August 9-10, 2002

Disclaimer: Not *cough* songfic. Okay, songfic. But I left the lyrics out. Thanks to Georgina, Mia, and Merry for good advice, some of which I followed. Do not archive this story without permission.

World would end

Nick was late. He slipped inside the studio wearing his best invisible face, but Kevin still looked pointedly at the clock on the wall. Howie was on the phone, anyway, one of those conversations where every other word seemed to be "deductible," and AJ was hat-over-face asleep. Nick shrugged and sat on the floor next to Brian, who was playing with a toy a fan had sent him, a weird tangle of string and metal rings. You were supposed to be able to take one of the rings out and put it back in again.

"You fell back asleep after Howie called you?" Brian asked, sounding a little amused. He got his finger caught in the string and when he yanked, the loop tightened.

"No." Nick leaned back on his arms and stretched. "Got caught in traffic." There had been an angel on the freeway, blocking one of the lanes.

"Uh huh." Brian yanked at the string again. "I don't believe there's a real solution to this thing."

"No, there's gotta be a way." Nick tugged at the other end of the string, and Brian's finger slipped free. "Look at the cheat sheet, there's always a cheat sheet or something in the package."

"Nope." Brian began to toss the bundle of string and metal from hand to hand. "Didn't get one."

Nick rolled his head until his neck popped, then yawned. He had fallen back asleep after Howie called. Only for ten minutes, though. He was awake now. He felt itchy and sticky, as though salt water had dried on his skin. Kevin handed him a schedule of booked studio time, and Howie finished his call and turned the phone off.

Nick started to get hungry around noon. Howie had arranged for delivery from a seafood place and he turned his phone back on at one to call and ask what had happened to their food. The delivery girl came at one thirty. "I'm really sorry," she said. All the food was cold. "There was a pile-up or something. I had to go around it."

They put the mussels in the microwave, and one of them exploded. AJ napped with his head on the table, but the bang made him jump. Brian laughed and tossed the toy to Kevin, who got his fingers caught in it.

They spent the entire afternoon changing the harmonies for one single phrase of a new song, just doing four measures over and over. It finally came out right at five thirty, and then they all wanted to stop for the day. Nick thought he felt his ears pop when he walked outside. The humidity was so high, it felt like the air was licking him. He made a face and got in the car.

Idling at a red light, he looked up and saw an angel standing on the roof of a two-story building, leaning forward to watch the street.

He went out to dinner with Brian. They had bulgogi at a hole in the wall that only had three tables. Brian had forgotten to charge his phone so he borrowed Nick's to call Leighanne and ask in a snookum-pookum voice how she was and how her day had been and if the plumbers had fixed the sink in the upstairs bathroom yet. Nick laughed and shook his head and ate Brian's hobak namul, because Brian always ordered extra and only ever ate half.

Brian had the toy in his pocket and brought it out when he ordered his second beer. The string was all twisted together. Nick poked it with one finger. "Is it supposed to look like that?"

"It didn't before," Brian said.

Nick grinned. "Dude, you broke it. A fan sends you a present and you break it. Better not let anyone know about that."

"It's probably just the wrong way around." Brian tried to work the smallest metal ring through one of the larger ones.

That night, Nick saw those four measures of the song dance across his eyelids when he closed his eyes. He thought Brian probably saw metal rings.

The next morning, there were three angels on the freeway. They blocked two lanes, and everyone had to crowd together in the third lane, and Nick was half an hour late by the time he got to the studio. Howie was on the phone, AJ was asleep, Brian was turning the metal rings over and over, and Kevin came in five minutes later.

"Lot of traffic today," he said, and the others nodded. Nick scratched the back of his neck.

AJ woke up and stretched out his hand and grabbed the toy away from Brian. He yawned and did something with his fingers and turned his wrist, and then the smaller ring lay loose in the palm of his hand.

Brian blinked. "How did you do that?"

AJ twisted his hand again, fast, and the ring was back on the tangled string. "You gotta figure it out for yourself," he said.

The new song sounded really good with the new harmonies they'd worked out.

They had pizza for lunch. Brian turned on the radio.

"...wouldn't believe what I saw on the freeway," Justin Timberlake said, and the interviewer talked right over him, "That's great. Tell us more about your upcoming solo release..."

Kevin turned the radio off.

They worked late. Everything clicked into place. AJ nailed his solo on the first take. Howie's high note at the end of the second chorus was so clean and pure that everyone fell silent for a full ten minutes afterwards.

When they wrapped things up for the night, Brian and Howie were talking about tapas. Nick shook his head. "Got some things I need to do," he said. He got into his car and watched them collar AJ instead.

There was almost no traffic. He drove around for a while, got his cell out, dialed a number but hung up before it could ring. Every time he went past a bar, he slowed down, but didn't stop. Nick weighed the phone in his hand and put it away. He drove up and down familiar streets, scanning the sidewalks, storefronts, everything he could think of. On the street corner next to the taco place Kevin always went to, he saw a lost-looking figure wearing expensive shoes. Nick hit the brakes and pulled over. He leaned out the window and threw a balled-up Big Mac wrapper at Justin to get his attention.

"Hey," Nick said. "You have any idea where...?"

Justin frowned. "Not here," he said.

Nick thought he might go in and get a taco while Justin thought. "Duh."

Justin tipped his head to the side. He wore a beanie, and sweat had slicked two tiny curls against his temple. "The beach, I think." He gestured down the street. East.

Justin got into Nick's car. He wanted to drive, but Nick wouldn't let him. Nick rolled the windows down, and Justin went through the CDs Nick kept in the car and made disparaging noises.

It took them two hours. They stopped for gas, and Nick bought bottled water and two cans of Coke, and Justin went to the bathroom. When they got back in the car, Justin found an oldies CD and put My Boyfriend's Back on repeat. Nick sang along the first ten times, then he smacked Justin's leg and turned on the radio. The traffic was slow.

They drove onto the beach at Daytona and walked towards the water. Justin made a small gesture, pointing from the hip with all five fingers. An angel was standing at the water's edge. As they watched, the angel waded out a step. Two girls in capris and bikini tops stood right next to it, toying with a bright pink beach ball and rubbing their arms.

Nick sat down and opened one of the cans of Coke. Justin sat next to him and took the other can, and they drank their Cokes and had a burping contest. The angel didn't move. The girls with the beach ball went off and put on long-sleeved sweaters. A bunch of people were throwing a frisbee, and it almost hit the angel, but not quite. Justin told a long story about Brian McKnight that Nick tuned out halfway through. It grew cooler, and Nick leaned against Justin's shoulder.

The angel turned and walked away from the water. It walked straight across the beach, and Nick felt his heart beat harder. The angel walked so close by them that if he had uncurled his clenched fist, his fingers would have brushed against feathers.

They sat very still. After a little while, Nick unclenched his left hand. He tried to unclench his right, but Justin was holding it. When he wiggled his fingers, Justin let go.

"I have a couple sweaters in the car," Nick said. His voice sounded scratchy.

Nick put on his favorite grey hoodie and handed Justin the car keys. They drove back with the windows rolled up. Justin turned on the CD player, but halfway through You Don't Have To Say You Love Me, he turned it off again.

It was past one when they got back. Justin drove straight to his house and parked next to two of his cars, and Nick got out and followed Justin inside. Justin kept spare toothbrushes in a cabinet with seventeen boxes of dental floss. Nick remembered to put his phone on the nightstand before he stretched out on top of the covers, and Justin pushed at his shoulder and said something that trailed off into a sleepy mumble.

He was dreaming about tangerines and scuba diving when Howie called. "'m on my way," he said. Justin stirred, blinked, and subsided back into sleep.

Nick used Justin's razor, but not his cologne. At the back of one of the closets he found a prison orange outsize t-shirt advertising SMITH & DUCHAMPS BOWLING EMPORIUM. He was the first one to get to the studio, and had time for two mugs of coffee, half a jelly donut, and a round of studio tech baby pictures before the others started to show up.

"Man, traffic's just insane." AJ rubbed his head, and the purple spikes of his hair stood on end. "Isn't whatsisface flying in from LA today? It's gonna take him forever to get here."

"Nice t-shirt," Brian said, and Nick blinked in surprise.

They started warming up together, humming and vocalizing. One of the techs went on another donut run. Kevin's phone rang and he went off to the side, speaking in a low voice. Brian started to sing something about roses and moonlight, and they doo-woped a bit, waiting for Kevin to be done with his call.

"There's a problem at the airport," Kevin said, coming back. "They've had to shut down a lot of runways. He's being rerouted to Miami."

Brian frowned. "There's lots of closer airports."

Kevin shrugged.

"We're gonna need more studio time," Nick said.

It was Nick's turn to pick what they were having for lunch, but Howie had already called for pizza without asking him. He rolled his eyes and gave Howie a noogie. Then he got a grease stain on Justin's t-shirt. They spent the afternoon changing the harmonies on two more songs. It gave them a whole different sound.

Kevin wanted to go to the taco place, and they all tagged along. It got crowded with the five of them in a booth. Nick had Brian's elbow digging into his kidney. He ate one taco and picked the second apart, trying to figure out what made it taste different from last time. He hit his knee on the table leg, and the table wobbled and upset Kevin's glass.

"Stop fidgeting," Brian said. He handed Nick the toy. "Play with this."

Nick tugged at one of the rings. There was a squeal of brakes outside, and a loud crash. AJ leaned forward and looked out the window. "Damn," he said. "Stupid SUV driver just went right into a truck."

Nick dropped the toy on the table, got up and went to the door. He looked outside and saw, past the gathering crowd, an angel standing in the middle of the intersection. The angel had its head tipped back and its eyes closed. Nick turned and went back inside.

"I gotta go," he said, picking up his sunglasses and his hoodie. Brian had already taken the toy back.

Howie nodded. "Do you want a wakeup call tomorrow, too?"

Nick hesitated for a moment. "Yeah."

He got his phone out while he drove. He dialed and disconnected before it could ring, dialed and disconnected after one signal, and then, at a red light, he let it ring. When Justin answered, Nick said, "I'm coming over."

When he got out of the car, Justin was standing by the open door. Nick looked back over his shoulder. There were two angels across the street, standing on the grass and looking at a birdfeeder. He went up to Justin and put his hand on the side of Justin's neck, and Justin leaned in and kissed him.

Upstairs, Nick stripped Justin of a short-sleeved t-shirt and a long-sleeved t-shirt and a tank top. He licked the freckles on Justin's shoulder, and Justin pulled him down on the bed.

The air was cool and dry, humming with air-conditioning. Justin's skin was warm and a little damp. Nick realized, some time later, that he was still wearing the orange t-shirt. He shifted his hips, and Justin's fingers dug into the small of his back.

They rested for a while with closed eyes, not sleeping. Justin ran his fingers through Nick's hair. "You hungry?"

In the kitchen, Justin got out tostitos and crackers and butter and pineapple salsa, and microwaved some weird low-calorie vegetarian lasagna. It tasted like spinach and celery. Nick hated celery. They ate standing up by the kitchen counter. Justin put a whole snowdrift of grated parmesan on his lasagna, ate half of it and pushed it aside for the tostitos.

Nick licked pineapple salsa from Justin's fingers. They went back to bed.

Half asleep and slightly sore, Nick rummaged for his phone and put it on the nightstand. The sheets were a tangled mess. Justin sprawled half on top of Nick and fell asleep. Nick thought he would probably lie awake all night.

The phone jerked him out of dreams. He said, "Yeah, okay, gotcha," to Howie and stayed propped up on one elbow, blinking the sleep out of his eyes.

There was an angel sitting at the foot of the bed, watching them.

Nick lay very still. He could feel Justin breathing against his back. The angel was sitting right by his feet, but he couldn't feel any dip in the mattress. A strand of hair tickled just above his eyebrow.

The angel rose and moved out of the room. Nick stared at the open bedroom door for a while. Then he turned his head and looked at Justin, who was wide-eyed and breathing a little too fast. He pressed a quick kiss to Justin's temple.

Nick showered and found another big t-shirt, a green one with a pale red stripe across the chest. He went downstairs and out to his car. The street was empty.

At the studio, Howie was on the phone and AJ was halfway through a large mug of coffee. Nick wondered if they'd be producer-less all day again, but AJ shook his head. "Kevin's bringing him."

Nick got himself coffee, too, and looked for donuts.

Brian came in, touched Howie's shoulder, touched AJ's shoulder, and gave Nick a one-armed hug, letting go before Nick had time to hug back. Brian dug into his pocket and brought out the toy. The small ring lay free in the palm of his hand. "I figured it out," he said.

Nick grinned. He poked at the ring. "Yeah? You remember how you did it and everything?"

Brian nodded. He looked thoughtful. "I remember," he said. "You can have it, if you want."

Nick blinked. "Uh, no."

Brian bit his lip. He turned away and got himself some coffee. Then Kevin's car pulled up outside, and they started working.

The songs sounded much better with the new harmonies they'd worked out. Nick sang and felt his throat open up and his whole head reverberate. His chest itched, and when he ran a hand up under the green t-shirt he felt a couple of scratches.

Kevin had ordered sandwiches for lunch, good ones, lots of them, with all kinds of stuff like pastrami and chicken salad and lots of different cheeses, but there wasn't anything to drink. "I'll get it," Nick said.

He took his car even though he didn't need to, and went a block and a half to the nearest convenience store. It was nearly empty. He picked up a couple of candy bars and went down to the back of the store and paused by the glass-fronted coolers, counting up the bottled water and cans of soda in his head. AJ wanted Coke. Howie wanted that fancy water. Brian wanted iced tea.

Nick felt cold. He looked to the side and saw an angel standing right next to him. The skin on his arms pebbled. The angel shifted closer, leaned in and kissed Nick's temple. He couldn't breathe. Then the angel moved away up the candy aisle and disappeared.

Coke. Water. Nick rubbed at his arms and wished he'd brought a sweater. He looked at the bottles and cans, and then he got his phone out and called Justin. "Hey," he said, and he could hear Justin's smile, the nervous, sudden, blinding one. "I was just thinking about you."

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