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The Pussycat Monologues

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JC didn't want or need a cat, but apparently he had one now thanks to Heather.

"Look," he said, once he overcame the surprise that had struck him speechless. "You can't just--" He gestured at the small, grayish beast currently eating scrambled eggs from a saucer on his kitchen floor, and then turned to his sister. "What are you--? I mean, God, I haven't even had coffee yet. You can't do this to me before--"

Heather pushed a cup of coffee at him, and he sipped at it gratefully while he stared at the creature.

"I couldn't let him starve, JC. Look at him." She knelt by the cat and added something else to the dish in front of it. "You're such a beautiful boy," she cooed. "How could anyone let you go hungry?"

"Is that bacon? You can't--Cats don't eat bacon."

"It'll be okay. Just this once. We'll buy him proper food today. Yes, we will. Won't we, baby?"

It was freaky how she could go from her normal voice to that 'You're a kitty!' voice without even taking a breath in between.

The cat demolished the bacon and then nosed the empty saucer so enthusiastically that it slid forward across the tiles. The cat was a bit on the skinny side, JC supposed, but it didn't look starved. Not really, anyway. And it was a funny kind of gray. It looked more blue than gray, really.

Actually... he thought he recognized it. There'd been a cat last week, hiding under the manzanita bush like a tiny, misguided paparazzo. It had watched JC's comings and goings that day while he'd carefully avoided making eye contact with it. No point in encouraging it. He didn't want or need a cat. He thought that went without saying, and so, quite naturally, he'd forgotten all about it.

He hated to be the bad guy, especially with his family, but... well... sometimes family forced you to say what really should have gone without.

"Heather, you don't even live here. I mean, it would be bad enough if you were leaving milk on the front porch for it, but--"

"But you don't have a front porch."

"My metaphorical front porch, okay? That would be one thing, but letting it into my house--"

"JC, it's March, it's cold outside. You wouldn't want me to shut a poor, helpless creature out in the cold, would you?"

"It's March in Southern California. I'd hardly call that..."

The saucer was now wedged in the corner under the cabinets, and the cat gave up on it. It turned around, lifted its head, and returned JC's stare. It had the greenest eyes he'd ever seen on a cat. Huge, green-green eyes.

Somehow, JC agreed to keep it. He couldn't begin to say why. Heather had argued passionately on its behalf. Like their mother, she'd always excelled at speaking to influence others and other high-powered executive stuff like that. But later, JC couldn't recall what she'd said beyond 'he's starving' and 'pets are very therapeutic.'

So now there was a cat in his house and he had a whole lot of cat things picked out by his sister, who was as giddy over cat things as Justin could be over a new pair of sneakers.

Some things were beyond understanding.

=^..^=

When Heather returned home, JC was left alone. With a cat. In his house. That weirded him out for a while. He kept thinking it had to be a recipe for disaster. She'd insisted that cats were low maintenance and he was obviously a cat person at heart and everything would be fine, but really, what did he know about the care and maintenance of cats? Feed it. Water it. Hope that the self-cleaning litter boxes kept working correctly and pay the cleaning service's extra 'plus pets' fee. But what if something went wrong?

Their first sister-free day together worked out okay, though. The cat ignored him until that evening, when it hopped up onto the back of the couch opposite from JC and settled down to stare at him with that steady green-green gaze.

JC stared back at it for a bit before coming to a decision.

"Hey," he said. "There's a few things we should get straight right now, cat. And the first is: my sister is crazy. Your name isn't 'Baby J' and that's final."

The cat's tail twitched.

"Yeah, I know, right? C-R-A-Zee. Crazy. You are just about the same color as Justin's eyes, I'll give you that. But I know J a whole lot better than she does, and it's not going to happen. Okay?"

Its tail twitched again.

"I'm glad you agree." JC smiled and leaned back more comfortably in his chair. "Besides... with those eyes, there's no way you're a Justin cat. You're a Lance cat all the way, aren't you?"

The cat closed its eyes. JC nodded at it, then picked up his book and flipped back a page, trying to remember where he'd left off. By the time JC found his spot and began reading in earnest again, the room was filled with the deep, soothing rasp of the cat's purrs.

=^..^=

When JC was really involved in his work, his mind expanded and he had the most amazing ideas. Contrary to what Chris or Jive and the general public might say, this was perfectly normal. An open mind was essential to the creative process.

Sometimes, however, when he was really involved in his work and it wasn't going well (or it was going great, but his handlers at Jive kept making more and more noise about how his sophomore album was meant to reveal a more seasoned, mature artist), his mind expanded and he had the most amazing ideas and he got stuck on the most bizarre one. JC knew that about himself, on a wise existential level, but that knowledge never helped when reality starting slipping away from him.

After Heather left, his brief respite from work and Jive's crankiness about the state of his album was over. He went back to hours of chewing on his pens and staring into space and locking himself in his music room where he played endlessly with things that appealed to the artist he was right now instead of the artist he was supposed to mature into. He probably would have forgotten that there was a cat in his house, had it not taken to pawing at the door to his studio every few hours.

When JC let it in, it would hop up onto the spare chair and stare at him intently. When it wasn't licking itself or chasing fuzzy pink mice up and down the hall, it had an unnerving stare. It looked... intelligent. That intelligence, combined with its green-green gaze and the way its tail twitched like suppressed laughter sometimes when JC was thinking out loud, plus the random, passing thought that he hadn't heard from Lance for quite a while now... nor had he heard anything about Lance for a couple of weeks...

JC dropped his pen. The cat looked at it with great interest for a moment before slowly blinking and looking back at JC.

"Cat... You're not Lance... are you?"

The cat contorted up on itself and began grooming its chest.

JC stared at it.

The cat was a Russian Blue. A friend of Heather's had three of them, and together they'd decided that it had most likely been dumped by a breeder because it wasn't up to the breed standards. Its genetic flaw was a small patch, no bigger than a thumb print, of white on its chest. A nearly insignificant flaw on its chest... like the flaw in Lance's heart before his surgery?

"You can't possibly be Lance... right?"

=^..^=

It was crazy. It was absolutely insane. But the thought nagged at JC over the next several days, catching him short, and making him study the cat and ask it stupid things.

"Hey, cat. Meow twice if you're Lance. Okay?"

The cat twitched his tail twice.

"What does that mean? Are you being Lance or are you just being contrary?"

The cat got up and left the room.

"Thanks," JC called after him. "That really didn't help."

That was what Lance would have done if JC had kept repeatedly asking him to prove himself.

=^..^=

In the end, JC did the most sensible thing that occurred to him. He called Lance.

"Hello?" someone said. JC didn't recognize his voice.

"Lance?"

"Who is this?" The guy didn't sound happy.

"Sorry," JC said. "Wrong number."

He cut the call and turned his phone over and over in his hands. The cat sauntered by and mewed at him.

"Yeah... That was more inconclusive than I'd hoped."

The cat leaped up to sit on JC's laptop.

"No cats on the desk."

Meow.

"No, not even if you are Lance."

JC picked him up and set him on the floor, and then he had another thought. It only took him a minute to Google and find recent photos of Lance, and there he was looking pretty toasted and not particularly cat-like at a club last Friday.

"Sorry," JC told the cat. "You're not Lance."

The cat responded to this news by twisting into a pretzel and licking its privates.

JC laughed.

"Well, I suppose you could still be Joey, but you've missed your chance to convince me of it. And, man, I've got to get out of the house, right? A guy could go crazy."

=^..^=

Getting out of the house lead to running into AJ in a coffee shop. It was a chance meeting; he'd never seen AJ at that shop before. They got to talking, of course. They always did. AJ got JC on multiple levels. The creative artist level; the boy-band veteran level; the dirty, gritty, nasty sexy level; and the 'I have initials instead of a name' level: just to mention a few.

Talking lead to going back to JC's place, but before they could fall into bed, or more likely, fall onto the couch and then the floor, the topic changed to AJ's hopes for a solo album. They started tossing ideas back and forth and had a little seed of a melody before JC was even really aware of what he was doing, and then the cat walked into the room and stared quizzically at AJ, who was sprawled in the cat's usual spot.

"Whoa, pretty cat." AJ held out his fingers for the cat to investigate. "You never said anything about getting a pet. What's his name?"

"He's not mine," JC said. "He's his own cat, you know. He's just like... living here."

"Yeah, right." AJ scratched behind the cat's ears, and it purred its deep, rumbling purr. "Nice motor, cat." He scratched some more. "He's just living here?"

"Yeah... Like a roommate."

"Ah. Like roommates, only one of you doesn't pay rent, even though he expects you to feed him and pick up all of his shit. Yeah, I totally get that." AJ tapped the cat's nose. "You're secretly a Carter, aren't you?"

"That's not--" Well... AJ did sort of have a point. "Family's different, man."

"Can we call him 'Aaron'?"

"No."

"Guess not. Hmm. He seems like a nice cat. Too nice to go calling him that... He is a he, right?"

"Yeah."

"We could call him 'Nicky.'" AJ grinned. "'Little Nicky'... Or, hey, how about 'Darling Nikki'?" He sang, "I knew a cat named Nikki, I guess you could say he was a sex fiend--"

"I think he's fixed."

AJ shook his head. "Don't interrupt. I met him in JC's basement, masturbatin' with a magazine--"

JC laughed. "I think I'll stick to calling him 'Cat.'"

"Pity." AJ sprawled out more, spreading his legs a little wider. "Why don't you come over here?" He waggled his eyebrows at JC. "How'd you like to waste some time?"

Oh, damn. He wanted to. He really did want to. AJ was all scruffy sexy, and the synergy they'd had going while working on the music was electrical. But he couldn't.

"I'm sorry. I really... I can't."

"You can't?" Confusion flickered over AJ's face, and then his gaze dropped to JC's fly. "Really?" He didn't sound convinced.

"Oh, I totally could. There's nothing wrong with that." Seriously, nothing was ever wrong with that. JC didn't want him thinking that. "And, uh, I totally want to 'cause you're hot like... uh..."

"Like a really hot thing?"

"Yeah, that."

"Hm." AJ took off his hat and raked his fingers over his hair. "What's up with you, C? You're not usually..."

"A cock tease?"

"Yeah." AJ coughed. "Something like that."

"I really want to, cat--"

AJ's eyes darted towards the cat.

"Oh, that's going to be awkward, isn't it? Damn, I..."

"C, it's okay if you don't want to screw around with me. I'm hot like a hot thing, you know. I've got other options. I just want to know why."

"We're collaborating now. I can't get involved with people I work with--I mean, with collaborators. Not when we're like actively collaborating."

"But you're not getting involved with me. You are involved." AJ reached out and tugged on one of JC's belt loops. "Frequent flier miles, man."

"No, I just can't. It was a huge mess last time. Like severe tire damage. Repercussions all over the place. And like... permanent shit."

"Permanent? What? Like the break-up of NSYNC? You couldn't possibly--"

"I can't talk about that." JC pulled away from him. "I've gotta..." He waved vaguely towards the far end of the house. He had to go hide in the bathroom for a while or something.

AJ held up his hands in the classic 'see me backing away from this conversational landmine' gesture.

"Sorry," AJ said. "You don't have to explain. Just... You will give me a rain check, right?"

"Oh, of course." JC smiled. "Thanks, man."

"No problem. Now... what do you think about the second stanza?"

=^..^=

By the time they called it a night and AJ left for home, JC was a roiling mass of conflicting energies. Sexual tension fed by creative euphoria had him all raring to go fuck or be fucked, no questions asked. But regret that he couldn't work those tensions out with AJ--and memories of the emotional-and-professional nightmare that he never wanted to live through again--made him reluctant to turn to just anybody right then.

He had no problem with taking things in hand and working them out for himself. He rubbed at himself through his jeans and teased himself a little as he slowly undid the buttons down his fly. But before he could take things further, he suddenly noticed Cat, who was slowly creeping up to him in full predator mode--eyes huge, head and body held close to the ground, tail practically vibrating with the thrill of the hunt--and JC's balls twinged in sudden, sharp fear. Now was not the time for Cat to play a game of Catch the Fingers.

He shuddered, told Cat to give him ten minutes, and quickly went up to his room and closed the door securely behind him. There'd be no needle-sharp claws getting in there.

=^..^=

Lance rang him up two days later while JC was attempting 'something more like a piano ballad' for Jive, something 'slightly dancey, but lyrical, and perhaps you could try leaving sex out of it.' JC wasn't feeling it.

"Hi, C. I was looking through my phone's history and I saw that you called the other day. What's up?"

"Lance, hey."

JC was surprised. He'd sort of thought that Lance's phone had been lost or stolen because Lance didn't like it when other people answered it. He'd tried not to consider worse options, like maybe Lance didn't want him to have his number anymore, because that was silly. There was no reason... JC quietly tapped a few keys and then let a single note sound: two Ds below middle C.

"You didn't change your number?"

"What? No," Lance said. "I wouldn't do that. Well... there's plenty of people I'd love to do that to, but you're not one of them."

"Oh. Good to know. You, too. I wouldn't do that to you, either."

"We just... uh. One of my friends has the same phone. We must have gotten them switched around at the gym or something. It was freaky. My phone's never silent for that long, you know? I was beginning to-- Oh. Listen to me. I'm rambling. You don't care about this."

"No, it's cool. It's the voice, man. Even your rambles sound good, like aural massage."

"... Uh..." Lance chuckled, but it sounded a little off. "It's like what now?"

"Aural. A-U, aural. Not the other kind."

"Ah, sorry. I think I... um... I'm used to you talking about the other kind. Blowing you... up with her love, isn't it?"

They chatted a bit more, but it was a little awkward because Lance sounded like he was nervous with him, even though he'd grown out of that years ago back in Germany. And when Lance asked if there'd been a specific reason for his call, well, JC wasn't about to say, 'I just called to see if you were a cat.' JC had to make something up and he kinda sucked at spontaneous prevarication.

"I just, uh..."

JC looked around for inspiration, and there was Cat up on the end table and giving him the green-green stare of inscrutable catliness--or perhaps it was the stare of defiant 'Ha! I'm somewhere I'm not supposed to be!'-ness. Dogs never did that. Dogs knew how to feel guilty.

"No cats on the table," he said, shooting a meaningful stare right back at him.

"What?" Lance said.

"Oh, nothing. I was just... There's a cat and I was wondering if you still had those psychic pet books."

"The Pet Psychic book?"

"Yeah, I was thinking maybe I should read it. If you have it and are willing to loan it to me?"

"Sure. If I can find it, you're welcome to it. I don't know if you'll like it, though. It's... well, the split on it is about 40/60--maybe even 30/70--interesting bits to ridiculous bits."

"That's okay. I'm just curious."

"So... you got a cat?"

"More like he got me. It was his idea--his and Heather's."

"Have you had a cat before? Do you like it?"

"No--I mean, yeah, I like him fine, but I've never had a cat. Well, we--my family--had a cat once. Belle. But that was different. Cat's okay, though. He's not a bad housemate."

"I always thought you'd like one. Cat people are supposed to be more creative and open-minded than dog people, so..."

"Really? Thanks. That's nice of you to say. I didn't know you thought about things like that."

"Yeah, um. Well... I'm all dog myself, extroverted and bounding off for adventure, right?" Lance laughed. "But cats are... I like them, too--What?" There was some sort of disturbance on Lance's end, dogs suddenly barking and drowning out someone's voice. "C, I'm sorry. I have to go, my friend's waiting for me. I'll call if I find that book."

JC felt unsettled after the call. He got up off the piano bench, then picked Cat up off the table and didn't put him down right away.

"Do you think something's up with Lance? That was weird, wasn't it?" He scratched at the little dip between Cat's shoulder blades. "Oh, what am I saying? You have no way to judge because you don't know Lance."

=^..^=

AJ called about twenty minutes later. Lance was still very much on JC's mind, so he was maybe a little distracted at first.

"Hey, AJ. I'm glad you called. What do you think would happen if you and a friend got your phones mixed up?"

"Mixed up how?"

"They look the same and you end up with your buddy's phone. What happens?"

"Why are my buddy and I wearing each other's pants?"

"What? I didn't say--"

"How else would it happen? I keep my phone in my pants. Unless it's charging... Are me and my buddy sharing the same bedside table? Is this--?"

"No. No, that's not the scenario. No sharing beds or pants. You're a nice boy, properly-raised and straight and non-slutty."

AJ laughed and then laughed some more.

"Ahahahaha. Sorry. Ah--" AJ coughed. "I don't know who you're talking about, but it's not me."

"Hypothetically."

"Well... I suppose straight-and-proper Alex--" AJ chuckled again. "--would go home and be happily surprised by the quiet. He might wonder if its battery was dead, but he wouldn't bother to check it. Straight-and-proper boys probably like the quiet... unless it's a football game or NASCAR or... hell, I don't know. What kind of music do straight-and-proper guys listen to?"

"I liked Christopher Cross and MC Hammer back when I was still--"

"Man, you weren't ever straight-and-proper. And I'm not listening to 'Sailing' again, not even hypothetically."

"Then you're missing out on some fine music."

"Yeah. However will I cope? Now... where were we? I went home. It was quiet... then depending on the time of day that the phone switch occurred, it would be somewhere between... say... twenty minutes and three hours before my buddy--who is most likely Nick, though we've never swapped pants--would call and be all 'Oh my God, your girlfriend keeps texting me! Make it stop!'"

"So, it wouldn't take three days to get your phone switched back?"

"Like I would be that lucky. Nick would pound on my door in the middle of the night until he could force me to take it back."

"Hm."

"Speaking of Nick and sharing pants, can we talk now about why I called?"

"Huh? Oh, yeah. Sorry, cat. My bad."

AJ wanted to know if the no-sex-with-collaborators rule also covered threesomes.

"I think Nicky's working up to asking for that again, you know. So I was thinking--"

Oh, man. Having AJ and Nick at once was hot. Just the contrast between them was fantasy fodder, AJ looking all street-wise and tough while Nick looked... fresh and ripe for corrupting. JC took a long moment to consider the pictures in his head. AJ's wiry muscles covered in all that ink, and Nick covered in lots of creamy skin--really gorgeous skin--and a light dusting of golden hair. Mmm, yeah. Nick naked was a sight to behold both coming and going, with a big dick and a great ass. Beautiful.

They'd only tried it twice. Nick was cautious or afraid of over-indulging in a good thing or something. It would be awesome to do it again, but--

"--Nick could totally be in the middle. We don't even have to touch. So you could still say--"

--would it be worth the risk?

Hmm... AJ and Nick were like two good things that were even better together. Yeah. Like chocolate-covered pretzels. AJ was the salt and Nick was the sweet, and with a meal like that JC could eat for hours. Mmm, yeah... or be eaten. JC had only had Nick's mouth on his cock once. He'd like to take his time with them taking turns. He could compare the heat of their mouths and the agility of their tongues. Could have them right there kneeling, so he could touch the silk of Nick's hair while AJ sucked him and then have AJ's beard teasing his thighs when Nick took over his dick. Oh, yeah.

Guh.

JC quickly looked around for Cat. Not seeing him, he went to the door and shut it, and then leaned back against it. He switched the phone to his left hand and stuck his right down his pants.

"JC? What do you think? ... Did you hear me?"

"Oh, yeah. Keep talking. Um... Details. What do you want us to do to Nick?"

"You're breathing kinda fast there, buddy. What are you doing? Can't do that with me, can you?"

"We're collaborating."

"Yeah, you said that's why--"

"No. We're collaborating right now." JC shimmied a bit to get his pants open wider without the use of his hands.

"Ah... We're working on a phone sex song."

"Yeah. You've got the voice for it. Rough... like in the middle of fucking even when you're not."

"I think," AJ said, with amusement clearly audible in his tone, "that this song's been done already."

"Fucking tease," JC growled. "Tell me. Tell me..."

"Well... I've been thinking... I bet Nick's never been treated to a rim job..."

Oh, yeah, that was good. That was perfect.

They never got back to having a proper conversation that night.

=^..^=

They'd agreed that Nick would be in the middle, but JC was concerned that even sharing a bed with AJ for an hour or two would be pushing too far over the no-sex-with-collaborators line. He didn't want to jinx himself.

So they settled on JC watching the two of them together, which really made him feel spoiled. Some people, when they had to settle, had to settle for shitty stuff. JC got a front-row center seat at a private showing of one of his top-ten stroke fantasies. Close enough to see and hear every detail, to smell their heat, so close he could practically taste their skin, but he wouldn't touch. No. No, he only touched himself and gave a few directorial prompts from time to time as AJ and Nick kissed and stripped off, and thank God, AJ had finally been broken of his wearing-socks-during-sex habit. That would have marred the perfection of the scene when Nick finally went on hands and knees, his gorgeous, gorgeous ass on display.

Some people never got to liking rim jobs, not even receiving them. But Nick's cries and the way he pressed his ass up higher and higher, and the look on his face when JC caught a glimpse of it, all shattered and gone... Well, apparently, everyone there was surprised by just how much Nick enjoyed it.

It was so beautiful that JC came before AJ even began to fuck Nick. So JC watched that event through a pleasant haze of contented completion.

Later, Nick said that fair was fair and AJ should get a show, too. He took forever prepping JC; Nick's cock was large enough that he was probably used to needing to give his partners extra time. JC didn't mind at all though 'cause AJ kept up a filthy litany of suggestions and directions the whole time. They should have recorded it. He knew people would've paid to listen.

They ended up sleeping three in the bed, even though that broke the rule, or at least bent it really far. It would have been rude otherwise, making AJ sleep alone. Or it would have been lonely, if JC sent them both to another room.

AJ left early in the morning, but Nick slept in. JC slept, too, until Cat came 'round to demand his breakfast. It was amazing how loud the little guy could get... which, come to think of it, shouldn't have been a surprise at all. Life with Chris had proven that noisy things came in small packages.

When JC returned to the bedroom, Nick was sitting up and rubbing his eyes.

"Did I hear a cat?"

"Yeah. You allergic?"

"No. Just sleep in my eyes." Nick stretched and glanced around the room. "Nice place," he said before looking back at JC.

"Thanks."

"I... uh..." Nick bunched his hands in the sheets, and then smoothed out the wrinkles. "I really liked everything last night."

JC smiled.

"Yeah, I could tell. I'm glad, cat."

Nick ducked his head a little, but JC saw the surprised pleasure in his eyes before it was hidden.

"I... uh... I was wondering... I know you're discreet. And you're like smart and nice, and... Maybe we could do it again?"

JC's smile widened.

"Well, sure. I'm definitely up for that."

"No," Nick said. "I mean, yeah, yeah, now's good too. But I don't actually blush and stammer anymore when asking for a fuck. I was wondering if we could maybe try... doing it regularly."

"Wow." JC hadn't seen that coming.

Nick looked at him warily.

"'Wow, how awful'?"

JC shook his head.

"'Wow, I think Nick Carter just asked me out.'"

"Yeah. We could try, just a bit... couldn't we?"

JC didn't see any reason not to. He already had a casual, semi-regular thing with one Backstreet Boy, who was currently off limits. It wouldn't hurt to add another Boy to the roster. AJ was pitcher and Nick could be his designated hitter, swinging both ways... JC stifled a chuckle before Nick could take offense.

"Sure," he told Nick. "We can try."

Nick beamed at him and tugged him down to the bed. "Cool," he said before rolling them both into a better position.

=^..^=

Nick met Cat when they finally went down for their own breakfast. JC switched the toaster oven on, then put a filter in the coffee machine and measured out grounds while Cat sat near his bowl and mewled up at Nick like a pitiful little thing who hadn't already been fed. Nick crouched down to pet him.

"Nice cat."

"Yeah, he's got pretty eyes, doesn't he?" JC flipped on the coffee maker and then pulled a bakery box out of the cupboard. "I've got muffins. They're really good warm."

"And you call him 'Cat'?" Nick said. "Isn't that rude?"

"I call everyone 'cat.' Do you think it's rude?"

"Well..." Nick petted Cat some more while JC stuck two muffins in the toaster oven. "I don't know," Nick told the cat. "You're like the color of a dolphin or something. Your name should be more special. Like... Poseidon. Yeah. Puss-seidon. Get it?"

JC groaned.

"What?" Nick said.

"Just because the cat's immune to bad puns, doesn't mean the rest of us are."

Nick just grinned.

They had a nice breakfast together until Nick thought to check his messages. Then he had to rush off to deal with Aaron's latest mess.

"I'll call you later," he said on his way out the door.

"Sure. Any time."

JC wandered back into the kitchen and looked down at Cat.

"You don't look anything like a dolphin."

Cat raised a paw and began to industriously bite at the fur between his toes.

"Puss-seidon," JC muttered and poured himself another cup of coffee.

=^..^=

Before Heather had left, she'd scheduled a vet appointment. Because it wasn't an emergency, and she'd insisted that 'Baby J' could only go to the best vet in town, they couldn't get an appointment for anything closer than two full weeks out. Now, JC peered at Heather's detailed note listing the date and time of the appointment along with the doctor's name and address, and doubt stirred in him. Cat would need shots; Heather had been very clear on that.

He called her on the morning of the appointment.

"I don't know if I can do it. Do you think I can pay somebody to do it for me?"

"Oh, JC." Heather sighed. "I think you're just going to have to man up this time and be a proper daddy to your cat."

"Whoa! I'm not his daddy. We're not like that at all!"

"You still need to man up and do what's best for him. Poor little J's had a hard enough life already."

"You didn't make the appointment under that name, did you?"

"No." Heather sighed again even more loudly than the first time. "The appointment is for Joshua Chasez and cat."

Well, at least that was some small measure of relief. He told Cat about it while he got them ready for their appointment.

"It's nothing personal, okay? It's just... you stand barefoot in your own toilet and you wash with your tongue. You're the anti-Justin. So I can't exactly name you after--Oh my God, why won't you get in the damn box?"

He had to call Heather again to learn the trick of using gravity to aid in crating a cat. God. This was already really stressful and they hadn't got anywhere near any needles yet. He didn't think he could cope.

=^..^=

The vet's office seemed pretty nice. It had separate entrances marked 'Cats' and 'Dogs and Birds.' When they went inside, he discovered there were separate waiting areas, too. It must have been a dog day because he could hear a fair bit of muffled barking coming from that side, but he and Cat were the sole occupants of the cat side.

He set Cat's carrier on the bench beside him and peered inside it. Cat was cowering in the back, his eyes big and dark with fear. Poor guy. JC didn't blame him one bit. He put a hand on the carrier and tried his best to reassure him.

"I know it's scary and it seems really mean to be taking you here and letting them stick needles in you and stuff like that, but you've got to believe me. I wouldn't do that to anyone if it weren't absolutely necessary. I hate needles, Cat. I really hate them. But it's going to be okay, because we're not going to think about them, right? We're going to focus on the good things... um. Like... well... since you're Russian and all, you could be a little cosmonaut cat just like Lance, right?

"Only Lance isn't a cat. But you'd like him if you met him. And he's a good role model. Because like, he had a dream about getting to go into space and he went after it, even doing scary things like having a surgery, and like, it wasn't even a surgery he had to have, it was just a surgery he had to have if he wanted to follow his dream. And that's a lot scarier than needles because it lasts longer and they have to... well, ugh. They have to do things we don't want to think about. But Lance was brave and kept his eyes on the goal and now he's a cosmonaut, just like you can be. Wouldn't that be fun? You'll get your shots and everything to make you healthy and strong and all the cosmos can be yours for the taking. And see?" JC patted the cat carrier. "You've got your own personal space pod already."

Someone cleared their throat, and JC looked up, blushing.

"Mr. Chases?" said the nice, motherly-looking lady in a paw-print patterned jacket. "The doctor is ready to see Cat now. Won't you come this way?"

=^..^=

Cat got a surprisingly clean bill of health, all things considered, and a prescription for some special food to make sure he had all of the nutrients and things he needed to gain a bit of necessary weight. He was very good and brave while the vet examined him, and since JC hadn't been that brave himself--he'd had to step out for the needles part--he bought Cat a new toy as a reward: a little blue parrot with a tail full of real feathers and an electronic chip that made it tweet every time Cat caught it up in his mouth or batted it about on the floor.

Cat played with it enthusiastically for ten solid minutes and then took off with it somewhere. JC didn't see--or hear--it again until several days later when he and Nick fell to the bed after a particularly long groping session. JC's back hit the bed and the bed began to tweet.

"What the hell?" Nick said, and JC giggled.

Nick pushed himself up, the bed tweeted some more, and JC giggled even harder. He giggled so much that it kept shaking the bed enough to keep it tweeting. He gasped for breath, and Cat came barreling into the room, drawn by the calls of his parrot, and Nick sat on the edge of the bed, shaking his head and looking rather reluctantly amused.

"Sorry," JC gasped.

Cat pawed at the sheets, and Nick helped him hunt for the still tweeting toy. Finally, Nick found it and tossed it onto the floor where it was promptly pounced upon.

"A stuffed parrot has killed my sex life," Nick said.

"It's not dead," JC said, starting to giggle again. "It's just pining."

Nick moved so that he could sit with his back against the headboard. He played with JC's hair while JC tried to breathe normally and not give into the giggles again. It was rather soothing, Nick stroking his hair like that. He was almost ready to pull Nick's mouth down to his and see if they couldn't get back to where they'd been before parrotus interruptus, but then his phone rang.

"Go ahead," Nick said. "Answer it."

It was Lance, who had found his Pet Psychic book and wanted to know if he could bring it over that evening.

"Sure, that sounds good. Nick's here, maybe we can do something."

"Nick?"

"Yeah. Nick Carter." JC grinned. "I've been batting for the other team."

"What?!" JC got in shocked, stereo surround sound from both Lance and Nick.

"Ow! Geez." JC rubbed his ear. "A guy could go deaf around here. Geez. I guess you don't like that metaphor. I just meant that I'm helping the other boy band."

"Oh," Lance said.

"Yeah. So... I've been working on some things with AJ and Nick. You're welcome to come over. It would be fun."

"No," Lance said. "I... There's something I've been wanting to tell you. Something personal. So... uh... maybe some time when Nick and AJ aren't there?"

"That sounds serious. Are you okay?"

"I'm fine. It's just personal."

They made plans for Lance to come over on Thursday.

"And you'll get to meet Cat."

"I look forward to it."

After JC put the phone down, Nick asked, "Is everything okay?"

JC nodded.

"Yeah. At least he says so." He tugged Nick close. "So... where were we?"

"My libido was pining for the fjords."

"Hmm..." JC traced a finger down Nick's chest. "Didn't you say you were going there?"

"What?"

"Aren't you going to Norway in April?"

"Yeah... the end of April. Why?"

"They have fjords." JC drew a circle around Nick's belly button.

"Oh," Nick said.

"Does your libido really want to wait for a month?"

"Hell, no."

=^..^=

When JC opened the door for Lance on Thursday, he was standing there with the book already held out in one hand.

"Hi, C... Well, I found it."

"Cool," JC said. He glanced at the book, What the Animals Tell Me, but he wasn't really interested in it.

"But, you know, I looked it over again and I'm not sure you should read it. It... uh. I think there are parts that you'd find really disturbing. A lot of the animals she helped were in bad situations, and sometimes she couldn't convince their owners to do what was right for them. And she also talks about some really inhumane practices and--"

JC took Lance's hand and pulled him inside.

"Come on, Lance. I don't make my best friends stand on my doorstep and give me book reports, you know."

Lance shuffled awkwardly. "Ah... well... I just..."

JC dragged him farther into the living room, then took the book from him and set it out of the way on a side table.

"Thanks for looking out for me. I really appreciate it, even though it isn't necessary this time."

"I just don't want you to be upset. The chapter about knowing when it's time to let your pet go even made me cry."

"I'll keep a box of tissues handy. Now... is this the personal conversation that we needed to have? 'Cause I love you, cat, but I was really thinking it was something more serious than a confession that the Pet Psychic made you cry, even though I can understand why you wouldn't want Nick to know that."

"No, I..." Lance shuffled his feet again. "It's something I've been meaning to tell you for a while, but--Oh! Is that Cat? He's so handsome."

Lance went over to the chair upon which Cat was regally posed.

"Wow, look at his eyes," Lance said. "I've never seen eyes like that."

JC thought that was weird because didn't Lance ever look in a mirror?

"Hi, Cat. I'm Lance. It's a pleasure to meet you." Lance held out his hand. "May I pet you? Ooo, you're so soft! My dogs would be jealous."

Cat rumbled happily under Lance's hand. Lance looked up at JC.

"I really like him. He seems like a nice cat."

"Good," JC said. When Lance stopped petting him, Cat butted his head against Lance's hand. "I think he likes you, too--" Lance smiled. "--but you could have met Cat while Nick was here, too."

Lance looked away from him.

"Yeah. I know. I'm nervous. I want to put this off again, but I've been doing that ever since I told Chris last year."

"You..." JC didn't know what to say. He had no idea what this was about, but he still felt hurt. "Does everyone know?"

Lance shook his head. "I'm not going to tell Justin."

"Lance, what--?"

"I'm not telling Justin because I don't want him to know."

"Is that why you haven't told me? Then why are you telling me now? What are you telling me? Are you okay? Are you like... dying? Getting a sex change? What--?"

"My friend," Lance said. "My friend with the phone, you know? I sorta... Well. He's my boyfriend."

JC blinked.

"What?"

Lance stood up straight and tall, though his eyes were shiny and scared.

"I'm gay and I have a boyfriend and I didn't tell you because I was a coward and your good opinion meant too much to me."

JC blinked again. Lance wasn't gay. JC had a pretty good gaydar and he was sure of it. Well, it wasn't gaydar exactly, but it was as good as one.

It wasn't that he expected everyone in the world to find him attractive. He was perfectly okay if all the lesbians and the straight guys and that creepy guy--the one with all the teeth--down at the corner market weren't attracted to him. But otherwise, he always got that look from people, that look that said they thought he was hot even if they didn't want him after he opened his mouth or did something dorky or whatever.

Lance couldn't be gay; JC had never gotten that look from him. And if Lance was somehow gay... well... the universe was extremely unfair. Lance should have been interested in him. They would have been good together. He couldn't see how getting involved with him while they were working together would have ever lead to a disastrous mess. But then, that was easy to think now, when it had never really been an option.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes," Lance said. "I'm sure. I'm gay and I have a boyfriend."

"Is he good to you? Are you happy?"

Lance shifted and made a face, and in that moment JC knew that whoever this guy was, he'd never think that he was good enough for Lance.

"I'm pretty happy," Lance said. "It's just hard sometimes, being famous and in the closet and..." He trailed off with a dismissive gesture.

"Come on," JC said, taking Lance's hand again and steering him towards the most comfortable couch. "I'll make drinks and you can tell me all about it."

"You're okay with this?"

No, not really. But he was okay with Lance and that was the important thing.

"You said it yourself. I'm an open-minded cat person, right?"

Lance smiled.

"Yes, you are. I'm sorry I didn't tell you before."

"That's okay," JC said. What was done was done. "What would you like to drink?"

=^..^=

Lance wanted JC to meet his boyfriend, Reichen, but JC put him off. Lance's suggestions didn't feel right. Either they weren't in neutral territory or they were in a setting that JC was sure would make him feel like a third wheel. It was too bad that he couldn't bring Nick or AJ along with... or maybe not. That might feel too much like a double date, and he didn't want that.

"I think I'm still just really surprised," JC told him. "Give me a little time and then I'm sure we'll figure something perfect out."

And so, for a while, JC's life went on pretty much normally, or at least what passed for normal with him. There was just a bit more sex with Nick Carter than there had been before, and a bit more confusion and worry over Lance--who was suddenly having a hard time staying out of the gossip blogs--and a lot more Cat--who was turning out to be the best idea that JC had ever... not really had. His presence was soothing, and JC was grateful for his company whenever he saw something nasty about Lance on the internet or when Nick was really upset over the latest hurtful thing that his family had said or done.

=^..^=

Justin came over for one of his increasingly-rare visits. As JC later told Cat, it wasn't that Justin cared any less than he used to, it was just priorities.

"No really. You don't stop loving your mice just because it's time for dinner, and this is the same thing. Only like instead of dinner, it's time to be Justin Timberlake. That's very difficult. You have to date Cameron Diaz and things. Well, not you personally. You're a cat. I don't know if Cameron would be into that."

They piled onto the couch to watch the Food Network while Justin filled him in on the latest happenings in Timberland. That was always fun because Justin had never outgrown the impulse to add Emeril-like 'Pow!'s and other sound effects to the shows. But after a while, Justin got up to pace and compulsively straighten the things on JC's shelves which were already straight, thank you very much.

"So, Jive's been sort of suggesting to me, but like really subtly, that if I could maybe--JC. What the hell, man?" Justin held up an unlabeled baggie of Curious Cat's Seriously Strong Organic Catnip; Cat had chewed a hole in the original bag. "You can't just leave this in plain sight."

"It's catnip."

"Yeah, right."

JC rolled his eyes. "Seriously. It's catnip."

"Yeah, right. You don't have a cat."

"Tell that to Cat."

"What?"

"Cat." JC looked around. "He should be here somewhere. Hey, Cat. He was napping earlier. Cat... Hey, Cat... Oh, there he is."

About an inch of Cat's tail was peeking out from under one of the recliners. JC pointed.

"See? A cat."

"You have a cat? Dude, you should have told me." Justin bent and flipped the chair skirt up a little. "Hey, he's blue."

"Yeah."

"Cool."

"Yeah. He's kinda pretty. Looks a lot better than when I first saw him."

"What's his name?"

"I call him 'Cat.'"

"You can't just call him 'cat.' You're an artist, you have to be creative. Express yourself."

"I don't feel a need to assert my creativity over him."

Justin blinked. "What?"

"What's wrong with calling him 'Cat'? It's not like I have to differentiate him from all of the other cats living here."

"I'd call him 'Dabadee.' That would be cool."

"What?"

"You know, I'm blue, da ba dee, da ba die, da ba dee, da ba--"

"Nah. That's cute, J. But I think I'll stick to 'Cat.'"

"Yo, listen up, here's a story about a little guy that lives in a JC world. And all day and all night, and everything he sees is blue just like him..." Justin grinned at him. "Come on, it's awesome."

"So is 'Cat.' Right, Cat?"

Cat's tail twitched.

"See? He likes it."

Though, really, Cat was probably just responding to the tone of voice that said 'there's fish in your future if you agree with me.' Cat was smart like that.

=^..^=

A package from Chris arrived a week after Justin's visit. There was a card with pictures of an oven on the outside and a bun on the inside. Chris had drawn ears and whiskers on the bun. The text read "Congratulations on your bun in the oven!" "MEATLOAF" was scrawled below the message.

The bulk of the package was a horned helmet. JC was pretty sure that it was the same one that Chris had been wearing in the latest batch of photos from Norway. A scrap of yellow paper was skewered on one horn. It said, "CATS HAVE SHARP BITS!!! AND NOW SO DO YOU."

Cat hopped into the box while JC was examining the hat.

"Don't get comfortable in there," JC told him. "I'll need that when I send the hat back."

Cat tucked his paws neatly under his body and closed his eyes for a nap.

=^..^=

Early in May, JC received an invitation to Nick Lachey's album release party. As soon as he got it, he knew that it was the opportunity he'd been looking for. Lance would have received one, too. JC should call him and make plans to meet up with him and Reichen there and maybe do something afterward if all went well. JC did not have high hopes for it going well. It was going to be awkward.

He didn't want to meet Reichen, not when he was certain that Lance wasn't entirely happy with him. But at the same time, he had to meet him, had to make the gesture and let Lance know that JC genuinely accepted that facet of Lance's life. And who knows? Maybe Reichen would surprise him and he'd be totally cool and into Lance.

JC had to make the gesture because that was one of the things he appreciated the most about Lance: the level of acceptance he received from him. Not that other people didn't accept JC, but they were different.

AJ was very accepting of him, but that was because AJ was sort of what JC would have been, had he been shorter and less fearful of needles and had a different home life. Like if he'd been raised by his birth mother? JC could totally see it.

Joey and Nick were both very accepting of him, too, but he thought that in Nick's case, it was because he just didn't know better. Compared to the Carters, pretty much anyone looked sane and even-keeled. And Joey, well... JC didn't think Joey had it in him to be anything other than accepting of him. Joey had taken to him like a brother from the very week they had met.

But Lance... Lance didn't have AJ's natural advantage. Lance didn't always understand him. But instead of just getting used to that and filing what he didn't understand under the header of 'JC is weird, yo,' Lance tried to understand him. He didn't always succeed, but JC didn't expect that. Sometimes even he found it hard to understand himself, and he'd been following his own leaps of logic for years on end. He sure liked it, though, that Lance put in the effort and that, in turn, Lance shared little things about himself, as if inviting JC to a better understanding of him, too. Which was probably why it had hurt to learn that Lance hadn't been telling him about being gay.

It did really hurt. It wasn't like Lance didn't know that JC was totally down with the gays, right?

=^..^=

Meeting Reichen was even more awkward than JC had anticipated. Reichen was... well, a lot of people apparently thought he was really good looking--unless there was like one guy totally spamming the blogs, pretending to be many people who were just dying to share with the world that Reichen was 'teh hot.' If it wasn't just one guy, couldn't they see how... weird he looked? There was something off about him and he kept drawing JC's eyes because JC wanted to figure it out, but then he'd sort of flinch inside and have to look away again.

JC didn't think he was too superficial--he liked beautiful people and he liked ugly people--but he had a really hard time with people who looked... well, like Reichen.

He tried to ignore Reichen's looks and focus on what he said and the way he treated Lance. But JC kept getting hung up on the way Reichen touched Lance and the look in his eyes when he did so. It grew more pronounced as they left the party and moved on to a more private and exclusive afterparty. Lance wasn't out and they couldn't touch much, but Reichen rarely looked at Lance when they touched. Maybe that was camouflage to make the touches look more accidental and casual than they were, but JC didn't think so.

Most of the time, Reichen was looking around, and JC would have put money on it that he wasn't checking to make sure they weren't breaking their 'just friends' cover. He looked like he was looking around to see who was noticing that he was with Lance. JC had been with enough cautious guys that he was certain he knew the difference.

He also thought that he knew why Lance was having so many difficulties with that Perez jerk lately. If he were a different sort of man, JC would so put the fear of God into Reichen, but as it was, he thought that he wouldn't be very scary and Lance wouldn't take it well.

"Do you like him?" Lance whispered in his ear later when they were pressed close together at the bar.

JC accepted his drink from the bartender and nodded his thanks, then turned towards Lance.

"Hmm," he murmured as softly as he could and still be heard. "I think it's been too noisy and busy to get a real good impression of him tonight."

"Yeah, but do you like him?"

It was hard to say 'no' when Lance's green-green eyes were beseeching him like that.

He pressed even closer to Lance for a minute. "I like you."

That was enough.

=^..^=

JC would never seriously regret any kindness that he had ever shown Lance. But he could, at times, wistfully consider how things might have been had he not invited Lance to 'tell him all about it' when Lance had come out to him. If he'd known how much he would dislike Reichen, if he'd realized that Lance would want to keep on talking about Reichen, he might not have extended the invitation.

"It's like I've been given a season's pass to the Reichen Natural History Museum," he told Cat. "Which, okay, I can deal with. I don't like it, but I can deal. Lance is still a properly-raised young man, so he's not inflicting Reichen sex stories on me, but still... I don't know what I'll do when they come around trying to upgrade me to a life-time membership, but it won't be pretty."

Cat lashed his tail from side to side, and JC sighed deeply in response.

"Yeah, I know. You don't have to tell me."

JC wouldn't let it get ugly, because Lance sounded so genuinely happy every time he said something like 'I'm so glad I told you, JC' or 'I hated how it felt keeping it a secret from you, C' or--JC's personal favorite--'It's fabulous being able to speak freely with you again.' Lance was so cute when he said 'fabulous.' It made JC want to buy him pink flip-flops and Gay Pride bracelets and things.

He sighed again.

"We're so screwed, Cat."

=^..^=

Nick was hiding at JC's place for a couple of hours to get away from a fight with Aaron and from all the cameras that Nick had--crazy, crazy boy--allowed into his home. JC would never do that. Why would anyone think they had that much of a right to invade his privacy? But somehow Nick had been talked into giving up most of his rights to a personal life. If JC were a different sort of man, he'd so put the fear of God into Johnny and a bunch of the Carters, too. But then, if JC were that sort of guy, maybe Johnny would actually still give a damn about what JC thought.

"Hey," Nick said, looking up from where he was surfing the 'net. "Is Lance gay?"

JC mentally heaved a great sigh and put down his book. The movement disturbed Cat, who had been napping nearby, and he hopped down off the couch.

"What are you talking about?"

"Lance Bass. Your band mate. The one who hates me, remember him?"

"I thought that was Justin?"

"Okay, one of the ones who hate me." Nick shrugged. "Whatever. There's a lot of shit about him on here."

"I don't know," JC said. "I suppose it's possible that he's just about as gay as you and I are. So... is that a yes or a no?"

"Oh."

JC nodded at him. Nick clicked on some more links.

"Still..." Nick said. "Do you think he's fucking him? Have you met that guy?"

JC sighed out loud, sparing a second to wonder if all of the sighing he'd been doing lately was bad for his health.

"Nick. Seriously. If I were the sort of guy who would answer that, what do you think I would tell other people about you?"

"Hm."

They both watched Cat for a minute as he circled around some magazines that Nick had discarded on the floor and then settled down on them like the best thing in life was getting to be a big, furry paperweight.

"Lance should be more careful," Nick said. "If he wants to play both sides, he's gotta learn to be stealthy."

"Like a cat?"

"Nah, man. That's not good enough. You've got to be like a ninja."

JC snorted.

"Dream on, NinjaMan. Cats are way better."

=^..^=

JC felt restless after Nick left that evening. He checked his email and poked at MySpace a bit. He didn't really understand MySpace, but Lance had been trying to coach him on it lately and he always seemed so pleased when JC did something on it, even if all he'd managed to do was post a broken link. JC suspected that in some small way, the MySpace tutoring was Lance's apology for keeping a secret from JC for so long.

JC didn't think that Lance needed to apologize, but he also didn't have the heart to make him stop. If nothing else, time spent talking about URLs and image codes was time spent not talking about Lance's boyfriend.

MySpace wasn't particularly interesting that night, so he decided to do a circuit through the house looking under and behind things for lost cat toys. He returned his haul to Cat's toy box, then paced until he thought of something else he could do.

AJ didn't answer his phone. JC stared down at his phone resentfully. "What good are you?"

On a whim, he texted Lance: Nick says you should practice your ninja skills.

He was pleasantly surprised when Lance replied right away.

carter is weird

Do you have any ninja skills?

i am not a superhero

but i can make drinks disappear like ninjas

why ninjas? pls tell me youre not writing a song about ninjas

JC grinned and called Lance.

"Hello, JC. What can I do for you?"

"Hey, cat. Nothing in particular. I'm just calling because you asked me to."

"Well? Let's hear it then."

"I'm not writing Backstreet a song about ninjas."

"Thank you," Lance said. "'Cause I'd hate to see the video for that. Can you imagine how scary Kevin would be as a ninja? His eyebrows are probably secret mini-nunchucks that expand as he tears them off of his face and hurls them at enemies."

JC giggled.

"That's not nice."

"Neither is death by facial hair," Lance said.

"Aw, man, don't. That's so not nice."

"You're not fooling me, C. You're giggling. You don't get nearly enough snark in your life, do you?"

No, he really didn't. Not anymore.

"What would Howie's secret ninja skill be?" he asked, settling down on the comfy couch for a nice long Lance snark fest.

=^..^=

In mid June, JC made a quick trip to Orlando to show his support for Joey's charity thing. He got in a little later than he'd planned, so by the time he made his appearance, Joey was surrounded by a fair-sized crowd of friends and minor celebrities.

As soon as Joey spotted him, he grinned widely and called out to him in a voice made to carry across rooms and theaters alike.

"Hey, C! When are you going to show me your pussy?"

JC laughed as the crowd reacted in mixed shock and amusement, until he caught sight of Reichen standing to one side with a look of disgust on his face. JC wanted to sneer back at him, 'Deal with it, you self-important asshole. Real men can handle both pussy and dick,' but this wasn't the time or place, so he had to let it go.

He pulled out his cell phone and displayed it prominently as he approached Joey.

"Man, I thought you would ask, so I took pictures of it for you."

Chris tried to grab JC's camera then, but Joey caught JC up in a huge hug which swept him out of Chris's reach. Joey plucked the phone from JC's hand and made a show of leering at it.

"Nice try, Kirkpatrick, but JC's pussy is mine. Ain't that right, babe?"

"Whatever you say," JC said, and Joey released him to the gentler mercies of Kelly's hello kiss.

"Okay, that's enough," Kelly said afterward. "Joseph, don't you dare look at that phone."

Everyone around them laughed again when Kelly took the phone and gave it back to JC.

"Here," she said. "Keep it in your pants this time, Chasez."

=^..^=

In late June, Kevin made his big announcement, and Nick didn't come around for several days after that. When JC checked with AJ, though, he assured him that he needn't be worried.

"We've known for a while now," AJ said. "But we couldn't say anything. It'll be okay."

"Are you sure?"

JC couldn't imagine it being okay, even though Kevin wasn't really the same as Justin. He would have thought... well, wasn't Kevin family to them? Like literally? That would be hard to take. And he felt bad, because he hadn't realized that anything like this was weighing on Nick and AJ's minds.

"We're still going on," AJ said. "I mean, Backstreet is. We're not breaking up. We're just going to be different, but still us."

"You're certain about that? When we... When Justin... We all talked about... Well..." JC bit his lip. He shouldn't be making things worse.

"We've already set a date for going back to the studio. It'll be different, but it will also be a lot less... tense than last time. Man, last time was rough."

Last time, he'd helped AJ work off a lot of the stress.

"You'll give me a call, if you need me?"

"Oh, no." AJ laughed. "I still want you to work on those songs with me. Maybe do one with all of us. So the AJ train won't be pulling back into your station any time soon."

"The AJ train."

AJ grinned. "If you wanna ride it, you gotta buy a ticket."

JC snorted. "Good thing I have alternative means of transportation."

"Yeah, ah, now that you mention it, I hear that you and Nick are still... ride sharing."

"It's fun," JC said. "And he's a good kid."

"Yeah, I'm just sort of surprised."

"That I like him? Why?"

"No, nothing like that. I just hadn't realized that he was looking for something more long-term, you know?"

"It's been like two months." JC thought back for a moment. "It's been almost exactly two months. That's not really long-term."

"That's a lot longer than I thought Nick would want with any guy. I was thinking it was more like two days, if not two hours."

"I don't know what to tell you, man. Maybe he just likes my cat."

"Oh, yeah," AJ said. "That must be it."

=^..^=

"Hey," Nick said. "This blog says that Lance is fighting with his boyfriend, that the guy was sleeping around or something."

JC knew. He'd read it already, but he was trying really hard to believe that it was none of his business. Lance wouldn't appreciate it if JC went over and punched the guy in the nose. Particularly since Reichen was ex-military and could most likely do some serious damage in return, and Lance would be pissed when he had to call an ambulance for JC.

He told himself that saving up his punches was a much better plan. If he stored up a big enough backlog of owed punches, he'd be strengthened by his righteous anger and able to make his punch really count the instant Lance told him that the bastard was cheating. Or at least, he hoped it would work like that. He didn't have a lot of practical experience with physical violence.

"Why do you keep reading that stuff?" he asked Nick.

"Don't know... I guess because he's your friend?"

"That's sweet of you, but we don't know if any of that is true, so--"

"And, uh, this isn't the best segue thing, but... speaking of sleeping around..."

JC blinked.

"What?"

"AJ asked me the other day if I wanted to."

"Oh," JC said. "That's cool. Did you have a good time?"

"I didn't do it."

"Didn't you want to? I sorta thought--"

"It wouldn't be right," Nick said. "Right? I mean, we're not exclusive, I guess, but I know you're not sleeping with anyone when I'm not around."

"Well... no, I'm not, not right now. But that's more because I have a lot on my mind now. What with Jive jerking me around and--" worrying about Lance "--stuff."

"Yeah, exactly. I thought so. So, it wouldn't be fair of me to do that right now."

"Nick... I don't own you. And I'm not really good at putting restrictions on people, you know? If you want to have sex with AJ, please have sex with AJ."

"Well..." Nick shrugged. "Maybe I will."

"Good." JC eyed the desk chair, then figured 'why not?' and got up to sit in Nick's lap. He carefully straddled him and then nipped at Nick's ear.

"Hey!"

"You know, if you want to be fair... If you want to treat me right..."

"Yeah?" Nick put his hands on JC's hips, steadying him.

"You'd tell me all about it afterward. 'Cause you and AJ are so hot together. Did I ever tell you that?"

Nick shook his head.

"Oh, I should tell you all about it, then." JC nipped his ear again and did exactly that.

=^..^=

JC's Fourth of July started, somewhat appropriately, with a bang. Unfortunately, the bang was a very drunk Nick leaning on his doorbell at 2 AM.

"Oh, good grief," JC said, dragging him inside. "You didn't drive here, did you?"

Nick shook his head and then waved his hand more or less towards JC's empty driveway.

"Driver. I'm not stupid."

"Well, thank goodness for that. Come on, let's--"

"But I also am," Nick said. "I'm hopelessly stupid, and can I have another drink?"

"No."

"Just a little one. You drink, too, C. I need company."

"Oh, give me strength," JC said.

He got them settled in the den, though Nick, stubbornly adhering to some strange whimsy, absolutely would not sit on the couch or any of the other furniture. They ended up on the floor, their backs against the couch, with a glass of water for Nick and a strong drink for himself. He thought sobriety wasn't going to help him much in decoding drunken logic.

Cat, ever curious, wandered over to them, but after one sniff at JC's glass, he gave them wide berth.

"Hey, Cat," Nick said. He picked up his glass and held it out to Cat. "Here. You'll like this better."

Cat stayed right where he was.

"Here, kitty. Come on, kitty. It's okay. Come on, kitty, kitty, kitty."

Cat stayed right where he was and tucked his tail in closer to his body. He and Nick could probably try to out-stubborn each other all night long. JC had to put a stop to it before it went any further.

He took the water glass from Nick and set it back on the table.

"What's going on, Nick?"

Nick turned huge, soulful eyes on him.

"He bought her a dog."

"Who?"

Nick blinked.

"I don't know, I didn't meet it."

Oh, good lord. Maybe one drink wouldn't be enough.

"I'm not asking who the dog was. Who bought who a dog?"

"AJ. Who else?"

Ah. Then 'her' was most likely the girlfriend who was always texting AJ.

"AJ bought Kaci a dog?"

Nick nodded.

"And you know how much AJ loves dogs. Are you sure I can't have a drink? Just a little one?"

"Why are you upset?"

"Because he gave her a dog, C. That's like AJ for 'I love you, I love you.' See? 'Cause it's like double. Because he loves dogs, so he must love her if he's going about giving her dogs."

"Oh," JC said. "That actually makes sense."

"I know." Nick reached for JC's glass, and JC had to move it farther away from him. Nick frowned, and then rubbed his face and eyed the glass of water for a long moment before taking a sip from it.

"Except it doesn't make sense," Nick said. "He should be giving me dogs."

"Oh," JC said. Oh.

He reached out and smoothed Nick's hair away from his eyes.

"Nicky?"

"Yeah?"

"Are you in love with AJ?"

"Of course I love AJ, he's... AJ."

"Yes, but... do you love love AJ?"

"C," Nick said, wrapping one arm around JC's shoulders and gesturing broadly with the hand holding his water glass. "It's not 'love love'--" Splashes of water accentuated each 'love' and JC was very glad that he hadn't let Nick drink anything else. "It's 'I love you, I love you.'"

"That does sound more catchy," JC agreed.

"It really does."

"Maybe you should tell AJ."

"That it's catchy?"

"That you love him, you love him." JC felt a little stupid saying it that way, but it seemed to make Nick pause to really think.

"I don't think he wants that," Nick said finally. "I think he wants a nice, normal girl."

JC seriously doubted that AJ wanted a normal anything.

"I still think you should tell him. It's only fair to let him know that there's at least one other option."

"Huh?"

"Well... you want AJ to be able to make the most-informed decisions about his life as possible, right?"

Nick's forehead wrinkled in a frown.

"Uh... I think so?"

"Maybe--and I'm not saying this is true, because AJ and I haven't been talking as much about this sort of thing as we used to--maybe AJ thinks that Kaci is the best choice out of all the options available to him."

"I know. That's why he gave her the dog."

"But maybe she's not that great of an option. Maybe... well... I sometimes think there has to be something really wrong with any sort of normal person who is interested in one of us, right? What sane person would choose it? Their private life on display, their loved one exposed to so much criticism--and so much temptation--and for what? A guy so busy he spends half of his time away from them? There has to be something wrong with them."

Nick was frowning deeply now. JC should have probably tried to be a little less depressing, but he really did believe this. You'd have to be dangerously naïve or stupid to choose this life. Or be driven to it by a love for the music, which was its own sort of blindness. Or... you could be ruthlessly ambitious...

"But Brian and Kevin married normal girls."

"Okay, there are a few exceptions, but often, I think the only hope for people like us is to find someone else pretty much like us. You know, similar levels of celebrity, similar goals, and similar knowledge of the shittiness involved."

"So, I just... what?" Nick asked. "What do I do?"

"So you just let AJ know that there's another option available to him. He might not choose it, but he might."

Nick leaned heavily against him.

"But I like you too, C. I don't wanna... I could love you, too."

JC kissed his forehead.

"Thank you. That's very sweet. But I don't think you'll ever want... to give me a dog."

"No," Nick said. "Cat wouldn't like that."

Nick's eyes closed, and JC smiled at him fondly.

"Come on, let's get you to bed before you fall asleep on the floor."

After he got Nick into bed, JC fixed another drink for himself.

"What do you think?" he asked Cat. "Are dogs like engagement rings? Instead of 'I do,' say 'Fido'?"

Cat didn't think that was worth dignifying with an answer.

=^..^=

Nothing changed right away.

JC didn't know if Nick remembered any of their conversation. But he knew things would change soon. Even if Nick didn't remember that he loved AJ, his heart was still quietly and steadily beating in double 'I love yous' for him. He'd figure it out. And JC would help him by backing away a little.

He didn't know how AJ would respond once Nick figured it out, but he still felt positive about it. AJ cared about Nick. He'd see that they'd be good together, that they could both grow stronger together. JC's certainty over this wrapped him in a warm little bubble of happy anticipation for them. For a few days, that warmth helped ward off the worst of the Reichen-shaped cloud of gloom and doom brewing around him.

=^..^=

Lance came out in People and JC could hardly do more than sit in front of the computer and look at all the pictures of the 'happy couple' and feel something cold like hate grow harder in his chest every time he compared the look in Reichen's eyes to the strain plain in Lance's. He couldn't prove anything and he knew that he hardly knew the whole story. He wasn't privy to every little detail of their life together, and yet, he couldn't shake the conviction that Lance had been manipulated into coming out, manipulated by someone a whole lot closer to home than Perez Fucking Hilton.

"Dude," Nick said. "Lance is gay."

"I know."

"I told you. Ninja skills, man. He should've been practicing his ninja skills."

"You're a nutter, Nick."

Nick shrugged.

"Yeah? So? I'm a nutter no one can catch because I've got ninja skills like whoa."

JC snorted and went back to looking at pictures of Lance.

"Still, though," Nick said. "Justin must be livid."

"Huh?"

"His big video debuted today, right?"

"Oh, shit."

"Yeah," Nick said, grinning. "Kinda makes me want to send Lance flowers. Is that bitchy of me?"

=^..^=

It was sort of tricky to make press statements that sounded absolutely, one-hundred percent supportive of Lance without saying anything at all positive about his boyfriend. But JC managed.

It became infinitely more difficult to do so, though, on the second day of the 'Lance is Gay' hoopla.

That was when Nick called him to say, "Oh my God, C. Sit down. Are you sitting? I just saw Lance's boyfriend on Access Hollywood and oh, has he mentioned? He's just written a book."

JC saw red for a moment and he missed some of what Nick said next.

"--think I'm an idiot, but I do know how to spot someone who's using me for publicity. I've dated enough of--"

"Nick, excuse me. I have to go."

"You going to be okay, C?"

"I need to make a call. I've got to go."

=^..^=

Lance, very sweetly and politely, laughed and blew it off.

"JC, I know about his book. I've always known about his book. I've been helping him promote it. I know how it might look, but it isn't really about him. Well... the book is about him, but it isn't. It addresses a much larger issue, something that's really important to the gay community. So, thank you 'cause I do understand how this looks to you and I'm really grateful that I've got friends like you looking out for me. But it's not what it looks like. He's an activist and I'm proud of him."

"Fuck," JC said once Lance had hung up. "Fuck! What am I supposed to do now?"

Cat mewled at him.

"I'm sorry, buddy. I know you don't like it when people are loud."

Meow!

"Okay, okay. No need to get loud yourself."

MEOW!

"Hey, no, let's just be calm and reasonable, okay?"

Cat turned around and stalked out of the room, head and tail held high. After watching him go, JC felt a little ashamed. Totally put in his place by a cat. He should listen more to his own advice.

What he had just done--that had been shitty of him. Absolutely and totally shitty. Wasn't Lance caught up in enough of a shit storm now? And JC had to be all reactionary and force Lance to defend his asshole boyfriend on top of it all?

JC had to apologize, and then he had to just calm the fuck down about Reichen. At least for now.

=^..^=

JC called Lance right back again, but this time, Lance didn't pick up. Okay, JC told himself, that didn't necessarily mean that Lance was now ignoring JC's calls. He was probably screening all of his calls now. Everyone and their gay cousin Larry was probably trying to call Lance this very instant.

"Hey," JC said to Lance's voice mail. "Man, I am so very sorry. That was a shitty thing I just did. I am so sorry that I made you like have to justify yourself to me. You've never done anything like that to me and you so didn't deserve it. Uh... I don't know, Lance, I guess I just... I'd hate for anyone to hurt you, and I kinda forgot that sometimes, the best way to see that no one does that is to stand at your back. Right? ... I guess everyone's calling you now and you might not get this message, so I better go figure out a better apology. Love you, cat. You're so awesome and brave right now. Uh... bye."

Now he needed a grand gesture. But he wasn't sure what to do. Everyone was probably sending him flowers and their gay cousin Larry was probably sending him condom bouquets and phone numbers. He needed to top all that. Not to show that he was better than them, but just to get noticed in the crowd. He wondered if you could like... send a tree to someone.

Cat had come back into the room while JC was leaving his message. That was probably a good sign. If Cat had forgiven him, Lance might do so as well.

"What do you think, Cat? What would you give Lance? Hmm?"

Cat batted at one of his pink mice.

"I don't think Lance would have much use for that, but I'll let him know you offered... Oh. Wait... Cat, man, you might just be a genius."

=^..^=

JC went to the nearest floral shop. He'd never been there--it was so much easier just to call 1-800-FLOWERS and have them pick out something for the latest angry girl in his life--but he knew about it, because his manicurist really liked the bagels from the shop next-door to it.

A blonde girl in her mid-twenties looked up from the counter when the shop-door's bell jingled at his entrance. "Hello, how can--" Her eyes got wide as she obviously recognized him. "Wow. How can I help you?"

"Hey," he said, glad she was professional enough not to do more than bounce a little with excitement. "I had this idea, but I don't know if it's possible. I was hoping maybe you could help me with it?"

"I'm sure we would give it our best. We do a lot of custom business."

"Can I like... send somebody a tree? A decorated tree?"

"Like a partridge in a pear tree?" She frowned in thought. "It's not really the season, but we've done stuff like that."

"I want to do a dog tree."

"Like a topiary?"

"What's that?"

"A shrub cut in the shape of a dog."

"You can do that?"

"Not here. But we could get you one in a week."

"Oh, I need it right away."

"Is it for Lance?"

"What?"

"My mother said Nick Carter bought flowers for Lance yesterday, and I totally didn't believe her, but now you're here, and is it for Lance? That would be so cool. He's got dogs, right? My mom's out in back and she could help you pick out a bush and I could run out and get some dog bones, and we could wire them to the bush or maybe use floral tape and--"

"You know what--" JC checked her name badge. "--Vanessa? You are awesome. And you read my mind. What do you think about tennis balls and milk bones?"

=^..^=

Late the next day, JC received a cell-phone photo from Lance. It was a blurry shot of Dingo gnawing on a ball that was still attached to the dog-treat bush. 'Thank you,' the attached message read. 'My dogs will spend the rest of their lives eternally disappointed that balls don't actually grow on trees. ~LB'

Actually, JC texted back at him, balls are made of rubber which does grow on trees.

Thnx for the clarification. D&F are much relieved.

JC was relieved, too. If Lance had been upset with him, he would have kept his dogs out of it.

=^..^=

Nick broke up with him a week before his thirtieth birthday.

JC was actually rather pleasantly surprised by this, because he'd expected Nick to take a lot longer to decide to go for it. So JC was mostly like, 'Way to go, Nicky!' But, he had to admit that a tiny, little selfish part of him was whining, 'But it's my birthday! Respect the Birthday Amnesty Break-Up Rules, man. You can't break up with anyone within two weeks of their birthday!' He mentally stomped on that voice, though, and told it to grow up and start acting its age.

"Have you told him yet? The 'I love you, I love you's?"

Nick ducked his head. "Uh... no... I..."

And then he looked up and smiled a bit at JC.

"Well, I couldn't yet, could I? It wouldn't be fair to you. I want to do things properly. And well, I'm not quite ready to, either. But mostly, I want to do it right. So like... I should be single for a little while so that AJ can see that I'm being sincere. And I don't want him to think I'm only doing it because it's easy and if he says no, I'll just go back to my nice back-up sort-of boyfriend who's waiting in the wings."

"Wow! Man, I'm so impressed with you right now."

JC gave him a big hug, feeling a bit like the proud father that Nick had never had, except, you know, not in any sort of skeevy, incestuous way, because JC wasn't into that.

"AJ's going to be so impressed, too, when you do tell him. He's so going to give you a dog--two dogs--maybe even a whole herd!"

"A pack," Nick said. "They come in packs."

"A six-pack of dogs, then."

"I'd be fine with just sharing his with him, you know?"

"Yeah," JC agreed. "That would be the best."

"But I feel kinda bad, doing this now. So, you know, you better call on me when you need like Reichen-hating support, okay? I mean. I don't like Lance, but Reichen's still bad juju, so I'm still your man. I've got your back."

"I'll be okay. I'm turning over a new leaf. I'm not going to let him get to me. I've just got to somehow be pleasant to him during my party, and then that should be the end of it."

"Cool," Nick said. "I'm on it. Consider this mission accepted by NinjaMan!"

JC couldn't even begin to imagine what that was supposed to mean.

=^..^=

Midget male strippers, Nick? Really?

ninjaman sez: mission acomplissed!!!

They're midget strippers! How is that a mission?!

your not thinking about reichan now r u?? :DDD

=^..^=

The most amazing thing about JC's birthday party was that the midget male strippers weren't actually that bad of an idea.

Crazy? Yes.

Bizarre? Most definitely.

Effective? Rather surprisingly so, until they left the stage to circulate through the crowd, leaving their stripper pole behind to give other people ideas.

JC had almost forgotten about Reichen, until he clambered up onto the stage to shake his thing for Lance and all of his traumatized friends. And really, JC could have lived his whole entire life without seeing that; the man hadn't an ounce of musicality in his entire body.

A little later, while JC was still trying to think about how awesomely strange his ex-boyfriend was--instead of how horrible Lance's current boyfriend was--he unexpectedly bumped into Lance in the quiet corner between the small selection of non-alcoholic drinks and the ladies' restroom. Lance smiled and then arched an elegant brow at him.

"Midget male strippers, JC? Really?"

"Um. Yeah, well..."

"Could you be any more politically incorrect?"

Lance's tone was amused at least. JC was sure he'd be hearing that question again in less pleasant tones of voice many more times over the next few days.

"Sure," JC said. "They could've been underage, midget male strippers, right?"

Lance laughed. "Thank God your party planner had at least a tiny bit of sense!"

"Oh," JC said. "Don't blame her. They were a present from Nick."

Lance blinked. "Nick Carter gave you midget male strippers for your birthday?"

"Not really for my birthday, but--"

"Please tell me you're not writing a midget stripper song with Backstreet."

JC grinned.

"I'm not writing any sort of midget song for Backstreet."

"Of course not," Lance said. "What was I thinking? They'd be too sensitive about their own height to--"

"But AJ and I have this great idea for a song about Furries."

"The Furies?"

"No. Furries."

"Furry whats?"

"Not an adjective. Just 'Furries.' A plural noun. You should Google it."

Lance looked sort of adorably confused and JC was tempted to say more, but Reichen came gracelessly lumbering over at that point, so JC left them to it, though he really didn't want to think about what 'it' might entail.

=^..^=

Lance called JC two days later, on his real birthday.

"Hey, Lance! Thanks for calling--"

"I am not talking to you."

JC blinked. What had he done now? And why was Lance calling him to tell him that he wasn't talking to him?

"I Googled 'Furries,' C. So thanks for that. Then I had to nuke my cache and history--"

JC grinned. Oh man, he couldn't believe that Lance had actually done it.

"--and then just to be sure, I reformatted the hard drive--"

"What? No 'Happy Birthday, C'?"

"--and then I thought, the hell with it, and I took the computer outside and burned it. Expect a courier soon with the bill for my replacement laptop."

"AJ has this awesome idea for the video of our Furries song."

"Oh, my God."

"But, don't you get it? If AJ and I write a song about loving a Furry, that sends a really strong message about being open and affirming of all sorts of lifestyle choices. Don't you think we should be doing all we can to spread that message?"

"Lifestyle choices? JC, I don't even know where to... Wanting to screw giant plushies isn't--just don't make me go there, okay?"

"Sorry, sorry. But you get my point?"

"If your point is that you're insane and you're working to destroy Backstreet from within, then sure! Fine with me!"

"Wade's even shown some interest in choreographing and directing the video. You can't tell me Wade's more open and affirming than you--Oh. Wait... Does this have anything to with your Beanie Babies? I didn't realize this was a sensitive topic."

"The courier will also have the bill for my first ten therapy sessions. I expect immediate payment."

"Aw, cat, don't be that way."

"And don't ever call me 'cat' again. Ugh. It's got connotations now. I need to go wash myself in burning hot water."

=^..^=

Lance really did send a courier. As soon as JC saw the guy's uniform, he panicked. Oh my God! Had Lance really been that disturbed? He'd been sure it was one of Lance's wonderfully elaborate jokes. How would he ever apologize for this? A dog-treat bush would certainly not be welcome this time.

He signed for the packet, and the courier nodded at him. "Good day," the man said and turned on his heel.

JC watched him return to his van and then carefully tore open the packet. Just how much could a laptop and ten therapy sessions cost?

Inside the packet was an unmarked envelope; inside the envelope was a card featuring a photograph of a very handsome Russian Blue, though it was, of course, not as handsome as Cat. There wasn't a pre-printed message inside the card. Instead, it just read, in Lance's best handwriting: Happy Birthday, you sick, sick bastard. I remain, as always, your deeply-traumatized friend. ~LB

JC smiled in relief, and then took the card inside to show it to Cat. "Hey, buddy. Look what Lance sent for you!"

=^..^=

AJ called a couple days after his birthday.

"Hey, C, I've heard an interesting rumor."

"About Lance?"

"What? No. Why would I call you about Lance? Like I'm going to know something you don't."

"Oh. Sorry. So what have you heard?"

"Something about... what was it? Oh, yeah. Something about how you broke up with a mutual friend of ours."

"What? What is he telling you?"

"You said he just wasn't your type."

"I never--!"

"That you said you were actually only interested in shorter men, much shorter men."

"Oh, shut up."

AJ laughed.

"Those midgets were totally his idea!"

"Ahahahahaha! I wish I could've seen your face when they all came out on stage."

"Really," JC said. "I think it would be much more interesting if you asked Nick how he found those strippers. Maybe he's hiding a fetish or two."

=^..^=

Soon after that, Jive started to make some half-way promising sounding plans for JC's album. A couple possible release dates were tossed around and they started talking about a promo tour in December. That sucked in a lot of ways, because he'd really thought it was all going to happen faster this time around. But he was also glad of the delay. He hadn't had Cat to worry about back then, now he needed to include Cat in his decision making and the extra time was a good thing.

Cat couldn't be alone for weeks at a time, but JC was loath to just have a stranger coming to the house to check on him. He thought that would unsettle them both and mess with their sense of security. He thought of asking Tyler to come live with them, but he didn't like making big decisions like that without Cat's input. Cat was the one who'd end up alone in the house with him.

He'd avoided the Pet Psychic book after Lance's warnings about it, but he thought maybe it wouldn't hurt to check out the chapter on communicating with animals.

It was actually pretty cool. The method didn't seem that much different from regular meditation, and the 'Seven Simple Steps to Communicating with Your Pet' were indeed quite simple and straightforward. They were all about tranquility and visualization and trusting your imagination, which were like three of JC's absolute best skills. It didn't take long at all after he first relaxed in his recliner and sent out his psychic greetings to Cat, to get a reaction from him that seemed to indicate that he was receiving JC's signal. But Cat didn't seem interested in sending a message back to him. Or maybe JC wasn't good enough at listening for him.

He tried throughout August to get an answer from Cat. Would Tyler be an acceptable housemate? Was there someone else he'd prefer? The only answer he ever seemed to get from Cat was a image of his Leo pendant, and what was that supposed to mean?

"Well," JC said. "It seems like you don't have a strong opinion on Tyler. So then, you shouldn't have any complaints about him, right?"

Cat didn't respond.

"If you want something, you have to express it, okay? I think we've firmly established that I can't actually read your mind."

Cat jumped up on the arm of JC's recliner, and stepped forward, planting one paw firmly on his Leo.

So JC gave Cat his Leo--since Cat was so insistent on it--and asked Tyler to house-sit for them--since Cat didn't care.

=^..^=

September flew by.

JC helped Tyler move in; Lance and Reichen went to trendy night clubs in New York City so that Reichen could make an ass of himself insulting street-side flower venders. JC showed Tyler the intricacies of the coffee maker; Lance and Reichen had about twenty thousand photo ops during the Toronto Film Festival and started rumors about Lance's foot massage skills. JC rather nervously left Tyler and Cat on their own and headed to New York Fashion Week; Lance and Reichen cuddled in Miami and sunned themselves in Jamaica where apparently they'd had their hands surgically welded together.

And then, just to make things different and exciting, JC, Lance and Reichen attended the Teen Vogue Hollywood party where JC may have perhaps spent the whole night waiting to see if Lance and Reichen could actually unclasp their hands.

At least JC had a few days before his single released to stay at home and reconnect with Cat. JC was embarrassingly gratified by Cat's loud purring upon the moment of his return. He petted him profusely and told him stories from Fashion Week and, once Tyler had retired for the evening, finally told him the important things.

"I'm like really seriously failing at ignoring Reichen. Do you think I have a problem?"

Cat butted his head against JC's hand, and JC petted him some more while they pondered meditatively upon the issue together.

=^..^=

At the end of the month, JC had to have several hours-long consultations with both Cat and Nick about the possible meaning of Lance's latest blog post.

"I don't think it means anything," Nick said.

"It's all 'CONGRATS BABY!' to Reichen while my voice is singing over it all that he's a cheating bastard. That's got to be a hidden message."

"I think it's a coincidence," Nick said. "If your new single had been about how much you liked cheese, Lance still would've had it playing on his page. It just means that you're his friend and it's a little gesture in support of you."

Cat curled up next to Nick.

"See?" Nick said. "Even Cat agrees with me."

"You said 'cheese.' He thinks he'll get some if he makes friendly with you."

"Really?" Nick looked at Cat. "Cheese?"

Nao.

"Huh," Nick said. "Interesting... But I think it's a coincidence just like Lance's post. Why would he be promoting the asshat's book if he was all angry that... No. Actually I don't get it at all. Your song is baby-daddy drama. Which of them are you calling a pregnant chick?"

=^..^=

JC didn't mind seeing the photos of Lance and Reichen at the Animal Avengers fundraiser. They were helping animals; JC liked animals. He could deal.

Lance and Reichen's Visibility Award from the Human Rights Campaign almost broke him. Lance looked so very happy and proud and glowy... JC covered Reichen's half of each photo with his hand and just stared at Lance for a very long time, before locking himself in the hotel's bathroom and jerking off very quickly while trying to think of nothing in particular.

Afterwards, he turned his laptop off and promised himself that his days of internet stalking Lance were over. He was Lance's friend, not some creep with an unhealthy obsession.

=^..^=

JC kept his promise, too. For ten long days, he embraced life fully and was glad for other people's happiness and did not want things that he could not have.

And then there was Lance and Reichen in person and larger than life at the William Rast show and it was like the intervening days had only acted to strip JC bare and leave him raw and vulnerable to the impact of their presence. It was a hundred times worse than it had been ten days ago--no, it was a thousand times. Lance shone like the sun and it stole his breath away, stole his breath like a careless hand across a fierce, blistering sunburn. Lance so genuinely, blindingly happy over Reichen was a heartbreak waiting to happen, and JC didn't know if it would be Lance's heart or his own broken in the end.

Nick was there, too, because JC was scheduled to perform with Justin at the official afterparty. He'd said that he had other things to do that night, that he was going to leave as soon as JC left the stage, but it was his solemn duty as a founding member of the 'BSB Committee for the Adoption of Bandless Nsyncers' to come out in support of JC.

Nick stopped him now, with a hand on his arm.

"Are you okay? You don't look so good."

"I'm fine," JC said. "You know what they say, 'what doesn't kill us...'"

"'Makes us lose a limb'?"

"That's right."

"Hm." Nick squeezed his arm. "If you say so, dawg. Good luck out there."

=^..^=

For Justin's sake, JC stayed on after their performance. Justin had, after all, done it as sort of a favor to JC. It was only right that JC stick around. He wasn't very sociable about it, though. He kept to himself as much as he could and focused mainly on drinking.

"Hey," Lance said, catching sight of him and dragging him off to a quiet corner. "Congratulations. That was great. It must feel good to be able to sing with Justin again."

"Yeah... uh. Congratulations on your thing, too."

Lance cocked his head at him. "Hmm?"

"In DC. That award thing."

"Thanks."

Lance smiled and JC couldn't help himself. He reached out and plucked at the ring Lance was wearing on a chain around his neck like he was a highschool girl with her first steady boyfriend.

"What is this?" JC said. He let go of the ring, but kept a finger hooked 'round the chain.

"That's Reichen's class ring. You know, from the Air Force Academy."

"The Air Force..." JC rubbed the chain between his fingers. It was a nice chain. He liked it better than the ring.

"You know he was in the Air Force. I know I've mentioned it."

Lance reached up and touched the ring, and their hands bumped together.

"I guess I didn't put it all together. I didn't see it before."

"What?" Lance said.

"I couldn't figure out what you could possibly see in him, but I guess, I can sort of see it. The pilot and the astronaut... you must have a lot of interests in common..."

"Flying is one of them, yeah." Lance toyed with the ring a moment, before letting it drop back down to his chest. "Can I ask you something?"

"Hmm?"

"Your Leo." He reached towards JC's chest, though he didn't quite touch. "I've been wondering. It went missing after August..."

"You noticed that?"

"Of course, I did. I thought it was a part of you. You don't look the same without it. Did you... uh...?"

"I gave it to Cat."

"Your cat, Cat? Not some girl, Kat?"

"I wouldn't give it to a girl."

"I've just wondered." Lance did touch JC's chest now, a gentle tap. "Why did you give it to Cat?"

"He asked for it."

"'He asked for it.'"

"Don't ask me, he's the psychic. I don't try to understand."

"But you gave it to him when he asked for it. Just like that, huh?"

Lance's hand was still on his chest, and it was hard to think.

"Just like that," JC agreed.

They were standing there, in semi-private, with their hands on each other's chests and then Lance smiled up at him, genuine and sweet, and JC didn't even think. He just reacted, bending down to--

Lance pushed him away.

"What are you doing?" Lance sputtered. "I don't even... C, you can't... I--I'm leaving now. Don't... Don't stop me."

Shit.

Oh shit.

JC needed to get the fuck out here. He needed to go somewhere where he could get some really serious drinking on.

Fuck. What was he thinking?

=^..^=

He went home. The problem with that was that getting plastered wasn't all that productive if you didn't have a caring, supportive, and wise friend on hand to help guide you along the path to drunken enlightenment. A caring, supportive, and wise friend or one's highly popular substitute, a few equally plastered strangers sharing a half-empty bar with you. And while Cat was a remarkably good sounding board normally, he was also a teetotaler and quite wary around people when they were drinking.

Cat was really quite smart.

In the very wee hours of the next day, JC realized that he couldn't do it alone. He needed a wise friend, and the wisest friend he could think of wouldn't be happy to find him in this state. So. He had to pull himself together.

He took a couple of deep breaths, and then he drank a glass of water and made himself a sandwich. It wasn't a very good sandwich, because he'd lost enough coordination to make squeezing a mustard bottle a very messy and challenging adventure. But he forced down a quarter of it, mustard and all, and then he phoned AJ and considered himself very, very lucky when AJ answered the call.

"AJ," he said. "I've been drinking--"

"C--"

"--but I've stopped now. I've switched to water, I swear. Water and mustard, but not mustard water because that would be--"

"C, what's--?"

"--gross. And I need somebody to come be the JC to my Nick."

"O...kay..." AJ said. "That does sound... intriguing. Are you home?"

"Yes."

"Are you okay if I hang up or do I need to stay on the line with you while I'm driving?"

"I'll be fine. Cat and I can do some deep-breathing and talk about yoga until you get here."

"Right," AJ said. "I think we'll just stay on the line then, okay?"

"I'm really fine. I'm not like..." JC couldn't think of anything to say other than 'suicidal' but he couldn't say that word without freaking AJ out. "I'm okay," he said instead. "I just really need my wise friend."

"That's cool," Nick said.

JC dropped the phone.

"Nick?" He looked around, but Nick hadn't just miraculously appeared in the room with him. Huh. He supposed that was a good thing. That meant that he wasn't like ridiculous amounts of stupidly drunk.

He carefully knelt and picked his phone up.

"Nick?"

"Hey, C."

"Weren't you AJ a moment ago?"

"AJ's putting his pants on. Well, he was putting his pants on, now he's just looking for his shoes."

Nick sounded really quite unreasonably happy to be reporting this. It made JC think that...

"Nicky?"

"Yeah?"

"Was AJ naked when I called?"

"Maybe."

Hm.

"Nicky?"

"Yes, JC?"

"Are you naked right now?"

Nick giggled. "Maybe."

"You dog. Did you tell him?"

"And we worked on some music together," Nick said.

"Really? Have you gone all old-fashioned on me now? Are you telling me that you 'made beautiful music together'?"

AJ chuckled in his ear, and JC almost dropped his phone again.

"Stop doing that! That's very discon... That's very discom... You can't keep switching on me like that."

"Nick's putting his pants on. We can't really going traipsing over Hollywood until he'd decent. Not even at four in the morning."

"But you know what? You don't have to. I'm really happy for you guys, and I'll be okay now. I'll just--"

"Don't be an idiot," AJ said. "You called upon your wise friends for help and now you have to let them help you."

"Okay. But like... You don't have to stay on the line. I'm not... I'm okay."

"Don't turn your phone off, C. It's okay if you don't want to talk on it right now. Just... put it in your pocket, but don't turn it off. Got me."

"In my pocket, yeah."

=^..^=

JC tried to scrape some mustard off of his sandwich and eat a little more of it before AJ and Nick arrived. He did that, and gave Cat some treats and apologized to him for being a scary drunk person.

"It's really okay, though, Cat. I do have a temper, I know. But I'm not like a violent drunk," he explained while scritching gently under Cat's chin where he liked it. "I do try to channel that energy into positive outlets, though sometimes I'm obviously better at that than others--then at others. Um. Did I say that right? Something's... well. Even when I'm drunk, I won't hurt you, buddy. You're safe here."

Chin scritches made Cat purr quite loudly, so JC kept them up until he fell asleep mid-scritch.

=^..^=

He woke up to his head in Nick's lap and the familiar feeling of Nick stroking his hair.

"You know," Nick said. "This is making me look bad. I might lose my position as president of the BSB Board for the Adoption of Bandless Ex-Boyfriends. What will I do then?"

"Sorry," JC mumbled.

"Nah, that's okay. Just put in a good word for me with the Board, okay? Especially with Howard, okay? His vote has a lot of sway with the others."

"How'd you get in?"

"Funny you should mention that. I wanted to ask: why didn't I ever get a copy of your key? AJ's got a key, but I didn't get one?"

AJ didn't have a crazy family who might get a hold of JC's key and do God only knew what with it. Make copies and sell them to fans? Break in and trash the place? Break in and install a bunch of cameras and market the footage as 'House of Chasez'?

"Whining sounds a lot more convincing if you don't sound so... chipper doing it," JC told him in place of an answer.

"I'm sorry. I'm happy, I can't help it."

"I like it," JC said. "It sounds good on you. I wish Lance would sound that happy every time that he talked about Reichen."

"No, you don't."

"Yes, I do. I totally wish that Lance sounded that happy."

Nick smiled down at him.

"Okay, now that statement is probably true."

"I just said the same thing twice."

"No, you didn't," Nick said, a touch of sing-song brightness in his voice.

"Where's AJ? I want AJ."

"'Cause he's the 'JC to your Nick'?"

"'Cause he'll put me out of my misery."

"No, I won't," AJ said, appearing with a load of blankets and pillows in his arms.

They really needed to stop doing that. It was very disconcerting.

=^..^=

Nick and AJ pretty much turned his living room into a blanket fort. That hadn't really been JC's intention. He'd pictured the path to drunken enlightenment as something a bit less... flannel-y. But Cat seemed to like it, so maybe it was okay.

He couldn't remember much of the conversation, though they'd kept him talking for ages. He did remember the bit at the end when Nick had been fed up and forceful.

"Look, we could keep this up all day, but that would be stupid. I'll be JC to your Nick, okay? Take your own damn advice. If you don't like the option Lance is choosing, then make sure he knows there's another option. And make that option as attractive as you can, and he'll make his own choice."

"And don't, you know," AJ added helpfully, "try to kiss him in front of his boyfriend. That never goes over as well as you'd think."

When he woke up again in the afternoon and finally made it into his bathroom for a shower, he found a drawing taped to the mirror. It was a drawing of... well, it looked maybe like a dolphin with the head of a cat. 'STOP! focusing on Reichen. START! focussing on Lance,' was written in the speech bubble above its mutant head. Below it, AJ had added a few thoughts in his distinctive scrawl. 'Reichen is undoubtably an ass. Stop foccusing on the ass. Start foccusing on JC.'

It was probably too much to ask that his wise friends be wise and loving and awesome and half-way decent spellers.

=^..^=

So AJ and Nick had outlined the plan for him in broad strokes--if you could consider 'stop' and 'start' to be any sort of plan at all--but the details were up to JC. He decided to make a list. They were good for keeping track of the fine details.

When he was done, his list looked like this:

1. Apologize to Lance... again
2. Send Nick and AJ flowers... or dog treats?
3.
4.
5.

He balled up the list and tossed it to Cat, who played a brief game of soccer with it before losing interest. JC felt about as enthusiastic about it as Cat did. It would be much more fun to just skip to the end. But what did that end look like? He didn't even know that much. If they'd decided on it last night, JC couldn't remember it.

Maybe he should try visualizing it. He was better at that than at lists.

He left the kitchen, where he'd had to clean up a rather impressive mustard explosion--hadn't Tyler noticed that?--and went to sit in his favorite recliner. He leaned back and closed his eyes.

What did he want?

He suddenly felt a weight on his chest, and he opened one eye to peer at Cat who had settled on his chest and was regarding him steadily with his green-green gaze.

"Hey, buddy." JC smoothed his hand over Cat's back and smiled.

He wanted Lance to be happy. He wanted Lance to be happy without the looming, imminent threat of heartbreak.

He wanted to be happy himself. He wanted his best friends to all be safe and content like Cat was.

He wanted Lance's smile to reach his green-green eyes. He wanted Lance cute and saying 'fabulous' like he'd coined the word himself. He wanted Lance happily making bitchy little digs at Backstreet and cooing over his cat. He wanted Lance to sound real, instead of rehearsed, when he defended his boyfriend. He wanted Lance to have a boyfriend who defended him instead.

He wanted Lance to want him instead.

Huh.

"Huh," JC said, just to hear it out loud. "This enlightenment stuff works a whole lot better when you're sitting on my chest."

Cat's tail twitched.

"Well, yeah. Of course. But that's hardly fair. You're the one with the psychic powers. I have to muddle along on my own two feet like all the other monkeys."

=^..^=

He sent Lance a basket of gourmet dog treats this time, and insisted on signing the attached card himself.

'I would send you flowers; they are more traditional. But I fear I may have caused you more than enough trouble already. I behaved inappropriately, but not insincerely. I give you my apologies and my solemn word on that. -JC.

'PS. Cat sends his love.'

=^..^=

A week later, he received a photo of Dingo and Foster in the mail. In the background, Dingo had his nose in an empty basket. Blurring the foreground, Foster had obviously just tried to lick the camera. The attached note read: Dingo and Foster send their thanks. D says he was hoping for another bush. F says you're welcome to send gifts any time, not just when you've been a bad dog. LB says, 'Stop being a bad dog!' But he appreciates your sincerity.

JC told Cat, "He says I'm a bad dog."

Cat's ears twitched.

"I know. But what can you expect from a dog person?"

=^..^=

AJ and Nick finished the Teenage Wildlife lyrics together. JC thought the double 'I loves yous' were a nice touch. It was catchy and romantic, and Nick's feelings for his favorite dog lover would be forever linked to a song about Furries.

JC recorded a demo treatment for their song and sent a copy to Lance.

"I like it," Lance said. "The 'I love you, I love you' bit, that was catchy."

"Cool. I'd knew you'd like it when you heard it. Now, just picture AJ singing that to a giant chipmunk."

"Oh my God! That? That was the... God. How could you? I'm totally making you pay for my replacement laptop this time."

=^..^=

The overall plan was as straightforward and simple as the seven steps to communicating with your pet. It was not quite as easy to implement, but that was only right since the end result was something much more important. And it was fortunate that JC's commitments to Jive over the next few months left him little time to stray from the plan.

The final version of the plan--as dictated, edited, and framed by AJ and Nick as a present to JC--looked like this:


The Seven Steps to Connect with Lance Bass

1. JC will prepare for his album release and all of the promo which that entails. In the meantime, he will also endeavor to embrace and embody the most desirable traits in a potential boyfriend, namely

2. Sexiness Sincerity; and

3. Sanity. To that end, he will in addition,

4. Stay the fuck away from ALL gossip blogs, trusting in Nick Carter to keep an eye out for him and to inform him of anything he honestly needs to know; and

5. Avoid all mention of Lance Bass's current boyfriend the asshat, because in the end, JC's relationship with Lance Bass will be about JC and Lance. JC will not win the day simply by being more desirable than an asshat.

6. JC will, for as long as it is welcome, initiate communication with Lance Bass at least once a week, but not too much more than that because JC is not a scary stalker (please see step #3). And above all else,

7. JC will not try to kiss Lance Bass until invited to do so, no matter how cute or doe-eyed the boy might be.

JC kept the framed version hidden in a locked desk drawer. He didn't want Tyler to feel free to edit the plan any further than Nick and AJ already had.

=^..^=

Staying away from the blogs didn't keep JC from knowing some important things. He still read Lance's MySpace and he still talked to Joey regularly, so he stayed informed.

When Lance was sick, JC sent a box of his favorite soothing tea and a soft green scarf to help keep his poor throat warm. It wasn't anything that he wouldn't have already done for Lance before, but the little kindnesses made him feel a bit more warm and fuzzy than he used to feel while doing them. Or maybe he was just a little bit more aware of the significance of the things he'd always done for Lance.

He sent Lance a pretty bookmark and a set of pink highlighter markers for the release of Reichen's book. That wasn't really about Reichen, after all, not after everything Lance had done to promote it. And when Lance and Reichen rented goats to clear out the brush on Lance's property, JC sent Dingo and Foster two plushie goat squeaker-toys.

NO PLUSHIES!, Lance texted. Though D&F dont agree. Theyre traitors!!

=^..^=

Nick didn't need to act in his official role as Seven-Step Plan Coordinator--the boy really enjoyed having fancy titles--until early December.

"Hey, don't do anything yet. AJ and I both agree that you shouldn't do anything yet, but--"

"What?" JC said. "You can't just start a conversation like that. Tell me what's going on."

"--it's all over the 'net today."

"Cut to the chase, Nick."

"Don't get your hopes up. Wait till you hear it from the horse's mouth, okay?"

"Three seconds, Nick, or I'm getting online myself."

"Lance may have broken up with Reichen."

JC may have done a little jig then, but he settled right down and maintained his calm. Nick was right. He should wait until he heard it from Lance... or maybe from Joey.

=^..^=

Lance refuted the claims on his MySpace the next day, telling everyone that they shouldn't believe everything they read. JC sighed when he read that, but was glad that he'd remained calm about the whole thing. He was doing really well with the ever important Step #3.

=^..^=

Christmas was good. His family was always great, and he was ridiculously pleased with the gift he received from Lance. It was a 'Baby's First Christmas' picture frame with a photo of a random Russian Blue slipped inside. As soon as he got back home, he did a photo shoot of Cat, and sent Lance a copy of the photos 'to use next time.'

Apologies to Cat. He is def the most handsome!!1

=^..^=

During an interview on January eleventh, Joey mentioned in passing that 'Oh, yeah. Lance and Reichen broke up, but they're still friends.'

"Almost the horse's mouth!" Nick said after sharing the news. "Go for it, dawg."

JC sent a text to Lance. Are you home?

No. will be in a few days

it will be good to get home to my boys.

Yeah, I know that feeling. Can I see you then?

I'd like that. sunday?

Thanks. I'll be there.

=^..^=

The wait was a bit stressful. More so than he'd imagined because it quickly seemed that maybe Joey hadn't know what he was talking about.

"I don't know what's going on, C. Lance and the asshat are in Miami. There's pictures of them at the beach."

"Are they holding hands?"

He could deal, he told himself, he could totally deal as long as they weren't surgically attached again.

"No. But they're together. What the hell, man? I thought Joey knew his stuff--at least when it comes to Lance. I didn't... I hate that I got your hopes up."

JC had a fair idea of how the popular press worked. If they'd had half a chance to catch a hand-holding shot, they would have gotten it and printed it.

He looked over at Cat, who was napping beside him, and then rubbed his furry little belly for good luck.

"That's okay, cat. I'm going to see him on Sunday, so we're still zen here."

"That's good. I'll keep you updated here."

"No, don't," JC said. "I don't need it. I'll keep you updated, okay? If there's any exciting news in the House of Chasez, you'll know."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes. Now go on and kiss your boyfriend for me, okay?"

Nick laughed. "Oh, you wish."

=^..^=

JC had butterflies in his stomach, rawhide chews in his pocket, and orangey-pink roses--chosen by the awesome Vanessa herself after he asked for a color that was a blend of 'friendship yellow' and 'romantic red'--in hand when Lance opened the door on Sunday. Dingo and Foster shot out of the door like fangirls through a break in the security line. JC laughed and lofted the roses higher as they jumped all over themselves to get at him, and Lance gave the roses a bewildered look while he tried to grab the dogs' collars to hold them back.

"JC, hi." Lance had to speak loudly over the dogs' excited greetings. "What's this? No, Foster! Foster, down! Down!"

It seemed like Lance was just about to get Foster under control when Reichen barreled out of the door, and shit, JC really hadn't expected that. He wouldn't have brought flowers if he'd known, but you know what? Fuck that. JC was here now and he'd show Reichen that real men could handle pussy and dick and appreciate pretty flowers, too. But JC's presence didn't even seem to register with Reichen who was busy glaring at Lance while holding a phone to one ear.

"Jesus, Lance, I'm on the phone. Maybe if you'd ever bothered to train those mutts, you could fuckin' control them now."

JC dropped the roses, both in surprise at Reichen's nastiness and a sudden desperate urge to get all of them the hell away from Reichen. At the same time, Lance lost his hold on Foster and Reichen moved forward, and maybe it was an accident, but Foster suddenly yelped, and JC wasn't sure, but Reichen's leg had been moving and had the bastard kicked him? It had happened so suddenly, maybe JC was mistaken--

And BAM! Reichen was on the ground, and Lance was glaring down at Reichen like he was seriously considering following that punch with a kick in his side.

"That's it," Lance said, all cold and deadly. And that's when it really hit JC, what he'd just seen.

"Oh my God, you totally knocked him flat!"

"Let's go inside," Lance said.

"Oh my God, do you have any idea how long I've wanted to punch him? I've been saving up my righteous anger for months and even then, I wasn't sure if I'd be strong enough, and you just totally knocked him flat--"

"Dingo, Foster, let's get inside."

"--I would've totally done that for you, Lance, but you were awesome. Like the hand of God!"

And JC wasn't a normally a violent person, but oh my God, Lance hadn't been just awesome doing that, he'd been really fucking hot.

"Come on, Foster. Come on, JC. You get inside, too."

Foster was quick to skirt around Reichen and escape into the house. JC started to follow him, but then remembered the roses and turned back for them, only to find that Dingo had skipped the drama to get a head start on eating the roses.

"Oh, my roses..."

JC knelt to see if he could rescue a few. They'd been beautiful and it was a shame to let them go to waste.

"You little pansy bitches," Reichen said, rubbing his jaw. "You little boybanders really are all the fuckin' same--"

"Shut it!" JC snapped. "That little boybander is a thousand times better than you and he just fuckin' knocked you flat on your narrow-minded ass!"

"JC, don't," Lance said. "I'm finished. I'm tired of fighting with him. Let's just go inside."

JC grabbed Dingo's collar and herded him around Reichen and into the house. "Lance, I'm really--"

Lance shut the door and slumped against it for moment, closing his eyes.

"--really sorry."

"Don't be, C." Lance scrubbed at his face with his uninjured hand.

"Oh," JC said. "Your poor hand! Let's get some ice on it."

"Can you help me find Reichen's keys? They should be on that table over there."

Together, they found the keys. Lance slipped a few off of the key chain, and then opened the door and tossed the rest outside.

"If you have a complaint, you can talk to my lawyers."

"If I have a complaint? You'd better believe I'll--"

Lance shut the door hard and double-bolted it for good measure.

"Come on," JC said. "Let's get some ice."

"Is Foster okay?"

They checked Foster over, but he seemed fine, happily thumping his tail at the attention and wriggling around to get at JC's pockets.

"This might be all my fault," JC said. "If I hadn't had treats in my pocket..."

"Don't be silly."

Finally, Lance let him make an ice pack and place it carefully on his bruised knuckles.

"You know," JC said, still holding Lance's hand and not caring at all that it was cold and damp now. "I totally would have punched him for you."

"I'm glad I did it myself."

JC smiled and touched Lance's wrist where it was free from the ice pack.

"You know... I hate that you had to do it, but I'm kinda glad you got to do it. I bet it felt good."

"Damn straight," Lance said. "Nobody messes with my boys."

JC really wanted to kiss him right then, but that wasn't in the plan.

"You know..." he said again. "I was hoping for maybe a little drama tonight, but I wasn't really expecting it to be all Action/Adventure."

"You did bring flowers... I wasn't expecting flowers."

"Well, maybe those were for Dingo."

"Hm. Maybe. Why did you come here tonight? 'Cause I also can't help but notice that you've been holding my hand for quite a while now."

"You don't like it? I thought you liked holding hands."

"Oh, I do, but..." Lance bit his lip, and then looked up at JC with his green-green gaze. "I think I'd really like to know what your intentions were tonight."

"Joey said that you'd broken up with Reichen. And well, it seems like maybe you have now, but I've forgotten my nice speech in all of the excitement--"

"JC... are you gay? 'Cause if you're not, you're really starting to get my hopes up and maybe--"

"Oh, I'm bi. Everyone knows that, right? The important thing is I want to--"

"You're bi."

"Yeah, and you know, I have been trying to honor your choice in boyfriends since I've known that you do boyfriends, but I knew there were better options for you and that maybe you won't choose me, because I don't exactly have a lot of experience with exclusive relationships--the only one I've had that was even half-way healthy and well-balanced was with Nick and that was only exclusive by accident because I was too obsessed with you to sleep around on him--but I'd really like one with you if you are interested and it would make me and Cat really happy and--"

"With Nick? You had a well-balanced relationship with Nick Carter?"

"Wow. Is that the part you want to focus on?"

"Well, it's Nick Carter, come on, JC, I can't just... Wait. You want... you want to be exclusive with me?"

"I want to try. I promise I won't ever cheat on you or kick your dogs or--"

"Oh my God! JC Chasez wants to be my boyfriend."

"Yeah. I did say that, right? I think my words are kinda running away with me, but that was the key point."

"You want to be my boyfriend."

"Yes. And Cat would like it, too."

"You'll have to tell Cat that sorry, I'm already taken."

Oh.

Oh.

And he'd really thought that this was going so well. Or, you know, as well as it could be after dogs had been kicked and punches thrown, and well...

Well. He wasn't going to be all assy about this like Reichen would have been.

"Oh. Okay, well... I'd like it if you'd... maybe keep it in mind for when you're not taken."

"Oh, good grief, C. That's not--I just meant, I can hardly date Cat if I'm already dating you."

"Oh." Oh! "You're dating me?"

"Well, maybe," Lance said, leaning forward a little. "I think maybe I will, if you kiss me and ask me nicely."

"I'll ask you very nicely," JC said. "But I think I might be too busy kissing you to do it right away."

And so he was.

=^..^=

JC was really extremely lucky that his boyfriend shared so much in common with him. You know, similar levels of celebrity, similar goals, and similar knowledge of the shittiness of promotional tour scheduling. Any other man might have been upset, having to wait through the start of JC's East Coast promo tour, before being brought home to meet Cat.

Oh, Lance had already met Cat, but they both thought it was really important that they be re-introduced. After all, last time JC hadn't been able to say, "Hey, this is my boyfriend, Lance," and he was finding that that was something he really liked being able to say.

He brought Lance home in February and they shared a long, dizzying kiss in the foyer while Cat purred madly and wound himself 'round and 'round their legs.

"Mm," JC murmured, pulling away just far enough to watch Lance lick his kiss-bruised lips and slowly open his pretty, green-green eyes. "I think someone is really happy for us."

"Hmm?" Lance pressed a quick, pecking kiss against JC's lips. "What's that?"

"Cat's psychic. He knows without us telling him that we're together. And he's happy for us."

"Hmm. Maybe." Lance kissed him again, and then pulled away. "Or maybe he's just got a keen sense of smell."

Lance pulled a fuzzy purple catnip mouse from his pocket.

"Here, Cat. I brought you this so that your roomie and I could spend some nice private time together. Okay?"

Meow!