearsals started in a month, and they were heading out right after the holidays. "I mean, whatever you need..."

 

Chris shook his head. "Nope. We'll get home almost two months before she's due. Plus they say first babies are usually late, so it's all good."

 

"Two months after tour..." Lance did the math in his head. "So that means.... mid-May?"

 

"Early May, actually," Julie corrected. "The third."

 

Lance laughed. "May third? See if you can hold out a day. It'll be fun to share a birthday with the little one."

 

"Yeah, okay, I'll see what I can do." She rolled her eyes and laughed at him.

 

"'Little One'." Chris took Julie's hand. "I like that. We'll need something to call it for now, since we don't want to know the gender until it's born."

 

Julie looked up at him and nodded. "I like it too." She turned to their friend with a smile. "Thanks, Lance."

 

He just blushed and shrugged dismissively.

 

Everyone finally started drifting, and this party had a much better mood than their last one. Justin and JC were talking animatedly by the piano about a choreography idea; Lance, Michelle, and Lara were in the dining room discussing the latest Brian McKnight CD; and Julie, Chris, and Joey were out on the porch, enjoying the warm September evening. When Julie got up to refill her glass inside, Joey turned to Chris.

 

"So, how are *you* holding up through all this?"

 

Chris grinned. "I'm good. Great, actually. I don't exactly have to do much, y'know. But...." he sighed. "I dunno. We've only known for a couple days, and at least now I *know* what's making her like this. But it's still.... it's really hard sometimes." Joey just watched him, and let him continue. "I mean... I hate seeing her so sick. But at least I know that'll pass. But the mood swings..." He sighed again. "The happy moments... obviously those are great. Even the fighting I can deal with. But the worst is the crying." He watched his hands while he talked. "I can count on one hand the number of times I've seen her cry since I've known her. Until now. Now, everything sets her off. I just... I don't know what to do with her." He looked up at his friend, and Joey nodded.

 

"You want to protect her, but you can't. There's no way to make it all better."

 

"Exactly. And if I try to make it better, then *that* just makes her cry, because I'm being extra nice so she gets all mushy. It's like I can't win."

 

Joey laughed and shook his head. "I am so glad I'm not there yet. I feel for you. But hey, you know we're all here if you need anything. Either of you. Ever."

 

"Thanks, man..."

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

When Lance saw Julie walk in the kitchen, he excused himself from the other two ladies to talk to her. He leaned back against the counter across from her and watched as she poured herself another glass of sparkling grape juice.

 

"You know, I don't think I've ever seen Chris this happy." When Julie gave him a strange look, he continued. "No, I'm serious. I mean, I've seen him all kinds of happy, and proud, but this is different. This is, like, a glowing from inside kind of happy."

 

A slow smile spread across her face, and she went over to watch her husband from the window. "Yeah, I guess it is."

 

"You look fantastic," Lance observed after a moment.

 

Julie blushed and turned to him. "Thank you."

 

"But thin. Are you okay? I mean really."

 

"Oh I'm fine. I lost a bit of weight, but it's nothing that won't be fixed once I can start eating again." His look told her he clearly didn't buy it. She could always count on Lance to get right to the point and not take any crap from her, but sometimes she wanted to forget the truth. She sighed. "Okay, I lost a lot of weight. And if these anti-nausea pills don't start working soon, and I don't figure out how to keep some food down, it's gonna become a problem."

 

Lance took a step forward and rubbed her upper arm, his green eyes filled with concern. "I wish I could help. If there's anything I can do...."

 

"I know. Thanks." It was Julie's turn to look concerned. "Hey, how have *you* been? I haven't talked to you much since.... y'know...."

 

"Since I found out Sheryl was two-timing me?" He shrugged. "I've been better." He wandered towards the living room, and Julie followed. They settled on the couch and faced each other.

 

"What ever happened with that? All Chris told me was that she was cheating on you, so you left." She could get right to the point sometimes, too.

 

Lance took a deep breath before speaking. "Apparently she decided that I wasn't enough for her, so she found another guy across town. Seven months before I caught her having a very cozy dinner with him at a restaurant downtown."

 

"Oh my God..." A hand flew to her mouth. "I had no idea."

 

He scoffed. "Neither did he, apparently. He was just as shocked as I was when I walked up to them. Actually, it all makes sense now. I always wondered why she didn't want to come to the big parties and the award shows with me. She just didn't want a public record of us together. It would have ruined her little scheme." He rubbed his face with one hand. "Why didn't I see it sooner?"

 

She put a hand on his arm. "Because she didn't want you to see it."

 

"Yeah, but.... How can someone I thought I knew so well, and trusted so completely, be playing me so badly? I mean, we were together for almost a year. I loved her."

 

"Lance, you weren't the only one she was playing. The other guy had no idea, neither did any of your friends, and I'd assume neither did any of his friends." She turned his head so she could look him straight in the eye. "You are not a bad judge of character. Do you hear me? She was a skilled manipulator, and she only let you see what she wanted you to see."

 

"I know. Logically, I know. But...." He sighed. "It's still hard to think of trusting someone like that again."

 

"Of course it is. But you will. You'll find someone who deserves it, and who deserves you. She didn't."

 

He gave a wry smile. "When did you get so wise?"

 

"It's the mommy gene," she said matter-of-factly. "It's been activated, and now I'm practicing."

 

"Well, Little One is gonna be very lucky."

 

 

Chris was slowly picking a melody out on the piano one day when he felt a pair of arms wrap around his shoulders from behind.

 

"Morning Daddy," the familiar voice murmured in his ear. Ever since they had found out they were expecting, she had taken to calling him that. His heart leapt every time he heard it.

 

"More like afternoon," he teased her, taking her hands and kissing each one.

 

"Yeah, yeah." She moved around to sit on the bench next to him, and rested her head on his shoulder.

 

"How're you feeling today?"

 

She sighed. "I'd be better if I could eat more than tacos." She had discovered that Mexican food was the one thing that would stay down, but she'd practically sworn that she'd never touch a burrito again once she'd gotten through this ordeal.

 

"Are those pills still not working?" Julie shook her head mutely. "I'm sorry."

 

"Not your fault." She shrugged.

 

"Well..... in a way, it sort of is." Chris tickled his wife's stomach with his fingers, which made her laugh.

 

"You might not want to turn this into a blame thing until I'm actually in labour. I'm sure you'll get more than enough of 'you did this to me you bastard' that day."

 

"Good point." One hand idly plunked at random keys on the piano while the other rubbed up and down Julie's back slowly.

 

"What are we doing this weekend?" she suddenly said, not lifting her head from Chris' shoulder.

 

He thought for a moment. "We're moving Michelle in on Saturday."

 

"Oh man, is it October already?" She pretended to sob. "I want September back."

 

"Sorry honey. I mean, I'm a powerful guy, but even I have limits..." He trailed off when she smacked his chest, though she still didn't remove her head from his shoulder. "Just think, though. That means only four or five more weeks and you'll be over all this sickness."

 

"Ohhhh, I can't wait."

 

He kept rubbing her back for a long moment. "Things are gonna start moving pretty quickly after that, aren't they?" She nodded and mumbled in assent. He rested his cheek on the top of her head and sighed. "I wish I wasn't gonna miss so much of it. I wish I didn't have to be in rehearsals so much, and then I wish I wasn't going on tour for two months."

 

"I know, but even people with regular jobs don't drop everything to have a baby. They work around it. We'll figure it out."

 

"But at least people with regular jobs come home every night."

 

"You'll come home every night during rehearsals. And then during tour you'll come home whenever you have a couple of days off. It'll be okay."

 

He sighed again and shifted to wrap both arms around her. "At least I'll be home for the last couple months, and for when it's born. If anything had conflicted with that, I'd have made them change the schedule."

 

"I know you would've. That's how I know it'll be okay."

 

"You are so strong," he murmured as he held her.

 

"Actually, Chris?" she said in a tiny voice.

 

"Hmmmm?"

 

"I'm scared out of my wits."

 

He pulled her tighter. "So am I," he whispered. "I think I'd be more worried if we weren't."

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

"Ugh, I hate moving." Michelle flopped down on the floor next to Julie in the walk-in closet.

 

"I hear ya." Julie took another pair of shoes from the box beside her and placed them on the shelf. "And the longer you stay in one place, the more stuff you manage to accumulate."

 

"And this is nothing. You should see how much I sold or tossed before coming here."

 

"At least you didn't need to worry about furniture."

 

"Small comfort."

 

JC appeared in the doorway to the tiny room. He dropped another box beside Michelle, and ruffled her hair briefly before turning and heading back downstairs.

 

"Thanks, sweetie!" she called after him. She lifted the lid and peeked inside, then rolled her eyes. "This is lingerie, it goes in the dresser in the bedroom, not in here."

 

"I'll move it!" Julie said quickly, and she jumped up.

 

"You're not moving anything." Chris came into the room with another box.

 

"It's a light box, and it's only across the room!" she whined. "I've been sitting in that closet for an hour."

 

"So get up and stretch. No lifting." He dropped his box by the door and kissed her on the cheek quickly, then left.

 

She returned to her spot on the floor, grumbling under her breath. "For Chrissake, I'm pregnant, not broken. I can lift a freaking box of underwear....."

 

"Oh, let him worry," Michelle said from the bedroom, where she'd moved the box herself. "He probably feels like it's all he can do right about now."

 

She was rewarded with only another set of incoherent grumbles. Justin and Lara came hurrying in the room a few minutes later.

 

"Hey honey, I'm sorry we're so late." Lara rushed to Michelle and gave her a hug. "Lazy here wouldn't get out of bed."

 

Justin grabbed his girlfriend around the waist from behind and nuzzled her neck. "I don't remember you complaining."

 

Lara laughed and pushed him off her. "Where do you want us, Michelle?"

 

Justin moved close again. "I could think of a few ideas...."


"Would you stop?!?"

 

Michelle shook her head, laughing. "You can stay here and help me and Julie with my clothes. Justin, I think the guys are doing books down the hall, if they're done moving all the boxes in."

 

Justin poked his head in the walk-in closet on his way out. "Hey Jules, I didn't see you in here. Hey Little One!" he sang with a grin. She looked up and said hi. "How're you two doing?"

 

"Better." She shrugged, then smiled. "I gained five pounds this month."

 

"I never thought I'd see a woman happy to gain weight."

 

"Watch it, Justin!" Lara shouted from the bedroom, but Julie just waved her hand dismissively.

 

"It's actually not as much as I'd like, but it's a start. Especially with how much I lost the first month."

 

Justin wished her well and continued on to where Chris and JC were working. Lance and Joey had both managed to find other commitments for the day, so they had gotten out of the moving task. Michelle, Lara, and Julie kept unpacking, though it wasn't long before the three of them ended up just sitting on the king sized bed, doing nothing more than talk.

 

"Hey Jace," Julie hailed when she saw JC pass by the open bedroom door. He backtracked and leaned on the door frame. "When do rehearsals start?"

 

"A week from Thursday, why?"

 

"So soon?" Michelle said. "I thought the tour didn't start until January."

 

He shrugged and wandered into the room, flopping on the bed and resting his head in his fiancée's lap. "We wanna take some time off over the holidays, so we need to get an early start."

 

"Oh well that's not so bad then..." She started playing with his hair idly, and conversation continued among the four.

 

Justin soon appeared in the doorway. "Oh, everyone's working hard in here, I see."

 

"We are!" Lara protested.


"Yeah, we're..." Julie thought... "planning!"

 

"Riiiight...." Justin shook his head and joined them all on the bed. He leaned against Lara and stretched his legs out across Julie's.

 

"No really," Michelle picked up on the thread. "I can't just unpack all willy nilly. I have to decide where to put everything first."

 

"Uh-huh. And I'm sure that's what y'all were discussing."

 

"Among other things...."

 

It wasn't long before Chris finally realized his helpers hadn't returned in a while. "Well isn't this a cozy little scene?" He stood in the middle of the bedroom with his hands on his hips.

 

"There's room for one more." Julie patted the spot beside her.

 

He crossed the room to the bed, and when he tapped her shoulder and said "Sit up," she thought he was going to situate himself behind her. She skootched forward a bit, but instead he slipped the pillow out from behind her back and swung it square at Justin's head.

 

"Hey!!" Justin grabbed the pillow behind Lara and swung back. Complete mayhem threatened to take over the room, but JC's voice soon rose above the rest.

 

"Alright everyone, break it up, break it up. I don't want you destroying my pillows..."

 

Everyone paused and looked at him, frozen where they were. Then as if by some unspoken command, they all pounced on him at once. A few screaming minutes later they all sat back, panting, having worn out their momentary bursts of energy.

 

"Chris...." JC started.

 

"Yeah?" He sat back on his haunches, bouncing on the bed, hair a disheveled mess.

 

'This man is having children. We are all in so much trouble...' ran through JC's mind, but he just shook his head. "Nevermind...."

 

 

Chris leaned against the door frame of the bathroom watching his wife. She didn't realize he was there yet, so she moved about her morning routine completely oblivious to his gaze. She was wearing one of his button-down shirts with nothing but panties on the bottom. As clichéd as it was, he didn't think he'd seen anything sexier.

 

She leaned over the counter to examine some flaw only she saw, then stepped back from the mirror. She applied a few touches to the miniscule amount of makeup she was wearing. Satisfied, she turned to replace the kit in the drawer. She caught his figure out of the corner of her eye and jumped, placing a hand on her chest.

 

"Oh, geez!"

 

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scare you."

 

"That's okay." A smile spread across her features. "Merry Christmas."

 

Chris chuckled. "Christmas? Jules, it's only December first."

 

"Oh come on, you know how much I love to decorate. As it is I have to force myself to wait until December hits."

 

"True, I remember last year.... Speaking of Christmas, where are we going this year?"

 

Julie thought for a moment. "I think it's my family's turn to get us." They had flipped a coin the first year they were married to determine with which family they would spend the holidays, and every year after that they traded off.

 

Chris frowned. "Do you think you should travel that far? I know Dr. Carson said it was okay, but that's a really long trip. Hey, we could bring your family down here. Our Christmas gift to them. Then we can all spend it together."

 

"That'd be nice. I don't think our families have seen each other since the wedding. But they'll probably come down here when Little One's born anyway, and after that happens, I really don't know when I'll be able to get back home again." By then he had crossed the room to stand by her at the counter. She took his hands. "Please, sweetie. I need to go home."

 

He looked into her pleading brown eyes and took all of two seconds to crack. "I could never say no to you." He embraced her tightly, then stepped back and looked sideways at their reflection in the mirror.

 

He turned her so she was facing the mirror and stepped behind her. They were nearly the same height, and he rested his chin on her shoulder. He slipped his hands under her shirt, wrapping his arms around her waist. He slid his hands across her stomach, then froze. He ran his hands back out to her waist and across the front again.

 

"Hey...." he whispered. "Lift up the shirt."

 

Julie blushed. She knew exactly what he was feeling -- she had just noticed it the day before. She lifted up the hem of her shirt and watched the look on his face in the mirror while he stared with rapt fascination at the reflection of his hands running back and forth across her stomach, tracing the tiny bulge beginning to form.

 

"That's....."

 

She nodded and turned her head to look at him directly. She couldn't hide her smile or her tears.

 

"Oh my God..." He came around beside her again and leaned back against the counter, keeping one hand on her stomach. "Wow." He laughed and looked up at her. She placed one hand over his. "This is really real. I mean, hearing its heartbeat in the doctor's office was amazing, but this... this is here. This is real."

 

She laughed at him. "See it at home, no special equipment required."

 

"Something like that, yeah." He paused for a moment. "I guess.... I guess I'd better find a way to tell everyone then, huh? I don't want people to just figure it out, I'd rather tell."

 

"It'll be a few more weeks 'till anyone else can see it, but yeah."

 

"Okay..." He seemed to be thinking fast. "You're coming to the AMAs, right?" She nodded. "And that's... wow... that's a little over a month away still, so... Okay. I'll find a way to work it into an interview before then." He wrinkled his nose. "I hate doing big announcements. I'll just mention it."

 

She laughed. "That'll perk some ears up."

 

He winked. "It'll be fun."

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

As the plane began its final descent into Los Angeles, Julie squirmed in her seat. Chris took her hand.

 

"You doing okay?"

 

"Yeah, the pressure changes are just a little uncomfortable. I'll be fine."

 

They had spent the previous week and a half with Julie's family in Canada, and they were headed for a very busy couple of weeks in LA. Since the AMAs were being held there in the second week of January, they had decided to kick their tour off from there as well. AMA rehearsals and pre-tour publicity would fill the time until then.

 

They pushed their way through the crowd gathered at the airport and sank into the waiting limousine with sighs.

 

"One crowd down, one to go," Julie muttered. When they finally reached the hotel, she tugged on her shirt and coat so they bagged a little looser around her, and they completed their second mad dash of the day, security teams holding back the screaming fans. Once in the elevator, she stripped her coat off quickly. "Good Lord it's hot out there!"

 

Chris rubbed his arms. "I was just thinking how nice it was to feel real warmth again." She smacked him in the arm then continued fanning herself. "Maybe if you weren't wearing 50 shirts it wouldn't be so bad."

 

Julie shrugged. "I have to hide somehow."

 

"I'm sorry. We're doing a ton of interviews next week, I promise I'll fit it into one of them."

 

By the time they had reached their floor, she had rid herself of the sweater she was wearing. She continued on to their room to change while Chris went next door to announce their arrival.

 

"Chris!" Lance greeted his friend at the door to his own suite. "Hey, Happy New Year. How was Canada?"

 

"Cold. Freaking cold. I don't know how she lived there for 27 years."

 

"We just have tougher skin than you wimps." Julie breezed into the room, now clad in a long sleeved but light shirt. "Hi Lance, Happy New Year."

 

They embraced, and Justin bounded through the door.

 

"Hey! Did I hear voices? Welcome back you two!" He hugged first Chris then Julie, leaning in to her very carefully.

 

She laughed lightly. "You know, it's okay to touch it, Justin. It won't explode."

 

"Really? Can I?" He looked like a scared little boy, but he reached out a hand nonetheless, stopping short of making actual contact. When she nodded, he rested the palm of his hand against her still small belly. "Wow..." He left it there for a moment, then he suddenly snatched it away, his smile fading in an instant. "Woah, what was that?"

 

"Right there, I'm guessing was probably an elbow. Or maybe a fist." She shook her head. "Relax, I've been feeling it for weeks. So far it's been mostly fluttering, but the past few days have turned to jabs." Justin replaced his hand with a look of wonder.

 

Chris and Lance had been watching the scene with amusement, but when this happened the older man frowned. "Hey, I haven't even felt it yet."

 

Julie reached out a hand to him. "Well then get over here." She shooed Justin aside and placed Chris' hand where the young man's had been. "I'm actually surprised you felt anything," she said, speaking to Justin again. "It's kind of early, but..." she shrugged.

 

Chris kept shifting his hand around. "I can't... there!" A grin spread over his face, and it was completely infectious.

 

Julie looked over at Lance. "You want in, while Little One is making its presence known?"

 

He shook his head and held his hands up. "No, that's alright. I think I'll pass."

 

"You sure, man?" Chris said, not looking up. "This is really cool."

 

Julie rolled her eyes. "Great, I'm like a roadside attraction now." Chris looked up quickly to protest but saw that she was smiling, so he returned his attention to the task at hand, so to speak. She turned back to Justin. "So, Curly, where's your woman?"

 

"Who, Lara?"

 

"No, the other one you ninny."

 

Justin stuck his tongue out at her. "She couldn't get this much time off work. She'll fly over with JC and Michelle before the awards."

 

"Aw, they're not here either?"

 

"Nope, work for Michelle too, and JC's finishing up some production stuff for Wild Orchid's new CD. Joey's getting in later tonight."

 

Julie nodded, then tapped Chris on the shoulder. "Um, honey? Are you done yet? I need to go to the little girls' room."

 

"Again?" The look in her eyes told him not to continue this conversation. "Yup, go ahead."

 

She kissed him on the cheek. "There'll be plenty more of this to come." Another light kiss to his lips promised more of something else too, if he played his cards right.

 

 

Michelle padded softly down the hall towards the studio where JC was working, two mugs of coffee in her hands. Neither of them had slept well the night before, for different reasons. She knocked lightly with one knuckle, careful not to spill. When she got a muffled answer, she pushed the door open and stepped inside.

 

"Good morning," she said with a small smile, holding out one of the mugs.

 

He took it gratefully, inhaling the scent of the strong brew before taking a careful sip.

 

She settled on his lap, taking a small sip from her own cup. She spoke after a long moment. "So.... how are things going?"

 

"Fine."

 

"Just.... fine?"

 

JC sighed. "It's going slowly. I think I'm almost done, but... I just can't get this one part to go right."

 

"Oh."

 

They sat in silence for awhile longer until JC spoke again.

 

"Was there something you needed? I've got a lot of work to do today."

 

Michelle stood quickly. "No, no that's alright. I'll be going...." She bit her lip and strode quickly from the room, shutting the door behind her. She went to the phone in the den and dialed a familiar number.

 

"Hello?"

 

"Lara? I... I'm sorry... did I wake you?"

 

"No... Michelle?"

 

"Yeah."

 

"Honey, what's wrong? Are you okay?"

 

"Yeah... No... I mean... Can I..." She sighed, nothing was coming out right.

 

"Would you like me to come over? I'm not sure you should be driving, you're upset."

 

"No, don't," she said quickly. "Can I come over there? I'll be fine..."

 

"Of course."

 

"I'll be there in a bit." She paused. "Thank you."

 

Michelle left a quick note for JC on the kitchen counter so he wouldn't be worried when he came out of the studio -- 'If he comes out,' she thought wryly -- then grabbed her keys and drove quickly to Lara's home.

 

Once she stepped inside and her friend gave her a comforting hug, she could no longer hold back. Lara held her and rocked her gently while she sobbed. She guided them to the couch and tried to comfort her as best she could.

 

"Shh, shh, it's okay..." she repeated. When Michelle had calmed, Lara pulled away and looked at her. "What is it?"

 

"He... last night..." Michelle took a deep breath and started again. "Last night, I couldn't sleep. I went downstairs and I saw JC sitting in the living room. He was looking at an old photo album. It was pictures of.... them.... of him and De Anna...." She blinked back fresh tears and made herself continue. "He didn't see me there. I just went back to bed. I couldn't... I didn't... This morning, I thought maybe I would try talking to him, but when we were sitting together he just brushed me off."

 

"Oh, sweetie..."

 

"Did you know her? No, of course you wouldn't, JC and I were already together when Justin met you."

 

Lara shook her head. "No, but I think Justin's mentioned her a couple of times. De Anna..." She whispered the name to herself, then shrugged. "I've seen some old pictures."

 

"Did Justin tell you anything about her?"

 

"Michelle, why..."

 

"Please," she interrupted.

 

Lara searched her memory, trying to decide what to say to the woman so upset before her. "She and JC were together for not quite a year, I think. She was nice, from what I understand. Kept to herself, mostly. Justin said he never really knew her well."

 

"Do you know why they broke up?"

 

She shook her head. "I don't even know who left whom. I guess it just... didn't work out. They weren't right for each other. You two *are*," Lara tried to reassure her, but Michelle looked distant.

 

"Maybe I moved in too soon," she muttered, then she met Lara's gaze again. "Maybe we're rushing. But you and Justin moved in together after only a few months, and you're not even engaged. How do you do it?"

 

"Michelle, I can't tell you that. Everyone is different..." She saw the look in her friend's eyes and knew she needed some kind of an answer, no matter how inadequate. She collected her thoughts and spoke carefully. "Justin and I love each other, don't get me wrong, and we're definitely in it for the long term, but it's not necessarily forever. When I moved in here, it was only because we wanted to be together now. But there's no promise of ever after."

 

"Don't you think you'll be ever after?"

 

"We might be. I don't know yet. But that's the thing, there's no pressure. You guys... you *are* forever. You know that you're getting married, and you have to make it work."

 

"But if I'd waited until after the wedding to move in, it'd be the same thing. It might even be worse! The papers are signed, it's official. Now at least there's still a way out."

 

Lara shook her head. "No, Michelle, don't think that way. JC loves you so much, he wouldn't have proposed to you if he didn't. And I know you love him. Everyone can see it when you two look at each other."

 

"Then why was he looking at those pictures last night?"

 

"Only he knows that. Maybe he needed to remind himself why they didn't work where you do. Maybe he needed to revisit the past once more before he could put it behind him forever. Or maybe he was just feeling nostalgic. She'll always be a part of his past."

 

"I know...."

 

"Have you been having any other problems lately, or was this out of the blue?"

 

Michelle looked at her hands and shrugged. "It's been hard, with him so busy. He doesn't get home until late, you know that, with Justin... After work I just sit around his house, watching TV or reading a book. Then he gets home and goes straight to bed, usually."

 

"You know, I think I've found your problem, or at least part of it."

 

She looked up. "What?"

 

"You just called it 'his house'. Michelle, you live there too. And you always will, now."

 

"Oh.... I guess you're right, I did say that...."

 

"I think you need to have a serious talk with your future husband. *Before* he goes away for two months with this tour."

 

"You're right. I'll talk to him tonight. Since we leave for LA tomorrow," she added with a small laugh. She smiled genuinely for the first time that day. "Thank you Lara."

 

"Any time, hon. I just hope I've helped." The two women reached for each other in an embrace.

 

"You have. A lot."

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

JC pushed his chair back from the table and sighed. "That was wonderful, honey. But... why all the effort? Why the fancy dinner?"

 

She shrugged, trying to remain casual. "You've been so busy lately, and you're going off on tour next week. I know this isn't our last night together, but it's our last night here. I just wanted to make it special."

 

She got up and started to clear the dishes away, and he watched her move carefully. Her face was drawn and tense; he knew that wasn't the whole story. He waited until she came close again to get the leftovers, and he grabbed her arm.

 

"Michelle..." He waited until she looked up at him. "What is it?"

 

She glanced away and didn't say anything, just gently wrenched away from his grasp and finished her task. She was standing at the sink rinsing the dishes when she felt a pair of hands on her shoulders. She stopped moving. She could feel him standing close behind her, his chest barely touching her back. She slowly turned in his arms, looking up into the deep blue eyes of the man she loved so much. Those eyes looked sad, and a little lost.

 

She sighed. "Let's sit."

 

He nodded and stepped aside so she could move past him. He followed her into the living room, then sat carefully next to where she'd perched on the couch. He waited patiently while she collected her thoughts.

 

"JC, I..." she started, then stopped herself. "While you're gone, would you mind if I changed some things around here?"

 

He blinked, surprised. He'd been preparing for what she might say, but this he wasn't expecting. "Um, sure.... Well, what kinds of things?"

 

She shrugged and looked around the room, as if she was looking for ideas. "I dunno. Nothing, really. Just little things. Move stuff around..." She trailed off, and he waited a moment before speaking again.

 

"Babe, what's really bothering you?"

 

"Nothing..."

 

"Then why the sudden urge to redecorate?"

 

"I just... I've been living here for three months, and I still feel like I'm visiting. This is my home too, now... *our* home... but I still feel like it's *your* home." She looked at him, took a deep breath, and decided to forge ahead with everything. "And sometimes I get the feeling you don't want me in it."

 

If he was surprised before, now he was floored. He gaped, fishing for words. "I... What... Michelle..." He ran a hand through his hair and looked at her. "Where did this come from?"

 

"From spending every day and every night of the past three months sitting here alone, waiting for you to get home. And then when you are home, you're just, I don't know, distant."

 

"You knew it would be that way. The rehearsal schedule before a tour is always nuts, and I've had this CD I've been working on..."

 

"I know. I *know* all that, but... it just takes up so much of your time. I mean, you stay longer at the rehearsals and you spend extra time at the studios because everything has to be just perfect. But it never is, so you just keep going." She took one of his hands. "Your dedication and your high standards are part of what I love about you. I just didn't think it would be this hard."

 

JC considered her words carefully before replying. "I... don't know what to say. I'm sorry. I suppose I do stay late more often than I need to. I'm just so used to it being only me here, it didn't used to matter how late I got home. But a lot of the time it just can't be helped."

 

Michelle looked at her hands and nodded. "I suppose I should just make the most out of what time with you I do have. I mean, since you're so busy, and I know there's nothing you can do about that."

 

"And I won't volunteer to stay late so often," JC added. "I'll try to remember that just because you're here for longer than a visit doesn't mean I shouldn't spend as much time as possible with you in *our* home."

 

He put a hand under her chin and tilted her head so she was looking at him. He leaned in and placed a soft kiss on her lips, then pulled back and stood. He selected a CD from the rack, placed it in the stereo, and hit play. He turned back to the couch and held out his hand.

 

"Dance with me."

 

"What?"

 

"Come on." He made a 'home hither' motion with his still outstretched hand. "You said it. This is our last night here before I go away for two months. Let's make it a good one. Dance with me," he repeated.

 

She took his hand and stood. She wrapped her arms around the back of his neck, and he circled her waist with his, placing one strong hand on the small of her back. She could feel his hot breath on her neck while they swayed to the music. His other hand traced patterns up and down her spine until she thought she would melt.

 

"I love you," he whispered against her ear.

 

She pulled back and looked him in the eyes. "I love you too. I'm sor...."

 

"Shh." He silenced her with a feathery kiss. "No talking." Another kiss, as light as the first. "Just dance." He brushed her hair back from her face and wrapped his fingers in the wavy locks at the base of her neck. Their kisses deepened, all the passion and the love they felt for one another carried in each one. The music filtering from the stereo was soon forgotten, and for one night, the only thing that mattered was each other.

 

 

Lance slid into the large booth in the hotel's café across from Joey with a groan. "Whoever decided to room the single guy right next to the married couple should be shot."

 

Joey laughed at him. "Awww, poor Lancey didn't get much sleep last night?" He just got a dirty look in response. "Wait, Justin's on the other side of you, isn't he?"

 

Lance looked confused. "Yeah, so? He's been alone all week. And don't even make me *think* about that!" he quickly added, shutting his eyes tightly against the mental image.

 

"No, I just mean that.... Lara's getting in today."

 

Lance let his head fall to the table with a thunk.

 

"You know, you don't need to still be single. That intern at the radio station yesterday was checking you out. She was cute."

 

"Joey...."

 

"Yeah, yeah, all in due time, when you're ready." He waved his hand in the air as if he'd heard it all before. "I'm just saying."

 

"I know."

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

The five members of *NSYNC sat in the small booth across from the radio DJ. This was their fourth interview of the week, though only their first since JC has rejoined them, and, par for the course, they were getting a lot of the same questions each time.

 

"So tell me guys," Mike the DJ was saying, "you'll be performing your latest single at the American Music Awards on Sunday night, and at the same time you're up for three awards?"

 

"Four," Joey corrected him.

 

"Right, four. How do you feel about that?"

 

"Honestly," Justin started, "we're more nervous about performing. We've got some new choreography for this, it's a little different than what you see in the video, but it's the same as what we'll be using in the tour. So this is our chance to, y'know, test it out."

 

"That's right, you've got your new tour starting on...." Mike checked his notes... "Tuesday. Tell me about that."

 

JC spoke up. "It's going to be very high energy, we've really taken things to the next level with this tour. Lots of gags, new dance moves, pyrotechnics. We're very excited about it."

 

"Sounds great. Now, you'll be touring for two months, uhhh, nine weeks, to be exact, hitting 47 different cities." There were mumbles of agreement from around the room. "And then what? What is *NSYNC doing after this tour?"

 

Chris had been dropping less than subtle hints about his post-tour plans all week, but no DJ had picked up on them yet. As much fun as they were having with their hinting, Julie was threatening to mutiny if she couldn't go out in public in less than three layers of clothing soon. Besides, the awards were three days away, and there would be no hiding there. Lance saw a golden opportunity here, and he looked quickly over at Chris, who nodded slightly.

 

Joey was talking. "Right after this tour, we're going to be taking some time off. I'd say about six months, maybe a year. We're not breaking up or anything..." He quickly held up his hands and reassured the listening audience. "We will be back, we just need some time for some different solo projects, side ventures, y'know, pay some attention to our personal lives for awhile."

 

JC nodded and joined in. "It's been really hard, up 'till now, y'know, anything we want to do outside of the group, we have to fit it into the group schedule. And there are some things you just can't schedule..." He had seen the opening, too, and was trying to help.

 

"Yeah, especially if you're trying to coordinate with other artists, you have to try to fit two schedules together." Justin jumped in. "I know I'm tryin' to get together with a couple different folks to record some duets and things..."

 

'Justin, you idiot...' Lance was thinking, when Joey interrupted Justin's tangent.

 

"And Lance is producing another movie, which I'll be in, which is even more people to have to coordinate. But even personal things, I mean, there are only so many times you can schedule major events around the group before you have to just say enough is enough. Like, I know when Chris got married, they had to stick it in between, what, two tours?"

 

Chris leaned forward to his mic. He had been enjoying sitting back and watching the volleys. "A tour and an album."

 

"Yeah," Joey nodded. "So that only gave them a couple months. So for JC, we thought we'd take a major hiatus and give them a little more time."

 

JC picked up where Joey left off. "And even then, we've had to push the date forward from where we'd wanted it so it would fit into the break. Plus I've got a couple other projects I'll be working on before that. Some production things."

 

Mike was desperately trying to regain control of their ramblings. "So it sounds like you're all going to be very busy. Recording, producing, movies, a wedding... Good luck with that, JC..."

 

"Thank you."

 

"Now Chris, we haven't heard from you. What's in store for you on this break? Taking it easy?"

 

"Hardly." Chris chuckled, but left it at that. He wanted to play a while longer. Mike looked around the rest of the guys, all of whom were smiling.

 

Lance cleared his throat. "Yeah, Chris has a little solo project of his own he's been working on."

 

Joey laughed. "More like a duo project."

 

"Oh really?" Mike looked to Chris. "Are you doing a recording with someone?"

 

"No, nothing like that." He couldn't stop the blush creeping into his cheeks or the smile on his face. No more playing. "My wife and I are expecting."

 

Mike's jaw dropped, and he struggled to recover. "Expecting? As in, a baby?"

 

'Heh,' Chris thought, 'maybe I can play a bit more...' He cocked his head. "No, actually, a puppy. I miss my dog so much, so we got in touch with this breeder, and he promised us one from the next litter. It shouldn't be much longer now...." The guys were all trying very hard not to laugh, and Mike just looked confused. Chris took pity on him. "Yes, as in a baby."

 

"Wow. Well, congratulations, man. When's the big day?"

 

"Sorry, that's top secret information. I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you."

 

"Can you give us a hint?"

 

"Ummm, sometime this year."

 

"A season?"

 

"A season.... how 'bout spring? Could be spring. Could also be summer."

 

"Winter?" Joey supplied helpfully.

 

Chris pretended to think about it. "I suppose it could be winter. When does fall start?"

 

"Late September," Lance said.

 

"Yeah... no, can't be fall."

 

Mike interjected. "You're not going to give us anything, are you?"

 

"I'm sorry, what was the question?"

 

The DJ shook his head, laughing. "Never mind. I think we're about out of time, anyway. This has been *NSYNC on KLYZ radio. Thank you, guys, for coming down here today, and good luck at the awards on Sunday night."

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

"She'll be out in a minute," Chris called out in response to the knock on their suite door.

 

"Okay, we'll meet her down in the car," Michelle's voice called back out through the door, and Chris returned his attention to the woman wrapped in his arms.

 

The winter tour had started two nights before, with two sold out shows in LA. That day the guys would be bussing down to San Diego, and their women were flying home together.

 

"Why don't you stay with me for a couple weeks? You're not working any more, I'm sure my Mom wouldn't mind looking after the house a bit longer."

 

"Chris, we've been over this. There are things that need to be done around the house, and I need to be close to Dr. Carson for my checkups and everything. I already haven't seen her in three weeks."

 

He sighed and rubbed her belly with one hand absently. "I hate this..."

 

She wiped away a few new teardrops -- as if there hadn't been enough already that morning. "Me too. But I just can't do it." She tried to laugh. "Besides, you know how nuts tour is. Even if all I did was sit in the bus all day, I'd still be exhausted."

 

He nodded silently, and just sat for a minute. Then he bent over and placed a kiss on the top of her stomach. "I love you," he murmured against her skin, almost too soft for her to hear. He could feel the baby shift around, as if in response, then he felt Julie's whole body shake with a sob she'd been trying to hold in. He raised his face to hers and held her tightly before finally speaking. "I guess you'd better get going."

 

She nodded, sniffled, and wiped her cheeks. She reached for her suitcase, but he quickly picked it up and carried it out the door. She followed him into the hall and saw the four other group members hovering around, waiting to say their goodbyes. She went to JC first.

 

"You look like hell," she joked.

 

He shrugged. "We were just starting to work through some stuff, and now this..." He shook his head.

 

Julie reached out and held him. "I hear ya. Timing sucks." She could feel him nod. "You be good."

 

She made her way around to both Joey and Lance next, and when she got to Justin he dropped to his knees before her and started talking to her stomach. Since the first time she'd coaxed him to touch it, it seemed to be all he wanted to do when she was near.

 

"Now L.O.," he was saying, "you be good to your mama. Don't bruise her ribs up too much, and don't be making her eat too many weird things."

 

Julie laughed at him, glad to be smiling. "L.O.???"

 

He looked up at her. "Yeah, Little One. You're still calling it that, right?"

 

"Yeah, I'd just never heard it abbreviated like that."

 

He stood, shrugging, and gave her a warm hug. "Ah, you know me."

 

"That I do...."

 

"You take care of yourself," he whispered.

 

She couldn't reply, as she'd started crying again at his words, so she just nodded.

 

The four guys backed off down the hall a bit while Julie pushed the elevator button and turned to her husband. They'd said everything in their room, so now they just held each other while they waited. When the elevator dinged its arrival, though, he didn't want to let go.

 

"I'll call you every night, I promise. And I'll be home in ten days."

 

"I'll call as soon as we get in. I love you."

 

"Me too," was all he could say.

 

"Time to go," the body guard gently prodded from where he'd been holding the elevator doors open.

 

Chris stood and watched until the doors had closed between them, then turned and headed back for his room. Another of their guards came around the corner.

 

"Okay guys, time to load up."

 

They all grabbed their few bags that hadn't been put on the busses already and headed for the back stairs, where there would be less fans. And so the tour began.

 

 

Lance opened his hotel room door and stepped into the hallway. He'd lost track of which city they were in, he only knew that they had a night off and he was in the mood to go out. He looked around at his friends' doors and thought. Michelle was travelling with them for a few days, so she and JC were undoubtedly busy. Chris had gone home for their day off, since it was a short flight. And even if he hadn't, every waking minute they spent that wasn't on stage or in an interview, he was on the phone with Julie.

 

Lance moved to Justin's door. He could hear voices inside... no, make that one voice. By the tone of that voice, Lance surmised him to be talking to Lara. Lance sighed. One last door... but when he got close he could hear voices from there too. And this time it was definitely plural. It seemed Joey had already been out and back again.

 

He looked to the elevators and contemplated going down to the hotel bar alone. He could meet someone interesting, or just have a good time out by himself. He scoffed. Right. And since when is sitting in a bar drinking by yourself considered a good time?

 

He sighed again and returned to his own room. He selected a movie from pay per view practically at random, stretched out on the couch, and fell asleep half way through it.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

The next night, after their show, a pounding came on his door. He answered it to find Joey outside, bouncing.

 

"Come on Lance, we're going out."

 

"We?"

 

"Yeah, everybody. Let's go."

 

Lance shook his head. "Nah, I'm not in the mood. You guys go ahead."

 

"Oh come on, man, you're never in the mood any more."

 

"I was last night, but no one was around," he snapped.

 

"Well, we're here now, and we're going out."

 

"Fine, then go." Lance turned back into his room, but before the door could swing shut behind him Joey had pushed his way through.

 

"Come ON, you never come out with us any more!" Joey paused, but got no response. He turned serious for a moment. "It's been almost six months. When are you gonna get over her?"

 

Lance looked up, angry, then realized his friend was right. He sighed. "It's not that easy, Joe. I just..." He shrugged.

 

Joey stared at him a moment, then a slow smile spread over his features. "I just got the best idea. We're gonna be in Denver next week, I've got this old friend who lives there..."

 

"No way."

 

"...she's always telling me about a friend of hers. She's pretty, smart, funny..."

 

"NO, Joey."

 

"Oh, come on, she'd be perfect for you!"

 

"Have you even met her before?"

 

"No, but Court knows her really well. Her name's Sara..."

 

"Joseph...."

 

"Lance...."

 

They stared each other down. Joey grinned.

 

"We'll double date. It'll be fun! It's just one day. Come on...."

 

Lance rolled his eyes. "Oh alRIGHT. But you're gonna owe me for this."

 

"Yes! Now are you coming out with the rest of us tonight?"

 

"Yeah, fine, whatever." He grabbed his wallet and followed Joey to the elevators, grumbling the whole way.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Lance was straightening the collar of the red shirt he was wearing over a black t-shirt when there was a knock on the door. "It's open!" he called.

 

"You ready to go?" Joey leaned in the open doorway.

 

"Yeah yeah. I still can't believe you talked me into this."

 

"Oh you'll love it. Just give her a chance."

 

"You still owe me."

 

Their arguing continued as they made their way down the hall to the bank of elevators. They turned when Justin called out to them from the door to Chris' suite.

 

"Hey guys, come check this out, Julie sent pictures!"

 

"Oh cool...." Lance headed back, grateful for any delay.

 

"Come on Lance, we're gonna be late," Joey whined.

 

Lance ignored him, just followed Justin into the suite where Chris and JC were both huddled around Chris' laptop. He peered over the shoulders of the other men to see a picture on the screen of Julie in their living room, her hands resting on a stomach much larger than when they'd seen her last.

 

"Wow, what a difference a few weeks makes."

 

"I know." Chris didn't take his eyes off the screen as he spoke. "And this is nothing yet, apparently."

 

Lance looked at Chris as if just realizing something. "What are you doing here, anyway? We've got a day off, not even so much as an interview. I thought you'd be home."

 

"Too far to fly for just one day. Next week we've got 2 days off, I'm gone then. Hey, look at this one." He clicked on a few files on the screen and brought up a fuzzy black and white image. "This is the ultrasound they took just yesterday."

 

"Oh my God that is so cool...." Justin reached out a hand and traced the outline of a head and spine they could make out.

 

Even Joey had to admit the pictures were great, but they had a date, and he was determined not to let Lance out of it.

 

"Where you guys going?" JC asked when Joey said they'd look at the pictures later and started to drag Lance from the room.

 

"Joey set me up on a blind date...." Lance said through clenched teeth.

 

Joey rolled his eyes. "We're going to meet a couple friends of mine for a matinee and dinner."

 

JC snickered. "Have fun."

 

Lance shook his head and followed Joey from the room.

 

They rode in silence to the theatre where they'd be meeting the women. One of their security team had insisted on going with them, though he followed at a discreet distance when they got out of the car.

 

"Court!!" Joey spotted his old friend down the sidewalk and ran to wrap her in a huge bear hug that lifted her right off her feet. He spun her around and finally put her down, holding her at arm's length. "How've you been? Oh my God, it's been way too long..."

 

"Yes it has been," She smacked his arm. "You never call me any more, Mr. Big and Famous."

 

"I know, I know. Oh! What am I thinking? This is Lance, Lance this is Courtney and..."

 

Court picked up for him and gestured to her friend. "Sara. Sara, Joey, and I guess Lance."

 

Lance held out his hand to his date, which she shook. "Nice to meet you."

 

Sara nodded and smiled. "You too."

 

"So, shall we?" Joey and Court walked ahead, talking non stop, catching up.

 

As Lance walked next to Sara, he watched her out of the corner of his eye. She was tall, taller than him, but for some reason it didn't bother him as much as it normally would. She had an air about her that put him at ease. Her hair was long, past her shoulders, and looked soft.

 

They made their way inside. Since they were a bit late, as soon as they settled into their seats in the nearly empty theatre the movie began, leaving them no time for small talk beforehand. This didn't seem to matter to Joey and Court, and they continued whispering throughout the show.

 

Lance sat quietly, his attention divided between the action on the screen before him and the woman sitting beside him. Every now and then he would catch her sneaking a sidelong glance at him, and he couldn't help but smile. It had been a long time since he'd been out on a real date; he'd almost forgotten that first-date feel.

 

The movie let out, and the two old friends were still chattering non-stop. Lance looked over at Sara.

 

"We're not gonna get a word in edgewise around those two."

 

"I don't have any clue what they're talking about anyway."

 

"Ditch?"

 

Sara nodded. "I know a place in my neighbourhood. Small, off the beaten path, you wouldn't get mobbed."

 

"Sounds perfect." Lance got assurances from Courtney that she could drive Joey back to the hotel, and, after a bit of debate, got the car keys from their bodyguard.

 

They reached the restaurant quickly, and it was just as Sara has said. They chatted while they waited for their food, while they ate, and afterwards.

 

Lance found himself wanting to open up to her. She would ask a question, and an answer would form on his lips, but it wouldn't come out. She never pressed, and the questions weren't overly personal. He wanted to be able to answer. He felt very comfortable with her; she made him laugh, and he could get lost in her blue-grey eyes forever. But something was holding him back.

 

When he drove her home at the end of the evening, he walked her to her door like a true gentleman. She turned to look at him on her doorstep.

 

"Well I'll admit," she said, "when Court told me she was setting me up with a friend of a friend, I was not looking forward to it. But I honestly had a great time."

 

Lance smiled. "Me too. This was probably the best day I've had in a long time."

 

"But...?"

 

He was startled, then he realized that there was a 'but' in the back of his mind. 'Less than a day, and she already reads me like a book,' he thought. 'Fate hates me.' He sighed. "I did have a great time. And you're wonderful..."

 

"Oh great, the 'it's not you, it's me' speech."

 

"No! Well, yeah. I mean.... seriously, though. I could honestly see this... us... going somewhere, another time. I just... I can't right now."

 

Sara nodded. "How long ago was it?"

 

"What? Oh, um.... about six months. How did you know?"

 

She smiled wryly. "You're not the only one who's been cheated on." She paused. "Am I right?"

 

"Yeah. Sorry."

 

She shrugged. "I got over it, but it took me about that long. Look, thanks for a great day, and if you're ever in town again, give me a call."

 

He nodded and smiled. "I will."

 

But they both knew he never would.

 

 

Joey paced the huge room, while the four other guys lounged on a couch and chairs along one wall. They had a photo shoot that day before their sound check; they'd already been through wardrobe and makeup, now they were just waiting for the photographer, who was late.

 

"Holy shit!" Joey exclaimed as he passed by a calendar on one wall.

 

"What?" The other guys looked up at him.

 

"It's March!"

 

"Yeah? So?" JC went back to the magazine in his hands.

 

"So... that means we only have eight days left in this tour. Seven shows! Man, it's gone by fast."

 

"I thought it would never end," Chris said. Everyone looked at him in shock. "No! I still loved it, I just.... *you* know..."

 

Just then, a young woman swept into the room, set down an armload of equipment by one of the tripods set up around the room, and approached the guys.

 

"I apologize for the delay," she started, and they all blinked in surprise. It wasn't every day you heard an Australian accent in Louisiana. "I'm Cate, I'll be doing your shoot today."

 

They each shook her hand in turn. "What happened to Travis?" JC asked.

 

She rolled her eyes. "I think what *didn't* happen to Travis is a better question. Every day he has a new excuse. Good thing he has such a good eye, or I'd have fired him by now."

 

"Oh, this is your studio?" Joey raised his eyebrows.

 

"No, I'm an apprentice, but the boss lets me fire whoever pisses me off." Totally deadpan; they almost weren't sure whether to believe her or not. "Now, shall we get started?"

 

She went through a couple of different layouts with them, having them change clothes once between sets. Finally she stepped back from the camera.

 

"Alright, everyone else take a break. Chris, let's start with your singles."

 

He was just heading over to the small set she indicated when his cell phone gave its distinctive ring from across the room.

 

"Damn!" he cursed. "Sorry, I thought I turned it off...." He ran over and grabbed it. "Hello?.... Hey, Mommy....."

 

Everyone rolled their eyes as he got a goofy grin on his face and headed for a corner to talk. Cate looked after him.

 

"Or not.... you know, you can just talk on the phone. It's your choice...." She turned back to the rest of them. "Okay.... Lance. We'll get you first, then."

 

He crossed over to her, and she gave him some instructions then started snapping pictures.

 

"Here, put this jacket on," she said, reaching for a rack nearby and selecting a deep burgundy one. He slipped it on, and when she reached out to help him adjust the collar, her fingers brushed his neck, and he shivered. "Right... like that..." she stammered, and went back to her camera.

 

A few pictures later, she paused and grabbed a free-standing shelf to wheel over. "Let's get some serious shots. Cross your arms and lean on this.... that's right, look right into the lens..."

 

He wasn't looking at the lens, but at the woman behind it. The colour of her shirt made her grey eyes look almost blue, and the floodlight behind her caught wisps of her auburn hair, giving her a soft halo. A few snaps later she stood back.

 

"You're done," she said softly. His attention hadn't gone unnoticed, but she had a job to finish. "Next!" she called out. "Justin, over here..."

 

An hour later they were all finished, and she was packing up her equipment when Lance approached her. He cleared his throat.

 

"Uh, Cate? Hi. Um, we're here for two days and... Well, we don't have anything scheduled before our sound check tomorrow... What I mean is..."

 

She smiled to herself and reached for her purse. She normally made it a policy not to date clients, but since this had been a one-time assignment for her, she was willing to make an exception. She pulled out a business card and handed it to him.

 

"I'll be here," she said. "Pick me up at one, you can take me to lunch."

 

He took the card, slightly surprised at how forward she was. He liked it. "One." He smiled. "Okay, I'll see you then."

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

That night's concert went like every other, and when they got off stage they had energy to spare. Chris was bringing up the rear of their frantic run for the bus when one of their handlers grabbed his arm and pulled him aside.

 

"Chris, you're coming this way." She started dragging him to a car parked nearby.

 

"What? Teri..."

 

"You don't have time to argue," she said, indicating the stream of fans already rushing out of the arena.

 

"Hey, Chris!!" Lance shouted from the bottom step of the bus.

 

Chris just shrugged at him and pointed to Teri, then followed her into the car. It pulled away -- someone was already behind the wheel waiting for them -- and he turned to face her in the seat beside him.

 

"Are you gonna tell me where I'm going?"

 

"You're going home, we've got a plane waiting for you at the airport." She took a deep breath. "Julie's in the hospital. She went into labour."

 

 

Chris rushed into the hospital room to see his wife sleeping, surrounded by machines all beeping softly. He sat on the edge of the bed and stroked her hair gently. He whispered her name, bent over and placed a kiss on her forehead. The doctor had entered the room, and now she cleared her throat to get his attention.

 

"Dr. Carson." He looked up. "How... What..."

 

"Come on out into the hall, and let's talk. Don't worry, she's been sedated, she'll be asleep for awhile."

 

He followed her outside and waited for her to start speaking.

 

"She came in a few hours ago in preterm labour. We gave her ritodrine to stop the contractions, then we sedated her so she could rest. She was pretty hysterical, and it wasn't doing her or the baby any good."

 

"Is she okay?"

 

Dr. Carson nodded. "She is. They both are."

 

"Then why? Why did this happen?"

 

"It could be anything. We'll probably never know. But it was most likely nothing she did, and nothing that anyone could have foreseen or prevented."

 

Chris rubbed his forehead with one hand, digesting the information. "What now?" he finally said.

 

"Now, we'd like to keep her here for a few days. We're going to keep monitoring both Julie and the baby, just to make sure everything stays okay. Once her body has calmed down a little, it should be safe to take her off the ritodrine and let her go home, provided she stays on complete bedrest."

 

"What if it isn't okay? What if..."

 

The doctor understood. "Even if we delivered today, we'd be looking at about an 80% chance of survival. That's good, but it comes with health risks, and of course we want better."

 

'Chance of survival....' The words echoed in Chris' head, and they sounded so.... wrong.

 

He asked the doctor a few more questions, then went back into the tiny white room to wait for Julie to wake up.

 

He sat again on the edge of the bed and watched her. He ran his fingertips through the short hair just a shade lighter than his own. He let his fingers wander down her face, tracing every line, every curve. He lingered at the corner of the eyes that he knew, once opened, would almost perfectly mirror his.

 

Their physical similarities had actually been the topic of their first conversations, when someone at a party they were both attending mistook them for siblings. They had in fact never met, though the rest of the evening was spent in a game trying to discover if they were related somehow. They got together a few times after that, comparing family trees and anecdotes. But the more stories they shared, and the more they got to know one another, the more and more relieved they were becoming that they weren't finding any connections. Soon their meetings had nothing to do with family research. "At least we know what our kids will look like," Julie had joked on the night they'd gotten engaged.

 

'Our kids....' That thought snapped Chris back to the present. He looked around at all the monitors and sighed. He knew it would be a while before the sedative wore off, so he pulled up the lone chair in the room, sat, and rested his head on the bed to wait.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

"Chris?"

 

He slowly came awake. He lifted his head and looked around the room, confused.

 

"Chris." More insistent this time.

 

He remembered where he was, and turned to face his wife. "Julie..." Her eyes were panicked. "It's okay, you're fine," he quickly reassured her.

 

Memories of the night before flooded back to her, and her hands flew to her stomach. "Oh my God, Little One...."

 

"L.O.'s fine." He watched as her hands found the monitor strapped around her waist and tried to figure out which cord to follow for it. "It's that one, over there." He pointed to a machine on the other side of the bed. "That's its heart rate. I thought it looked a little high, but apparently it's right where it should be."

 

He knew Julie's incessant curiosity, so he had asked a lot of questions about the monitors around her. He pointed to the next one along. "That one goes with the strap on top of your stomach. It measures your contractions. It's been low all night, which is perfect." She seemed to give a sigh of relief, which he echoed silently. "This one," he gestured to one right beside him, almost behind the bed. She craned her neck to see it. "This one's *your* heart rate, oxygen level, and respirations." He pointed to each of the three lines on the screen in turn.

 

"Now *this* one..." he moved aside so she could see one machine behind him... "is *my* adrenaline level. You see how it was high here, that was right after the concert last night, and then it peaked here, in the plane, but now it's going down." His finger followed the slow swoop of the line. She laughed out loud at that. "Actually, I have no idea what this one is for. I forgot to ask."

 

Julie's laughter was short-lived, though, and she started crying quietly. "I'm sorry," she whispered.

 

"No, no sweetie, that's not what I meant...." He quickly sat next to her and cradled her in his arms, careful not to disrupt her IV.

 

"Why.... why...." she choked.

 

"Shh, everything's gonna be okay. You're fine now, that's what matters."

 

When she calmed down, she started asking questions. She had all the same questions that he had had earlier, and he repeated what the doctor had told him.

 

When all her questions were answered, she was tired again and needed to sleep. He held her and rocked her gently until he heard her breathing even out and her body relax. He slipped out into the hallway and made a few phone calls, then returned to her side. Only then did he allow himself to break down, exhaustion and the night's events finally catching up with him. He cried himself to sleep with his head resting on her bedside, his hand draped across her stomach.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Later the next day, Chris was packing up what few things Julie had in the hospital room with her. The doctors had decided that both she and Little One were stable, and they were sending her home, along with a list of things she couldn't do. She thought the list of things she *could* do would have been much shorter. Michelle and Lara had both been to visit her the night before, and she'd made arrangements for them to stay with her for the last few days of *NSYNC's tour.

 

"I talked to your parents," Chris was saying. "They're going to move their trip up a couple of weeks, but they still won't be here for another month or so. I finally got a hold of my Mom, she'll be back from Europe in three weeks."

 

Julie nodded. "What time do you leave tomorrow?"

 

"Leave?"

 

"To rejoin the tour."

 

"And what made you think I would leave?!? Jules, I am not going anywhere except home with you."

 

"But you're not finished yet! You can't leave your fans like this."

 

"I think you're just a little bit more important."

 

"Chris, come on. It's only five more days. If it was weeks, then yeah, I could see it, but.... five days...."

 

"And what if something were to happen? What then?"

 

"Then you'd come home. All of your last shows are less than an hour's flight away." He didn't say anything. "Honey, there's nothing either of us can do. Literally, in my case. You'd just be sitting around watching me while I lie on the couch all day."

 

He glared at her with a very stubborn stance. "Maybe I *want* to sit and watch you lying on the couch. Maybe I just feel so completely useless that if all I can do is watch you then that's what I'll do, because if something happened and I wasn't there then I'd feel like it was my fault somehow because I'm supposed to be there." He paused and took a shaky breath, and in that moment he looked like a lost child. "Don't.... don't you want me there?"

 

His words stabbed her. She reached out a hand for him, and he took it and sat next to her on the tiny bed. "God, Chris, I *need* you there. I need you to hold my hand and fluff my pillows and tell me that everything's okay. But there's a part of your life that's not mine to ask for, and you have to finish that first." She cut off his protests. "No. There are too many people who would be disappointed, and I can't do that. Please. I need to feel like things are normal, at least for a little while longer."

 

He sat for awhile, then he slowly nodded. "Okay. But I'm not staying for the wrap-up party. I'm coming straight home as soon as that last concert's over."

 

"I'd kick your ass if you didn't."

 

"You think you can take me?"

 

"Oh I know I can take you, Kirkpatrick."

 

 

It was the last night of the tour, and all of Chris, Justin, and JC had opted to skip the after party and come home together right after the concert. Lara and Michelle had both stayed with Julie for the weekend, the last two tour days. In addition to helping out around the house, they lightened her mood and did everything they could to help her forget that she was on enforced bed rest. They played board games on the coffee table pulled up to the couch, watched movies, and fit as much girl talk as they could into two days.

 

They were watching some inane game show on TV, and in the commercial break Michelle turned in her seat to face the other two women. "I'd like to do something special for when JC gets home tonight."

 

"Like what?" Julie asked, raising her eyebrows and grinning.


"I don't know. I thought maybe you guys could help me?"

 

Lara thought. "What kind of special? Romantic I love you sweetheart special, or kinky I haven't seen you in a month and I want you now special?"

 

"The second one sounds good." Michelle blushed. "But it's so unlike me!"

 

"All the better. He'll never know what hit him."

 

Michelle grinned. "I like it. Okay, what do I do?"

 

Lara's eyes glittered. "Champagne and strawberries."

 

"And chocolate syrup," Julie added. "Leave them all on a tray in the kitchen for him to find, while you're waiting in the bedroom. Do you have some sexy lingerie you can wear?"

 

Michelle nodded, her eyes wide. "But how do I make sure he finds the food first?"

 

"Lead him to it," Lara stated. "You could make a trail of candles from the door to the kitchen to the bedroom."

 

"You should never leave a burning candle unattended."

 

Lara rolled her eyes. "Jules, you are such a stiff."

 

Julie stuck her tongue out at Lara then spoke to Michelle. "If you're gonna be waiting in lingerie, you can leave a trail of clothes for him to follow." She wiggled her eyebrows. "Sort of a hint about what he'll find at the end."

 

"Okay, maybe you're not so bad after all."

 

"I'd smack you if you weren't so far away."

 

"Oh you love me."

 

"Sure, go with that."

 

"Is there anything else I should do?" Michelle finally interrupted them.

 

"That oughtta do it." Lara shrugged. "Light some candles around the bedroom, use the food products at will, and give him a night he'll never forget."

 

"Thanks guys." Michelle looked at her watch. "D'you mind if I take off early? They'll be home in a few hours, and I'd like to clean up and get ready first."

 

"No, go on," Julie waved her hand. "Enjoy yourself." She winked and laughed.

 

"Oh, I will." She leaned over the couch to give Julie a hug goodbye, then hauled Lara to her feet to give her the same. Then she gathered up her few things and was gone.


"So, you doing anything special for Justin?"

 

Lara sighed. "Nope. He gets me, I'm special enough." Julie laughed. "Actually, Chris is bringing him here first, then I'll drive us both home."

 

"Oh good, I'll get to see him." She looked at the clock on the wall and sighed loudly. "Just three hours and 20 minutes."

 

"Not that we're counting or anything."

 

"Oh no, not at all...."

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

About three and a half hours later, Lara was dozing in the easy chair while Julie was idly flipping channels on the TV. She heard the front door open and shut, followed by a series of muffled noises.

 

*THUMP*

 

"Shh!! They're probably sleeping."

 

"Sorry, I slipped."

 

Justin appeared in the doorway to the living room. He took one look around, then before Julie could say anything he put a finger to his lips, motioning for her to be quiet. He tiptoed over to the couch and gave her a peck on the cheek.

 

"Sorry, we didn't mean to wake you," he whispered.

 

"You didn't, I was up. Welcome home."

 

"Thanks."

 

Chris followed him in, and lifted Julie slightly so he could slip behind her, removing the pillows she'd been resting on. She leaned against him, and he bent over to kiss her deeply.

 

"How're you doing?" he asked when he finally pulled away.

 

"Perfect, now." She snuggled back against his chest and smiled. He wrapped his arms around her protectively, and they both looked across the room to where Justin was torturing the still sleeping Lara.

 

He trailed one finger lightly down her face. If she tried to turn away, he followed her, but if she reached up to grab the offending tickle, he pulled his hand back. He repeated the procedure on the other side of her face, then traced the outline of her lips gently. He replaced his fingertips with his lips, travelling the same path and keeping the touches just as light. She slowly came awake when she felt his lips on hers, reaching her hand around the back of his neck and wrapping her fingers in the tight curls there.

 

The other couple in the room averted their eyes, and after a few moments Chris cleared his throat.

 

"There's a guest room up the stairs and to the right, if you'd like."

 

"No that's alright, I think we can make it home," Justin replied, never taking his attention away from the woman below him.

 

"Or at least to the car," she added.

 

Julie groaned. "Okay, that was something I just didn't need to think about."

 

"Sorry hon." Lara got up and started dragging Justin towards the door. "Welcome back, Chris. I'll see you later Jules...."

 

The door slammed behind them, and Julie and Chris were alone.

 

"I can remember when we were like that," she said with a sigh.

 

"Wasn't it just a few months ago?" That got him a giggle. "But this is good." He placed a light kiss on her lips. "This is very good." He kissed her again, a little harder.

 

His only answer was a contented sigh and a soft hand cupping the side of his face, fingertips just brushing his earlobe. This was definitely good.

 

 

Time passed in a flurry of activity. Chris started working on converting one of their guest bedrooms into a nursery, and at least one of the guys was over almost every day helping. Their friends all took turns cooking for them, though Chris did make his fair share of the meals. Julie felt awful not lifting a finger while everyone did all the work, but she knew protesting would do her no good, nor would getting up and moving. She resigned herself to watching her movies and letting everyone work around her.

 

In the evenings, after everyone had gone home, Chris would help Julie go from the couch to the guest room on the main floor. She had moved down there when she got home from the hospital in order to avoid the stairs up to the other bedrooms, and when Chris had gotten back he had moved down with her. They would sit up reading together or just talking until one or the other of them fell asleep. Often, when Chris thought Julie was sleeping, he would talk to their baby, or even sing to it. She wasn't always asleep, but she was careful to stay very still lest he realize she was awake and stop.

 

They hired a Lamaze coach who would come to their home to give private lessons, as well as a doula to help with massage and physical positions that would ease the strain. The first few lessons had both Julie and Chris squirming and giggling like school children, much to their instructor's annoyance, but they quickly settled down and got comfortable with everything they were doing.

 

JC sat with Julie one day and told her all about what the nursery was looking like. She knew what it was supposed to look like, since she had helped come up with the ideas for it in the first place, but it was still nice to be able to hear how it was really turning out.

 

"I wish I could see it." Julie finally said, looking wistfully up the stairs.

 

"Do you want to?" JC looked excited at the idea, like he was showing off a new creation. "I can help you, we'll move real slow."

 

"No, I shouldn't. Stairs are especially bad. I mean, I'm sure it wouldn't *hurt*, just this once, but.... nah. I shouldn't." She sounded like she was convincing herself. She smiled. "It'll be nice to see when it's all finished. None of this half way stuff."

 

"Okay, whatever you say."

 

"So, tell me all about the wedding so far."

 

"Ugh..." JC buried his face in his hands. "Do you know how much planning you have to do for a wedding?"


Julie laughed at him. "Actually, yeah I do."

 

"Of course you do." He sighed. "I had no idea. Even just the invitations... There are so many, and they each just have this one teeny tiny little thing different." He made a frustrated noise and threw his hands up in the air. "I just wanna be with her. I don't need all the hoopla. We could elope and I'd be happy."

 

"Maybe she would too. Have you talked to her about it?"

 

He looked surprised. "No. I guess I just assumed she wanted the whole she-bang."

 

"She probably does, but it can't hurt to talk about it. Maybe simplify a little." She shrugged. "Just a thought."

 

He sat back in his easy chair and seemed to mull that over. Julie changed the subject.

 

"Hey, did Lance tell you where he was going the other day?"

 

"Nope. Just that he was going away for a bit, that he'd be back soon, and not to worry because it was nothing bad."

 

"Hm. That's the same thing he told me. He seemed happier than he's been in awhile, though, so I didn't press it."

 

JC nodded. "He does seem to be doing a lot better lately, doesn't he?"

 

"Yeah, finally. He told me he met someone on tour?"

 

"I think so. He was being pretty secretive about it."

 

"Maybe he's just afraid to say too much too soon, in case it doesn't work out."

 

"Maybe. I hope it works out though. Poor guy....."

 

Joey came bouncing up just then and shook the back of JC's chair. "Come on, man. We're going for takeout, and we need your car."

 

"What's wrong with your car?"

 

"It's almost out of gas and I don't feel like stopping on the way to fill up."

 

JC rolled his eyes and stood. "Duty calls," he said to Julie. "Anything specific you want?"

 

"Where are you going?"

 

"Chinese place down the street," Joey called over his shoulder. He was already making his way to the door.

 

Julie's eyes sparkled. "Ooooo, bring me something with lots of ginger."

 

JC frowned. "I thought you hated ginger."

 

"I do. Just bring it. Please." She smiled sweetly.

 

"Yes ma'am." JC saluted and backed out of the room, then they were off.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Two weeks after the tour had ended, everything was running along smoothly. That evening Chris and Julie were sitting up in bed reading a parenting book Dr. Carson had recommended. Julie was sitting between Chris' legs, leaning back against his chest. He was resting his hands on her stomach while she held the book and they read together.

 

Suddenly, he felt the muscles around her stomach tighten and ball up under his hands. She gasped and clutched at the edges of the book.

 

'Holy shit, even I felt that....' he thought, and he quickly started massaging her lower back with his thumbs gently, whispering in her ear. "Breathe, breathe....."

 

She did as she was told, and after about a minute she relaxed again. Chris, however, didn't relax.

 

"Um, okay, now what?" he asked.

 

"Now we get me into the hospital."

 

"But it's still too soon! Way too soon..."

 

"I know, and that's why we need to go. I don't want to wait around to see if another one's gonna happen first."

 

"Right. Okay...." He finally got his wits together enough to call their doctor and get them both to the hospital without incident.

 

While one nurse wheeled Julie inside, another was asking them both for information for the forms. Chris was babbling away; some of it was helpful, but most was too fast for the nurse to make much sense of. Julie tapped her on the hand and looked up at her, smiling thinly.

 

"I'm at just over 30 weeks. This is the second time I've been in for preterm contractions, the first was just shy of 28 weeks. I was given ritodrine for three days then sent home medication free. I've been on bed rest, and these just started about 45 minutes ago. I'd say they're around ten minutes apart." She spoke calmly, but her voice was shaking. Chris took her hand and walked alongside her, while the nurse with the clipboard ran ahead to get her admitted.

 

Half an hour later they were in a private room in the maternity ward. Julie was hooked up to all the same machines as before, an IV going into one hand. Chris held the other one and stroked her knuckles gently with his thumb. She sighed.

 

"This is déjà vu all over again....."

 

He kissed her hand. "It's okay. Everything's gonna be fine, the doctors'll take good care of you."

 

She gave him a small smile. "Thank you."

 

Dr. Carson walked in just then, and they both looked up. "Gee, you seem to really like it here," she quipped, and Julie rolled her eyes.

 

"Not particularly. Nothing personal, doctor."

 

The woman smiled kindly and took the chart from the foot of the bed, flipping through it briefly. "Well, the good news is everything looks excellent, under the circumstances. You and your baby are both perfectly healthy, so that's one less thing to worry about." They both breathed sighs of relief. "We've put you on magnesium sulfate this time, it's much stronger than the ritodrine. It's a general muscle relaxant, though, so your limbs will all start to feel very heavy and lazy. After a couple of days we'll switch you back to the ritodrine, and this time you'll stay on it. We'd like to keep you here for the rest of your term, too."

 

"I have to stay here for five and a half weeks?!?"

 

"Actually, it most likely won't be that long. Your body is pretty insistent that this is going to happen. Now our goal is just to delay it as long as possible. Every day we keep that kid inside you is three days we'll save it in the NICU later. We're also giving you something to help its lungs develop a little faster so we can save it a few days on the ventilator."

 

"Wow...." was all either of them could say, and it was Chris who finally said it. "So now what?" he asked for the second time that day.

 

"Now, we wait."

 

 

And so they waited. Chris brought Julie a bag full of things from home to make her stay more comfortable -- books, her laptop, her discman, her favourite picture of them together, and even a small vase of daffodils to brighten the room -- but after that he only went home when people forced him, to sleep and bathe. Most nights he slept in the chair in her room, his head resting on her bedside.

 

Julie usually had trouble sleeping, so she would lie awake, her fingers lightly toying with Chris' hair where his head lay beside her. She stared at the picture on the table across the room and smiled. It had been taken on their honeymoon by one of the cruise staff. They were leaning against the ship's railing; Chris was behind Julie with his arms tightly wound around her waist. The wind was blowing their hair, the sky was a gorgeous post-sunset purple behind them, and they both had the happiest smiles on their faces. Those nights she would start to feel a little overwhelmed, finally realizing it would never just be the two of them again. At the same time, though, the reason why gave her a different happiness that she wouldn't trade for anything.

 

Visiting hours were always full of friends coming and going, or just coming and staying until the nurse kicked them out. Chris' mother got back from her trip to Europe, and she stopped by almost daily to check on her family.

 

Eight days after Julie had been admitted to the hospital, Chris was sitting in the little chapel downstairs from the ward. Everything was stable and running smoothly, which should have been good, but the unchanging waiting was driving him insane. He was staring at the abstract mosaic on the wall before him when he heard the door open at the back of the room. He turned to see Lance approaching down the aisle.

 

"Hey man." Lance pursed his lips in a tight smile. "The nurse said I'd find you down here. Do you mind? If you'd rather be alone, I'll...."

 

"No, no, it's fine." Chris slid over on the pew to give his friend room to sit. "What's up?"

 

Their voices were hushed, not wanting to break the reverence of the room.

 

"Nothing much. Julie's sleeping, and I didn't want to wake her. I thought I'd come find you."

 

"Yeah, she hasn't been getting much sleep lately. It's hard, she's not very comfortable."

 

"I think that's pretty normal for pregnant women. I remember my sister complained about that a lot, when she started getting real big. Then all those wires and everything just makes it worse."

 

Chris nodded, and they sat in silence for a few minutes. Then he took a slow breath and started talking, softer than before.

 

"I am so terrified, Lance. This is all just so.... out of control. What if I'm not ready to be a dad yet? What if I suck?" He looked up at his friend, pleading.

 

"You won't suck," Lance reassured him. "For one thing, I know how much you want this baby. You already love it more than anything, and that's more than a lot of kids have right from the start." Chris looked down at his hands, and Lance kept talking. "And for another thing, you've got all your family and friends and doctors and books, and you actually *listen* to them. You take their advice and I know you'll take their help when you need it."

 

Chris understood Lance's implied meaning, and he smiled at him. "Thanks, man. And I *am* gonna need it." They sat in silence for a minute, then Chris changed the subject. "Where'd you go a couple weeks ago, anyway?"

 

"Hmm? Oh, I flew over to New Orleans for a few days."

 

"New Orleans? What's there?"

 

"Cate." Even in the dim room, Chris could see the blush in Lance's cheeks.

 

Chris frowned and thought. "Who..." Then a smile lit his features. "That photographer!" Lance nodded. "Wow. I guess your date went well. I kept forgetting to ask."

 

"Yeah, yeah it did. She's coming here next weekend, too."

 

"Wow," Chris said again, and Lance laughed.

 

"Yeah, it seems a little fast, but.... When you live so far apart, trips are the only way to do it." He paused. "And... Sheryl called. She was groveling, saying how she knew she'd screwed up, begging me to give her another chance." He shook his head and scoffed. "And you know... if she'd called even two weeks sooner, I might've done it, too."

 

"No...."

 

"I just... I dunno. The day after she called, though, I went to see Cate. I had to be with her, after that."

 

Chris nodded, understanding completely. They sat in silence again, until Chris made a frustrated noise and gripped the back of the pew before him.

 

"I have got to get out of this place!!"

 

"You mean this place..." Lance pointed to the ground below them... "or this place?" He gestured to the air around them.

 

"This place." Chris waved his hand in the air. "For good, not just for an hour. This doing nothing is driving me nuts."

 

"How much longer do they think it'll be?"

 

Chris shrugged and shook his head. "It could be next week, it could be next month."

 

As if on cue, one of the nurses from upstairs crept through the door and hurried up the aisle towards the two men.

 

"Chris?" she whispered, though there was no one else in the room for her to disturb. They'd been there so long, all the nurses were on a first-name basis. He looked up at her, and she continued. "You'd better come upstairs. Her water's broken, there's no stopping it now."

 

He stood quickly and looked down at Lance, a curious mix of emotions on his face. "Or it could be today."

 

Lance stood with him, and pulled him into a quick embrace. "Good luck."

 

"Thanks, man." Chris moved past him and went a couple of steps before stopping and turning back to him. "Thanks," he said again with a brief nod, then he followed the nurse out of the room.

 

 

Lance made a set of phone calls, which ended up taking him nearly 20 minutes. He debated going home to wait, knowing this would likely take awhile, but decided against it. He bought a novel from the hospital's gift shop and settled in one of the large chairs in the waiting room on the maternity floor.

 

About an hour and three chapters later, the first person to join him was no surprise. Bev rushed off the elevator and headed first for the nurses' station. Halfway there she spotted Lance; she seemed to debate with herself briefly, then she changed directions and walked over to him. The moment she was close enough she started talking in a quick stream.

 

"How are they? Have you heard anything? I swear, everyone in Florida is on those roads today, I thought I'd never get here."

 

Lance chuckled as he stood for her to give him a hug. They sat together and he started answering her questions.

 

"I haven't heard anything yet, but it hasn't been long, so I guess that's a good thing. Chris came out awhile ago to get some ice, I think, but he didn't see me here. Um, let's see, that girl who's helping them?"

 

"The doula?"

 

"Yeah, that's the word. I think her name's Jennifer. Anyway, she got here about 15 minutes ago. And... yeah. You're caught up."

 

She smiled nervously and fidgeted, wringing her hands together.

 

"You know, you could probably go down there. I'm sure they wouldn't mind."

 

"Oh, no. I know how Julie is about these things, she probably wants as few people in there as possible."

 

"I think you'd qualify as an exception."

 

"Maybe so, but... I know what she's going through. Every little thing to keep her more comfortable... it's important. I'll just... wait."

 

Lance took her hand and squeezed it reassuringly. She smiled at him and sighed, then she blinked, almost in surprise.

 

"What are you doing here, anyway?" she asked him. "You know we'll be here for hours."

 

He shrugged. "I know. I just... didn't want to miss anything. He's the first one in the group to be having kids. It's... exciting." He grinned, and Bev nodded, knowing exactly what he meant. "Besides, I did some research on the net last week. I read that premie labours go a lot faster than if she's full term."

 

Bev looked at him. "You did research for them?"

 

Lance blushed. "Yeah. I mean, like I said, this is the first *NSYNC baby. I think we've all taken an interest."

 

Bev was about to reply when she heard a shouted "Mom!" from behind her. She stood quickly and turned around just in time to catch a flying bundle of Chris in her arms.

 

"Oh, sweetheart, how are you? How is everything going in there?"

 

He pulled back and looked at her, practically jumping from foot to foot. "Good. Everything's... wow..." He ran a hand through his hair, then grabbed his mother by the shoulders. "Oh my God!!!" he screamed, and they both laughed. He saw Lance sitting there. "Dude! You stayed!"

 

Lance laughed at his friend. "Yeah. I called everyone, they're all coming soon."

 

"Awesome. Great. I need ice. I mean... I came out here to get more. She eats this stuff like candy anyway, and now, she's going through it like water. Well, it is water, it's just frozen water...."

 

Bev shook her head at her son, and turned him around by his shoulders. "Go. Get back in there before she kills you."

 

"Right. Bye!" He wandered off, stopping for ice on the way, and left the two behind him to keep waiting.

 

Hours later, the entire group had gathered, joined also by Chris' sisters. They chatted, flipped through magazines together, and tried desperately to find ways to pass the time. At first, both Chris and Jennifer had come out at almost regular intervals, neither ever stopping to talk long, but even that had ended awhile ago. Nurses came and went, never speaking to the gathered masses, simply letting them know by their presence that there was still activity down the hall. They went down to the hospital's cafeteria for dinner in shifts, always leaving a few behind to gather any news that may come their way. And still they waited.

 

Finally, late that evening, Michelle looked up to see Chris slowly approaching them in the waiting area. She nudged JC out of his doze beside her, and everyone around them stirred, putting books down and unfolding from where they'd made themselves comfortable. Everyone rose; some stood alone, others joined hands with whoever was near them.

 

The look on Chris' face was unreadable, though a fleeting smile brightened his features as he looked around the room. He focused on nothing and no one, speaking to the room in general, or even to himself.

 

"A girl," he finally said. Another smile flashed, as quick as the first, and a murmur of happy exclamations swept through the room. He kept talking. "Five pounds, thirteen ounces." The murmur quieted. His eyes flit around the faces of his gathered friends and family, never really seeing any of them, until they finally settled on his mom beside him. "They took the baby to intensive care. They say the chances are really really good...."

 

She wrapped him in her arms, and he allowed himself to finally collapse into the comforting embrace only his mother could give.

 

 

Chris stood in the NICU, his eyes roaming about the large room with the brightly decorated incubators evenly spaced around it. Some were adorned with themes while others sported more generic decorations, but each reflected the personalities of the families in some way. His gaze finally settled on the little clear box before him. A pair of balloons floated from one of the legs of the table on which it stood, and a wallpaper runner of water creatures surrounded the base of the box itself. More balloons stood nearby, weighted down with little bags of jelly beans at the ends of their bright ribbons.

 

"Hey there."

 

Chris looked up, startled out of his reverie, to see Joey standing next to him, clothes covered by a blue paper gown just like his own. "Oh, hey."

 

"They said I could come in here. Is it okay?"

 

"Yeah, sure. We put all your names on the list, as long as you're with one of us it's fine."

 

"No, I mean... is it okay with you?"

 

Chris gave a little half-smile, touched by his friend's concern. "Of course, Joey. I could actually use the company. Julie was down here earlier, but they took her back to her room to rest. She's still pretty exhausted."

 

Joey nodded and took a step closer to the incubator, bending down to put his face level with it. "Hello there, Little One," he whispered. He stood straighter. "Wow. She's so tiny. And all those tubes and wires...."

 

"Most of them are just monitors, but there are a few..." He started pointing out some of the different tubes. "This one's a feeding tube. They actually let us feed it, with a syringe, putting the stuff down that tube. It's pretty awful, but they need to do that because of the ventilator. The lungs still can't quite work on their own, but they're giving it injections through the IV every couple of days that're helping that."

 

Chris paused, and Joey raised an eyebrow at him.

 

"'It', Chris?"

 

"What?"

 

"You keep referring to her as 'it'. Like she's a thing."

 

Chris shrugged and shook his head. "I guess after seven months of not knowing a gender, we just got used to always saying that. I just... it's habit, I suppose." Joey didn't say anything, he just looked at him, and Chris sighed and shut his eyes briefly. He looked down at the sleeping form in the incubator. "I guess... I think... if I just keep talking about it... her... as if she's not a *person*, you know, then maybe it won't hurt quite so much if... if something goes wrong. If she doesn't make it out of here."

 

Joey took a quick breath to speak, then realized he had no idea what to say to that, so he kept quiet. Chris tentatively placed a hand on the top of the incubator, as if he was afraid that simply touching the box would interrupt everything somehow.

 

"She... she's my *daughter*, Joe, and I've never even held her. I can't even touch her unless I scrub like a surgeon first." He paused and wiped at his eyes, then he laughed wryly. "You know we don't even have a name for her yet? All we know is her middle name's Anne, because that's Julie's and her Mom's, too."

 

Joey shrugged. "Just wait. It'll come to you. She'll tell you what her name is."

 

Chris stroked the top of the box as if he was stroking the tiny baby beneath his hand. "How 'bout it, L.O.? You gonna tell us your name?" She took another couple of breaths, her chest visibly rising and falling under the power of the machine giving her air. Chris decided that was good enough for now. "Maybe not. Maybe you'd better let your Mom and me figure that one out."

 

He stood there awhile longer, listening to the quiet beeping of the machines around him, the murmurs of conversation from other families in the room. When he looked up next, Joey was gone, and he stood alone.

 

He sighed. He was tired. From the long nights of waking vigils, from the too-short catnaps during rare moments of quiet, from trying so hard to stay so strong in the face of everything happening around him.

 

He felt a hand on his back, and he turned to see his mother standing behind him. He leaned into her embrace, then stood back. She looked into his eyes and frowned at what she saw there.

 

"Go home," she said. "Have a shower, eat a good meal, and sleep for awhile."

 

He shook his head. "I can't leave, Mom."

 

"You can and you will. You've got your cell phone, dear, you know we'll call you the second anything happens."

 

"But... I just feel like she'll know. I don't wanna leave her alone."

 

Bev raised an eyebrow at her son. "And what makes you think she'll be alone? We've got some serious grandmother-granddaughter bonding to do."

 

That got a smile from him, and he finally nodded. "If Julie comes down, tell her I'll be back in a few hours. I'm not gonna stay away long." He bent down to the plexiglass wall of the incubator and whispered "See ya, baby," then he gave his mom one last hug before stripping off his blue hospital gown and leaving the ward.

 

Chris felt exhaustion replacing the adrenaline-laden stress in his body the moment he stepped from the hospital doors. He shook his head sharply and took in a deep breath of fresh air. "Gotta get home first," he muttered, and headed for his car in the long-term parking.

 

He eased onto the freeway and started flipping stations on the radio. The first strains of a pretty-sounding ballad came through the speakers, so he left it there. It was a familiar melody; he thought he recognized it from a few years back, but he couldn't be sure. The male singer started the first verse, and the words washed over Chris.

 

"There's two things I know for sure / she was sent here from heaven, and she's daddy's little girl / As I drop to my knees by her bed at night / she talks to Jesus, and I close my eyes / And I thank God for all of the joy in my life, / Oh, but most of all..."

 

He blinked hard, trying to stay focused on the road before him. Traffic was light that day, and he managed to keep the car straight.

 

"...for butterfly kisses after bedtime prayer / stickin' little white flowers all up in her hair / "Walk beside the pony, daddy, it's my first ride" / "I know the cake looks funny, daddy, but I sure tried" / Oh, with all that I've done wrong, I must have done something right / to deserve a hug in the morning, and butterfly kisses at night..."

 

Chris shook his head, cursed lightly, and gave up. He quickly found a place to pull over on the side of the road. He let all the tension still knotting his muscles seep out and he slumped, resting his forehead on his arms crossed over the steering wheel while the radio played on.

 

"...Sweet sixteen today / she's looking like her mama a little more every day / One part woman, the other part girl / to perfume and makeup from ribbons and curls..."

 

He didn't even hear the rest of the song as the pent-up emotions of the past month flooded through him, breaking him completely. Violent sobs wracked his body, and he crumpled. "That's all I want..." he choked. "Please... that's just all I want........"

 

 

The hospital released Julie five days after Little One was born. Before leaving, she and Chris stopped in the NICU to say goodbye to their daughter. They knew they'd be spending most of their time there in the coming weeks, but it would be the first time Julie was leaving the building. After scrubbing thoroughly they sat on either side of the little incubator, reaching their hands through the holes in the plexiglass.

 

Chris tickled the infant's tiny palm with his pinky finger, and she gripped it strongly.

 

"Reflexes intact... that means proper spinal development..." Julie whispered, and Chris shut his eyes. Her voice was flat, distant.

 

Aside from that, they said nothing. They sat watching the little baby for a few more minutes, touching her skin gently, stroking the downy hair on the top of her head.

 

After a time, Dr. Carson approached them quietly. She checked on some of the monitors then turned to the couple. "Going home today?" she asked conversationally.

 

"Yeah, in just a bit."

 

"How are you feeling?"

 

"Fine," she replied automatically.

 

The doctor waited a few more moments, then spoke again softly. "It looks like she's already starting to take few breaths on her own. We should be able to take her off the ventilator in another week, maybe two."

 

Chris looked up. "That's sooner than you were expecting, right?"

 

Dr. Carson nodded. "She's doing very well."

 

"When can we take her home?"

 

"It's a little too soon to say that yet. I'd say no less than a month, though."

 

"A month... well, that's not so bad." Chris looked across at Julie with an excited grin. She met his eyes and smiled slightly for the first time that day. It was small, but it was a start. He held her hand inside the incubator where she had been resting it on the top of Little One's head.

 

"You hear that L.O.?" he whispered down at the girl. "Not too much longer in here, then you get to come home with us."

 

"Speaking of which..." Julie said. "I'd like to go now." Chris glanced up at her sharply. "I've been dreaming of a real shower and my own bed all night." She smiled and tried to lighten the mood of her former statement.

 

"Of course," he said. He rose and came around to her side of the incubator.

 

She stroked her daughter's hair briefly once more, then pulled her hand out of the box and stood. "Thank you, doctor," she said. "I'm sure I'll see you again here tomorrow, or tonight even."

 

"Of course," the woman replied. "Enjoy that shower." She winked.

 

"I'm sure I will."

 

They spent the majority of the drive home in silence. Julie stared out the window at the passing landscape while Chris kept his eyes on the road before them.

 

When they got home, he helped her make her way up the stairs slowly, then he went ahead to pull out some towels and turn the bed down for her. She began to follow him, then she hesitated outside the closed door of the room they had started turning into a nursery before everything had happened so quickly.

 

She turned the handle on the door and let it swing open. She stepped inside the room and gasped at the sight that met her eyes.

 

"Oh my God..." she whispered.

 

"Jules?" Chris called from across the hall. "What's taking you.... oh, wow..." He followed her into the room, and they both stood, looking around in shock.

 

The room was finished. The walls had been painted exactly the way they'd been planning, white with silhouettes of animal shapes sprayed in bright colours at uneven intervals and odd angles. The furniture they'd ordered had been set up around the room, along with a few small extra items here and there. A lamp, a mobile, an audio monitor... even a picture frame hung on the wall, a hand-drawing of three stick figures where their first family portrait would go. Sitting on the dresser was a card, which Julie picked up and read with Chris looking over her shoulder. It was in Lara's handwriting, though names were signed all across the bottom and the facing page.

 

"Dear Mommy and Daddy,

 

We never got the chance to give you a proper baby shower, so this will have to do for now. Don't think you're off the hook completely, though. May you have many great memories of L.O. growing up in this room, as well as all the Little Ones to follow.

 

With much love from all your friends."

 

Julie set the card back down on the dresser with shaking hands. Her eyes travelled around the room once more, then she turned to face Chris. Their eyes met briefly. She took a step forward and buried her face in the crook of his neck, and he wrapped his arms around her protectively. They held each other for a few long minutes, then she stepped back and cleared her throat.

 

"I should go take that shower," she started lamely. Chris kept his hands on her waist, though, and she made no attempt to move. "Um, my parents are getting in tomorrow night. I guess one of us needs to go get them."

 

"Lance said he'd do it. He has to take Cate to the airport at the same time anyway."

 

She started to protest, but it died quickly. "I don't... No... Yeah, that makes sense. That was sweet of him to offer. It's too bad we missed her, I'd have liked to have met her."

 

"I know, so I asked him to stop by the hospital on their way out."

 

"Oh. Thanks."

 

Chris lifted a hand to cup her face, stroking her cheek with his thumb. Their eyes locked for a moment longer, then he wordlessly let go of her and she headed for the master bedroom across the hall. He wandered slowly after her, looking around the nursery one last time, and by the time he made it in there the doorway to the ensuite bathroom was already closed.

 

Julie stuck her head out the door. "Join me?" she asked softly, and Chris nearly choked.

 

"What? But... aren't you... I mean..."

 

"Not for that, silly." She laughed at him, blushing slightly, then she quieted. "I just don't want to be alone. And I miss you."

 

He smiled thinly. He knew exactly what she meant. Between doctors, nurses, friends, family, and the simple fact that for the past five days they'd been split between two wards, it seemed like they were never apart but never together, and definitely never alone with each other. He joined her in the bathroom, and after a long hot shower they curled up in bed together and slept for three hours.

 

 

Enough rumours about Chris' early fatherhood had spread through the media that people finally started taking them seriously, and small crowds had begun forming at the different hospitals in the area. When one watchful fan spotted JC leaving one day, they knew where to focus their efforts, and extra security had to be called in. Everyone was surprised it had taken that long, and some had even started hoping it might not happen at all. The guys new better, and they took it in stride. Their visits decreased, though someone was there every day, in addition to the family's constant presence. Thankfully, the crowds stayed manageable, with most fans keeping a respectable distance.

 

Little One gained weight every day, and the monitor readings that the doctors constantly hummed over showed that she was taking more and more breaths on her own. To be safe, though, Dr. Carson decided to wait a little longer before taking her off the ventilator.

 

On her three week birthday, Chris and Julie were sitting with her while their parents were all on a dinner break. Dr. Carson came in and went through her daily routine of checking all the readings and printouts. She turned to the couple and cleared her throat. They broke off their conversation and looked up at her, and she smiled back at them.

 

"Well, folks, I think this is it."

 

"This is... what?"

 

She pointed to one of the monitors. "Every breath in the last 48 hours has been all her. The machine's just giving her oxygen now, and small external tubes can do that. I think she'd appreciate getting that big thing out of her throat now." She paused a moment. "Would you like to wait for your families to get back?"

 

Julie shook her head, still a little stunned. "No, let's just do it."

 

Dr. Carson nodded and called a nurse into the room to help her. Julie and Chris stood aside, their hands clasped together, and watched the two professionals work. They moved the warming lamps aside and removed the top and sides of the little box, then the nurse quickly wrapped the baby in a small blanket to protect her from the sudden cold. The doctor spoke while they worked.

 

"We're going to remove the feeding tube first, though we may have to replace that one later. It depends on how quickly she learns how to swallow. Once the vent tube is out, she'll be able to use her voice, something I'm sure she's been frustrated about for awhile. Don't expect too much right away, though. Her lungs are healthy but they're still small, her vocal cords have never been used before, and even an adult's voice is raspy after a few weeks on a vent."

 

They kept nodding, not saying a word. The feeding tube was pulled out, and the tiny child squirmed at the discomfort of the motion. Dr. Carson stroked her sides and whispered soothing sounds at her until she stilled. The doctor turned to the young couple.

 

"Why don't you two take a seat?" She nodded at the chairs that had been pushed aside. "Bring them close, she'll still have all the wires and her IV attached, but it was these tubes that were the main hindrance before."

 

Julie's eyes widened. "You... you mean we'll get to hold her?"

 

Dr. Carson smiled over her shoulder and nodded as she returned to her preparations. "Not for too long, though. She has to stay in the incubator for a few more weeks, yet. Blankets won't keep her warm enough, she still has a lot of growing to do."

 

"Oh...." They sat slowly, eyes glued to the doctor's actions. She continued explaining everything as it was happening.


"We'll only disconnect the machine first, so we can reconnect it quickly if we need to. Then if all goes well, we'll remove the tube." She looked across at the nurse. "Ready?" The young woman nodded, and Dr. Carson detached the tube and hovered with it inches away.

 

Little One's chest continued to rise and fall in a regular rhythm, and the four adults surrounding her let out breaths they hadn't realized they'd been holding. Chris laced his fingers through Julie's and kissed her knuckles. He let his eyes meet hers briefly before looking back to their daughter. Dr. Carson grinned at them.

 

"Excellent," she said. "You have a very strong little girl here." She turned back to the nurse. "Let's finish this." Smoothly and swiftly, she pulled the now-detached tube from the baby's throat.

 

The little girl scrunched up her face and hitched a breath. A tiny strangled moan escaped her lips, as if she wasn't quite sure what was going on. Another gasped breath was followed by a stronger whimper, and her parents exclaimed at hearing her voice for the first time.

 

Dr. Carson lifted the blanket-wrapped bundle from the table and passed her swiftly to her mother's waiting arms. Julie gasped and looked down at her, tears streaming down her face. Chris wrapped one arm around Julie's shoulders, while the other tickled the soft hairs atop the baby's head. He kissed first his wife on her cheek then his daughter on her little soft spot. Every cry the child gave was a little stronger, and they laughed in surprise at the sound. Even the doctor raised her eyebrows.

 

"She definitely has those singer's genes," she commented with a bemused smile.

 

"Oh yeah," Chris said, never taking his eyes off the girl. "Give us some training time, she'll be giving Ella Fitzgerald a run for her money. Isn't that right, L.O.?"

 

Julie looked up at him, her eyes wide. "Chris, that's it!"

 

"It is? What is?"

 

"L.O..... Ella...."

 

A smile spread across his face. "That is it."

 

"Ella Anne..." Julie whispered, then she wrinkled her nose. "That doesn't flow very well..."

 

"Wait, didn't you tell me once that Anne means 'grace'?"

 

She beamed. "Ella Grace. Perfect."

 

Chris bent down to kiss the top of Ella's head again. "I guess you did tell us your name after all," he whispered to her. Julie looked at him strangely, but he didn't explain, he just held his arms out. "Can I?"

 

She nodded and gingerly transferred the tiny bundle to him. Ella had quieted in her mother's embrace; she fussed a little at being handed over but soon grew comfortable and warm again against Chris' chest. He cradled her close until the doctor, who had been hovering nearby, said she needed to be put back in the incubator.

 

When they left the hospital later that day they looked over at the small group of fans waiting across the courtyard from the door. The girls had started screaming and waving when they emerged. Other days Chris had found them an annoyance, but today was different. He hadn't realized how much this step in Ella's recovery had been weighing on him until they were past it. Now he was able to stop and smile at the waiting fans, even wave at them a little. He read a few of their signs, all offering congratulations of some sort, then he waved again and continued walking. Julie tugged on his hand a little.

 

"D'you wanna go talk to them?"

 

"Nah. I'm sure they'll still be here later. Let's just go home now."

 

Julie shrugged, waved at them herself, and hurried across the courtyard in the other direction to catch up with Chris.

 

 

Chris was on his way out the door when the phone rang in the house. He sighed and ran back to answer it.

 

"Hello?"

 

"Chris? Johnny here."

 

"Oh hey man, how's it going?"

 

"Good, good. Hey, sorry I haven't been around the hospital lately. How is everything?"

 

Chris smiled. "Excellent. I'm actually on my way back out there now."

 

"Oh, then I won't keep you long. Look, I just got a call from Rosie's people. They're doing an on-location week at Universal Orlando next week, they'd like to book you guys for a show."

 

"Next week?"

 

"Yeah, someone backed out on them last minute. They know you're on sabbatical, but they needed someone to fill in, and she loves you guys. I told them I'd have to check with each of you first, though. All things considered, I don't think anyone'd blink if you said no."

 

"Nah, it's fine. It's in town, it won't even take us a whole day. When do they want us?"

 

"Friday."

 

"Yeah, sure, count me in. Just get me the final info. Provided the other guys agree, of course."

 

"Of course. I'll see you at Lance's bash on Tuesday?"

 

"Sure thing, we'll stop in for a bit."

 

"Great. See you then."

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

The living room of Joey's home was packed with people, and a huge "Happy Birthday Lance" banner hung across one wall. Streamers hung and balloons floated from every conceivable point in the room and throughout the main floor of the house. Drinks flowed, mostly in the direction of the birthday boy, and music blared over the talking and laughter.

 

"Lance!"

 

He turned to see who was calling his name.

 

"Lance!" Lara wove her way through the crowd towards him. "Happy birthday!!" She enveloped him in a bear hug and planted a kiss on his cheek with a loud smack.

 

"Hey, hey now," Justin approached behind her. "Even I didn't get a greeting like that on my birthday."

 

Lara turned and leveled her eyes at him. "Would you like me to give him the greeting I gave you then?"

 

Justin seemed to consider this for a moment, then he beamed at Lance and held his arms wide for a hug of his own. "Dude, happy birthday!"

 

Lance laughed at the two of them, apparently finding them quite hilarious. "Thank you, thank you," he said.

 

Justin looked around the room. "Nice party you got going here."

 

Lance nodded appreciatively. "Yeah, Joey did a pretty good job."

 

"My God, there's a party and Lance had nothing to do with the planning of it?" Justin feigned shock.

 

"I know! It was killing me!" Lance wrung the air with his hands, then he relaxed and laughed again. "Nah, it's all good. I think he invited everyone we know, though. It's gonna be nuts later on."

 

Someone else distracted Lance at that point, and he was dragged off into another conversation. Lara wrapped her arms around Justin's waist and looked up at him.

 

"I love this song," she purred, swinging her hips to the fast beat.

 

"Oh you do, do you?"

 

Justin smirked down at her, and she nodded and started to back away from him, pulling his arms along. She had made it a couple of steps when a second pair of arms swept her aside and onto the dance floor. She squealed and laughed when she saw who it was, but Justin scowled playfully.

 

"JC!!"

 

"You snooze you lose, Timberlake!" he shouted over Lara's shoulder.

 

"Fine then, where's Michelle?"

 

"Talking to Cate." JC nodded across the room before he and Lara disappeared into the crowd.

 

Justin made his way over to the two women and motioned for Cate to be quiet when she saw him approaching. He bent over to Michelle's ear. "You know, you should keep a closer eye on your man."

 

She screamed and jumped a mile, then turned and followed his gaze. She looked up at him and raised an eyebrow. "Maybe it's your woman you need to keep an eye on."

 

"Oh really?" He stepped back in his best 'you wanna go there?' pose.

 

"Really." Her stance matched his.

 

"Alright, that's it. Excuse us, Cate." Justin took Michelle's hand and dragged her onto the 'dance floor', leaving Cate laughing behind them. She wasn't alone for long, though, as she was swept into the crowd by Joey when he passed her a moment later.

 

An hour and several partner changes later, Lara spotted another couple making their way slowly through the room.

 

"Jules!" She left Joey behind her as she ran over and gave her two friends each hugs in greeting. "I'm surprised to see you guys here."

 

"What, and miss my little bro's party?" Chris said. "Where is he anyway?"

 

They quickly found Lance and waved him over.

 

"We can't stay long," Julie said, giving him a kiss on the cheek. "We just wanted to wish you a happy birthday."

 

Chris and Lance embraced quickly, and Lance pretended to pout. "Awwww. You're not even gonna give me a dance on my birthday? Pleeeeeease.... just one song...."

 

Julie rolled her eyes and looked at Chris, who shrugged. "Oh alright, but just one song!"

 

Lance grinned triumphantly and led Julie into the throngs of dancing people. Chris followed along behind, pulling Lara with him. That song ended and was replaced by the first strains of a ballad, and Lance felt a tap on his shoulder.

 

"I think I need my wife for this one."

 

"Oooo, good idea..." Lance left Chris and Julie behind him and wove, slightly unsteadily, to find his girlfriend.

 

JC excused himself from Cate to go in search of Michelle when he saw Lance coming. Lance wrapped his arms around Cate and twirled her around, kissing the end of her nose before they settled into the slow rhythm of the song. She sighed happily and rested her cheek against his chest. She looked up at him halfway through the song to find him staring down at her.

 

"What?" she asked self-consciously.

 

"Just thinking." He kissed her forehead.

 

"About....?"

 

He sighed happily. "About how glad I am that Travis was late for work that day."

 

She smiled up at him. "Remind me to give him a raise when I get back."

 

"Welcome back everybody. They're hot, they're talented, they've been here many times before, and they've been kind enough to agree to stop by today. Please help me welcome *NSYNC!!" Rosie shouted the last of her introduction, and the guys ran single file through the door onto the stage of the large studio.

 

The crowd screamed, and they waved as they ran by. Justin sat in the chair nearest Rosie's desk, and JC and Chris shared the small couch beside him. Joey and Lance settled on the stools set up behind the couch, and they all grinned and waved at the audience again.

 

"Thank you guys for coming out today," she started, and they all nodded and spoke over one another. "I really appreciate you all taking the time to stop by while we're here in Universal Orlando, since I know you're on a break, sort of... I guess you could say that, right? On a break, but no less busy."

 

They nodded again. "Yeah, that's about the way it is," Justin said. "But this is nice. This is good... just chillin' out, talkin' with our friend Rosie..."

 

"That's right. Now, Lance..." He perked up at his name. "A belated happy birthday to you, that was on Tuesday..."

 

He grinned and the crowd screamed again. "Thank you."

 

"You're, what, 27 now?" He agreed, and she looked out to the audience with a 'he's so cute' look on her face. "Still so young," she said. "And I assume you had a big party and everything."

 

"Oh yeah. Joey threw me this huge party. I mean, it was huge. Everybody was there..."

 

"I wasn't there." Rosie pretended to act hurt, and Joey spoke up.

 

"Well you know, Rosie, if I'd known you were in town, I definitely woulda called you."

 

"Sure you would."

 

"No! I would. You'd have been the first name on my list. Really."

 

"Uh-huh. No, it's okay." Rosie acted teary-eyed for a few more moments while Joey kept trying to suck up and everyone laughed around them, then she straightened out. "I want to talk to you all about what you have in store for the next year, projects you've planned for this time off from the group, but first... Chris, I understand someone decided to make an early appearance?"

 

As was typical of this topic, he couldn't hide his huge grin. "Yes, that's right." He nodded an acknowledgement to the new wave of screams from the audience.

 

"Congratulations. Now, she was supposed to have been born..."


"Just this past Monday," he supplied.

 

"Right. And she actually came..."

 

"April 2nd."

 

Rosie's eyes grew. "Wow. So that's, like, a month early."

 

Chris nodded "Four and a half weeks, it worked out to. And nice timing, too. April 2nd, you know, it's like her own little April Fool's joke. Gotta be a day after, though, to keep us on our toes." Everyone laughed at this.

 

"A real practical joker, just like her dad."

 

"WHY do I always get this rap? I'm not that bad!"

 

The guys ribbed him, contradicting him on that point, and Rosie broke in again.

 

"So with her four and a half weeks premature... that's not good, is it?"

 

Chris shook his head and waffled. "No, it's, well, it's not good, but it could have been worse. The doctors, and all the hospital staff, they were all really great, they took good care of her, of Julie, and then of Ella once she was here, and just... They were all awesome."

 

"And she's still in the hospital, isn't she?"

 

"Yeah, but she's doing really, really well. We'll be able to take her home soon, she just has to gain a little more weight, about half a pound I think. Just another week or so, we hope."

 

Rosie nodded. "And do you have any pictures of her to show us?"

 

"You know what, no, I don't even have any yet! How awful is that?"

 

"Well you know what?" Rosie looked very smug. "I've got some."

 

"What?!? How did you..."

 

"I know people. I have my sources."

 

A light went on over Chris' head. "So this was why you asked me before, if I had any, would I show them on the air? I shoulda known you were up to something." He narrowed his eyes at her playfully.

 

The crowd was going nuts by now, and Rosie fought to talk over them. "So can we show them? Is that alright with you? I think these folks would really like to see them, wouldn't you?" The masses got even louder, and Chris nodded enthusiastically.

 

"Yeah, go on! Let's see them."

 

"Okay, what's her name again?"

 

"Ella Grace."

 

"Alright, your first introduction, right here on The Rosie O'Donnell Show, Ella Grace Kirkpatrick, everyone."

 

They all turned to face the monitors nearby, and the first picture appeared. Julie was cradling Ella close, and Chris was crouched beside them. The baby was sleeping peacefully, and both parents were looking down at her and not at the camera. The crowd "Awwwww"ed, and Chris felt his eyes filled with tears. He hadn't even seen any pictures of them yet, this was his first chance to see them as a family from an outside perspective. He quickly cleared his throat.

 

"I remember that day," he said. "I'd forgotten that the nurse had taken these."

 

"What about this one?" Rosie gave her cue to the technician to switch photos, and one of just Chris and Ella appeared. He was facing the camera and was holding her upright slightly so she was facing it, too. He had one of her tiny hands in his and was holding it up as if to make her wave to the camera. Her big brown eyes were open, staring around in wonder.

 

"Oh yeah, I do remember that one." He laughed. "Hey, can I get copies of these before I leave?"

 

Rosie nodded and spoke conspirationally. "I'll hook you up. Don't worry. Talk to me before you go."

 

She moved on in topics, asking Joey about a movie role he had coming up, and Chris stared at the monitor where the second picture was still displayed. He all but tuned out the interview for a moment, getting lost in the sight of himself with his daughter. With a happy sigh he tore himself back into the conversation at hand. There would be plenty of time for staring later. Years, even.

 

The End

 

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