JUST ME Part Nine

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[[Twenty-Five]]
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[One Month Later]

The doorbell announced his arrival to Pop's. He'd been there every day that week since he'd gotten back to Orlando and every morning he had missed EJ. The first day he'd just figured that he'd come at the wrong time, but by the fourth morning he had started to get worried.

He and she hadn't parted ways on the best of terms. He'd finally dropped her things off at Pop's when she wouldn't come and get them herself then he'd gone out of town for a month to film part of a movie he was working on.

Walking across the floor he waited in line, staring at the menu for only a moment before he glanced and saw that a few girls in the corner. He waved and watched them giggled before he moved forward.

"Hey there Mr. Man," Marty said.

"Hi there," he said with a smile, "Hot--"

"Hot chocolate and whipped cream," she said with a laugh, "It'll be up in a minute."

"Am I that much of a regular?" he said as he unfolded the bills and slid them across the counter to her.

"Don't worry about it," she said with a smile, "You're one of the better looking ones."

Lance looked around a little more as he scooted over so the next person in line could be helped.

"She's not here Lance," Marty finally said as she took the money he'd handed her and put it in the cash drawer.

"Who?" he asked.

"EJ isn't here. After the stuff that happened last week she said that she was going to stay home for a while," she said.

His eyes immediately looked up at the ceiling.

"Not up there," Marty said, "At her dad's--I mean her place."

"Her dad's?" he asked, "Wait? Her place? She moved?"

Marty's face went slack. "You didn't hear did you?"

"Hear what?" he asked.

Marty went and grabbed his drink and slid it across to him, "Her father died last week Lance."

"What?" he said feeling like he got hit in the stomach. He almost groaned and put a hand to his forehead. "Where is she?"

"Hold on a second," Marty said. She grabbed up a pen and pressed a button so that the receipt paper fed out of the machine and pulled it off. She wrote something on it then pushed it over to him. "Here's the address...I'm not sure if she'll let you in, but you should go over and see her. No one has seen her in days...she came over here and did some stuff the other night and left us a note, but no one has seen her since the funeral."

Lance touched the papers with his fingertips only at first. He found himself not being able to deal with the situation. He knew that he could go over there and see her more than anything, but he was afraid that it would backfire and that she'd never want to see him again. She already had made it clear that she didn't want to see him and he'd promised himself that he wasn't going to push her. After all, his life brought complications to her life he wouldn't wish on anyway.

"You haven't talked to her since last week?" he asked.

"Yeah," Marty said as she began to make another drink, "She's been here, but no one has seen her."

"Crap," he said then grabbed up the paper, leaving his drink behind.

He wasn't running, but his pace was hurried as he jumped into the car and pulled the map out of the glove compartment. He knew Orlando well enough to get around, but he didn't know the street that she had mentioned.

After a few minutes of searching he figured out where the house was, but it took him a minute more to start the car and put it in gear. He took deep breaths and tried to calm himself in preparation for the confrontation.

After a few minutes on the freeway and a few minutes on city streets he found the house. He had never been in the neighborhood before, but the houses were nice enough that he didn't think that he felt out of place.

It took him a few more minutes to get enough courage up to actually go to the door, but soon he found himself knocking.

When the door opened he held his breath.

"What are you doing here?" she asked. Her eyes squinted at the light of the day as she tugged on her pajama bottoms.

"You weren't at Pop's," he said, "They gave me the address over here so I thought I'd swing by."

"Perfect," she said, "Now you're the one who's stalking me!" She threw up her arms and let out a sigh.

"You haven't been at work the last few days so I thought I'd see if you wanted some company."

"No," she said, "I'm fine on my own, but thanks anyway."

"Don't be like this EJ," he said.

"Leave me alone," she said angrily, "Didn't you do enough damage a few months ago when I found you and Alayna in the kitchen."

"I tried to explain that to you, but you wouldn't let me...so don't blame that for that one."

"Whatever," she said and began to close the door.

Lance put a hand out and stopped her from closing it. "I don't want you to be by yourself," he said, "You look like you could use someone around."

"You know what I need? I need to be left alone. Just me. That's the way it has been and that's the way it will be because that's the only WAY it works," she said holding back tears that Lane could see were forming in the corners of her eyes.

"But why EJ?" he asked, "You can't want it that way."

She looked at him angrily. "Read my lips...BECAUSE THAT'S THE WAY I WANT IT."

"EJ," Lance reached out and grabbed her arm. He pulled her against him and felt her soften into his hug. He knew what the trouble was, but he needed to hear it from her. He needed to know why her face was red and puffy and why she looked like she'd been in bed for days. The pajamas she wore seemed to be well worn, wrinkles show the evidence of more than a few nights of tossing and turning.

EJ beat a hand against his chest and pulled away. "I can't do this. I tried this before and all I got was...was..." Her tears began to flow. She put a hand to her forehead then stared at him, looked him right in the eye and spoke, "My father died last weekend Lance and I really don't have the strength to deal with you...with this..." She motioned between them. Lance grabbed up her hand when it came towards him and gave it a squeeze. "...right now."

"I'm not letting you stay here alone," he said. It hurt him to know that she was upset. If he couldn't make her feel better when he caused the pain at least he could help her when he didn't cause the pain.

"I just want to be left alone Lance," she pulled her hand away and moved back into the open doorway a little. "Thanks for the thought, but I really just need to be alone."

"EJ?" he said and saw her disappear back into the house shutting the door before he could stop her.

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[[Twenty-Six]]
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Mornings had been the worst part of her week since she'd heard about her father dying. When she'd been little she'd wake up in the morning to the smell of coffee and eggs and bacon, but for the last week all she'd woken up to was an empty room, an empty, kitchen, and an empty house. Everything inside mimicked this feeling. She couldn't place it exactly but there was this hole in her somewhere that she just couldn't fill up again. Her father had been that part of her and without him she was afraid that she'd never feel whole again.

Knowing that she needed to get out of bed she made her way to the kitchen. She flipped on the television and moved through her morning routine without hearing a sound of it. What she needed right then was background noise to fill the emptiness, not the local weather report.

She wouldn't even have noticed him there, on the back porch, but she wasn't out of it enough to ignore the bright bundle of purple lying on a chaise lounge outside the back window.

When she slid the glass door open he woke up from his sleepy state. Uncurling his arms from where he'd had his arms crossed across his chest with his hands stuffed into his armpits, he looked as if he'd been freezing the night before. EJ stopped and stared at him. Had he stayed there the whole night? It looked from the way that he moved his neck around to crack it that he HAD really been there since the night before.

"Feeling better this morning?" He asked with a smile and a sarcastic tone that only mocked her.

"What are you doing here?" She asked hands on her hips.

When he coughed she softened and her motherly instinct kicked in. "You've got to be kidding me. I don't even want to know what Johnny is going to say or who he's going to kill when he finds out that you camped out on my back porch last night. Are you trying to kill your career by getting the flu?"

"I haven't gotten it so far," he said with another cough.

"What are you doing?" She asked again remembering that she was supposed to be mad at him.

"Sleeping," he said looking at the chair as he got to his feet. He stretched with his hands over his head and said, "Or at least I was until you woke me up."

"Why?" She asked.

"Well you opened the door," he said.

"Stop it smart ass and tell me why you're camped out here like a hobo on my back deck?" She said.

"I told you. I wanted to make sure that you were going to be ok and since I thought that you weren't I decided that I should stick around a little."

"Lance," she whined and pleaded, "Please don't do this. I'm not going to have everyone you know getting pissed at me because you slept out in my bakyard in the cold."

"Then invite me in next time," he said.

"Oh no," she said, "There isn't going to be a next time."

"Good, so tonight I can sleep on the couch?" He asked.

"No."

"Why are you so pissed off? I'm only trying to help you out."

"Help me out?" She asked. "If you really wanted to help me out you'll leave me the hell alone and go play in Candyland where you belong."

"Candyland?" He asked.

"Yes. That sugar and spice and everything nice world that you live in across town. You don't belong long here as much as I don't belong there with you," she said.

"But EJ--" Lance started.

"No buts," she said, "Just go!"

She turned and went back towards the house.

"Wait up EJ," he said.

A moment later he had a good hold on her hand and wasn't at all looking like he'd be letting her out of his death grip. She tried pulling her fingers but all she got were tears at the frustration at his power over her.

"Lance please," she pleaded, "Just let go."

"No," he said holding on, "I'm going to be here for you whether you like it or not."

"Why do you have to make life so miserable?" She asked.

"Life itself is miserable right now. If you'd trust me enough it wouldn't be that way," he said.

"Leave it alone. Stop meddling in my business." She finally broke free and ran into the house shutting and locking the door behind her.

She stood at the window for almost five minutes watching him pace and talk into his cell phone before she finally retreated to other parts of the house. It was hard to leave him there, but she couldn't imagine what she would have done if he'd come inside. That would have been worse for her in the long run.

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[later that day]

He'd been there for almost three hours and had heard the the door bell ring a million times, but this time the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end and he could feel her eyes on him as he worked.

It wasn't until he heard her voice that he cringed. "Just what in God's name are you doing?" she asked with a harsh tone.

"Making a float," he said holding the glass up for her to see, "Want one?"

He'd been there all afternoon helping Marty, making floats, signing autographs, trying to pull in a little extra money into the place. He'd called security and two of them had shown up taking positions at each end of the bar while Lance played a PG version of the movie Cocktail. It was just an old fashion ice cream social, but he figured that he'd tripled business in that one afternoon.

"Who let you behind the counter?" she asked.

It was packed so as he answered he handed over a float, took the money for it, signed an autograph and motioned for the next person in line to step forward. He hadn't realised how relaxed he'd become behind the counter, but he was starting to get the rhythmn of it.

"DOn't blame them. I jumped over the counter when Marty wouldn't let me come around," he said when EJ's eyes flew to her other employees who seemed to be playing along with his big plan.

"Get out," she said.

Lance leaned closer to her. "I wouldn't do that i I were you," he whispered looking at the crowd waiting in line, "YOu might end up with a riot."

EJ looked around for a moment and seemed to see his point. "I hate you," she state dthen turned around, "I'm going upstairs and when I leave tonight this place better be spic and span."

"Sure thing boss," he said and faked a salute at her.

Lance watched her leave and wanted to follow her. He knew if he could talk to her for more than five minutes that he'd be able to get somewhere in his quest to make up with her, but she wasn't budging which meant he wasn't helping at all.

"Take five Lance," Marty said coming over.

"No," he said, "I'm fine. I should work like this more often." A few girls stared at him from across the counter. He hadn't realized it, but there was now a long line aorund the inside of the place then it rolled around the building.

"Go talk to her," she whispered smiling at the fans, "You deserve a little smoke break at least."

"I don't smoke," he said.

"Am I going to have to beat you silly?" she said pushing him down towards where the counter opened up so that he could go to the stairs.

Finally getting the hint Lance removed the apron Marty had thrown around him when he'd showed up and moved to the steps waving at the guards to stay put when they looked like they were going to get up and follow him.

At the door he knocked twice then slipped inside.

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[[Twenty-Seven]]
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"I don't want to hear it Marty," she said when she heard the door open. "I don't like the fact that he's down there in the first place and I'm not about to go down and hang out with him. I know you're only trying to help, but did you really think that having him here is going to make me feel BETTER?" She paused when she didn't hear anything. She wondered if she'd imagined the sound of the knock and the door opening. She walked around from the kitchen into the living room still talking. "He was an ass and he doesn't deserve--" She stopped short when she found him leaning with his back against the front door watching her.

"I know I was an ass," he said softly not quite looking her in the eyes.

Stunned by his confession she wasn't sure what to say next. She felt the room closing in on her so instead of approaching him she went and found a seat on the couch. With her weight off her feet she could relax a little.

"I know that you are going through a rough time--"

"Rough?" she said and instantly found that all the thoughts that she had pushed from her mind now returned. The image of her father in the emergency room, the image of the tubes and wires and the damn beeping noise that wouldn't stop when his heart finally gave out. "You don't know what rough is," she choked out. She covered her face then took a deep breath, wiped her face and stared straight ahead.

When she blinked the next time Lance was sitting on the coffee table across from where she was and his hand was on her knee. "I'm sorry EJ. I really am," he said.

"Yeah well," she said and pulled her feet up under her.

"I tried the direct approach before and I don't think you took it too well, so I'm just going to ask you this time…do you need anything?"

Taking deep breaths she paused and looked at him before fully breaking into tears. "I need my dad back," she said.

"I know sweetie. I know." Lance seemed to know that she needed a hug and a few moments later she found herself sitting in his lap with his arms around her rocking her back and forth while she cried into his T-shirt.

When she finally looked up at him again she wanted to cry. This time not because she was missing her father, but because the way that she'd pathetically crawled into his lap.

"I don't want you to be by yourself," he said softly brushing the hair from her face. His chin was tipped down and he had this innocent look on his face.

"I don't want to be by myself, but it seems like there aren't enough people in the world to keep me company right now," she mumbled as she leaned back a little. Her hand traced over the stitching on his pocket and she sighed wondering what she was going to do next.

"I don't want to bring up bad news, but is everything ok around here?" he asked, "I mean with the bills and all that…"

She took a deep breath, "I've got the books under control for the moment, but I have a meeting with the lawyer about the will at the end of the week."

"Are you going to go alone?" he asked.

She nodded that he was going by herself. She didn't know how else she would go.

"Can I tag along with you?" he asked with a gentle tone.

"I don't think that would be a good idea."

"Why not?" he asked.

"Don't you have work to do or something?"

"We're on vacation for the week," he said, "Justin is making a guest appearance on a show and JC's family is having a reunion so we have no shows this week." He paused and looked at her for a moment. "Please come and stay with me at the house," he said, "You need to get away from here for a while. Maybe we can go down to The Keys for a few days or something."

"I can't run away," she said.

"Well at least come over," he said, "I don't like to think about you being out at that house by yourself or up here by yourself."

"I just want to go to sleep," she said.

"Then that's what we'll do," he said, "Pack up a swimsuit and we'll go lay out back and relax a little."

"What about everyone downstairs?" she asked.

"Well I could invite them all over but I think that it would bee too crowded for everyone," he said.

EJ laughed at that remark and leaned and found herself kissing him. She knew she should be angry with him for the whole Alayna thing, but somehow she couldn't remember it in the heat of the moment.

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It was almost dark when Lance finally pulled into the garage. It had been a long day, but for once in the last few weeks it had been a good day…no complaints about anything. It hadn't taken that much time to convince her to come over, but they hadn't gotten home until late due to the fact that EJ had made him promise to go back down and sign more autographs. She insisted that she didn't want any upset customers trying to break down the place if they didn't get what they'd come for.

At one point in the afternoon Lance had a spontaneous dance contest, a lip-syncing contest, and he even remembered giving out backstage passes to a girl for being able to recite every single song that NSYNC had ever recorded. It was really something to see and reminded him of the old days when the group had done a lot of its own promotions. It was a nice change of pace for him and he was glad that he got to spend the time with EJ close by since the last month had been doing promos and concerts nonstop.

"You look tired Emma," Lance said softly as they sat in the car for a minute.

For a moment he'd thought she might have fallen asleep, but her eyes came wide open when he spoke. She yawned and smiled at him, "I am. It's been a long day."

"You hungry?" he asked. They'd eaten dinner, but she hadn't actually had much. The fries and burger that had been set in front of her in the booth while Lance ate next to her were barely touched. He didn't blame her. He wouldn't be able to eat if he was going through what she was going through either.

To keep her mind off things he'd had her come back downstairs with him. He'd spent most of the rest of the evening signing autographs and hanging out. It had been a while since he'd had an experience like that and although the crowd seemed pretty big for the small confines of Pop's it hadn't gotten out of hand and he'd actually enjoyed himself as she looked on and laughed at the fans that wanted HER autograph too. They found out that afternoon that there had been some pictures of them together from Hawaii that had circled and everyone wanted to meet her just as much as him.

She had been leaning back in the seat next to him watching him drive with her hand reached over and tucked into where his arm leaned against the armrest between them. She nodded that she wasn't and began to get out of the car. "I just need sleep."

"How about we go out and hop in the hot tub for a while then go to bed," he said, "After today with all that signing and ice cream scooping I'm a little tired too."

"I know this sounds really crazy," she said as she was standing on the far side of the car with the door still open, "But do you have any hot chocolate?"

He wanted to cry for her. Other than the times she'd been angry with him that day she looked so lost. He thought about just trying to fight with her a little to keep her mind off things, but in the long run, at least for him it wasn't the right answer. "I think I can find some. If not I'll go to the store."

She nodded and walked around the car after shutting the door. "I just want to take a shower, curl up in my pajamas and drink hot chocolate."

"Sounds like a good plan to me." His hand reached out and smoothed down the material of her shirt across her back then his hand slid and took her bag from her. He thought she might shy away from him, but she didn't seem to mind him being so touchy feely with her.

"So it's a date?" she asked. She seemed hesitant to be with him again and he hated that, but at the same time there was a part of her that seemed to lean towards him like she knew she needed him there for her even if she was going to be stubborn about accepting his help.

"Sure," he answered. Lance hit the garage door opener as they walked into the kitchen. EJ had brought along stuff for staying the night so while she slid into a seat at the breakfast bar he dropped her bag in the living room then went back to look around for the hot chocolate.

"You want it now or after a shower?" he asked when he finally pulled the canister out to set it on the counter.

She'd zoned out a bit. He noticed when he looked at her and saw that she was staring at the container that held sugar. She almost literally snapped back into reality when he asked her again. "Now or later sweetie?"

"Later," she said with a sigh then took a deep breath and let it out, "I should go take a shower."

"Go on up. You can use my shower," he said, "I've got a few calls to make so don't rush or anything."

She nodded, but instead of leaving the room she came over to him, slid her arms around him and hugged him. He held her close for a moment, burying his face into her neck. She didn't say a word and neither did he, but after a few minutes she pulled back and walked away. "I'll be upstairs."

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THE END
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