"Where's JC?" Lance asked. He looked around; deliberately averting his gaze from the reflective silver of the pants his stylists insisted he wear. He shivered as he pulled them on, the material snagging at the ragged skin around his nails.
"He was here a minute ago," Joey said, standing still as he was sewn into his own pants. "Check the bathroom." He wiggled his hips, testing the repair with a series of high kicks that came perilously close to Lance's nose.
"He's always in the bathroom. I'm sure he's got that disease." Justin pursed his lips his eyes narrowed as he looked into space. "You know, that irritating bowel thing."
Sitting on the floor, knee bent as he tied his sneaker, Chris looked up, his eyes gleaming. "I think you're onto something. It could be irritating bowel, or churlish pox, or even that dreaded disease, whimpering cough."
Justin smoothed his hand down the front of his shirt, nodding at himself as he stared at his reflection in the mirror. "I don't think it's called that."
"No shit, Einstein." Chris finished tying his sneaker and looked up at Justin. "What clued you in? Your medical degree gained through years of Bus School?"
"Grumpy gonorrhoea." Joey said suddenly, and shrugged away the looks he received in return. "We're talking diseases right?"
"I don't think JC has gonorrhoea, and even if he did, why grumpy?" Justin frowned and lowering his gaze until he was looking directly at Joey's groin. "I suppose your dick would be grumpy, you know if it was all scabby and diseased and shit."
"My dick is not diseased." Joey scowled at Justin. "Stop looking at my junk."
Chris grinned in triumph, and Lance knew how this would go. Quickly pulling on his t-shirt, he slipped out of the room, leaving the others to discuss fictional diseases on their own.
JC loved the Magical Realm. He loved that in a blink of an eye he became something more, the confines of the 'norm side' thrust aside. Coming home allowed him to feel, and he revelled in each moment, stepping back into a life made richer through sound
Thrilled at this return, he sang his joy; head tipped back, smile wide, arms outstretched as shimmering notes danced in sparkling clouds.
"So, I was walking and suddenly experienced the urge to twirl with joy."
JC looked up at the sound of Brian's voice, and silvery notes multiplied and changed, easing into a song of welcome and friendship as JC's happiness enriched the air.
"Seeing the notes was the clincher." Brian grinned as he stepped close and pulled JC into a hug. "I'm surprised they didn't see them norm side."
"You know they only see what they want to see." JC wrapped his arms around Brian, his hands pushed against the soft fur of his sweater. "It's been too long."
Laughing, Brian brushed a kiss against JC's cheek. "I saw you last week."
"Norm side doesn't count." Stroking his hand through the silken strands of Brian's hair, JC tugged on a small knot, pleased when it unravelled to show a floppy brown ear. "You shouldn't hide these away."
"They get in the way, you ear fetishist." Brian slowly ran his hand along the length of one brown ear, picking it up so he could run the tip along JC's cheek.
"They're hot, man." JC shivered at the feel of fur against his skin, and the air resonated in song. Slow and heady, red tinged notes that pulsated as JC pulled Brian close.
Brian laughed and grinned up at JC. "Hey now, no seducing an innocent childhood icon."
"Like you're innocent."
"Compared to you I'm the tooth fairy."
"Like Howie's innocent," JC laughed, making notes explode in a flurry of sparkles that spun in sparkling clouds, glimmering against Brian's furry sweater and hair before blinking into nothing. "We all know what he does with that wand."
"Speaking of wands," Brian leaned in, his ear soft against JC's shoulder. "I hear Justin's been having good dreams."
"I keep telling you; despite what he says, Justin's wand isn't magical." JC said, waving as a family of gingerbread people ran past, their little stumpy legs blurring as the disappeared into a thicket of cotton candy bushes. "I take it he's been gossiping to Nick again."
"They met up here last weekend." Brian's nose twitched, and for once he wasn't smiling. "Nick's still a little uncertain about the whole Beast thing. Not that I blame him, suddenly finding yourself a beast has to be harsh. At least we were created into this life."
"It never happened before the internet," JC said, shaking his head sadly. "All those characters being created on an hourly basis, no wonder some norms end up changed."
Brian laughed. "You didn't mind the internet when you visited the land of Mary and Marty Sues."
"Have you seen it there?" JC asked, his grin wide. You can't move for trailing colorful hair, and the eyes, last time I visited I ended up with a sweet honey with emerald orbs and tresses the color of the night sky."
Brian held out his hand. "Before you tell me her other assets, we were talking about Nick."
"We were," JC agreed. "He's hot when he's un-beasty,"
"I'll tell him that," Brian said, rolling his eyes. "It's sure to help with his confidence issues."
"Tell him I especially like his ass, it's sweet." JC paused and looked at Brian. "I wonder why Justin didn't say they met up?"
Brian leaned in close, the tip of his ear against JC's shoulder. "You didn't hear this from me, but there was a little misunderstanding. One of the three pigs thought Justin had called him fat, things got a bit messy." Brian lowered his voice. "They had to summon Kevin, and he wasn't happy; at all."
"I bet. Especially after he had to deal with the whole Blind Mouse and AJ fight. You know, I still think those dark glasses would have looked better on AJ."
"Probably." Brian agreed. "You should have heard Kevin; his lecture about brawling with a blind mouse lasted for an hour, and then he just got worse after AJ hit Old Mother Hubbard in the ass with one of his arrows."
"To be fair, falling in love with Jack Horner couldn't have been that bad, I imagine she saw more action than she'd seen in years," JC said. Blinking against the heat of the suns, he gestured toward the nearby patch of giant mushrooms. "Let's sit." Selecting a spot, he lay back on the soft purple grass, looking up at the golden clouds that hung against the bright pink sky. It was a view he missed when he went back norm side, the sky always looked so washed out there, especially when lit by only one sun. "I take it Nick got a lecture too."
Brian sighed. "Not this time, he had enough on his plate dealing with his sudden excessive amount of hair."
"Tell Nick next time I see him I'll sing him a new song."
JC added Nick's name to his mental list. Technically, using his music on people he knew was against the rules. In reality, JC did it all the time. If he could soothe fears or help his friends with his music, he'd do it.
Pushing Nick's half crafted song to one side, JC looked at Brian. "There's nothing to say really. We'd been working non-stop and he couldn't sleep, even polishing all our shoes didn't help, so I got Kevin to help me send him a horny song."
Brian raised an eyebrow. "You sent Justin, who at this point is travelling with Lynn, a horny song?"
A note shot out, pinging the tip of Brian's nose. "Hello, she's got thousands of kids, she knows about sex."
"I don't think they're all hers," Brian said. "But I see your point. So, what? You sat at the door and sang about sex?"
"Pretty much," JC said happily. "I had the sweetest song for him, all about shining armour and shoes. Lots of shoes."
"Shoes? You shouldn't encourage his shoe thing; people don't expect to see Prince Charming wear sneakers."
"He likes them," JC said. "A lot."
"Before I'm scarred again by where this story is going, have you all thought more about telling Lance?"
Immediately, multi-colored sparkling notes flew from JC's mouth, spinning in giddy circles around his head. Guiltily, he pushed his hand across his mouth, feeling the trapped notes tickle against his palm.
Brian laughed. "I see you've still got your thing about him."
Pushing himself upright with one hand, JC though about depressing things – kicked puppies, cheap wine and Tyler's toenails in the bath – until he could set aside the song and settle in the shade of a huge blue spotted mushroom, his back against the spongy stalk. "I do not have a thing, and we've thought about it, but it's still a no."
JC looked away. Deceiving Lance wasn't an easy decision, especially when they all wanted him to know, but the facts remained. Lance wasn't a citizen of the Magical Realm.
"He's not born of this world, Brian."
"Yet out of everyone, he's the one who wants to experience life away from earth." Brian's ears drooped. "Sorry, low blow. I know you've got your reasons."
"We do," JC said. He just wished those reasons didn't exist. He reached for Brian's ear giving it a soft tug. "We're going to be late, there's eggs to make and songs to be sung."
"Come on then, Piper boy." Accepting the topic change, Brian started to move, his ears bobbing as they walked away.
JC had been disappearing often lately, in fact all of the others had. Not for long, mostly for short five minute bursts, and Lance wouldn't be concerned, except he'd walked into sudden uncomfortable silences, and overheard half formed whispered words.
It made him paranoid, and he had to know what was going on.
The bathroom was empty at first glace; pale green walls and dripping taps. Lance crouched, feeling foolish as he looked under the doors of the stalls.
There was no one there, and Lance was about to leave when JC stepped out of the last stall. He was smiling, and for a moment Lance thought he saw flashes of light, shimmering in the air.
JC tugged at the waistband of his pants, ran his hand through his hair. "Were you looking for me?"
Lance frowned and looked behind JC, at the gap between the stall door and the grey tiled floor, at the space he'd looked at only moments before. Thinking about that empty space - no feet in sight at all - his momma's warnings, cautionary tales of addiction and drugs taken in seedy bathroom stalls kept coming to mind, no matter how hard he tried to keep them at bay.
"Well?" JC prompted.
When he walked past Lance to the sinks he smelled of chocolate and fresh air and something Lance couldn't identify at all and Lance watched JC wash his hands, water streaming between his fingers, carrying away bubbles of liquid green soap. "They were making disease names up."
"They were?" JC held up his hands and looked hopefully at Lance.
Pulling out a handful of paper towels, Lance handed them over. "You know, you have legs."
"And they're tired, I've been walking forever."
"You've walked from the dressing room to here," Lance said, and took a hesitant step closer to JC.
"It's a long way from there to here." JC smiled and threw the paper towels toward the trashcan, sighing when they missed and fell to the floor. Bending, he scooped them up, dropping them safely inside from inches away.
"You're. Okay, right?" It wasn't the question that Lance wanted to ask, but it was the closest he could actually say. "It's just. In the stall. And I couldn't see your feet."
JC's smile never slipped, but there was a moment of something, a frantic scrabbling instant like he'd been asked a question with no prepared answer.
"I had my feet on the door," JC said, and he leaned in close, his voice low. "It gave me thrust." He made a hand movement, something obscene and Lance couldn't help the mental image, trying to work out how and why and if so, why couldn't JC jack off the normal way?
Which was random and unexpected, and Lance stared a moment, allowing his brain to change direction. "I don't think two different diseases technically counts as descriptive of one another."
"They're both bad," JC said, and pushed the door open to exit the bathroom. "So using one negative to describe another has to amplify that effect."
Lance said nothing, sometimes it was easier that way.
Armour clunked to the ground as Justin raced toward the lake. Taking a running jump from the end of the jello jetty, he launched himself into the air, cannonballing into the pink water. Immediately bubbles burst from the surface, wobbling as they floated away.
Seconds behind, Chris launched himself at Justin's head, and they both disappeared under the surface, only the explosion of bubbles marking their place.
"Aren't you swimming?"
Lying on a giant leaf, JC screwed up his eyes and looked at Joey, who was little more than a silhouette against the bright lights of the suns. "Not yet, I'm going to catch some sun first." He stretched, and ran his hand through the pixi dust, the crystals trickling through his fingers.
"I think I'll join you." Joey sat next to JC, looking out at the lake, where Justin and Chris were playing chase with a group of young mermaids, and one squid, its tentacles waving as it talked. "Lance would like it here."
It wasn't an unexpected observation, and JC shifted, the leaf spongy against his elbow and side as he propped himself up. "He nearly caught me yesterday."
"He's been getting suspicious lately," Joey said. "I wish…."
"We all do." JC touched Joey's arm, then jumped when a strand of soggy seaweed, its eyes blinking open and shut, wrapped itself around his head. "Chris! Justin!"
Scrambling to his feet, JC jumped over Joey and ran toward the lake, where bubbles clearly marked a trail. Immediately, JC began to sing, and within seconds, Chris and Justin were marching out of the water, scowling at JC as they threw themselves down onto the ground.
"You promised you wouldn't do this anymore." Indignant, Justin spluttered as he rolled, pixie dust sticking to his wet skin.
"You're taking improper advantage of your abilities," Chris said, his eyes dark against the coated pink of his face. Then he smiled, and licked along the length of his arm. "More sugar, thank you!
"You're disgusting," JC said, but he couldn't help laughing when he saw Chris lick stripes along his arms, and how Justin's hair was sticking up in crusted curls, a sugary arrangement of a fro.
"I don't think feeding them sugar is the best idea, we need to go back soon."
Smiling at the feel of a wagging tail against his bare legs, JC looked at Joey. "I suppose." He sang then, summoning clouds, their cheeks swollen as they hung above Justin and Chris, soaking them with summer scented rain.
"Joey," Lance said, and he'd promised himself he'd ask about the silences, but standing next to Joey, who was looking at him, mouth quirked a little and waiting patiently for Lance to speak, it was impossible to say the words. Not when the answer could have been something he didn't want to hear. "Have you ever jacked off with your feet braced against a bathroom stall door?"
Joey loved to talk about sex. Sometimes that was annoying; especially at three am when all Lance wanted to do was sleep, but it also meant Joey would seriously consider this question now.
"I've done it in a stall before." Joey rubbed at his face, brushing away something pink at the corner of his mouth, his brows pulling together as he thought. "But the feet thing? No. I like jacking off without strenuous effort, or risking pushing down the walls." Frown deepening, he looked at Lance. "It doesn't have to be like that you know. Look around and you'll always find an empty room."
Joey looked sincere, like he was about to launch into one of those talks. Hastily deflecting – because he could only take so many big brother birds and the bees talks, and the one with Chris, and the mango and super sized rubber, well that was his limit for the year– Lance said, "It's just, JC said he was doing it that way."
"Well, JC's another matter. You know he's always talking about taking the sexual experience to the next level." Joey narrowed his eyes, and his fingers twitched as he spoke. "He's tall, if he stretched his legs and rested his ass on the edge of the seat; he could do it, probably get thrust too."
"Fuck, Joey. That's just wrong." Punctuating his protest with a prod to Joey's side, Lance tried to convince himself simultaneously that he wasn't sharing Joey's mental image, and that he wasn't enjoying it.
That didn't help him that night, when he was curled up in bed, his pillow thumped into submission as he forced math and verbs over the images of JC in the bathroom cubicle.
The journey from norm side to the Magical Realm took all of a second. A moment alone and JC was reaching. A burst of intense concentration, and he was home, his feet stepping up from lino and landing on soft grass.
Sudden appearances were usual in the Magical Realm, so much so that no one looked twice when an elf appeared out of thin air, or a fairy shimmered into existence within the blink of an eye. Which meant four people arriving at once was nothing unusual at all.
"You do know the concept of Backstreet time belongs to us, right?"
Brian was sitting cross-legged in the grass, holding edition seven thousand and twenty-four of the Rules and Regulations for Children's Fantasy Figures . He looked relieved at the chance to snap it shut, pushing the book into his wicker basket.
Chris pointed to the book. "You actually read those things?"
"Some people actually try to stick to the rules, you know." Brian grinned up at Chris. "Anyway, I need to study, I've decided to go for promotion. Take a step up from being a mini egg distributor."
"I keep to the rules," Chris protested, and he pushed himself onto a giant yellow flower, settling in the middle and making fist sized lumps of pollen thump to the ground. "At least I do most of the time."
Joey pricked up his ears, his tail swishing with laughter. "Like we believe that."
Eyes shining, Chris solemnly held up his hand in some kind of clumsy salute. "But I do, scouts honour."
"You were never a boy scout," JC said, singing a song that made Chris wiggle in place until the flower tilted to one side, dumping him on the ground.
A picture of wounded innocence, Chris propped himself up on his elbows, scowling at JC. "You need to stop doing that, and people need to start believing what I say."
"Face it, that's never going to happen." Justin said, taking off his crown and setting it on the ground. "The wolf thing sticks in people's minds."
"Especially when you falsely accused my brothers of being murderers." Tipping back his head, Joey howled, a sound that made JC shiver, even as he worked in his own music, grey notes spiralling in their own version of a howl.
Inching away from Joey and JC, Chris sat next to Brian. "So, you're going for Easter Bunny?"
"I figured it was time." Brian's nose twitched, and his feet thumped against the grass. "It's more responsibility, but I was talking to Marshall and he said being head man was worth it."
"He does seem happier when he gets into his suit." JC said, and folded himself down onto the grass next to Brian. Running his hands through the blades of grass, he watched a troop of sandhelpers walk by on their way to Kevin's headquarters, all yawning, their fluffy slippers shuffling along the golden path. "How is Marshall? He must be frantic, being this close to the big day."
"He's fine, bitching about growing the beard as usual. I reminded him it's only for one night, but you know what he's like." Brian laughed at the black notes JC created. "That's him alright. Which reminds me, he wants to see you, something about a song you two were working on, the one with the Kirkpatrick ass kicking line."
"He what?!" Chris glared at JC.
JC grinned and shrugged off the glare. "You were being an ass, and Marshall was writing, so."
"He's always an ass. Ouch!" Brian held up his hand, warding off the red notes that zipped close. "Back off Piper boy. I say that with love."
"Yeah right. You totally don't love me the way JC does." With affected dignity, Chris rolled toward JC, and sat close, his head resting against JC's shoulder.
"I'm still writing that song though." JC said, smiling as he ran his fingers through the spikes of Chris' hair.
"You do that," Chris said, glancing at JC. "But be prepared for inventive and excessive retribution."
JC mock shuddered and orange notes quivered in the air.
Chris reached up and flicked one of the notes, sending it spinning away from the others. "Laugh it up, music boy. You'll get yours."
"So, how's things norm side?" Brian asked interrupting, his nose wrinkling as Justin picked up his crown, holding it so he could practice his smile in the reflection, which was an impressive sight, especially the ding of light that appeared at the end.
"Okay. Mostly. It's just a shock, realising how naive we'd been." JC sighed, his hand stilling. "We should have listened to you ages ago."
"You had to find out yourself," Brian said sympathetically, his mouth tilted down. "It's what the Emperor does, making people see what's not there."
"I should run him through with my sword," Justin said, scowling as he unsheathed his sword and brandished it at one of the mushrooms.
"I should tear into his neck." Teeth bared, Joey exposed his fangs and sharp claws, swiping at the grass so shredded blades filled the air.
"I should stab him, strangle him with his own tie, shove dollar bills down his throat, cut him into pieces and throw the parts into the ocean to be eaten by the fish," Chris said, scowling as he rubbed his hands.
They all looked at JC.
"I'd set the FBI on him and send him to jail for a long time." He shrugged at the looks he received in return. "What? Violence doesn't achieve anything."
"Maybe, but it can be satisfying. One time I was watching the sheep and this dragon flew onto the field, I pulled out my knife and we fought for almost a day. It was a close call, but eventually I emerged victorious."
"In your own mind, maybe," Joey said, laughing at Chris' protest.
"It's all karma; he'll get what he deserves." It was something JC totally believed. The Emperor would be punished, because everything happened for a reason. It was why they'd all been reborn on the norm side as they had, and why they were making this journey that had been destined to bring then together. All except Lance. He was an anomaly in their predestined plans.
"I hope so," Brian said, and his nose twitched as he looked around them all. "If you could go back, knowing about all the bad, would you still sign up for a lifetime on norm side?"
The immediate reply was affirmative, for all of them.
"Millions of girls scream at my every word, why would I give that up?" Justin asked, his smile blinding.
Joey grinned, showing his fangs. "I've a family that adores me."
"Sure, some things sucked, but I wouldn't change anything," Chris said. "Well, maybe being a few inches taller would have been good."
"I wouldn't either, and there's Lance." JC pretended he hadn't seen the multi-colored twinkling notes that circled his head, and looked at the others. "I wouldn't give him up for anything."
Joey indicated the notes. "So we see."
"It's not like you're subtle about wanting him around," Chris said, grinning as the notes increased in volume and speed.
"You're like, the opposite of subtle," Justin said. "Still, why you'd want him when Prince Charming is around?"
"That's easy," Chris said, still smiling. "He's seen your sword, and you know what they say. The bigger the sword, the smaller the dick."
"Really." Justin rested his hand on the jewelled handle of his sword. "I always thought the saying was the boy who annoyed the most is the boy who gets stabbed in the ass."
Chris widened his eyes. "I'm flattered, J. But it wouldn't work. Different standings in life and all."
"What?" Justin stared at Chris, then his cheeks flushed. "I didn't mean that. That's like, incest."
Grateful that attention had shifted, JC bit back the song. Pushing it aside as the hopeless case it was.
JC loved the annual Christmas Crackers party. It was a legendary event on the Magical Realm calendar, and silver notes zipped overhead as he blew at the wispy feathers that dropped forward from his brushed velvet purple hat. Vision clear, he strutted inside, his fur cape swishing over the snowy ground.
Inside he took off his hat, and handed it over to one of the elves, who disappeared into the labyrinth of tunnels cut into the walls. Ruffling his hair, he ducked as a posse of fairies flew overhead, glittering sparkles falling in their wake. Holding out his hand, he caught some of the sparks in his palm, watching them twinkle before they finally faded away.
JC turned at the sound of trumpets, unsurprised to see Justin walking between an escort of polished wooden soldiers. Their red coats shone, and their feet clumped against the packed snow, each step perfectly in sync, and between them, Justin slinked his way forward. Snapping his fingers, hips swaying, his smile wide and beaming.
"It's okay, I'm good from here." Dismissing the guards, Justin walked toward JC, the crowd parting automatically as he moved. Nodding his thanks, he brushed a kiss against the hand of an old crone, and didn't even falter when a young hobgoblin wearing a 'The Future Prince Justin' t-shirt jumped into his path.
JC waited patiently, smiling all the while. He'd been friends with Justin for a long time now, and knew what he was really like, and usually, that wasn't regal at all.
"JC." Adjusting his crown, Justin tilted it slightly, finger combing the curls that stuck up behind the golden band. "Cool outfit."
JC spun, making the cape swirl around his body. "I made the cape myself. I bought the furry material at a craft shop."
"It looks good." Justin picked up the edge, rubbing the material between his fingers. "But you know what would look better? Some bedazzles on the edges. I could lend you my machine."
"Don't do it, C! Next thing you know he'll be bedazzling your thong, and those things chafe enough."
Heart racing, JC tried to pry Chris' arms from around his neck, and wished yet again that Chris would learn how to greet people without first jumping on their backs. But realistically he knew that would never happen. It was yet another impossible thing, like Britney wearing underwear when she flew overhead.
Not that JC would ever say anything to Britney about her unfortunate lack of underwear. She was his friend, and the last thing she needed was yet another person interfering in how she lived her life.
That decision led to a lot of lip biting when they met at Britney's place, JC sitting in the garden and talking to Britney as she perched on the roof of her house. They often met like that, discussing her need for a family and love, and JC was used to whisper soft kisses against his cheek, Britney's way of comforting when he rehashed the guilt of leading those children into the cave so many years before.
Resigned to Chris hanging on for the moment, JC whistled when he turned to Joey, and saw Kelly hanging onto his arm, her red hood sparking with tiny rubies, and wearing a dress that clung to her every curve.
"You look amazing," JC said. "You both do."
"You know it," Joey said, and cocked his hip, his chin tilted up, a picture of wolfish pride, even as Kelly laughed, and jabbed her elbow into his side.
"Come on, Wolfie. I want some of Marshal's famous hot chocolate."
"So do I!" Chris' knees dug into JC's side, and his fingers bit into his shoulders as he scrambled down, a flash of purple following Joey and Kelly into the main hall.
"I take it that was Chris."
JC turned to see Brian handing over his coat. Dressed in brown furry pants and a loose white shirt, he smiled at the elf before heading across to JC.
"No date this year?"
"Not unless you're offering," JC said, laughing when Brian spun and backed away in exaggerated horror.
"Actually, I'm meeting up with one of the elves later." Toeing his shoe against the snowy floor, Brian ran his hand down one of his ears, twisting the tip between his fingers. "She's on late shift, making Teletubbies, but she'll be here later."
"Yeah? I didn't know you'd met someone new." Hand on the small of Brian's back, JC propelled him forward, heading toward the wooden chairs grouped against the wall. Sitting, he rested his hand on Brian's knee. "So, tell me."
Resisting the urge to craft a song of impatience, JC waited as Brian smiled to himself, gaze far away as he looked toward the main hall.
"She's called Leighanne. We met a few weeks ago when I was taking my application to the Fantasy Figures hiring office. She'd tripped over one of the baby unicorns and I helped her up. She's beautiful."
"And?" JC prompted, leaning forward, impatient to hear more about this woman who'd added an extra layer of happiness to his long-time friend.
"And I think she's wonderful. We went dancing at Toothy's Bar."
The shudder was instinctive; JC had hated anything to do with teeth long before the whole Chris braces thing. He couldn't think of anywhere less he'd rather go on a date. Just the thought of the bar with its tooth shaped chairs, and toothbrush shaped straws left him feeling cold.
Brian shook his head. "I know, it's not your scene, but Howie runs a good place, and when I kissed Leighanne I knew I was minty fresh."
"You kissed!" Immediately JC sang a song of joy, and he pressed his hand against his mouth, the silvery notes slipping through his fingers as Brian smiled.
"We did, and before you ask, I'm not telling you anything else." He waggled his eyebrow – a skill that had to run in the Littrell family genes – and settled back in his chair. "Talking about kissing. How's Lance?"
Resigned, JC allowed the multi-colored notes free rein, watching as they mingled with the snow flakes that fluttered through the air. "He's okay. He was reading through a book on contract law when we left." JC pictured Lance how they'd left him, glasses on, bent over a book that he was trying to understand. It made JC's throat ache, a glaring contrast to this party with its atmosphere of laughter and joy.
He slumped forward, head in his hands, and the party faded as he imagined Lance, lonely in his empty room. JC could see it clearly, and he stood, kissed Brian on the nose and said, "I have to go."
Roughly a third through the book, Lance thumped it shut. He didn't even know what he was doing. The legalese and technical words were beyond him.
Despite knowing he was wallowing in unneeded self-pity, he slumped against the table, his forehead pressed against the cover of the closed book. These last few days had been increasingly awkward and now, sitting here alone, he was all too aware of just how isolated from the other four he'd become.
Not moving, Lance looked to the side, seeing a sliver of JC's shirt, and a brief flash of his hand.
"Are you okay?"
JC sounded hesitant, but his footsteps were sure, and he pulled out a chair, sitting down on the opposite side of the table.
"I'm fine." The reply was automatic, meant to be dismissive, but the longer Lance sat there, breathing in the smell of old book, the more the whole injustice of the situation hit him. Peeling his forehead from the book, he looked across the table at JC. "You know? I'm not fine. I'm sick of being left behind. I don't know what you all are doing, but leaving me out sucks."
JC looked stricken, and Lance felt guilty, until the memory of curtailed conversations and time alone made him steel his heart against JC's woeful look.
"We're not. I mean. It's not like we're doing it on purpose. Well, we are, but we don't want to, and…"
"JC. Just stop." Lance was tired. He'd been getting little sleep lately and having JC scrabble to explain made his head hurt. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he waited for a moment, the unspoken words heavy between them. "Don't bullshit me on top of everything else," he said, voice rough and exhausted. "If you're not going to tell me the truth, I'd rather you leave."
Tense, Lance watched as JC stared down at the table, his whole body still. Then he looked up, and even before he said a word, Lance knew.
"I can't," JC said, his voice low with regret. He stood then, movements deliberate. "I'm sorry."
"Just go, JC."
Lance forced himself to watch him leave, only slumping in his chair when JC had left the room.
"I've changed my mind, we need to tell Lance," JC said, grabbing hold of Chris' arm the minute he walked into the room.
Chris looked at JC's fingers wrapped around his arm. "I thought you said we shouldn't tell?"
"I did," JC said, and he loosened his fingers just a little, enough so his knuckles weren't blanched white. "He thinks we're leaving him out of stuff."
"That's because we are," Chris pointed out.
"So we tell him?"
Chris sighed. "Even if we do tell him, it's not like he could come with us."
"At least he'd know."
"That's if he believed us. What are we supposed to say? Oh, by the way Lance, we're living a double life, one where we're characters out of fairy stories, but sorry, visitors aren't allowed, so we can't actually prove it." Chris briefly rested his hand on top of JC's. "I hate that we haven't told him, but there's a good reason."
"Why can't any of this be easy?" JC muttered. "Why does he have to be different?"
JC's heart sank when he saw Chris' eyes widen, the way he looked past JC toward the bedroom door.
"So that's it." Lance was pale, expression frozen as he put a to-go cup on the dresser. "I came to apologise with a hot chocolate. Guess my timing is just perfect." He glanced at Chris then turned, walking away without another word.
It was tempting to slam the door behind him, but Lance resisted. With exaggerated care, he closed his hotel room door, and sat on the bed. He stared unseeingly at the floor, feeling bruised and raw.
He didn't move when someone knocked, or when the door handle jerked, and someone eased into the room. He knew they would. It was just a case of knowing who.
"Lance," JC said, and there was the snick of the door closing. "You heard me wrong; I didn't mean what you thought I did."
"It couldn't get more obvious, JC."
"No," JC protested, and he sat down next to Lance, far enough away that they didn't touch, but close enough that Lance could hear him breathe, see the way he was worrying at the hem of his shirt. "It might sound obvious, but it's not. Not like you think anyway."
"So you don't think I'm different?"
"No. Yes. Just not in the way you think." JC reached out, his hand falling just short of Lance's leg.
"So what way is it then? Because we're past the can't dance thing, so it has to be something else." Angry now, Lance still didn't look directly at JC, just watched him in the mirror opposite the bed. "See, this is why I don't tell people."
"Tell them what?" JC said, sounding confused.
"That I'm gay, obviously." Unable to sit still, Lance stood, pacing toward the window. "I thought I didn't have to, that it was one of those things where people knew anyway and we just didn't say, but no."
"I think that's one of the most insulting things I've ever heard you say." When Lance turned back, JC was standing too, his hands bunched against his side. "I know you're upset, so I'll give you some slack. But you know us. Do you really think we'd ostracise you because of that?"
"I didn't, but…"
"But nothing," JC interrupted. "Not everything is about sex." He hesitated then, his lips curling up slightly. "Well, most things aren't."
The sentence was so uniquely JC, that Lance couldn't help relaxing a little, his tense muscles easing. "You all started disappearing, and conversations stopped when I walked into a room."
"I know, I'm sorry. We're sorry," JC said. He was staring past Lance now, as if looking at something far away, but Lance didn't interrupt, just waited him out, knowing he was about to get the answers he needed.
"It's true. You are different, but it's not about you being gay, or me being gay or Justin being whatever he claims to be this week." JC sat down then, forehead creased as he thought. "You're not going to believe me, but you should know. We're not the same as you. Chris, Joey, Justin and I all belong to another world."
"Like I don't know that." Lance smiled, trying to believe that JC was starting his tale with a joke.
"No, I mean it literally. We're not like, space aliens or something. We're from another universe, one a half world away from this one."
"So what? You slid through some kind of rip in time?" Lance said. "I don't care if you do think Spock is hot. You need to stop watching Star Trek marathons."
"No. It's not like that. Well, it's sort of like that except like I said, we're not aliens. We're story book characters, the people from the books. At least we are over there, here, we're just us."
"You do realise how insane that sounds?" Lance said slowly. "I mean, the alien thing is bad enough, but story book characters?"
"I know, it sounds insane, but it's not." JC thumped the flat of his hand against the bed. "It would be easier if I could show you, but I can't. Okay, right. When people first write a story, the characters end up in the Magical Realm. So, Hamlet. Lives at the Magical Realm. Lucky from the Jackie Collins novels. Magical Realm. Just not where we live. We're all characters from children's stories, so we've our own area. It's next to the fantasy figures' place."
"You really expect me to believe that?" Lance said, feeling hurt, because JC trying to prank him like this was almost worse than being excluded in the first place.
"I know. It sounds stupid."
"No, it sounds insane and I can't believe you're lying to me like this." Exhausted, Lance pushed past JC, heading for the door. "Fairy tales aren't real, and you're not Peter Pan."
"No, I'm the Pied Piper, and if you'd just listen. JC reached out grabbed Lance's arm. "Listen to me, please."
Lance didn't. Instead he pulled free his arm, never looking back as he left the room.
JC believed that you had to take responsibility for your own actions, which in turn meant dealing with the consequences. He'd tried to talk to Lance, but each time he'd received a dismissive look before Lance had found somewhere else to be. Lance had found a lot of places to be; none of them in the vicinity of JC.
What was worse, Lance wasn't talking to anyone, instead he spent his time talking on his phone to his friends, and while they were performing together as a group just fine, everything else was falling apart. JC hated it.
Needing to get away, JC concentrated, and moments later, was standing on the hill that stood between the fairy tale and fantasy figure lands. Sitting, he wrapped his arms around his bent knees, looking down at the towns, even the sight of Marshall's empty sleigh led by hundreds of elves, their voices united as they sang, unable to prompt a smile.
It was a song of happiness, but as much as he ached to do so, JC couldn't join in. Instead his own song was low, the multi-colored notes leaden, falling to the grass where they floundered before melting into the ground.
"I think you took a wrong turn the goth-suicide poetry land is that way."
Two pointy ear shaped shadows slunk over the grass, and JC reached out, letting the last note slip through his fingers. "Lance didn't believe me."
"Hardly surprising," Brian said, and moved so he could look down at JC. "What did you expect him to do? Believe you straight away?"
"He should know I wouldn't lie to him."
"Maybe, but you can't blame him. If you didn't know about here, would you believe that story?"
"I'd think someone had been at the good drugs," JC admitted, and rested his head against Brian's leg.
"There you go then." Brian threaded his fingers through JC's hair. It felt nice; comforting. "You need to talk to him again; about everything."
"It won't do any good. He won't believe me, and there's no everything to talk about. Ow!" JC pressed his hand against his head, against the spot where Brian had grabbed a handful of hair and tugged; hard.
"We all know you like him."
"Of course I do, it would suck working with someone I didn't like."
Brian tightened his hand around another hank of hair. "Don't make me hurt you."
JC tilted back his head slightly, rolling back his eyes to try and see Brian. "If your fans could see you now. A nice guy. Ha!"
"I am a nice guy, if I wasn't I'd have told you to suck it up and stop making excuses."
"I'm not making excuses. I have reasons." JC pointedly rubbed his head when Brian let go. "Good reasons."
"No, what you have is illogical guilt based on something that happened hundreds of years ago. Something that has nothing to do with Lance."
"It's got everything to do with Lance." Notes fluttered in the air, spinning in crazy circles. "Those children followed me, and I took them to a cave."
"And they got lost, and they cried and then somehow they all ended up over here and Marshall had more elves. You've seen them, they're happy here."
"They were happy at home with their families."
Brian's ears twitched and he stood looking at JC, one hand on his hip. "That's ancient history, and has nothing to with Lance. Get over it already."
"They followed me." JC felt the need to stress that, despite Brian having heard this story multiple times before. "What if Lance just wants me because he's reacting to my song?"
Brian held out his hand, counting on his fingers. "One. Lance is a grown man. Two. I've never seen him blindly follow you around. Three. Stop making excuses. Face your intimacy issues and talk to Lance."
"I haven't got intimacy issues. I just like to spread the love. It's just. Uh. Something I do. Sowing my wild oats."
"You've sown enough oats to feed a nation," Brian said. He peered down at JC. "You need to sort this out. Talk to him, all of you talk to him if need be, because I want you all at my celebration party."
"Wait. What? You got the job!?" JC jumped to his feet, pulling Brian into a hug. "Why didn't you say?"
Grin wide, Brian hopped in a wild circle with JC. "Because I couldn't get a word past your all-encompassing pain. Now go, talk to Lance."
Lance had been pointedly ignoring JC, which was difficult because it was the season of goodwill, and JC looked like a kicked puppy, spending all his time offering Lance cups of tea. On one occasion he even offered a plate of crustless cucumber sandwiches arranged on a china plate. Lance had no idea why, except a suspicion that JC was well on the way to a psychotic break. At least that's what the whole fairy tale thing suggested; the sandwiches were just the icing on the cucumber-shaped cake.
Lance looked up from the magazine he was reading, setting it down when JC walked into the room.
"We want to talk to you." He stepped aside, letting Chris, Justin and Joey into the room. They all stood in a line, looking at Lance, which was annoying and kind of creepy, but Lance was made of stern stuff, so he looked right back.
"As long as you're not here to spin more fairy tale stories."
"Erm," Joey said, and Lance felt his eyes widen, because this was Joey and while he was given to his own flights of fancy, they had never extended to deliberate untruths.
"If you say a word about another universe," Lance snapped, and he picked up his magazine, and deliberately turned the page.
"You need to listen to us." Joey stepped forward and plucked the magazine from Lance's hands. "I know it all sounds unreal, but you need to try and keep an open mind."
Lance wondered about the possibility of mass hallucinations, because Joey had none of his usual tells of a joke. No twitching of his mouth, or a gleam in the eyes that suggested he was laughing inside.
"We wouldn't lie to you." Justin sounded painfully sincere, and Lance would have been convinced if he hadn't seen Justin lie bold-faced to the press. "What would it take to make you believe?"
"What? That Chris is Rumplestilskin and JC's Peter Pan?"
"Wait. Rumplestilskin? He's short and mean and." Chris paused then, lips pursed. "Okay, I see your reasoning, but still. I'm The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Not Rumpleskinskin."
"Of course you are," Lance said, and he pointed at Justin. "And I suppose you're The Frog King."
"Close." Justin puffed out his chest and waved his hand as he bowed. "Prince Charming at your service."
Lance suspected he was going mad, because he knew his friends, and there was an air of sincerity to them all. "Prince Charming," he said weakly, and for a moment he thought he saw a flash of light when Justin smiled. "I guess I can see that. You're vain and destined to rule the world, so Prince Charming. Chris lies…."
"And likes sheep," Chris broke in, grinning wolfishly.
"And likes sheep, so he's The Boy Who Cried Wolf. I suppose Joey's The Woodcutter from Snow White," Lance said.
Joey's lip curled. "As if. That guy's as dumb as a brick. I'm The Big Bad Wolf."
"But you're not evil." Lance heard his words, and couldn't believe he was actually discussing this. It was like he was stuck in a vortex where the madness was catching, and he'd been exposed.
"The Big Bad Wolf is very misunderstood," Joey said, frowning at Chris. "Of course, some people don't help that reputation. You watch, one day I'll make a movie and show the world wolves aren't that bad."
Lance had been looking at Joey, and was surprised when JC sat next to him, so close they were pressed together.
"I'm the Pied Piper. I like to make music." He smiled, open and unguarded and Lance couldn't help leaning into him, enjoying being so close. "So you believe us?"
"I believe you believe," Lance said, surprised to find that was true. Then jumped when Joey suddenly slapped his hand against his own forehead.
"We're morons. Lance, watch this."
Lance watched, his mouth falling open when Joey suddenly disappeared.
"How did you do that? It's a trick right? Mirrors from the prop department?" Lance stood and waved his hand across the empty space, despite knowing they had nothing in their budget that could account for this.
"He's gone to The Magical Realm," Justin said, and he grabbed Lance's hand, stopping him from waving it in place.
"He'll be back soon." Chris anticipated Lance's next question, and he wrapped his fingers around Lance's wrist while looking at JC. "I've been talking to Brian, and he said there's nothing in the rules about norms crossing over, they just have to believe, kind of a Tinkerbell kind of thing. You know, clap if you believe in fairies. If Lance believes we might be able to take him over."
"That would be cool!" Justin's smile was blinding now, and Lance blinked, momentarily sure he saw a ring of gold nestled in his curls.
"I could show him my songs, and the mouse houses, and we could go to Brian's party." JC was almost vibrating in place, happiness contagious, and Lance couldn't help a spark of excitement, even though he felt foolish standing in the middle of a hotel room, his friends surrounding him and grinning like loons.
"We need to wait for Joey I think, once he's back we'll grab on and just go." Chris moved so he was standing in front of Lance. He looked at him, gaze serious and intent. "At the risk of sounding like Fox Mulder, you have to believe."
"I'll try," Lance promised, a promise that was strengthened when Joey suddenly appeared, looking happy, the washed out imprint of a waving tail and pointed ears fading into the air.
"Joey, we're taking Lance with us," JC said, and wrapped his fingers around Lance's upper arm.
Immediately, Joey did the same, and Lance felt stupid and scared and kind of crazy as he stood still, his friends all holding tight to his arms.
Nothing happened. Despite intense concentration, despite the way all four screwed up their eyes, nothing changed. Then, just as he was about to speak, the room began to fade.
Heart racing, Lance tried to remember how to breathe as reality blurred, colors swirling and the floor dissolved under his feet, leaving him falling into space.
He landed on purple grass, under a pink sky with multiple suns, all pulsating with color. He looked at bushes topped with cotton candy, huge mushrooms and tiny houses built under sprawling trees, their fluttering birds attached to the branches instead of leaves.
Lance reached out his hand, and a bird wing fluttered against his fingers.
"You were telling the truth."
Tearing his gaze from the surrounding, Lance gasped when he saw Chris, smaller and younger and dressed in ragged clothes. At Justin, dressed in purple satin, a jewelled crown on his head, his white sneakers almost hidden in the purple grass. At Joey with his pointed teeth and ears, his muzzle long and a tail swishing through the air, and JC, who smiled, a stream of multi-colored notes floating from his mouth.
"You're taking in music notes." Lance stood still as the notes ticked across his face.
"You get used to them." Chris grabbed a note, popping it between his thumb and forefinger. "Come on, Brian's waiting."
He ran, Justin and Joey chasing behind as they disappeared along a golden path that wound into the thicket of bird trees.
"Brian?" Lance asked, and there was so much to see, to take in, that he couldn't stop looking around, even when JC still held onto his arm.
"Littrell. He's the Easter Bunny." JC grinned, looking proud. "Or he will be soon anyway, he takes over the job this week."
"The Easter Bunny is real, and it's Brian." This was information that Lance hadn't expected, not that he'd expected any of this, and really, when it came down to it, was Brian being a rabbit any more unusual than Joey being a wolf?
"Well, no. Like I said, not yet," JC said. "He's still a minion bunny at the moment, producing the eggs and distributing them. None of the high up stuff."
"Wait, back up a moment." Lance stopped JC walking forward. "What do you mean produce the eggs?"
JC laughed. "How do you think he gets that jaw line? It's all the clenching he does."
Which was more than Lance needed to know; ever, and he vowed to never touch chocolate again.
JC was beaming. "You'll get used to it. Wait until you see Kevin in his tutu."
Horrified, Lance couldn't help picturing just that, and immediately, JC began to laugh, making the bird leaves explode in a flurry of flapping sound.
"Your face!" He leaned forward, arm pressed against his stomach. "You should have seen yourself." He stood, and wiped the back of his hand across his eyes. "Kevin's the Sandman, he puts people to sleep."
"Ass!" With a last mental shudder, Lance started to follow the others along the path, then stopped when JC didn't move.
"Lance," JC said, all laughter gone from his expression. "I think we need to talk."
Lance itched to explore, but he could hear the uncertainty in JC's voice. It made his stomach clench, an all too familiar feeling in this new world, and months of bitter disappointments made him steel himself for what JC was about to say.
"It's just. Uh. I get the feeling that you kind of want something. Like, something I can give and I could be wrong, and if so, I'm sorry because hello, embarrassing, but I don't think I am," JC said, and he looked at Lance, like he should have a clue what he meant.
Lance didn't. Despite years of deciphering JC speak, the words were mixed, their meaning unclear. "I don't have a clue what you just said."
Frustrated, JC tried again. "I like you, a lot."
Which was more than clear, but Lance knew that for sure when JC began to sing. His song was warmth against Lance's skin, golden notes and confessed fears. Lance listened, and drank in the naked trust exposed in each sound.
"Lance." JC's song had ended, and he sounded exposed without that background of sound. "I really like you."
"Well that's good, because it would suck if you didn't," Lance managed to say, and he was impressed with himself, that he managed actual words when JC's hand was so warm against his neck.
"It would," JC said, stroking along the underside of Lance's jaw, catching at the slight stubble.
The kiss wasn't earth shattering, a slight brush of lips, JC's tongue sliding against Lance's. Gentle and giving an expression of friendship and love.
"I've wanted to do that for a long time," JC admitted.
"Me too." Feeling daring, Lance grabbed JC's hand, and pulled him down to the grass, pushing at his chest so JC was lying on his back. Laughing, JC's eyes were crinkled as he looked up and his hair mingled with the purple grass, a sliver of skin exposed where his shirt had ridden up.
Lance didn't have to hear the song, or see the explosion of notes overhead to know JC was happy, he could tell by the way he was looking at him, like something he'd waited a lifetime for had come at last.
"Come here," JC said, and Lance need no urging. Kneeling, grass tickled against his wrists as he leaned in and just seeing how much JC wanted this, the way he licked at his lips and the way he burrowed his hand under Lance's shirt, his fingers warm, made Lance's heart race.
This second kiss was longer, deeper, and Lance shivered as he realised that JC was heat and love and continuous internal song. Lance could feel it against his mouth and finger tips, an internal tune that only he could share.
"Thank you," JC said, and his hand was still against Lance's jaw, holding on as golden notes fell around them.
"For what?" Lance asked, loving that he could reach out and touch.
"For helping me move on." JC looked at Lance. "When a book is first written, we're created from those words. You'll know the story of the Pied Piper, I led those children away." He looked away then, staring up at the sky. "I felt guilty as soon as I left them, but I couldn't do anything about it, it wasn't my story to tell. Not then anyway."
Lance rested his hand against JC's shoulder. "But, if you have to do what's written. How can it be your fault?"
"It's not, but all I could remember was the sound of their screams as I left them." JC closed his eyes, and sighed. "The children were okay, they got picked up to be elves, but still, I always hear those screams; they're the backdrop to my songs. At least they used to be." He opened his eyes. "I can hear you now."
"I'm glad," Lance said simply, pleased at JC's admission, and then jumped when they heard a crash, and the bird trees fluttered to the sounds of thousands of wings. "JC!" Joey's tail was sticking straight behind him, his ears pricked high. "There's been a thing. Dasher, he overindulged on ale again and passed out in the stable with Miss Muffet's spider."
Immediately, JC began to run, Lance following close behind.
"Dasher is real?" Lance said, yelling above the high-pitched wailing that seemed to originate from the other side of a tall hill.
"Of course he is." JC looked back, frowning as if Lance had asked something stupid. "You've seen Dre plenty."
For a moment Lance slowed, trying to imagine Dre as some kind of deer, but gave up when his head began to ache, the jolts of pain thumping in time with the increasingly loud wails. It didn't help his whole body was itching, and he raked his nails across his arms, scratching hard as they joined a stream of toy soldiers, and a flock of fairies, who swooped past Lance's head.
As they ran the ground turned from grass to snow, and Lance couldn't help his gasp of surprise when he saw the city before him. A huge glass building dominated the high ground. Inside Christmas trees floated through the air, rotating, their lights blinking in sequence. But it was the chaos outside that caught his eye.
A snow packed field was streaming with elves, their feet crunching and their hands waving in the air. In the middle of the mass of small bodies was a sleigh, painted gold with red stripes, presents piled precariously in the back. In the driving seat stood Eminem, fatter and with a lot more curly white hair, but the blue eyes were obviously his, and he scowled as he tried to get seven reindeer to pull the sleigh.
They all tried, snorting and rearing, the bells attached to the harnesses jingling with each curtailed try, but the sleigh went nowhere.
"Fuck this fucking fucker!"
Hearing Santa swear was enough to make Lance stop in place, stumbling a little when a giant spoon ran straight into his back.
"Lance, come on, we're going over to Toothy's. Kevin's ringing around to try and find another reindeer."
JC held out his hand, waiting for Lance to move, but Lance remained still. He felt sick, like fire was coursing through his veins, but somehow he knew he had to remain here, despite the way JC was beckoning for him.
Then suddenly, Lance's legs turned to jelly, and he collapsing forward, landing on his knees and hands, except suddenly, they were changing. Terrified, he watched as his hands shortened, becoming solid, his fingers massing together, and he gasped, his breath icy as he felt his rib cage expand. His senses were becoming pin prick sharp; the scent of fear, the cold of the snow, his friends gathering around, their hands hovering close. Head bowed, he tried to control his thundering heart, even as he pushed up on slim legs and looked out at a world devoid of color. Yet somehow, despite the fear and the uncertainty, he knew that this was right. Lance could feel it, something deep inside, warm and welcoming, like he was easing into a world he hadn't known he'd left.
"Lance?" JC took a step forward, and tentatively ran his hand along Lance's back. It felt good, the touch one of concern, warmth and love, and Lance pushed into it, before moving forward, unsteady at first, then more confident, his hooves digging into the snowy grass.
When he turned, he tossed his head, snorted when he tried to talk, and looked at his four best friends. They were all watching him, obviously shocked, but there was also dawning understanding as Lance inclined his head; because suddenly, he knew what he had to do.
A last look, and he walked toward the sleigh, taking a place at the head of the line. Immediately a group of elves fastened the harness to his back, and a fairy perched on his antlers, her wings scattering sparks as she attached bells that jingled as he moved.
Lance tossed his head, excitement building, aware that everyone was watching as Marshall yelled, "one minute to go!"
JC ran forward then, and crouched, pressed a kiss against Lance's nose. He smiled and ran his hand along Lance's neck. "I always knew you were magic."
He stepped back then, taking his place next to Chris, Joey and Justin, and all three stood watching as Marshall cracked his whip in the air.
Heart racing, and knowing this was exactly where he was meant to be, Lance surged forward, and took off, his hooves kicking as he flew into the air.
In seconds they were airborn, swooping low, over the crowds of elves, the magical beings, and most important of all, his friends. All of them smiling, waving as Lance led the sleigh, heading into space at last.