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The Earl of Rothinghamtonfordshire

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Nick did it because it was a dare.

Well, he also did it because he was bored and he had three plane trips in three days, with long waits in airports after everything was closed thrown in for variety. And also, a little bit, he wanted to see if he could really do it, although he'd never tell Lydie that. But mostly, he did it because it was a dare.

 

AJ always went for bitchy girls, for some reason Nick never understood. It wasn't like Nick didn't end up dating bitchy girls, but he didn't go out looking for them and he never found out how bitchy they were until it was too late. He'd asked AJ about it once, but he hadn't picked his time carefully enough and before AJ had time to say more than, "See, Nicky, in the sack," Howie had cleared his throat loudly and pulled AJ aside. But that had been a while ago, and Nick was much older now, and one of these days he was going to ask AJ again. But for now he was stuck dealing with AJ's bitchy girls.

 

The latest was the worst of the lot, in Nick's opinion. Lydie wasn't even that pretty, for one thing, and she was always rolling her eyes and calling Nick "the child," like, "Not while the child's in the room," whenever AJ started to say something interesting, even though she was only nineteen and barely two years older than Nick. But worst of all was the way she thought she was so smart. She was always offering to help Nick with his homework, which might not have been so bad except that she always seemed to offer when Howie or Kevin were around and when Nick wasn't actually doing his homework. And she always had her nose poked in a book, and she sighed heavily whenever Nick talked above a whisper, even though it was his own bus, after all. And the books weren't even real books, like the books Nick was always supposed to be reading, but just trashy romances like his mom sometimes read, the kind with Vikings or lords on the front without their shirts on.

 

Nick tried to point that out to Lydie, but she just stared at him coldly. "It's not like you could do any better, Carter," she said. "How long did it take you to learn how to write your own name for autographs?"

 

"I can write!" Nick said. "I've written lots of stuff. Songs, and stuff."

 

"Oh, sure," Lydie said. "Written," and she made big fake quotes with her fingers. Then she said, "Songs," and then, "Stuff."

 

"I have -- and all of it was about a million times better than your stupid book."

 

Lydie threw the book at him, hard. "You couldn't write something as good as Love's Sweet Fury in a hundred years," she said, and left.

 

She was wrong, though. It only took him three days.

 

Well, four days, really, but he spent one of them reading Love's Sweet Fury, just for research purposes. It was better than it looked like it would be, and very useful, in terms of the kind of words he should use and just the general vibe. In fairness, Nick's book was shorter than Love's Sweet Fury, but in Nick's opinion Love's Sweet Fury would have been improved by cutting out a lot of the boring parts. His book didn't have any boring parts at all.

 

Writing a book had been a little more difficult than he'd thought, but it was all worth it when he showed it to Lydie.

 

"You really did it?" Lydie said.

 

"Yup -- and it only took me three days to write the whole book," Nick said proudly.

 

"Well, I don't know if fifteen pages is really -- you are just too adorable for words, you know?"

 

Nick did know, but he was modestly quiet.

 

"Do you mind if I keep it?" Lydie said. "I think I'd really enjoy reading this."

 

"Sure," Nick said. "I have another copy." He thought maybe he did understand what AJ saw in Lydie after all.

 

He changed his mind about that the next day, when he walked into Howie's room to see the fellas gathered in a circle and looking at him seriously. They were all holding what looked suspiciously like copies of Nick's book.

 

"I'm going to kill Lydie," Nick said.

 

"Too late," AJ said. "I already broke up with her."

 

"Hey, Nicky," Howie said gently, "I'm glad you came by. We were thinking we could have a little chat, maybe, about what you wrote."

 

"Look, I was never going to show it to you, and you shouldn't have read it without asking me first. I can't believe you read my book!"

 

"I'm not sure fifteen pages is really -- look, the point is that we have read it," Kevin said. "We've all read it now, and now we all have to deal with the consequences."

 

"In a very supportive and understanding way, though, right?" Howie said.

 

"Knowing us, it seems unlikely," Brian said.

 

"I'm not feeling very supportive and understanding right now," Kevin said.

 

"Are you feeling, by any chance, evil?" AJ said, and laughed. "My lord."

 

"Listen," Kevin said, "there are unfortunately some people in this world who associate extreme good looks with evil, but I think that really says more about those people than the other people, the extremely good-looking people, who are just trying to live their lives and go on tour and make some people happy through the gift of music --"

 

"It's the eyebrows," Brian said thoughtfully.

 

"I think you're right," AJ said.

 

"I was talking --"

 

"It's the eyebrows that make you look evil," Brian said. "I mean, all of you looks kind of scary, but if you smile and like put your hand over the brows, you look all right. But the eyebrows look like they're just waiting for a chance to escape and go on a killing spree."

 

"What are you all talking about?" Nick said.

 

"Why did you make me the evil guardian in your book? I'm not evil! I'm not scary!" Looking at Kevin, Nick had to disagree with his last statement. "And I'm certainly not your guardian! I don't try to force you into marriage with rich old men, I don't keep you locked up, I don't tell you what to do --" AJ snorted, and Kevin continued, with great dignity, "I may, on occasion, advise you against a certain course of action, because I am a little older than you, although not old enough to be your evil guardian, and I have a little more experience than you do, but -- AJ, if you don't stop laughing I'm going to kick you."

 

"That's not helping with the evil thing," AJ said, but he took a couple of deep breaths and managed to stop laughing.

 

"Okay, look, I don't know what's wrong with all of you that you suddenly can't read, but my book is not about you," Nick said, with what he felt was almost superhuman patience.

 

"Oh, really?" Kevin said. He picked up his copy. "Let's see, here's your evil guardian right here. 'Piercing green eyes,' all right, 'very handsome,' 'tall and dark,' 'outwardly charming'--"

 

"Although that's only a shallow shield for his black heart within."

 

"Don't help, Brian. Oh, and look here -- what's your evil guardian's name? Lord Kevin."

 

"It's a coincidence," Nick said. "I needed a name, and you were sitting right in front of me, and -- look, didn't you even read it? It's not about us! It's set in England, after the war --"

 

"After the war?" Howie said. "Uh, which war is that?"

 

"You know," Nick said, "the one with the, um --"

 

"The French," AJ said, and Nick nodded.

 

Howie put two fingers up against the bridge of his nose. "This is giving me a headache."

 

"Me too," Kevin said. "Look, Nick, you can't just go around putting us in things you write. It's not fair."

 

"I didn't mind," Brian said. "I liked being the vicar, and living in the vicarage with the vicaress, and riding in my vicarriage all over the vicartown."

 

"Yeah, I liked my part too," AJ said. "Alexi the valet was pretty cool, and it's kind of a sweet gig, parking Lord Kevin's horses. Plus, people keep giving me monkeys, and what's more fun than a bunch of monkeys? Nothing, that's what."

 

"You know they're not real monkeys," Howie said.

 

"What?" AJ said.

 

"What?" Nick said.

 

"It's slang for money. More money, actually, than anyone would probably give the valet -- never mind," Howie said. "Also, the valet doesn't park the horses."

 

"Really?" AJ said. "What do I do?"

 

"A valet's a kind of a servant -- you attend to Lord Kevin's personal needs."

 

"I'm a hooker?" AJ said. Brian grabbed the nearest copy of Nick's book and started rifling through it.

 

"He's a hooker?" Kevin said. "Look, Nick, I don't know what kind of book you're trying to write here --"

 

"He's not a hooker," Howie said. "You're not a hooker. You take care of Lord Kevin's clothes, things like that."

 

"Okay, I think I'd rather be a hooker."

 

"You'd probably be better at that," Kevin said, "judging by the state of your shirt."

 

"What about you, Howie?" Brian said. "You haven't told us how you like your part." AJ and Kevin snickered.

 

"That's not really what this meeting is about," Howie said. "But you know, while we're on the topic -- I'm with Kevin here. All the two of us do is just try and help you -- and you too, AJ, so stop laughing -- to give you a little advice, a little guidance, and all we get in return is whining and complaining and getting cast as the crotchety old nurse in your books!"

 

"In fairness," Brian said, "AJ doesn't have a book."

 

"Although if I did --"

 

"This is a meeting?" Nick said. "We're having a meeting? You called a meeting just to talk about how much my book sucks?"

 

There was a pause, and then Kevin said, "No. Of course not, no, how could you think such a thing?"

 

"So you liked my book, then?"

 

"I think ... I think, leaving aside the whole question of putting people in your books without permission, which is very very wrong, Nick, very wrong, but aside from that, I think -- well, I think it's admirable that you would even attempt to write a book, and at your age, too. It's quite an undertaking."

 

"Yeah," Nick said. "Brian?"

 

"Honestly, it's not really my type of thing. But I liked my whole part, like I said, and I liked the part where the Earl saves you from the howling crowd of gypsies -- oh, and the part where the Earl's ward is showing off and hogging the spotlight and the Earl doesn't pay attention and talks to you instead. That was good."

 

"Yeah, I liked that part, too," AJ said. "I liked the whole thing a lot. I mean, I'm a little disappointed about the monkeys, but I thought it was funny and exciting and I liked the part where they were out in the carriage, at the end, with all the snow. And of course, the part where you and the Earl have sex with the horse --"

 

"I did not have sex with a horse!" Nick yelled. "I mean, it's not me, but no one in the book has sex with a horse."

 

Brian was looking hurriedly through the pages. "I think I got a different copy than everyone else."

 

"Here, it's on page eleven," AJ said. "'The Earl reached back and helped Lady Cytherea to mount in front of him. His strong hand lingered on her leg, and although she knew it was wrong she could not bring herself to say him nay. The Earl pressed into her, warm and solid against her back, and she felt herself falling against him. Beneath them the horse trembled, throbbing with life and eager to be off, and then the Earl called out in a strange tongue and the horse leapt forward, leaving Cytherea breathless. As they raced through the darkness, every step thrust the Earl and Cytherea closer and closer. Cytherea could feel herself quivering, and she grasped the horse's mane with both hands, pulling harder as the horse's pace quickened. The Earl slid closer against her, and then, suddenly, beneath her legs she felt the horse leap again, lifting her higher and higher, and Cytherea found herself panting with fear -- and with excitement.' Dude, you're having sex with a horse. Kind of good sex, too, from the sound of it --"

 

"AJ," Howie and Kevin said at the same time.

 

"Also, I really liked the parts about your evil guardian and your crotchety old nurse. I thought they were really true to life." AJ grinned. "How about you, Nursey? What did you think of Nicky's book?"

 

"Look, Nick," Howie said, "the point of this whole meeting was not to tell you what we didn't like about your book --"

 

"It wasn't?" Kevin said.

 

"You all thought we were having a meeting to talk about what we didn't like in Nick's book?"

 

"I didn't know," Brian said. "I just go where I'm told."

 

AJ said, "I thought there was going to be food."

 

Howie took a deep breath and said, "Well, you were all wrong. That's not what this meeting was for."

 

"You should really send out some sort of agenda before these things," Brian said.

 

"I thought you would have figured it out once you read the book."

 

"See, one thing this group isn't good at?" Brian said. "Context clues. But now I'm kind of curious about what the meeting's for."

 

"Yes," Nick said. "Yes, I am too."

 

"I can't believe it wasn't obvious," Howie said. "What with *nsync doing the charity thing with us all week --"

 

"Oh," Kevin said.

 

"Ohh," Brian said.

 

"Ohhh," AJ said.

 

"What?"

 

Kevin said, "We should probably talk about the Earl."

 

"The Earl?" Nick said.

 

"You know, the hero. In your book," AJ said helpfully. "The Earl of Rothinghamtonfordshireton."

 

Brian counted on his fingers. "That's too many tons."

 

"You're right," AJ said. "I mean, the Earl of Rothinghamtonfordshire."

 

"What about him?" Nick said.

 

"Don't you mean, who about him?" AJ said.

 

"No," Howie said. "No, no one means that."

 

"Look, we all know who he is," Kevin said.

 

"No, we don't," Nick said. "Because he's a fictional character I made up in my head, who's good-looking and noble and witty and who clearly doesn't bear any resemblance to any of you jerks --"

 

"No, not us," Kevin said.

 

"Then who?"

 

"Oh, come on," AJ said. He grabbed Howie's book, which had several yellow post-its sticking out of it. "'Though small of statue' --"

 

"That's a typo," Howie said.

 

"No," AJ and Nick said at the same time.

 

Howie said, "Just out of curiosity, what do you think that means?"

 

"It's a saying," AJ said. "You know, small of statue? Like, if you made a statue of him, it'd be small."

 

"Whoever invented bus school should be put in prison," Howie said bitterly. He was rubbing his forehead again.

 

"Anyway," AJ said, "as I was saying, 'Though small of statue, the Earl of Rothinghamtonfordshire commanded attention the instant he walked into a room. It was not merely his dark hair and fair skin that drew others to him, but his quick wit and easy air. Fond of a joke and a song, he was often found at the center of a band of friends. Also, he could dance.'"

 

"So?" Nick said. "That could be anyone --"

 

"'Those closest to him called him Chris.'"

 

"So?" Nick said, though even to his own ears it sounded desperate. "So, it could be anyone named Chris ..."

 

AJ looked at him with pity. "Howie's marked about ten other passages here, if you want me to read them."

 

"Please don't want that," Kevin said.

 

"We just thought it was important that you know, consciously, I mean," Howie said, "so that you could --"

 

"Oh, God," Nick said. He sat down suddenly on the floor. "Oh my God. Oh my God."

 

"It's not so bad," Brian said sympathetically.

 

Nick looked at him. "Not only do I have a huge embarrassing crush on Chris Kirkpatrick, I've written a whole book about it. How could it be worse?"

 

"Well, on the positive side, fifteen pages isn't really a whole --"

 

"Kevin, not now," Howie said.

 

"Why did you tell me? I was so much happier a minute ago, when I didn't know." Nick waved his hands around in front of his face like he was fanning himself. He didn't know why, but it seemed like the thing to do. "Why did you tell me?"

 

"Well, you had to know," Howie said, "so that you could, you know ..."

 

"What?" Nick said, when Howie let his sentence trail off. "Tell me! What do I do? What do I do?"

 

Howie looked around at the other guys. "You should -- you know, you should, I don't know, take precautions."

 

"Like condoms?" AJ said.

 

"No!" Kevin said. "I mean, yes, of course, if you ever were, you should always use condoms, but you should never be, with Chris, there should never be a situation where you need -- Howie, tell him! Tell him what precautions to take!"

 

"Yes, tell me," Nick said. "Please."

 

Howie said, "Um."

 

Brian started laughing.

 

"You called this meeting," Kevin said. "This was all your idea, and all you have to say is 'um'?"

 

"Another thing this group isn't good at?" Brian said. "Thinking things through."

 

"Okay, I need to be alone now," Nick said. "Please leave me alone."

 

"It's my room -- okay," Howie said when Nick looked up at him. "Okay, sure, you take all the time you want, I'll just be out in the hallway. Or, or much further away."

 

AJ and Kevin followed Howie out. Brian bent down and patted Nick on the shoulder.

 

"Buck up, little camper," he said. "It could be worse."

 

"How?" Nick said.

 

"Could be Justin."

 

Nick reached up and covered Brian's hand with his own. "Thanks, man," he said sincerely. Then he let go of Brian's hand and buried his face in his knees. He thought he might stay like that all week, until *nsync had come and gone.

 

Of course, he wasn't allowed to stay in the room forever, although he put up a good fight. Howie caught a fist in the eye when they were dragging Nick out, and Nick didn't feel a bit sorry. And of course, it was incredibly awkward every time he had to be in a room with Chris. It seemed like they were always being herded with all the other guys into small rooms to wait for what seemed like forever. Nick was always worried that he was somehow revealing his crush in some innocent way, that something about the way he walked across the room or grabbed a soda from the cooler screamed, "I have a big old crush on Chris Kirkpatrick and would like to marry him or at the very least do some suggestive horseback riding with him." He kept checking over his shoulder to see if Chris was looking horrified or if Justin and Joey were laughing at him, but no one seemed to realize he had a crush. Chris spent most of the time surrounded by the other guys, saying something that made everyone else laugh. He never seemed to notice Nick at all.

 

That was a good thing, Nick knew, but somehow it only made him more nervous. Chris was very easily distracted, and at some point Nick was bound to do something that would distract him. Once Chris took a good look at Nick, who knew what he'd figure out? The further Nick could stay from Chris Kirkpatrick, the better off he probably was.

 

So Nick thought it was good news when Kevin told him they were leaving him at the hotel with Justin while everybody else went out somewhere wicked and corrupting without them. At least, the part about how he was staying home was good news.

 

"Can't I just stay in my room?" Nick said. "And Justin can stay in his, and everybody will be much happier."

 

"Maybe you'll have fun," Kevin said. "You two might even become friends."

 

"Have you met Justin?" Nick said.

 

"Look, just do it and don't give me a hard time. You owe me for the whole evil thing anyway."

 

"Didn't you say that you didn't lock me up or force me to do things I didn't want to do? That all you did was offer me advice and guidance?"

 

"Yeah, well, go on up and let him into your room or I'll be guiding you with my foot," Kevin said. He peered at himself in the mirror. "Does this shirt make me look guardian evil or sexy evil?"

 

Nick was comforted by the fact that Justin was as unhappy about the situation as Nick was. He could hear Justin complaining outside his door even before anyone knocked. When Nick opened the door, Chris was standing there with his hand in the air.

 

"You must be psychic," Chris said. "Or else you have super-sharp hearing when someone's whining in a high annoying voice."

 

"Come on," Justin said, "if you said you'd keep an eye on me they'd totally let me go."

 

"First, you're one hundred percent wrong about that, and second, I have no intention of keeping an eye on you. I plan on having a good time tonight."

 

"You wouldn't have to keep an eye on me, you could just say you'd keep an eye on me and then I'd totally leave you alone. I can take care of myself."

 

"Oh, yeah, cause there's no way that wouldn't end with your mother cutting off my balls. And I've grown rather attached --"

 

"Don't say stuff like that about my mom!"

 

"Then stop acting like an idiot and get in there. Look, Nick's not acting like an idiot, are you, Nick? Hello, Nick."

 

"Hi," Nick said. "No."

 

Justin mumbled something that Nick couldn't quite catch, but Chris clearly understood it, because he shoved Justin into the room and held up a paper bag he'd been carrying. "I had bought you some beer, out of the kindness of my heart, but now I'm not sure you deserve it."

 

"Gimme," Justin said, and jumped for it. Chris pulled it out of his way at the last minute.

 

"No, I think I'll give it to Nick. Nick, you're clearly the most mature person out of -- well, out of all three of us, probably, so I'll trust your judgment. Please help yourself to some beer, and if you think Justin deserves any, you can give him some too." Justin stuck his tongue out and Chris laughed. "Have a good time, kids. Don't get into too much trouble."

 

Nick shut the door and Justin yanked the bag out of his hand. "Sure, help yourself," Nick said. "Why don't we watch TV and drink some beer in silence? That sounds like fun to me."

 

Unfortunately, beer made Justin talk. And talk and talk and talk. Later, Nick was never sure whether it was the two beers he downed one after another or sheer self-defense in the face of Justin's apparently endless stream of stories about the songs he wrote with JC, or was going to write with JC, and how great they were and what big hits they were going to be and how the whole process of writing was so great and how it was like you could just melt into the person you were writing with, totally see into their mind and just get them on a whole level that no one else ever would, but he found himself telling Justin about his book.

 

As soon as he said it he winced, because he could just imagine how Justin was going to mock him. But Justin sat up and said, "You did not write a book."

 

"I did too," Nick said.

 

"Show me."

 

"No. I don't have to show you anything."

 

"Fine," Justin said. "But you didn't write one."

 

"Here," Nick said. He rummaged around in his bag and then held up a copy for Justin to see.

 

"Let me read it," Justin said, reaching for it.

 

"No. You've seen it, that's enough."

 

"How do I know it's really a book and not just a bunch of papers with, like, your name written on them over and over a million times?"

 

"Why would I write my name over and over a million times?"

 

"I don't know. Why would you lie about writing a book?"

 

"Fine," Nick said. He threw it at Justin's head. Justin picked it up with both hands and studied it carefully. "See? Actual words and everything. Now give it back."

 

"No," Justin said. "I want to read it."

 

"Well, you can't."

 

"Why? Does it suck?"

 

Nick thought about grabbing it back out of Justin's hands. He could take Justin, he knew he could. But after seeing how the guys had reacted, he was curious to see what someone else would think of his story. "Fine," he said, and slumped back in his chair. "Go ahead, read it, see if I care."

 

Justin lay on his stomach and stuck his tongue out of the corner of his mouth as he started reading. In the corner, Nick carefully pulled the label off his bottle of beer and snuck looks at Justin while he read. He couldn't tell anything from Justin's swinging legs and the tip of his tongue.

 

Finally Justin looked up. "You really wrote this? All by yourself?"

 

"Yeah," Nick said. He felt a little shy. "What did you think?"

 

"How long did it take?"

 

"About three days," Nick said.

 

"Three days, huh," Justin said. He picked Nick's book up and then put it down again, then rubbed his hand across his mouth.

 

"You didn't like it," Nick said. "It doesn't matter, it's not like I wrote it for --"

 

"No," Justin said slowly. "No, I liked it. Kind of a lot."

 

"Really?"

 

"Yeah," Justin said. "Hey, can I keep this?"

 

"If you really want to," Nick said. "But did you -- you really thought it was good?"

 

"Oh, yeah. It's really good. I mean, there's a couple of things you could probably polish up a little, but --"

 

"Like what?" Nick said. He sat up straighter in his chair.

 

"Well, like, Lady Cytherea and the Earl," Justin said. He rolled himself around until he was sitting cross-legged on the bed with Nick's book in his lap. "I mean, Lady Cytherea's nice and all, but the Earl is totally meant to end up with Lady Tanicia."

 

"No, he's not! Lady Cytherea is the heroine. She has to end up with the Earl."

 

"Yeah, that's another thing," Justin said. "Lady Tanicia should be the heroine. I mean, you say right here that she's prettier, and more interesting --"

 

"No, I don't! I say that to somebody who doesn't look very deeply, it might seem like Lady Tanicia is prettier and more talented, but for somebody who really understands, somebody who doesn't mind looking twice, somebody who even maybe enjoys having to work for something a little instead of having everything thrown right in his lap, for somebody like, say, the Earl, Cytherea is what he'd want."

 

"I don't see it," Justin said. "Because Tanicia, she lives with the Earl, they spend all their time together, they like all the same things -- they're perfect for each other. That's your story right there."

 

"But that's just boring, if they already know everything about each other. That's not a good story."

 

"It's the best story there is," Justin said hotly. Nick started to argue, then said,

 

"Well, it doesn't matter anyway because the Earl and Tanicia can't get together. She's his ward."

 

"So?"

 

"So, you can't get together with your ward. Everybody knows that."

 

"Are you sure?"

 

"Look, who wrote the book?"

 

"All right, fine," Justin said. "Like I said, it's not like there's anything wrong with Cytherea, it's just -- well, Tanicia should end up with somebody good too."

 

"She does," Nick said.

 

"Where?" Justin started paging through the book again.

 

"It's not in the book." Justin looked at him. "Well, there was a lot of stuff I thought about that didn't make it into the book. You can't fit everything in all the time, you know?"

 

"So who does Tanicia end up with?" Justin said. "And don't tell me it's evil Lord Kevin, because ew."

 

"Remember at the dance? The one at the Earl's house, where there's the musician who plays --"

 

"The hired musician?" Justin said skeptically. "Cytherea gets the Earl, and Tanicia gets the hired musician?"

 

"Well, see, he's not really a hired musician," Nick said. He leaned over in his chair until his elbows were resting on the bed, and Justin bent down toward him. "He's actually a refugee, from the war --"

 

"What war?"

 

"The war with France," Nick said, and Justin nodded wisely.

 

"He's French, actually, a French noble guy, but he, like, saved the Earl's life during the war, and then he ended up getting in trouble for it and he had to leave and the Earl heard about it and made him come to his house but the guy is still, like, scarred from the war --"

 

"Scarred?" Justin said. "I don't know about --"

 

"Emotionally," Nick said, and Justin nodded again. "So he just kind of lurks around on the corners of everything, and he'll play for parties but he won't talk to anybody, because he wasn't just a noble guy, he was a musician, too, but all that was back in his old life."

 

"But then," Justin said, "then he keeps hearing Lady Tanicia sing, and it's so beautiful he can't keep away, and then he sees her and even though he's all shy he can't help wanting to be with her, and they start talking and they spend a lot of time together making music and he says he can't be with her because of how he's too old and the war and all, but she doesn't care. And then at the end there's a big concert where she's supposed to sing these songs she wrote herself, but somebody who's jealous steals all her music and burns it and the symphony can't play and it's gonna be a big disaster, but he learned all her songs by heart and so he can play them and they sing them together and everybody loves them."

 

"Uh, okay," Nick said.

 

"You should totally write that next."

 

"I don't know if I'm going to write another one," Nick said. "I mean, probably not."

 

"Come on," Justin said. "You have to! You're too good. And this one should have the thing with the gypsies, like the first one."

 

"You can't have the same things happen in every book."

 

"But if it's a good thing -- oh, fine. In the second one, Lady Tanicia can save the guy from the gypsies instead of the other way around."

 

"She can't save him --"

 

"Why not? My momma said women can --"

 

"Fine," Nick said. "Fine, she can save him."

 

"Or, no, I like it better the other way. He should save her."

 

"Fine," Nick said.

 

"And also, they should get caught out in the rain and then run for cover to a barn and they have to take their shirts off because they're all wet," Justin said. "It was just emotional scarring, right?"

 

They got so involved in their plotting for the second book that Nick forgot to feel embarrassed and awkward when Chris came to pick up Justin. He thought he might be getting over his crush, finally.

 

He changed his mind when he walked into Howie's room the next day just in time to hear Howie say, "Hey, Chris, I wanted to talk to you about something."

 

Instantly, without pausing for thought, Nick took a couple of steps backwards and shoved himself against the wall so that he could see inside the room without being seen. Okay, crush not totally over, he thought, and then turned his attention to the room.

 

"Sure," Chris said. "Now what is it you'd like to talk to me about? Could it be, I don't know, thus and such, or this and that, or ... could it be ... love's sweetest fury?"

 

Nick put his hand over his mouth.

 

Howie said, "How did you --"

 

"Justin," Chris said, and Nick just stopped himself from punching the wall. "No, don't look like that, he was clueless. He had no idea what it was about. I, however --"

 

"Yeah," Howie said. "Listen, don't let Nick know you know or anything, okay? He didn't mean to show us in the first place, and he'd be all embarrassed if you made fun of him or anything."

 

"I won't make fun of him," Chris said. "Hey, it's better than any of the books I've written, right? I mean, I haven't written any, but still. And it was a fun read -- lots of monkeys, and you know what I always say, nothing says good literature like a bunch of monkeys. Shakespeare could have used more monkeys, I always thought."

 

"You know that doesn't mean real monkeys," Howie said. "It's slang for --"

 

"I stopped being interested when you said no real monkeys," Chris said. "I'm disappointed. I kind of liked being Chris, Earl of Rothinghamtonfordshire, Lover of Monkeys."

 

"Defender of Virgins."

 

"Molester of Horses," and Chris and Howie both laughed a little more than Nick thought they needed to. It had sounded totally innocent when he'd written it. "Hey," Chris said, "about that defender thing, he's ... he's not, is he?"

 

"No," Howie said. "No, of course not."

 

"Yeah, I didn't think -- but you never know. I mean, a couple of our boys have been kind of slow starters. Although that's more because they weren't sure which team they were starting for, if you know what I mean."

 

"Well, Nicky's been starting for both teams for quite a while now," Howie said.

 

"Really?" Chris said. "Interesting."

 

"Don't even think about it, Kirkpatrick."

 

"Oh, come on, I can think about it, can't I?" Chris said. "I'm not going to do anything about it, of course. I mean, he's Justin's age, isn't he?"

 

"A year older," Howie said.

 

"Really?" Chris said. "Interesting, part two."

 

"Seriously, Chris," Howie said. "I don't like the sound of your voice when you say that."

 

"Why, Howard D," Chris said, "you sound as if you think I'm untrustworthy around impressionable youth."

 

"That's because that's exactly what I think."

 

"Why, I think I'm offended. Do you know what I do when someone calls me untrustworthy?"

 

"You act really upright and righteous so that you regain their trust?"

 

"Yeah, that would probably be the mature thing to do," Chris said. "Sadly, I'm very immature. What I do is, I think, hey, buddy, you think you've seen untrustworthy? And then I act very untrustworthy. Very untrustworthy indeed, as our friend the Earl of Rothinghamtonfordshire might say. Very untrustworthy indeed."

 

"Chris --" Howie said, and that was Nick's cue to back out into the hallway and act as if he were just walking into Howie's room.

 

"Hello, Nick," Chris said with a big smile as Nick walked in. "How are you today? I was thinking of going to explore this fine old historic burg today. Would you like to accompany me?"

 

"No," Howie said. "No, he would not."

 

"I didn't ask you, Howard. I asked --"

 

"I can't," Nick said. "Thanks, though."

 

"Another time, then." Chris winked, and Howie smacked him on the arm.

 

"You know, if you're not afraid of me," Howie said, "you should be afraid of Kevin."

 

Chris just laughed as he walked away.

 

"What was all that about?" Nick said. Howie had the grace to blush.

 

"Nothing," Howie said. "Hey, did you want something, Nicky? Because now would be a really good time to ask."

 

"I came down here for something, but I can't remember what it was."

 

"Well, you should stay," Howie said, "because I think we have to have another group meeting."

 

"Oh, good," Nick said, "because that worked out really well for me before."

 

AJ had disappeared somewhere, so they had to postpone the group meeting until seven o'clock. They gathered in Kevin's room this time.

 

"Is there an agenda?" Brian said. "Because my time is valuable."

 

Howie said, "There's one item on the agenda. It's a crash course in who in this group is or is not allowed to sleep with various individuals in other groups."

 

"Okay, I thought you said this was about tomorrow's setlist," Kevin said.

 

"I lied," Howie said. "And when you hear why, you'll be on board."

 

"Listen, when I said my time is valuable," Brian said, "I meant more valuable than this."

 

"When I came to get you, you were watching Joanie Loves Chachi," Howie said.

 

"It was the Christmas episode -- I've never seen that one."

 

"It was in German."

 

"Some things transcend language barriers. Like the true, pure love of Joanie for Chachi. Or vice versa."

 

"Or even," AJ said, "dare I say, the love of an Earl for his fair Earless."

 

Nick punched him in the arm.

 

"It's not Earless," Howie said.

 

"What?" Kevin said.

 

"An Earl's wife isn't an Earless."

 

"Then what is she?"

 

Howie paused. "Actually, I'm not sure, but I know it's not Earless."

 

"Sure she is," Brian said, "it's Count and Countess, Duke and -- well, Duchess, but close enough, Earl and Earless."

 

At that moment Chris Kirkpatrick walked in, with the rest of *nsync trailing behind. "Is this really what you all talk about at group meetings?" Chris said. "Because we talk about setlists and who in the group is or is not allowed to sleep with various individuals from other groups. And Kev, I can't break a group confidence, but get a couple of drinks in Joey and you may be pleasantly surprised." Chris winked, and Nick laughed as Kevin looked away in disgust.

 

Joey said, "Ha ha ha."

 

"I'm not allowed to sleep with anybody," Justin said sourly.

 

"I can sleep with everybody," JC said.

 

"Oh no you can't," Justin said.

 

"Yeah, we're a little busy right now," Howie said.

 

"Oh, I could tell," Chris said. "We won't be long. We were heading out to the sponsors' party and Nick, I was wondering if you wanted to go along with us."

 

"Why?" Kevin said suspiciously.

 

"For variety, Kevin, which is after all the very spice of life, and in promotion of group harmony, which I know is a cause close to your heart, and because now that I've heard what you talk about in group meetings, I think it might be nice for Nick to be introduced to the whole concept of fun. Nicky, what do you say?"

 

"No," Howie said. Nick glared at him.

 

"And again I say, and will keep saying until Nicky is actually the one to answer me, Nicky, what do you say?"

 

"Yes," Nick said. "I think it sounds like fun."

 

"Great," Chris said.

 

"Why do you want just Nick?" AJ said.

 

"Oh, I don't know. I just happened to think of him," Chris said with a smile. "But hey, I tell you what. We'll give you Lance."

 

"I don't care," Lance said. "Wait. Are you going to keep talking about Earls? Because in that case, I'm not crossing over."

 

"We'll be heading over there ourselves in about five minutes," Brian said, but Chris just shook his head and said,

 

"Can't wait for you slackers. Things to do, people to see."

 

Howie said, "Can I have a word with you, Christopher?"

 

"No," Chris said. "No, Howard, you cannot."

 

"We're in kind of a hurry," JC said apologetically.

 

"No, we're not," Chris said. "I just don't want to talk to him." He nodded in the direction of Howie and the others and said, "Boys." Then he snapped his fingers and said, "My boys -- and that includes you now, Nicky," and the rest of *nsync and Nick followed Chris out the door.

 

As they left Nick heard AJ say, "I like his style."

 

Once they got there, the party was actually kind of boring. Nick found himself sitting on a couch, watching as Justin told some long pointless story that somehow struck everyone else as the funniest thing ever. Even Kevin laughed loudly, his head thrown back, and then handed Justin a drink. When he caught sight of Nick staring at him, Kevin got up quickly and went to sit in a chair in the corner farthest from Justin.

 

Suddenly Chris dropped down into the seat next to him. "How's it going, Nicky?"

 

"Fine," Nick said.

 

"Fine?" Chris said. "That's all you've got to say for yourself. We're old friends now, Nicky, I think I should get more than one word answers."

 

"Don't you want to listen to whatever really funny story Justin's telling?"

 

"I'm listening ten percent," Chris said.

 

"Ten percent?"

 

"Every time I hear Justin tell the same story over again, I listen ten percent less. And I've heard this one about fifty-five gazillion times."

 

"So shouldn't you be listening less than ten percent at this point?"

 

"It's actually scientifically impossible," Chris said, "to listen to Justin less than ten percent." Nick laughed. "Don't laugh -- that boy's gonna make my fortune one day." Nick laughed again. "Hey, speaking of listening to things, did you happen to hear us earlier today when we were rehearsing?"

 

"Yeah," Nick said. "Yeah, you sounded great. It's going to be a good show tomorrow."

 

"Sure," Chris said. "Anyway, were you listening when we were messing around during the break? We were doing a song, it's not on the setlist for tomorrow but --"

 

"Oh, yeah," Nick said. "The one with all the la la las? I remember that one -- it was really pretty. Although I think there was something off about the bridge. It sounded a little, I don't know. Unbalanced."

 

"Yes," Chris said. "Yes, unbalanced, that's it, I knew there was something off but I couldn't put my finger on it. Here, take a look at this with me," and he pulled a crumpled piece of paper out of his pocket.

 

"Wait a minute," Nick said as he looked at the paper. "You wrote this song?"

 

"Yeah," Chris said, "and I totally could not figure out what was the problem with it until you just said --"

 

"You should have told me," Nick said, "before you let me talk about what was wrong with it."

 

"Why?" Chris said. "I wanted to know what you thought, and I wanted an honest answer, not a polite one."

 

"But what if I had hated it? Then it would have been embarrassing for both of us."

 

"You're right," Chris said. "But you know, I thought it was pretty good, and I thought maybe, just maybe, the two of us would think alike." Chris smiled at him. "I think there might be quite a few subjects on which we think alike."

 

"Yeah?" Nick said. He felt his cheeks get hot but he didn't look away.

 

"Yeah," Chris said. He shifted closer to Nick on the couch. "But for now, take a look at this," and they bent their heads over the ragged piece of paper.

 

They'd made good progress on the song by the time Howie came over and stood in front of them and said, loudly and in such a rush that it was practically one word, "Nickwe'regoinghomenowandsoareyousocomeongoodnightChris."

 

"Goodnight, Howie," Chris said. "You too, Nick. And get lots of sleep, because tomorrow's the big day."

 

"What does that mean?" Howie snapped.

 

"It's the concert," Chris said. "For the poor sick children. The reason we're all here. Why, what did you think I meant, Howie?"

 

Howie grabbed Nick's shirt and pulled him up out of his seat and across the room. Nick looked back over his shoulder and saw Chris laughing. He was pretty sure Chris wasn't laughing at him.

 

The concert the next night was wonderful, the crowd loud and happy with every act but most especially the Backstreet Boys. Nick was so high from the applause that he didn't even mind when Howie threw himself bodily in front of a door to keep Nick from getting in the same limo as Chris.

 

"See you at the after party, Nick," Chris called before the door slammed shut.

 

"He's just taunting me now," Howie mumbled to himself.

 

But Chris was waiting for him at the after party, sitting alone in a booth with a drink in his hand and one ready for Nick. Chris' arm was lying along the back of the booth when Nick slid into his seat and picked up his glass. "Nicky," Chris said as Nick smiled over at him, and then, "Kevin." Nick looked up, braced for something embarrassing, but Kevin just said, "Be careful, Nick. We don't want you drunk tonight," and then disappeared back into the party.

 

"Yes," Chris said, low, "I don't want you drunk tonight," and somehow the words sounded completely different when Chris said them. Nick let his fingers drift across the chilled surface of his glass and shivered at the sensation.

 

They weren't alone in their booth very long that night, not nearly long enough. A steady stream of people stopped by, crew members and other performers. Chris talked to all of them, and whenever they were alone he leaned in close to Nick and told him funny stories about whoever had just left. Nick mostly listened, and watched Chris talk to people, and drew patterns on the table with the condensation from his glass. He felt very strange tonight, a little dreamy, even, though true to his word, Nick had stopped at one drink. He was floating on a light, easy feeling, one that was familiar but that he hadn't felt in a while. He was happy, he thought, and he thought he knew why. It was because he wasn't worried about what Chris thought about his crush, or if he was revealing anything without meaning to, or if he was acting awkward or weird, or if someone else was going to figure it out and make fun of him. For once he was letting himself relax and just be with Chris, and he was enjoying it. As far as he could tell, Chris was enjoying it, too.

 

"I am," Chris said, and Nick's light easy feeling threatened to vanish.

 

"Um, how much of what I was thinking did I just say out loud?" he said, and Chris laughed.

 

"For the love of God, do not let Howie hear you say that or he'll think I slipped something in your drink," Chris said, "and I'll end up in a German prison. Although they're supposed to be very clean, German prisons, and I guess if you have to go to prison, German might be the way ... You said you were enjoying yourself, Nick," Chris said. "You were enjoying yourself, and you thought I was, too, and I am, and I'm glad."

 

"I'm glad," Nick echoed. Then someone new sat down across from them, and Chris started telling a funny story about one of the signs he'd seen at the concert that night. Beneath the table his hand slid across Nick's leg until it rested over Nick's hand, a warm, steady pressure.

 

Later, much later, the crowd started to thin out and Chris said, "It's time to go."

 

"No," Nick said, but he stood up obediently.

 

"You gonna ride with me?" Chris said.

 

"I don't know -- I should at least find Howie and say goodnight, let him know I'm not being kidnapped."

 

"If you see him, you might not find your way back," Chris warned, but then he smiled and said, "I'll wait for you."

 

Nick wandered all over, the dance floor, the bar, the bathrooms, but he couldn't find Howie anywhere. He couldn't believe that Howie had left without checking in with him, so he darted outside to see if he was there.

 

As soon as he stepped through the door, Nick knew it was a mistake. There were what seemed like hundreds of girls, dressed in brightly colored layers for the cold, waving banners and shouting. Before Nick could make his way back inside he heard his own name howled and the crowd surged toward him. He looked around desperately for one of the fellas, a bodyguard, anybody, and then he heard Chris yell.

 

"Don't worry, Nick -- I'll save you!"

 

Chris made his way through the crowd to Nick, a bodyguard and JC and Justin in tow. Together they carved out a path to a waiting limo. Once they were safely in the car, Justin rolled down a window and started signing autographs. Nick could hear how happy the girls were, and he knew he should probably sign a few too, but he was too busy watching what was going on between Chris and JC.

 

Chris and JC were staring at each other intensely, neither one saying a word. Finally JC said, softly and through gritted teeth, "I'm not gonna. It's not fair to me."

 

"I'm not asking you to do anything," Chris said just as softly. "Just, you know, distract him long enough to get him out of the car."

 

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," JC said. "You all always say, just distract him, just this once, but it's not as easy as you think to just -- the only way this ends is with me going to hell, you know."

 

"I'm gonna need a lot of company down there." Chris grinned. "Come on, I'll be your best friend."

 

JC sighed and banged his head back against the seat. "Fine," he said, "fine." Then he opened the car door and said, in a loud monotone, "For some reason I'm getting out of this perfectly good limo and getting into another one, and also my shirt is feeling very scratchy right now, so I might have to take it off --"

 

Justin clambered over Nick and attached himself to JC's back before JC had time to get his other leg out of the car. JC stood up, moving Justin around to his side with one arm around his waist, and leaned back in.

 

"When I'm in hell," JC said, "you better bring me ice water."

 

"Gallons, baby," Chris said. Then he peeled JC's fingers off the window and slammed the door. The car drove slowly down the driveway.

 

"Well, here we are," Chris said. "Just the two of us, riding through the night in our cozy carriage, and look -- it's even beginning to snow."

 

Nick looked out the window, where fat, cottony flakes had begun to fall, just like in the movies. He kept looking out the window. For the first time all night he felt awkward again.

 

"Nick," Chris said. Nick turned to face him.

 

"Look," Nick said, "I know that you read my book and that you probably think I have a big old crush on you and that I'm probably a big stupid girl --"

 

"Well," Chris said. "Two of those things are true."

 

Nick looked at him. "Which two?"

 

Chris laughed. "I cannot tell a lie, I did read your book. And I certainly hope that you have a big old crush on me, because it would be very sad if you didn't."

 

"It would?"

 

"Yes," Chris said, "because that would mean that my own crush was unrequited, and an unrequited crush is the saddest thing in the world." Chris smiled suddenly. "Well, not quite the saddest. The saddest thing in the world is Howie Dorough, back at the venue in the middle of the night, searching desperately because someone slipped Joey a five to tell him that I'd taken you back there for a private tour of the dressing rooms. But unrequited crush is definitely number two."

 

Nick laughed, and then looked back out the window at the snow.

 

"Nick," Chris said after a moment, "you do know what unrequited --"

 

"I wrote a book!" Nick said. "Of course I know."

 

Chris laughed. "Just checking."

 

"I was just thinking," Nick said, "that it's kind of funny. When I wrote my book I totally wasn't thinking about -- anybody, but here we are, and everything's kind of ending up, well, just the way I wrote it."

 

"I guess you're right," Chris said. "We've got the snowy night, our -- well, for our purposes it's a carriage, and also ..." He slipped down the seat until he was closer to Nick. Nick closed his eyes and smiled, because he knew what was coming next.

 

Actually, no he didn't. "Chris --" he said breathlessly, as Chris' hand slid down the front of his pants.

 

"Close your eyes again," Chris said, and Nick did. "Now, Nicky," Chris said slowly, as his hand moved easily, steadily, "it's not that there's anything wrong with what you wrote. I'm just doing a little -- editing. Revising. Giving things a little polish, you might say." Nick gasped and then bit his lip. "Because, you know, everybody loves a happy ending. It's just, the thing is -- Nicky -- that a happy ending, it means different things. To different people. See, for you, it might mean one thing, and for me, for me, for me --"

 

"Oh, God," Nick said, and slammed his head against the back of the seat.

 

"For me it probably means the same thing," Chris said. He wiped off his hand as Nick sat back, breathing heavily. "So how are you liking the ending so far?" Chris said brightly.

 

Nick leaned over and kissed him. Chris turned his head at the last minute, just a little, as if he weren't quite sure Nick meant it, and Nick kissed the corner of his mouth and then pushed his hand into Chris' hair and turned his face toward him. Nick kissed him like he meant it.

 

Chris' eyes were closed, but Nick kept his eyes open. For a moment he could see the dark night outside, and the snow falling soft and white, and then he couldn't see anything but Chris.

 

When Nick pulled away Chris laughed a little shakily. "Man," he said, "your evil guardian is going to kill me."

 

"It's Nursey you've got to watch out for," Nick said, and Chris laughed and kissed him again.