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wolves and boybands mate for life

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Part One: In Which Chris and JC Fail at Almost Everything.

In Portland, Chris tried to woo JC by leaving a pack of green Pixie Stix under his pillow. The green were JC's favorite. Chris couldn't actually go out and buy a green-only pack of Pixie Stix because they didn't make them like that, so he got a regular pack and took out all the other colors and ate them himself, leaving the green for JC in the ripped open cellophane. There was actual effort involved, and Chris felt that acknowledgement of that effort should come in the form of those really big, goofy smiles JC got when someone took him totally by surprise by being nice to him. He forgot to leave a note, and couldn't get back to the bus later to put one in the package, but he figured the gift itself was pretty self-explanatory. It wasn't like he was a slut, for God's sake. Chris Kirkpatrick didn't give green Pixie Stix to just anybody, after all.

JC had no idea what the Pixie Stix were about. He amused himself for a little while by pretending the tooth fairy had visited in the night. He hadn't even had to lose a tooth or anything. Just, suddenly, candy. Of course, the tooth fairy wouldn't leave candy because that would lead to tooth decay and he was pretty sure tooth fairies would be against that. Unless they were concerned about their job security. And the economy hadn't been good for a while, so maybe it was the tooth fairy. Maybe the tooth fairy was having Union problems, or maybe he was disgruntled in some way.

None of that got him any closer to knowing where the Pixie Stix really came from, but the embittered tooth fairy concept entertained him for three whole hours the morning he found them. He wandered around laughing and grinning at the other guys all day. And he ate the Pixie Stix, which turned his lips green, but nobody had the heart to tell him and everybody but Chris thought it was possible he'd painted them that way on purpose. Chris knew where the green lips came from but didn't tell anybody because he thought they were kind of cute.

JC tried to woo Chris by writing him songs. He worked on them constantly, trying to get the words just right. It was weird, but the more he cared about a song the harder it was to finish. He could write Space Cowboy in like half a day but writing a song for a guy he was in love with, that took weeks. This wasn't a big problem or anything, since JC had been in love with Chris for years and it hadn't occurred to him to do anything besides write about it until they started the Celebrity tour. He had a lot of material to work with.

The songs didn't make any sense to Chris. They seemed to be mostly about girls. A few were about girls and candles, and a few were about girls and boats, and one of them seemed to be about Justin. The most recent one, Chris was pretty sure, was about a dog, or possibly a wolf, who turned into a butterfly. He had to read it three times before he got even that much.

He figured JC was trying to give him the brush-off. It seemed likely, since the Pixie Stix hadn't met with the response he'd hoped for and since JC had been avoiding him except to give him songs. But JC kept writing them long after Chris had decided to be a man and let himself be brushed off, and he kept shoving sheaves of paper and CDs into Chris's hands with a strange, blushing intensity that was starting to freak Chris out.

Chris felt like he should probably say something, something like, "hey, the Pixie Stix meant nothing to me, man", in a way that would diffuse the tension and let JC know he could go back to being normal again, or at least JC-normal, which Chris was kind of starting to miss. But that would mean acknowledging that the Pixie Stix had had the potential to mean something, and neither he nor JC had done that yet and so it would be kind of awkward. And also it would be lying, and Chris didn't lie.

In Grand Forks, almost a month after the day JC had green lips and sat apart from all of them and grinned at nothing, after the day Chris sprawled across Joey on the bus for hours and stared at crumpled pages with his CD walkman on, Justin turned to Lance and said, "That is fucking pathetic, yo."

He didn't even have to point. Lance was already nodding.


 

 

Meanwhile, In Another Part of the Boyband: Breakfast

Lance liked having breakfast with Justin because Justin didn't start talking until he'd been up for at least an hour. Usually Lance was up first and he'd wait out in the lobby or in the common area of the bus or wherever until Justin stumbled in looking freshly killed and a little bit pissed off about it. Lance didn't talk either; he just grabbed Justin's arm and steered. Today, it was a wobbly table with a lime green umbrella over it, just outside the venue, right next to their own private coffee cart. They called it the coffee cart even though it also had juices of almost every kind and combination, soft drinks, bagels, muffins, donuts, and four different kinds of danish. It was the coffee that was important, after all.

Justin got a paper and a mocha and a chocolate chip bagel without ever opening his mouth. The coffee girl was good; she let him point and handed him what he asked for. When Justin didn't smile at her she didn't smile back, and even though Lance couldn't place her, he figured she must have been with them for a while. At the table, Justin opened the paper and blew on the mocha and ignored the bagel completely.

Lance opened his laptop and pretended to work even though he didn't really have any work to do. He did that a lot, because the guys expected it and liked to see it. It made them feel comfortable, like Lance was looking out for them. Most of the time he was, but some of the time he faked it because when he did, people's eyes skated right over him. It left him free to look at pretty much whatever he wanted to look at. Mostly right now he wanted to look at his coffee until he stopped wanting to kill the world, but across the parking lot there was somebody coming toward them, somebody moving in a way that clicked inside his brain: JC.

Or maybe not toward them. Toward the coffee. Walking in that easy, loping stride he had, so distinct from everyone else, so exactly like Justin and Chris and Joey and probably like Lance himself. Too many years dancing together, too many of the same songs, and Lance thought if he watched long enough he could probably guess what JC was singing in his head just from the way his hips moved.

So he looked over the screen of his laptop and watched JC walk across the parking lot. Watched him turn when someone called out a good morning and watched a smile light up JC's whole face and watched him keep walking in the same direction, no longer looking where he was going. Lance winced, and started to stand up, but he was too far away.

The security cart barely missed JC. It was going to hit him; it would have hit him. And it was going too slow to do any real damage but if it had actually hit JC, Lance would have had to actually fire somebody instead of just threatening to. But then Lonnie was there and he picked JC up by the back of his shirt and yanked him out of the way, and the cart passed on by them and then by Lance's table, close enough that Lance could see the nametag on the driver: Eddie.

He wrote it down.

Lonnie still had JC up in the air and JC was kicking his legs and laughing so hard Lance could hear him now, loud and happy and fearless. It was just as well Chris was late; Lance wasn't even in love with JC and it still made him a little bit dizzy. He settled deeper into his chair and shook his head.

"We did some really stupid shit back in the day," Lance muttered to his laptop, thinking about Germany, about how they used to laugh and say JC was the oldest.

"Dude, I know," Justin said with bone-deep sincerity, never looking up from his paper. "We used to let him drive."


 

 

Part Two: In Which Gifts are Given and Received and Rejected and Accepted (None of Which Does Anybody Any Good).

JC used to carry a pen with him everywhere he went. He didn't carry paper because the pens were always blue Sharpies and he could write on his own clothes or skin if he absolutely had to. The theory was that when he got hit by a sudden jolt of inspiration miles away from anything to write with, he'd have something to write with. He'd given it a lot of thought since he had the idea and the theory, JC was certain, was sound.

In practice, though, JC was an internationally acclaimed pop star and as such was never more than five feet away from a hundred different pens, unless he was physically on stage performing. And in practice, JC never got any sudden jolts of inspiration when he had stuff to write with. He had them when he was naked in the shower, or when he was swimming in Justin's pool, or when he turned out the light to go to sleep at night, or when he was driving. He wrote more after he stopped carrying the Sharpies than he ever had before, and he started to think pens might actually be talismans against inspiration. He wrote Selfish in a two-hour session with his own voice mail, and discovered that he could trick himself into creativity by pretending he'd left his cell phone at home.

He'd been pen-free for months and his hands had stopped trembling at the smell of fresh ink when Chris came up to him in the Quiet Room in Hartford and passed him a brown paper bag. From the shifty-eyed expression on Chris's face, JC was pretty sure it was a bag of crack cocaine.

JC stared at the floor, then at Chris. He didn't look at the bag at all, trying to dissociate himself from it even though it was right there in his hands. He wondered if it would be rude to just pass it back and run.

"Open it!" Chris said, grinning widely. "Go on, you know you want to."

"I do?" JC said, and then when Chris's face caved in on itself and started to go blank JC smiled broadly and nodded hard and fast. "I do! I really do!" And then Chris was smiling again, but he was also waiting, so at that point JC pretty much had to open the bag or quit the band.

It wasn't crack cocaine. It was worse. JC hadn't even known you could get packs of Sharpies with all one color.

"Um," he said, looking at the package. It held five pens and had been opened by somebody before him. They smelled good and felt good between his fingers. He could feel the creativity draining from him by the second.

"Look," Chris said. His eyes were huge and dark and solemn. "I'm sorry about the Pixie Stix. I wouldn't have done it if I'd known you'd get all," and he waved his hands in the space between them, at random as far as JC could tell, "whatever."

JC squinted at Chris and tilted his head down to get a better look at him. Chris was pretty short. "That was you?"

Chris squinted back. "You didn't know that was me?"

"I, well. There wasn't a note or anything," JC said weakly. He looked around for Lance or Justin or Joey, because they usually helped when things in his head were going too fast to match up with the things coming out of his mouth, but there was no help on offer. Chris usually helped when that happened, too, but he wasn't helping now.

"A note?" Chris glared and stepped closer to JC and glared some more from up close, and JC reared his head back because, whoa. Chris glaring that close gave off a very bad vibe. "The hell? Who else did you think would go around putting green Pixie Stix in your bed? Do you have like a parade of people leaving candy under your pillow? Am I just part of some vast procession of candy-leaving sycophants, that you can't even figure out who it was that left it? Jesus, JC."

"No! I mean. I just, it could have been any one of you guys, I thought. I mean, it could have been Justin."

"Like Justin would have remembered about the green. Justin can't even remember what his own favorite flavor is!"

"Well, or Lance." JC looked down at his feet. "Maybe."

"Lance would have left designer sugar in gold-plated straws monogrammed with your fucking initials. And don't even say Joey because Joey is Joey and doesn't go around leaving candy in people's beds." Chris glared some more and huffed like he'd just finished a race and then fisted both his hands in his hair. "I hate you," he said, then blushed dark pink and looked at the floor. "Not really. But fuck. You don't know me at all."

"Chris," JC said helplessly. But it was too late, because Chris was already gone.


 

 

Interlude the First: A Brief History of the Tragic Love of Chris and JC

Chris had a memory of standing on a cold grey sidewalk, pressing his face against a department store window. The light inside was yellow and warm, and in the memory his breath made filmy grey patches on the glass, hiding all the stuff he really wanted to see. He never wanted to stand on that sidewalk again.

Now Chris made a practice of not wanting things he couldn't have. There must have been a time when identifying those things was harder but he couldn't remember it. Now the process was automatic and instantaneous, and it saved him a lot of time and pain and effort and disappointment. It was a good system and it had always worked and Chris was actually kind of proud of it, in a depressing and vaguely morbid kind of way.

He thought it would still be working if JC hadn't started out as kind of a dork.

JC in 1995 had been a cute kid. Shy, a little weird, great voice, but nothing that tripped the reject button, nothing that put him out of Chris's league. Cute, but not impossibly cute. JC wandered around with his mouth set in a permanent apology to the world for the imposition of existing in it, and Chris thought maybe that was why his system didn't tag JC. Because Chris bought into the JC that JC saw, instead of the JC that JC was. It was an easy mistake to make, partly because JC hunched in on himself like security was gonna escort him from the building any minute now, and partly because JC kept tripping over stuff. It was evident pretty early on that dancing and walking were handled by very different parts of JC's brain.

JC in 1999 and 2000 was a little cuter and a little flakier, but 1999 was a busy, legalistic, vaguely unpleasant year and Chris wasn't really paying very much attention. JC in 2000 was barely a blip on Chris's radar, probably because JC seemed to sleep through most of it. Chris thought of that as JC's cocoon period because JC in 2001 was fucking scary.

In 2001, there was suddenly all this hair, and this face Chris didn't think he'd ever seen before. There was this grin that knew where it belonged and liked it there. JC in 2001 was whipcord thin but could pick Chris up and throw him onto Justin just for fun, and he did it often, sometimes with hugs and tickling. He started laughing out loud in a way Chris had never heard him laugh before and singing in the shower for fun and writing songs on napkins and not really giving a fuck who read them.

He was still a holy terror in the studio. He was still the nicest guy Chris had ever met. He still had that innate kindness like he had brown hair and blue eyes, but it wasn't just a reflex anymore. Cocooning. In 2001 JC wasn't JC by accident; he was JC because that was who he wanted to be.

Chris caught sight of him through the glass window of the sound booth one day and caught his breath and tried to fight it. But he'd loved JC too long by then, and so of course it was much, much too late.


 

 

Meanwhile, In Another Part of the Boyband: Lunch

In the much-emptier Quiet Room, when it looked pretty unlikely that anybody else was going to storm either in or out, Justin looked up from the paper and said, "I was thinking. Maybe we should be doing something."

Lance put his book and his sandwich down, took off his glasses, and looked back at Justin. Justin always wanted to be doing something. "Like what?"

"Like. I dunno, man. We should be fixing them, or something. It's like watching two blind guys trying to talk to each other in sign language. If the blind guys were gay. And like, from different planets."

Lance couldn't deny that it was almost exactly like that. Still. "I don't think it's any of our business."

"It's happening right in front of us, Lance. Right in front of our faces. Our own little twenty-four-seven gay alien soap opera."

"Yeah." Lance tried not to grin.

Justin narrowed his eyes. "Dude, you're enjoying this. That is twisted."

"Am not." Lance flicked his eyes back down to his book. "No way."

"You are!" Justin reached across the table and whapped Lance in the head with his paper. Lance didn't even bother to dodge; Justin had whapped him like that so many times he had calluses. "That's cold, Lance."

"I am not. Besides." Lance waved at the space between them. "We are doing something."

"We are?"

Lance nodded, and finally let himself smile. "We're having lunch and...monitoring the situation."

In the privacy of his own mind, Lance liked to think of it as dinner theatre.


 

 

Part 3: In Which Things Get Better and Worse (Simultaneously).

Things were bad after the Pixie Stix debacle. Not yelling-bad, which was usually the case when Chris was upset, but quiet-bad. Quiet- and still- and glaring-bad. The kind of bad that, left alone to grow, could develop its own gravity well and throw off the revolution of the planets.

So JC wrote Chris a new song, a song about friendship and loss and pain and the hope for forgiveness. He worked in a little metaphor with blue skies and emptiness and storms and love and there were some trees, too, because he didn't get to do much with trees for their albums. He didn't have time to actually record it because no matter what Chris thought, he really did know Chris, and he knew that after a while Chris being upset temporarily had a way of hardening into Chris being upset for a really really really long time. He just wrote down the lyrics and sketched out the tune and hummed it a little under his breath, playing with the key and pacing. He handed the song to Chris in the tiny living room of the bus and stood over him, bouncing a little on the balls of his feet and waiting while Chris read it.

It took a while, because Chris read it three times, each time slower than the last. When he looked up at JC it was clear that Chris was still upset, and when he stood up and tore the page into eight small pieces and let them drift down to the floor, it was even clearer. JC opened his mouth and tried to say something but even babbling had abandoned him. He'd never been closer to hitting another human being in his life.

He didn't. He pressed his lips together, and closed his eyes for a second. He'd somehow hurt Chris, it was the only explanation. Chris never hit till somebody else hit first. And so now Chris had hurt him back; it was like an equation, like physics or something. Only that made it feel inevitable, and maybe it was. Maybe trying to love Chris broke some kind of natural law and this was just the thing that came from that. Whatever it was, JC couldn't look at Chris without feeling it. He turned around and walked back to his bunk and pulled the curtain.

So he didn't see Chris staring at the pieces of paper on the floor, didn't see him sit down on the couch and put his head in his hands and just be still for a few minutes, more still than anybody thought he could be. And he didn't see Chris pick up the pieces and put them back in order, and tape them together with tape he stole out of Lance's desk. He folded the page up and put it into his wallet, and glared at Lance and Justin who were pretending with total concentration that they hadn't seen or heard any of it, and left the room.

Chris tried to remember the words to the song about the butterfly and the wolf, but the new song played over and over in his head and wouldn't stop, not even when he fell asleep.


 



 

Chris kept the page with the song on it in his wallet. He never took it out to look at it, because it wasn't like he was ever going to forget what it said. It was the I-value-our-friendship-buddy speech set to music, with a funky electronica beat, set in a minor key. Chris's entire life was in a minor key lately, an endless riff of melancholy overlaid with self-pity. He hated the way he felt and felt he should feel some other way, resigned or determined or something noble like that, but depressed and bitter was as close as he could get. He thought about mood stabilizers but he didn't really like taking pills, and he thought about therapists but outside of family and the guys he didn't really like many people.

Okay, maybe he liked the security guys, and a couple of the producers. And he liked Howie Dorough and AJ McLean, Howie because he was just such a nice guy and AJ because he came up out of a hole just like Chris had -- maybe not the same hole, but he crawled up out of it all the same and Chris respected that.

And okay, Trace wasn't bad, he loved Justin so hard he practically had him lojacked, and Joey's brother knew even more dirty limericks than Chris did and swore he got them from his mom. And come to that Chris really liked Joey's mom. And Justin's mom. And JC's mom.

He didn't really like Lance's mom, though, and he didn't know Lance's dad very well but probably Chris wouldn't like him either, so there it was. Chris didn't like many people. Eminem probably liked more people than Chris did.

Secure once again in his misanthropy, Chris sat in the corner of the couch alone, because JC hadn't come out of his bunk to do anything but sing since Hartford and Justin had left for the two-person bus that morning right after breakfast. He'd muttered "I see boring people, they're everywhere," and stormed out, a backpack full of CDs and underwear slung over his shoulder.

It would pass, Chris knew that. For one thing, he loved JC and he didn't have a lot of faith in his ability to stay mad at him. He could hate a lot of people, and did, but JC was just never going to be one of them. Every time he'd seen JC since the great Pixie Stix revelation, JC had looked tired and bruised, and already Chris just wanted to hug him and tell him everything would be okay, even though it was entirely and emphatically obvious that everything wouldn't.

For another thing, Chris was a survivor, and the mix of hurt and disappointment gnawing at him was not something he could deal with long term. So it had to pass; it was just a matter of time.

JC thought it would probably pass, too, but he was starting to think he'd have to do something to make it pass. Like, possibly he would have to kill Chris. He loved Chris and he would hate to do it, but he couldn't go out into the living room and be there with all that messed-upness hovering between them. Chris was just hurting too much, and JC couldn't take it, so he could either stay in his bunk forever or he could go out there and kill Chris in some quick and merciful and painless way and then, well, probably hurl himself off the bus. He made a mental note not to kill Chris unless the bus was actually in motion.

The problem was, JC didn't know what the problem was. It was possible Chris had been offended by JC's overtures, but Chris wasn't really the type to get mad about stuff like that. Chris was more the type that would get all sweet and comforting, and make a guy feel loved and needed even if he didn't actually love or need him, just so the guy would feel better. Tons of times Chris had shown that kind of patience and understanding with Justin -- times when he really didn't want to play another round of Mortal Kombat or didn't really want to go out to that cool club with the hot band, or times when his knees hurt and he didn't really want to chase Justin all around the set between takes. And all Justin would ever have to do would be to look at Chris in that certain way he had and Chris would melt all over the floor just to make Justin smile.

JC might have been jealous about that if he hadn't seen Chris doing the same thing one time when Wade yelled at Joey for missing a turn and Joey yelled back that Wade was a punk kid and they could find ten guys like him in a heartbeat, guys who'd treat them with a little fucking respect. Joey was in a lot of pain that day from the thing with his leg, and Wade maybe had been pushing a little too hard, and JC had seen in Wade's eyes that he knew Joey was just telling a simple truth there. He was probably underestimating a little; they could have found a hundred guys like that.

Joey saw it too and felt bad right away and didn't know how to take it back. Nobody else knew what to say. But Chris knew; Chris told Wade Joey was having a sexual identity crisis and had a huge crush on Wade and just didn't know how to say it so he was expressing his love as anger, and he said it in a calm, obnoxiously reasonable voice, and called Joey a bitchy queen with commitment issues. Joey nearly fell over in relief and said he absolutely did not have any commitment issues thank you very much and Wade took a step back and said, "Whoa," with huge, wide eyes. And then everybody collapsed, laughing so hard they had to take a break just to breathe.

JC could still feel the ache in his ribs when he thought about it, and the sharp, unexpected tug in his chest when Chris looked at him and smiled because he knew JC saw it, and JC smiled back, a secret thing. It was all fine then, and Chris had done it, and JC knew for a fact Chris didn't even like Wade.

Chris just found things that were wrong and made them right. He found things that hurt and made them stop. Sometimes he did it in stupid ways and sometimes in embarrassing ways, but somehow his ways always worked. It was part of Chris's job, like herding Justin and singing the really high parts. It was what Chris did, and so it didn't make any sense that Chris would know JC wanted him and not try to make that better somehow, even if he couldn't make it better by wanting JC back.

It didn't make any sense.

So just outside of Columbus, JC climbed out of his bunk and went to the living area, where Chris was sitting on the couch and staring at the television. He stood in the door for a second just watching. Chris's hair was spiked and wild, his dark eyes bright where the light of the TV flickered over them. The sound was down all the way and it didn't look like Chris was really paying attention.

JC sat down on the opposite end of the couch and said, "Do you hate me?"

Chris jumped like he'd been hit. "What? No! How could -- no!"

"Okay." JC nodded. That was something. He could breathe a little, now. "Are you...going to stay mad at me for very much longer, you think?"

"I'm not--" Chris stopped. He sighed, and looked at his hands. "I'm not mad at you. Much." He picked up the remote control and didn't do anything with it. "Anymore."

"Then why --"

"I'm kind of mad at myself. And I feel bad about everything." He set the remote down and lined it up perfectly against Justin's book on Nurturing Your Creative Spirit: A Journey Into Self. "I'm thinking of throwing myself off the bus."

"Oh." JC blinked. "Me too."

"Yeah."

JC leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees, his hands dangling helplessly between. They hadn't turned the air up from arctic after Justin left and he wished he'd put on something with sleeves. Chris had on a red sweatshirt with the Roadrunner on the front, and looked really warm.

JC said, "I'm sorry if I--" just as Chris said, "Look, I'm really sorry."

JC shook his head. "No, you didn't do anything--"

"I shouldn't have torn it up. It was a good song."

"What?"

Chris pulled out his wallet. He unfolded a page, with shiny tape running across it from top to bottom and side to side. He smoothed it out, and laid it on the couch between them. JC's heart started to pound fast and hard in his chest and he didn't know why.

"It's a good song, C. It's...it's really good. I don't --" Chris sighed, and looked away. "I get the point, you know? I get it. I'm trying to get okay with it, but it's hard, and I'm -- I'm just not there, yet. But if I have some time, I think. I think it'll be okay. And it's a really good song."

"Time?"

Chris glared. "It's not like there's a switch in my head, geez. I can't turn my emotions on and off on demand."

"Time." JC's mind had seized on the word and wouldn't let it go. "You just need time? And then maybe we can, I mean. If we gave it time, are you saying you could--"

"I thought we were on the same page before, man, and now I see we're not." There were spots of pink on Chris's cheeks. JC wasn't sure he'd ever seen Chris blush before. "I can get there, though. Just maybe...not right away."

"I can give you time." JC nodded rapidly, starting to smile, feeling light. Time. He could do that. He was young, he had all kinds of time. He had time in thirty-one flavors. "Whatever you need, I'm cool with it. As long as we don't have this big dark not-talking thing between us, Chris, I hated that. I missed you a lot."

"I hated it too."

Chris wasn't smiling, but he looked better. His eyes looked clearer, and he looked like maybe he could smile later, if JC did something funny or stupid, or if Justin came in and started talking smack about Lance and Joey. There was like, a potential for smiling around him, JC thought. More than there had been before, anyway.

"So, um. While I'm giving you time."

"Yeah?"

"Can I still sit by you and stuff?"

Chris tilted his head and looked at JC suspiciously. "What do you mean by stuff?"

"Normal stuff. You know. Sleeping on you and playing with your hair and hugging you and stuff. I miss that, too."

Chris looked at JC some more. "That's normal?"

JC waved at the three feet of space between them. "More normal than this, huh?"

"I guess." Chris nodded slowly. "Okay."

"Okay!" JC picked up the page between them and scooted over to be right next to Chris. The sweatshirt really was warm, and soft, too. He handed the song to Chris.

"No, it's yours. You should --"

"It's for you. I want you to have it." JC smiled at Chris, wishing he'd smile back. But he would, eventually. All it needed was time. Chris had said so, and Chris didn't lie. "Keep it. To remember."

Chris closed his eyes. "I'm not gonna forget, C."

JC edged closer, slid his arm underneath Chris's and laid his head down on Chris's shoulder. He laced his fingers through Chris's fingers and then covered their joined hands with his free one. Warm. Chris was so warm. And being close to him, actually touching him, made something tight and unhappy in JC's chest feel loose and easy and good, for the first time in a really long while. Chris squeezed his fingers around JC's and JC pressed his smile into Chris's sleeve. He felt so good he wanted to sleep; he felt like he hadn't slept in days.

"Do you still feel bad about everything?"

Chris was still for a long moment. "Not everything."

"I didn't mean to make everything so complicated. If I -- if you need me to back off, like time and space, too, I will. I don't want to, but I will."

"I don't want you to." Chris's arm pulled JC's in tight against his side. "If I seem a little weird--"

"I know."

"It's just hard to make this huge change in my head, or my...wherever. But don't leave."

"I won't." JC settled in closer against Chris's body. "You don't leave either."

"I can't," Chris said, and his voice was strange, strange and low.

JC was almost asleep, and the last thing he heard was his own voice whispering,

"Good."


 

 

Meanwhile, In Another Part of the Boyband: Dinner

Lance thought Justin was just taking a break from Chris and JC. He was willing to rent out some table space and a few electrical outlets on an hourly basis toward that end, and Justin hanging around wasn't all bad lately. He'd settled down since breaking up with Britney, and picked up a thread of bitterness in his humor that Lance really liked. He supposed as a friend he probably shouldn't notice that kind of thing, but it was a plain fact that suffering had improved Justin's character.

For one thing, he had unforeseen depths of patience now. Lance knew he couldn't have handled the other bus as long as Justin had, and a break was probably a good thing, a little physical and mental distance to smooth things over. They had lunch together, which was really kind of nice, and then later when Joey came back from last night's date the three of them had dinner. After that, Lance settled down on the end of the couch, propped his feet up on Joey, and waited for Justin to leave.

Justin didn't leave. He sat on the floor in front of Lance and flipped channels. Endlessly.

Endlessly.

At eleven, Lance looked over at Joey and raised his eyebrows. Joey blinked, and shrugged. Lance sighed. "So, um. Justin."

"Yeah?"

Lance tried to think of a polite way to say it, a loving way. He liked having Justin around but he wanted to go to bed, and if Justin stayed that wasn't going to happen. Justin would get Lance's bunk and Lance would get the couch. That was just the way the universe worked.

He nudged at Justin's head with his knee. "Go home."

"Uh-uh."

Strike one. "Please?"

"Nope."

"Ah." Lance looked at Joey, who looked back and made the universal sign of 'he ain't sleeping in my bunk, buddy' with his eyebrows.

Lance sighed. "How come?"

"No room over there."

"It's a three-person bus, J --"

"Yeah." Justin tilted his head back to meet Lance's eyes upside down. "And it's got three people on it. JC, Chris, and the bastard child of their star-crossed love, which I'm calling Pain."

Joey looked up from the article he was reading. "Wait. Chris and JC?"

"Chris loves JC and JC doesn't know it. JC loves Chris and Chris doesn't know it. They're trying to win each other over with stupid songs on one side and blue magic markers on the other." Justin sighed heavily and flipped through ten channels. "The chick-vibe on that bus is like backstage at a k.d. lang concert. You can hear their tits growing."

Joey leaned across the couch and thwacked Justin on the head with his magazine, hard.

"Fuck! That hurt." Justin stared wide-eyed at Joey. "What the hell?"

Joey flipped back to the page he was reading. "That remark was derogatory toward women."

Justin appealed to Lance with wide, pretty, hurt eyes.

"He's right." Lance said heartlessly. He had an immunity; Justin's eyes didn't work on him. To prove it, he looked away really fast before they could. "It really was."

Justin grabbed a throw pillow and hurled it at Joey's head, missing by three feet. "Man, why couldn't you have had a little boy?"

"So." Joey ignored Justin, and made a face that was kind of a frown from the nose up and a smile from the nose down. He ended up just looking confused. "Chris and JC, Lance? Seriously?"

"Yup. Well, almost. They're trying to hook up."

"And?"

Lance grinned. "They're not very good at it."

"Well," Joey said thoughtfully, drawing the word out. He very carefully didn't look at Lance. "Maybe they'll work it out."

Lance kept his eyes on the TV. "Maybe they won't."

Justin tilted back again and looked from Joey to Lance. He closed his eyes and groaned. "You guys are not gonna bet on this. You're just not."

"Well," Joey said. "But. It would be wrong to interfere. They'll be connected at the lip inside the week."

"Oh, I think that's pretty unlikely," Lance said idly.

"How unlikely?" Joey looked at the ceiling and turned a page in his magazine. "Numerically speaking."

Justin looked from one of them to the other and frowned. "I am having no part of this, and if y'all know what's good for you--"

"It would be wrong to ignore the pain of our friends, J." Lance nodded seriously. "Selfish and wrong."

"Absolutely, selfish and wrong." Joey nodded back. "Very, very wrong."

"We're just expressing a healthy interest in the lives of our brothers, right?" Lance smiled at Justin and patted his head. "It's our duty, Justin. Seriously."

Justin flopped back against the couch and closed his eyes. "We're all going to hell."

"Maybe," Joey said, pulling out his wallet. "But I'm going a hundred dollars richer than you."


 

 

Part Four: In which Sleep Patterns are Disrupted, but Appetites are Affected Not at All

JC thought if Chris knew how much they had in common, it would make Chris love him back. They were a lot alike, actually. He felt like their talk had gone really well. JC had slept on Chris a little and then just when JC thought he should probably get up and let Chris have some time to process things, Chris fell asleep. And since JC had long since lost all objectivity and now thought Chris snoring in those little hitchy breaths and drooling a bit on his shoulder was the cutest. thing. Ever, JC had stayed put. He'd had more than a passing urge to paint Chris's fingernails lavender while he slept, but he'd suppressed it ruthlessly even though Chris had done far worse to JC on many many many occasions.

Love, JC felt, was above that kind of petty revenge. At least in the early stages.

Chris had slept on JC about a million times in the past and on the rest of the guys just as much; in the fast and crazy world of a bus tour anything that stayed still for five minutes was automatically reclassified as furniture. But Chris seemed to be falling asleep all the time lately and JC wasn't really sure what to think of that. They were busy, but they'd been busier in the past and Chris never seemed to mind. He always seemed to work best on about five hours sleep. Any more and he'd be groggy all day and trip over his own feet a lot; any less, he'd drink enough coffee to wake up a small third world nation and bounce off the walls for hours until somebody sat on him long enough to let him crash. Most of the time that somebody was Lance, because Lance had more tolerance for annoying than the rest of them combined, but sometimes it was JC. Because JC just really liked having his hands on Chris.

This, though. This was weird sleeping behavior of a definitely not-Chris variety, and JC wasn't sure he liked it. He was still thinking about it when they hit Memphis, and Chris was still sleeping the tour away. JC needed a second opinion. And maybe, also, a sandwich.

Joey was in his en suite kitchenette, hovering over the toaster. He had on a blue Superman t-shirt and baggy gray sweats and a baseball cap flipped backwards on his head. JC crossed behind him and hopped up on the counter, swinging his bare feet in the air. "Hey, Joey.

Joey turned around and grinned a big Joey-grin, and JC grinned back because. Joey. "Hey, C. You want some toast?"

"Breakfast was hours ago, dude. It's almost time for lunch."

"Huh." Joey looked at the clock on the microwave. Then he looked at the toaster, and then at JC. "Want a sandwich?"

JC grinned and nodded. Joey pulled lettuce and a tomato and mayo out of the minifridge, and after frowning intensely for a few seconds, a bag of roast beef. He made good sandwiches, but not as good as Justin made, because Justin understood the fine art of the 2:1 meat-to-veggie ratio and didn't lay the mayo on too thick.

Still. Breakfast was hours ago.

When Joey was satisfied with lunch he handed one sandwich over to JC and leaned against the counter across from him. "Ready for sound check?"

"Nah, I gotta run through some stuff with J first. He's pissed about some wobble he's got going in Want You Back."

"I think that's the wobble of despair. We've all got it. Tell him to suck it up; we'll be singing it till we're dead and that's that."

"I told him, man, but he thinks he can sing it out. Nobody hears it, you can't hear anybody but Lance on that part anyway."

"I heard that!" Lance wandered in from the hallway with bedhead and circles under his eyes. "I told y'all I could back that down." He eyed Joey's sandwich with lust and sighed. "There's no lettuce in my fridge."

"Nah, your part's cool," JC said. "Keep it up, it's good to drown him out on that bit." He grinned at Joey and shook his head. "Careful, man, I think he wants a sandwich and he ain't getting mine," he whispered.

"I'm taking Justin downstairs for coffee. You guys coming?"

"Nah, I gotta pick Joey's brain, you guys go ahead." JC looked at Joey hopefully. "That okay?"

Joey waved at Lance until he blinked, visibly caught on, and sighed. "No roast beef in my fridge either," he said mournfully, and went away.

Joey rolled his eyes and crossed over to lean next to JC. "So, now that you have me alone, you gonna have your wicked way with me?"

"No way, dude, you're out of my league." JC smiled and bumped his shoulder against Joey's. "There's just a thing, I don't know if it's a problem or if it's just, you know, maybe I'm nuts."

"No maybe about it."

"Shut up," JC said companionably. "So, the thing is. It's about Chris."

"Really." Joey shook his head in wonder. "Wow, I didn't see that coming at all."

"Shut up," JC said again. "It's Chris." He looked at Joey to see if he already had the answer. Joey was like that sometimes, quick when it came to people, already at the solution before he even heard the problem. Not this time, though; this time there was just curiosity and a unibrow of concern.

JC hugged himself a bit and looked around the room. "He's been, I dunno. I think he's maybe sleeping more, lately? Not like he got enough sleep before, but lately, it's like all the time."

Joey just looked at JC and waited.

"He says he's just, you know, tired from the tour, but he wasn't this tired when we were touring harder, and I know he's not hurting from it, just from watching him in rehearsal, and it doesn't really seem like. I don't know, he just doesn't seem that tired, to me. It's not normal."

Joey pushed off the counter and stood in front of JC, frowning. "You think he's taking something?"

JC blinked. "For what?"

"Jayce," Joey said slowly, "are you saying you think Chris is on something?"

JC frowned, because at first he didn't get it, and then he did get it. His jaw dropped and he glared and thumped Joey hard, dead center on his chest.

"Ow! Hey!"

"You deserved it!"

Joey rubbed at his chest and glared back. "Well, what did you mean?"

JC fumed. He just stared at Joey and wanted to yell, but that would bring the other guys running, popcorn in hand. He tried to think of something bright and cheerful and calming, for about two seconds he tried, and then he gave up and thumped Joey again. "Asshole."

Joey rolled his eyes and relaxed against the counter. He grinned, and poked at JC's ribs. "Sorry, man, it was too easy."

"This is serious!"

"Okay, okay." He shook his head and straightened his face. "How many times have you said Chris needs to sleep more, though? Really, it's a lot."

JC waited until the serious-face looked real and long-term before scrubbing a hand over his hair and sighing. "Yeah, but."

"But what? Now he's sleeping more, you should be happy."

"But. In a bad way."

"You said anything to him yet?"

"I didn't want to, I didn't think I should -- you know, pressure him, or anything." He didn't want to push him, he meant, but he also didn't want to tell Joey the whole thing and have to explain it, and talk about scary stuff that was really personal, and end up feeling more like a dork than he did already. So he just sighed and looked Joey in the eye. "I'm chicken, dude. You do it."

"C, I don't know. It sounds like it's some kind of emotional deal. That's more like your thing, isn't it? I mean, if he was on drugs, I'd be your guy, but--"

"He's not. On. Drugs!"

"I'm just saying, I think I perform better in the area of what not to mix with hard liquor and how not to get arrested than in, you know, more. Girly. Areas."

JC sighed. He could've whapped Joey again, and maybe he would, later, but it wasn't like he didn't have a point. Under any other circumstances JC would talk to Chris and find out what was wrong and see if he could help. He was just acting weird, not doing it himself. But since he thought maybe he was part of the problem he was stuck. Especially since if he was part of the problem he didn't think he wanted to know.

"Hey."

JC looked up, and Joey was all warm brown eyes and compassion. "You and Chris, huh?"

"I'm. Um, we just." JC blushed and looked at the floor. "No. I mean, yeah, but. No. Maybe?" He sighed, and met Joey's eyes again. "I don't know."

Joey stepped close and pulled JC into a tight, smothery Joey-hug, the kind that was like getting mauled by a friendly bear and that lasted as long as you wanted it to. JC wrapped his arms around Joey and squeezed.

"Chris isn't fucked up because you want him," Joey said into JC's hair. "He's fucked up because he's Chris and that's the way the factory made him."

"I know. I know, I like him that way, he's just so, you know. Chris."

"Yeah, I know."

"I just want to do it right." He pushed back from Joey, and braced himself against the counter. He felt better, storing up the hug like energy he could use to face the world. "I never had to do it like this before."

Joey swallowed, and looked a little nervous. "You mean. Um. With a guy?"

JC grinned. "Yeah, Joey, with a guy. Tell me how that works, from your vast experience. Details, dawg. I'm of age."

Joey smacked him lightly on the side of the head. "Okay, smartass. What, then?"

"I don't know. Just, it's harder, somehow. Should it be this hard, if it's the right thing?"

"The good stuff usually is."

"Not for me." JC shook his head, and ran a hand through his hair. "Not like this. Never was before, anyway."

"Well, there you go."

JC blinked. "What?"

"Maybe you're only getting to the good stuff now."


 



 

There was a problem with trying not to be in love with JC. The problem was, it hurt.

Chris hadn't thought it through when he first started crafting his plan, and so the first time he tried not looking at JC when he really wanted to be looking at JC, the shock of how much it hurt made him actually flinch. He tried to pass it off as making a face at Justin but Justin was watching him with all this uncharacteristic kindness in his eyes and Chris could tell he didn't buy it at all. He thought Justin's life must be going pretty good if he had time to be noticing the pain of others, and then felt petty and small for thinking that.

He smiled at Justin to make up for it. That just made Justin look even kinder and Chris had to throw a pillow across the bus at him, because pity from a kid who'd had a platinum 'fro for a year was just not to be borne. Justin tackled him and declared himself Supreme Ruler of All Chris-dom, and the twinge settled into a hollow at the pit of Chris's stomach that he could almost pretend was a simple need for lunch.

But lunch didn't help. Neither did dinner. By breakfast the next morning Chris knew he had to either face the truth or invest in elastic waistbands. The plan wasn't working; the plan had never had any chance of working. The plan, in fact, was pretty fucking stupid.

Chris had thought pretending everything was normal would make everything normal. He didn't want to try too hard not to love JC because that would make things weird. Weirder. He wasn't going to be trying not to love any of the other guys, and so on the one hand it didn't seem fair, and on the other hand, it would mean treating JC differently from the way he treated the other guys. And that kind of went against the whole pretending-everything-was-normal plan.

He was a little worried about the whole process of falling out of love, because it meant something major would have to change. Either JC would have to stop doing the kinds of things that made Chris love him, which seemed unlikely, or Chris would have to stop loving those things, which seemed impossible.

It didn't help that JC was always there. He wasn't pushy, but he was there like Chris's shadow. He talked to Justin about music and Joey about acting and Lance about taking over the world. He engaged everybody, but he stuck by Chris, and Chris figured that was JC's weird way of giving him time to get over him while still looking after him. Chris, if he'd had his choice, would have preferred a little more avoiding Chris and a little less wearing of that skin-tight sequined orange shirt and those jeans -- crazy rainbow jeans from 1997, jeans for which there was no earthly excuse and from which JC would probably have to be extracted with the jaws of life.

It also didn't help that JC sometimes felt like singing to him. He didn't make a big production of it and probably nobody but Chris knew what he was doing. But one morning, with his eyelids drooping and stubble fresh and sharp on his pale cheeks, JC started singing quietly to the toaster on the kitchen counter while waiting for his bagel to pop up. The toaster wasn't sidetracked but Chris was, because it was the song about the butterfly and the wolf and JC sang it so sweetly it broke Chris's heart.

He still didn't know what it meant, and he still couldn't get it out of his head, and every bit of hope he'd had of falling out of love with JC vanished like smoke. It was for him, Chris knew that, and the fact that JC wrote such a beautiful song for him but didn't love him was so confusing that Chris got up from the tiny table where he'd been reading the latest Hellblazer and went back to bed. He was sleeping as much as JC did now, if not nearly as well.

He'd only been in bed for an extra hour when he felt the bus slow down and stop. He waited, and a few minutes later the curtain hiding his bunk was drawn back and Lance stood beside him, looking calm and remote everywhere but his eyes.

"Hey."

"Hey." Lance looked Chris over from his eyes down to his feet, then back to his eyes again. "Joey says you're sleeping a lot lately."

"Joey has a very firm grasp of the obvious."

Lance nodded, and leaned back against the wall with his arms folded over his chest. "We have a little thing tonight. A few thousand people or so. We're supposed to sing and dance. Kind of a show thing."

"I'll be very well rested." Chris pulled his pillow over his face and said into the darkness behind it, "Go away."

"You wanna play Metroid?"

Chris moved the pillow and blinked at Lance. "With you?"

"No, with Tiny, he was too shy to ask you himself."

Chris lobbed the pillow at Lance's head. Lance ducked it, grinning, and refused to give it back when Chris reached for it. "C'mon. School me."

Therapy, Bass-style, involved a lot of video games played at great personal expense, since Lance wasn't really much of a Nintendo fan. It also involved a lot of not-having-to-talk-about-it, which Chris sincerely appreciated. JC and Justin moved around the bus quietly and only when they absolutely had to, getting sharp looks from Lance whenever one of them got too close to the First Annual Bass-Kirkpatrick Blow-out Destructoid Championship Nintendo Tournament (which was sponsored by the Coca-Cola Bottling Company and for which a whole lot of Cheetos gave their lives). After the third hour, they fled the battleground entirely.

It was fun, and Chris leaned against Lance and watched him play whenever it wasn't his turn. Lance played well but not brilliantly, and his heart wasn't really in it. Chris didn't care. It was good to sit next to someone and be close without his stomach performing interpretive dance under his ribs. Lance felt solid and warm, and Lance was his friend, one of his best four ever, and it reminded Chris that there were still good things in the world.

He didn't even know he was singing until Lance hit pause and frowned at him.

"Um, sorry."

"What are you doing?"

"I was just, you know, I'm a professional singer, Bass. Geez. I was warming up. We have a show thing tonight."

"That's JC's song."

"I know," Chris said, and bit his tongue so hard it flared with bright red pain. Let's-just-be-friends in a minor key. "He showed it to me a few weeks ago."

"Yeah, but." Lance frowned harder and put the game control down. "You're singing it wrong."

Chris blinked. "What?"

"I heard JC singing it the other day. You're singing it wrong."

"Maybe he's singing it wrong!"

"It's his song," Lance said reasonably. "I don't think he can sing it wrong."

Chris frowned, and pressed in closer against Lance's side. Lance was still warm and solid, but obviously on crack. He couldn't possibly know who that song was for or about, and Chris knew both those things, and therefore Lance was talking out of his ass. Chris was singing it right. He was singing it the only way he knew.

"I'm singing it right," he said firmly, not looking Lance in the eye.

"You're really not. You make it sound like suicide rock, Chris."

"Well, how does JC sing it?"

"Not like that," Lance said softly. He had that kind look in his eyes, the one he probably picked up from Justin. "He sings it better."

"How does he sing it better?"

Lance sighed, and wrapped an arm around his waist. "Why don't you ask him?"

"Because I hate that fucking song," Chris said, and his chest loosened a little as he finally let himself say it. He was suddenly breathing, and he hadn't even noticed he wasn't before. He was breathing too hard, maybe, strange, tight little breaths that didn't seem to have a lot to do with oxygen. "I really hate that song, Lance."

Lance didn't say anything, but his hand stroked warmly against Chris's side and Chris's eyes were maybe a little bit wet. He wasn't crying, but he knew he couldn't make a solid case against that accusation so it was just as well Lance didn't mention it. Chris was just tired, and -- and probably allergic. To something. Lance was looking at him from wide green eyes in a too-pale face and Chris felt a little guilty for using Lance for Cheetos and cheap Nintendo thrills and comfort, but not enough to stop. He pressed his face into the soft red of Lance's shirt and sighed.

"Sorry I'm so weird," he said in a low voice, almost hoping Lance wouldn't hear. "I'm fine. I'll be fine. Low blood sugar, I think."

Lance felt stiff against his side but Chris didn't know it until Lance relaxed, went warm and pliant. Then Chris could feel the difference. His arm tightened around Chris's waist. "Low blood sugar, huh?"

"Yeah." Chris nodded, his head bobbing against Lance's arm. "I think that's it."

"Well, don't worry." Lance squeezed him one last time. "I think I know how to fix it."


 

 

Meanwhile, in another part of the Boyband: Prime Time

Chris was hurting. Lance couldn't wrap his head around it. It wasn't
that he didn't think Chris was capable of getting hurt -- at least on a
conscious level he didn't think that. If somebody had asked him if he thought Chris could be killed by lightning strike or an earthquake or a plane crash or Ebola or something, he would have said of course, are you nuts? Anybody could die like that. And anybody could get hurt emotionally, too -- people got betrayed and left behind and broken up with and just plain not cared about all the time. He'd even seen Chris after he split with Dani, and he'd been sad then, so it wasn't like any of it was outside the realm of possibility. On a minor scale he'd been watching Chris trip over things and fall off of stuff for years, so yeah, Chris could get hurt, obviously.

It was just that he'd never really thought about it. And now that he did think about it he had a problem with it. Part of the problem was that even though it was all patently and demonstrably possible, Lance only believed it in a press way, like he believed Chris's favorite color was silver and his worst habit was biting his fingernails.

The other part of the problem was, the more Lance thought about it, the less he liked it. He'd been thinking about it for about ten minutes and already liked it less than a lot of things he really hated, like women-in-prison films and being wrong in public.

It was clear he was going to have to do something, and equally clear that Chris and JC wouldn't like it. People didn't like when other people fixed them, in Lance's experience. They tended to resent the implication that they needed it. He was prepared for that and willing to accept it as a consequence because the only alternative seemed to be watching Chris and JC be unhappy. What had seemed interesting and slightly annoying a week or so ago was a lot less fun when it was wrapped around him like a tight t-shirt, red-eyed and complaining about low blood sugar.

Joey was going to laugh, but Lance could take that. Joey tended to forget to make fun of people after a few days, no matter how easy it was. He had a short attention span and was easily distracted by other available targets. It was one of the things Lance liked best about Joey.

Justin wouldn't laugh. That was one of the things Lance liked best about Justin. But Justin would smile at him and look like he knew something Lance didn't. Any time Lance did anything nice for anybody Justin got that look. That was one of the things he liked least about Justin. Justin would look at him like that and it would make Lance blush and Justin would smile wider and Lance would blush even more. And that was one of the things Lance liked least about Lance.

He'd have to make it quick.

They were in Sunrise. Almost home. Justin and Joey were cluttering up JC's suite, lounging in front of the television like there was no crisis going on all around them. Like they weren't just sitting idly by while their friends floundered helplessly in their pain. Lance hated them. Especially he hated Justin, who hadn't really wanted to be in on the pool in the first place because he was apparently a better person than Lance and Joey combined. Last day of the tour, last day they'd all be living in each other's hair (except for the studio time, and game nights, and living at each other's houses) and they were watching Law & Order without him. He hated them both even more. He glared at them from the doorway, so they'd know it, and stalked in. He stopped between them and the TV.

"Dude, move," Justin said. He leaned all the way over the arm of the couch to see the screen. "I got money on this."

"It was the wife and the brother-in-law."

Joey groaned and turned it off. "I was going to say that."

"You were not! You totally thought it was the kid, you fucker." Justin grinned at Lance. "I knew it wasn't the kid. He was just too skinny."

"You can't be too skinny to commit murder, J."

Justin looked Joey up and down, smirking. "Well, maybe you can't--"

Lance grabbed the cushion out of Joey's hands before he could use it. "Okay," he said. "Listen."

Two sets of eyes turned on him expectantly.

"I just want to say, if either of you says a single word about this to anybody, including me, ever, I will dedicate my life to making yours miserable for the rest of our careers." He waited for a second while their eyes widened, then peeled off two crisp one-hundred dollar bills and slapped them down hard on the coffee table.

"I mean it," he warned them. Especially Justin. "Not. One. Word." He turned as fast and clean as Wade had taught him and left, slamming the door hard behind him.

Joey blinked, and watched Lance go in silence. After a few seconds, when he was sure Lance wasn't coming back to rain doom on them from the skies, he sighed and slid his hundred across the table to Justin. "Dude, you called that. You've got powers."

"Just an inside track, Joe. An inside line."

"Yeah?"

Justin nodded smugly. "He's my secret boyfriend."

Joey looked at the door Lance left through. Lance didn't act like a guy with a secret boyfriend. He didn't act like a guy with any boyfriend at all. Just then he had acted like a guy who would have been fine if either or both of them had fallen off the planet, never to be seen or heard from again.

Joey narrowed his eyes and looked at Justin. "How secret, exactly?"

"He's a smart guy." Justin smiled broadly and sank back down into the couch. "He'll figure it out."


 

 

Interlude the Second: A Further Brief History of the Tragic Love of Chris and JC.

It was different for JC, because JC knew he loved Chris from the very beginning. Chris had weird hair all the time and bad teeth for a very long time and sometimes he was meaner than JC liked and sometimes he couldn't hit the notes JC wanted in the sound booth. None of that seemed to have any effect on the thing that happened to JC the first time they met. Lou was there and JC, who hadn't ever really hated anybody up to that point, hated Lou on sight. He hated the way Lou was gross and loud and let his eyes crawl all over all of them like hungry, angry spiders, and the way his shadow made even Justin look grimy and fake.

Chris had looked at JC and away, then looked at him again like he was really seeing, and then smiled. Just a corner of his mouth and something in his eyes, like he was laughing at Lou and laughing at Justin and saying everything would be okay, all at once. It took all the tarnish off, and JC didn't run.

Chris had brown eyes that went down and down and down, and JC started trusting them between one breath and the next and by the breath after that he was in love. It was crazy and stupid and JC wasn't even gay, but he knew himself pretty well and Chris's face fit into JC's life like the last perfect puzzle piece. So he guessed that from then on he pretty much was gay, except that girls were still fun and he never actually slept with any guys, even the ones he thought were really cute. Mostly he knew that he was something different from what he was before Chris looked at him like that, and he liked it, and he said yes to everything they asked him that day and changed his life forever.

He never did anything about it or said anything because he was a dork and he knew it even if nobody else seemed to. And Chris had other things on his mind, like making sure Justin didn't grow up to be a psycho ego-freak, and making sure Lance didn't take over the world before they made their first album, and making sure Joey didn't catch something that would make his dick rot off. JC helped out with all of those things the best he could.

JC realized sometime in the middle of the lawsuit that he was one of Chris's four special projects instead of just a part-time assistant with the other three. He noticed it because one day when he was feeling like everything he'd done and said had been the wrong thing to do or say, and like going to sleep wasn't an option because waking up to the world again would kill him, Chris came to him. He walked past Justin and Lance and Joey, all of whom were doing things JC would have stopped them from doing if he'd had the energy to move, and squished JC between the couch and his body and fell asleep.

He snored, which JC knew, and not in a way that was at all cute or adorable. But he was warm and solid and heavy, and JC put his too-thin, awkward arms around Chris and hung on, and slept. When he woke up the others were with them, tangled up against the couch. Lance was drooling and unconscious with his head on JC's knee, and Justin was reading quietly, draped across Joey's lap. And Chris was still there, between JC's body and the back of the couch with an arm slung across JC's chest, smiling and awake. He still had bad hair and still had those crazy bright eyes. JC wanted him so bad, loved him so hard and strong, that he couldn't breathe around it. He just closed his eyes and almost said something that choked him and Chris squeezed him tight, tight around the middle and whispered in a way JC couldn't disbelieve, "Hey, shhh. 'Sokay. Everything's going to be okay."

After that, everything mostly was. Probably, JC thought, because Chris had said so.


 

 

Part Five: In which Careers are Threatened, and Strange Portents Change Several Lives

At 3 a.m. on a dark night, JC fell into a deep sleep and had a very strange dream.

The studio session had dragged on and on, with Justin getting whinier with every take and Lance, of all people, singing viciously and consistently off-key. Any time he wasn't singing, Chris was leaning on Lance, more and more heavily as the night wore on. By the time they finally quit, agreeing to try again the next day, JC's throat hurt from snarling at everyone who tried to speak to him. He was blind with exhaustion, so tired he had Tiny drive him home.

In the dream, he woke up in the hazy grey light just before dawn and found Lance, cool and calm and dressed for business, sitting in JC's favorite chair across the room.

Dream-JC was every bit as surprised as the actual real JC would have been. He blinked and scrubbed at his eyes, then blinked some more, but Lance was still there. While he watched, Lance leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his knees.

"Morning, Jayce."

"Um. Good morning?" Dream-JC wasn't very sure about the good or the morning.

"Just wanted to drop by and chat for a while. About Chris."

"Chris?"

Dream-Lance smiled in a way that made his teeth glint scarily in the half-light. "Do something. It's time. Sort things out with him, JC, or I'll sing like I did last night for the rest of the group's very short career. I can dance pretty bad, too, when I feel like it."

Dream-JC recoiled in horror. "You wouldn't."

Dream-Lance stood up and nodded, slowly. "Oh, I'll be fine in rehearsals. You'll forget we ever talked. But I can't vouch for performances, C. That's in your hands." He smiled one last time and said, "Go back to sleep, baby," then let himself out. He was humming, something almost but not quite familiar; the sound lingered for a second, then faded out down the hallway.

The light was getting stronger, but it was all too confusing. Dream-JC fell back against his pillows and the next time JC was aware of anything it was half past one in the afternoon, the sun was pouring strong and yellow through his windows, and he was late for the studio.

Everyone sang beautifully that day, even Lance. Only near the end of the session did Lance's voice wobble, just for a second; JC threw him a sharp look, but there was no trace of Dream-Lance's smile.

They got out early, and with the night before weighing heavily on his mind JC volunteered to give Chris a lift home. He'd shown up with Justin, and Justin had dragged Lance off before anybody else could make it out of the studio. Joey waved goodbye to JC and Chris with a happy little smile that JC tried to give back, but couldn't quite manage. Do something, Dream-Lance had ordered, and now in addition to wanting to, JC was scared not to.

Chris didn't know anything about JC's dream but he knew something weird was up. JC was acting strange. Stranger than usual. He'd been fidgeting all day and not looking Chris in the eye, which could have been because they were singing about wishes and getting your heart's desire, which Chris obviously wasn't, or could have been because the sequins on JC's t-shirt were chafing. Chris meanly hoped it was the sequins, since he'd gone half-blind from staring at them all damn day.

At Chris's house, on Chris's couch, JC was still fidgeting, leaning against Chris's arm and playing with the fringe of his sleeve. Since the tour ended, JC had taken to spending a lot of time there, keeping Chris company. It was so close to exactly equal parts good and bad that Chris hadn't thought of anything to say about it yet.

"So, um," JC said eventually, never meeting Chris's eyes. "Do you think maybe Lance has freaky mental powers?"

For a second Chris didn't do anything. Then he muted the television and turned to JC. "Are you okay?"

JC shrugged. "I dreamed he was in my house."

"Lance is in your house a lot. He's in my house a lot, too. Lance likes other people's houses."

"But he was. He was in my room, while I was sleeping, and he was. He was being all threatening, and--" JC waved his hands in a fluttery way that conveyed no information at all. "I think he was trying to hook us up."

Chris frowned. "And you think that was Lance like, invading your sleep somehow. Like in Dreamscape. And not you having some kind of psychological reaction to the stress of our thing. That we're not having."

JC tilted his head, and seemed to give the idea some serious thought. "When I woke up," he said slowly, "all my clothes were hung up and my Anne of Green Gables DVDs were missing."

"Wow." Chris was impressed. Lance was either telepathic and telekinetic, or a misguided, home-invading yenta. Whichever it was, Chris didn't want to mess with him. "Did he say anything else?"

"No," JC said. "Yes. Well. He was humming something. I couldn't make it out."

Chris nodded grimly. He could guess. "It probably doesn't matter. Some weird dream logic thing, it was probably Britney covering The Doors. You wanna watch Star Search?"

They watched, and made fun of the singing of all the people who couldn't sing and the clothes of all the people who could. Chris wasn't getting any less freaked out by how well they were getting along and how much time they were spending together, but it was hard to find a legitimate reason to complain about either of those things. He was the one who wanted things to be back to normal, he was the one who didn't want to lose JC's friendship, and here he was patently not losing it. He didn't have very strong or clear memories of what normal was, but he assumed all this had to be some near variation on it, so complaining would have been stupid. He had what he wanted, or at least what he wanted if he couldn't have what he really wanted, so he wasn't going to whine.

And really, he was fine with JC sitting close to him, fine with JC holding his hand. He told himself he was fine, anyway, and that was good enough even though he wasn't very convincing. He was fine with JC talking to him about music and asking him what he thought of the really good singers and actually listening to the answers like they mattered.

He was fine with all of it until the show was over and JC grabbed the remote and turned the TV off. JC was fidgeting even more, smiling and then not smiling, and still not looking Chris in the eye. Chris was about to break and ask him what the fuck was going on when JC smiled down at him that way, like Chris was everything, and leaned in and kissed him.

And that -- Chris wasn't fine with that. Panic exploded in Chris's chest and he wanted to move, shove JC away, but he couldn't not kiss him back. He didn't have that power. He couldn't move, so he just stayed there while JC's lips moved over his, soft, warm and soft and so gentle it broke his heart. He slid closer while JC sighed over his mouth and did it again, serious now, pulling back and pressing in, licking over Chris's lower lip and clutching at his shoulders with both hands, pulling him close.

He shuddered and stayed there when JC's tongue eased into his mouth, stroked over his own; Chris moaned, wanting it to go on, wanting to get away, but the adrenaline flooding through him couldn't pick a direction and it just went on and on until Chris was panting, hard, hands fisted in JC's shirt and muttering between kisses, things he didn't even understand. He stayed there; he couldn't do anything else.

And he stayed there when JC pulled away, let go of Chris like his hands were burned and shoved back so hard he nearly fell off the couch. His head was shaking and he was saying "I'm sorry, Chris, no, I'm so sorry" and Chris couldn't figure out why until he replayed his own track in his head and heard himself telling JC to stop.

Stop. Wait -- stop?

Chris blinked, dazed. He raised a hand to his mouth and found it wet. JC-wet. JC had kissed him.

JC had kissed him. "What...the hell."

JC groaned and buried his face in his hands. "I thought it would be okay! You've been so quiet, and narcoleptic, and you don't talk to anybody but Lance and Lance said I should do something!" He scowled. "I hate Lance."

Chris tried to breathe evenly. He'd been doing it all his life and he should have had the hang of it by now. "Lance said what?"

"Not --" JC shook his head impatiently. "Not really Lance. I don't think. Sort of Lance. I just thought we could, you know, um." He blushed. "Take it to the next, uh, level?"

Chris stared. "Take what to the -- what?"

"You said! You said you needed time, and I... Geez, Chris, I gave you half a tour, what kind of time were you talking about? Are we talking about like, geologic time, or what? Can't we like, can't we do this while we're still young enough to want to?" He looked away and ran a hand through his hair, growling when it got caught in a tangle. He paced the length of the couch before turning to glare at Chris. "Do you even want to at all, anymore?"

"JC...I don't. What?" Chris breathed in and out a few times, hard. His head was spinning like Linda Blair's and he couldn't grab hold of a single thing JC said. "I have no idea what you're talking about, man, it's barely even English."

"Okay." JC's stopped in front of him and shook his head. "You know what? This is too hard. It can't be right if it's this hard. We should...we'll just stop."

"Yeah." Chris forced out a laugh. "Yeah, we'll just stop. Because pining for you for the rest of my life is such an attractive alternative."

JC's frowned. He said, "Did you say pining?" just as Chris said, "Did you say Lance told you to kiss me?"

They looked at each other, Chris's eyes narrow, JC's wide and staring. For a minute, nobody said anything.

Then JC reached down and picked up Chris's hand. He pulled Chris up, and Chris was too busy thinking to argue.

"He, um." JC squeezed his hand, hard, and pulled him a little closer. "He said I should do something. I picked the something." He bit his lip. "I really thought you wanted it?"

JC. That was what he wanted. JC, right there, there looking like Chris could just wave a wand and make everything right. JC every way Chris had ever seen him. It seemed like there was so much of him, so many memories of him. All of them were bright, like they happened in sunlight even if they really hadn't. Chris wanted all of it and had thought for so long he couldn't have it that he'd forgotten to ever reach for it in the first place. And now JC was standing right there, and Lance had said he knew how to fix things but then he hadn't fixed anything at all.

Except, maybe he had.

"Chris?" JC tugged at his hand, still chewing on his lip. "Were you going to talk again? Like, ever?"

JC had always been standing just a little bit too far away, that was the problem. But Chris looked now in a different way and hell, at least JC was standing there; he wasn't leaving, and that had to mean something, right? Chris had given him every chance to get away and he hadn't taken any of them. Chris had tried to get away himself, and JC hadn't let him. That had to mean something.

"Sing the song."

JC frowned. "Um. What?"

He could do this; he could do it like a grown-up. Chris cleared his throat, made his voice stronger. "The song you wrote me. The one I tore up. Sing it for me."

"Chris, I don't really feel like singing right now. It's kind of a tense emotional thing we have going on here, and. Yeah." JC frowned. "Maybe you are on drugs."

Chris swatted JC's shoulder with his free hand. "I just need to hear it. Lance said I wasn't singing it right."

"My voice will sound funny."

"Dude, I've heard you sing with bronchitis. Sing the damn song."

"I don't remember the--"

"Sing!"

JC glared and pulled away and folded his arms. "Okay. Fine. But it's gonna suck."

Chris rolled his eyes. He waited. Inside he was so tense it made his skin crawl, strung so tight he vibrated. There was a strange, sharp taste in his mouth and he thought it was probably dread; he wanted to take it all back, wanted JC not to sing, wanted to live forever in this last minute of not knowing because maybe he was wrong, maybe not knowing was better. Maybe being able to wonder sometimes was better.

JC opened his mouth to sing and Chris wanted to run, but he didn't run. He wasn't a runner. He stayed to see what happened next.

JC sang. His voice was thick and scratchy, and he was right; he sucked. He couldn't hold any of the notes and he wobbled all over the place and he wasn't hitting all the right beats. But he sang, like Chris had asked him to; like Chris had wanted him to. Like Chris had hoped he would. He sang it different.

He sang it better.

Chris's knees weren't very committed to keeping him vertical. His lungs weren't working right either. He looked at JC with his eyes so wide they hurt, and JC stopped and hugged himself tighter and glared.

"Wow," Chris said softly. He was going to send Lance flowers. Possibly he was going to buy Lance a house.

"I told you it would suck, dude. Don't come crying to me when your ears start bleeding."

"It was perfect."

"Was not." JC snorted. "Trust me, man, I'm a professional."

"So'm I, and it was beautiful." Chris smiled, and smiling felt so different he didn't recognize it. He put his hand up to his own face to see if it was the same, and laughed. "It's my new favorite song."

"You didn't even like it before!"

"I just. I didn't get it! I liked the one with the wolf better, was all, I didn't really get it but I liked the music, and I liked the butterfly, and--"

"You didn't get it?" JC's eyes narrowed. "You didn't get it?"

"Well." Chris stepped back, out of reach. "Not. That is, not in the way of actually understanding it as such, no."

JC sighed. "They mate for life, dawg. It was a love song."

"Yeah, of course. Of course it was." Chris thought about moving closer, then thought better of it; not while JC's arms were all clenched like that. "Um. Butterflies mate for life?"

"They have to, right?" JC asked, all earnest-faced and pleading. "I mean, they live for what, five minutes? You can't be all slutty if you only get five minutes, even if you are really pretty."

Chris nodded rapidly. He wasn't going anywhere near that kind of logic. He sat down on the couch, still well out of range, and nodded some more. "Got it."

JC sat down next to Chris, close enough for their legs to touch. "So, um. I guess you didn't really get the other one, either."

"I thought I did. The bit with the storm, and the blue sky, I thought I had that. I wasn't sure about the tree. What was that about?"

"Oh." JC blushed and grinned and looked down at his knees. "Yeah. Um.
Deforestation. We don't get to do a lot of really solid environmental messages, you know, and--"

"No, no, that's great." Chris didn't even crack a smile. "Very important stuff."

JC took Chris's hand again, and Chris let him, was happy to let him. "You still haven't really said what you want."

"I want you to want me like I want you." Chris was amazed by how easy it was to say.

"Yeah." JC's hand clenched a little over Chris's. "Maybe if you could be a little more specific."

"A lot," Chris smiled and squeezed JC's fingers, "really a lot. In a sexy way. Just so we're clear."

JC blinked.

"Um, okay, and also, not just a sexy way. Other ways, too. Like, candles and moonlight and shit. Hearts and flowers. Boxes of candy. All of it." Chris's face went red but he kept going. "Like, all of you," he said, and it was so cheesy he blushed harder and said, "and don't laugh, damn it. I'm all vulnerable here."

JC didn't laugh. He opened his mouth to say something, and then didn't. Then said, "Well. I, um. I didn't think you were going to say that."

"Yeah, kinda surprised myself there."

"Yeah. But, yeah. I can do that." JC moved close, closer. "I have that covered. Unless you're talking about some kind of 'all' of me that means we're just friends and I can't be close to you and kiss you and stuff, in which case, maybe I can't. But -- okay, you said--. Okay." He put his hand on Chris's, and Chris turned his over and squeezed. "Right. Good." JC closed his eyes and breathed in and out a few times, and for a second Chris worried he'd hyperventilate. But then he just said, "Good" again, and opened his eyes, and smiled so blindingly bright that Chris greyed out a little and thought about falling over.

Then JC put his palms flat on Chris's thighs and leaned over and kissed him, hard and long and sweet, still smiling.


 

 

Epilogue.

JC woke up slow, when he had the time. Chris liked to watch it happen. It was his new favorite thing: the way the light would hit JC's face and he'd be all gold and warm in the sun; the way JC's eyes would squinch up, and the smooth, long curve of his spine when he turned into the pillow. JC fought to hold onto sleep and then when he gave up he had to fight his way up out of it, with lots of flinching and whining and begging for ten more minutes. It was shameful, the things that boy was willing to do to keep his eyes closed till 8:10.

Chris was keeping a list.

He gave JC until 8:30 and then started licking him, because as JC's secret boyfriend he had that right and JC, as Chris's secret boyfriend, was bound by certain duties. Like lying there and letting Chris lick the back of his knee until the whining became giggling and the giggling started to shake the bed. Chris let up, and JC leapt on him, which was absolutely worth the wait. Chris reflected that their boyfriendship was not going to stay secret very long if JC kept making that much noise even after the honeymoon was over, but since Lance knew and Joey knew and if both of them knew, Justin probably knew too, Chris didn't care.

Even if they hadn't known, Chris wouldn't care. With JC's tongue in his mouth and JC's hands warm and easy on his hips, Chris was ready to buy ad space on MTV.

After a few noisy, wet minutes of JC kissing him in a sunny patch on the bed, Chris pushed him away. And a few minutes after that, pushed him away again.

"No, I need -- ah. Okay, no, just... stop a second. JC...mmmph."

JC paused for just a heartbeat, his lips a millimeter from Chris's. "Pardon?"

"Presents!" Chris gasped, taking advantage of temporary access to oxygen. "Presents! Let me up, you're squishing me!"

But JC was already off him, beaming happily. "That's a new complaint. Where's my notebook?"

"That hurts me, JC." Chris glared reproachfully. "That cuts deep."

"Then where are my presents?" He looked around the room. "Why did you get me presents? Was I supposed to get you something? If I was, I didn't. You have to tell me if you're going to --"

"You weren't, and that's fine. I mean, this time. In the future, though, I'd appreciate it if you'd keep better track of our anniversaries."

JC frowned. "It's our anniversary?"

"It's our two week and three days anniversary."

JC frowned harder. "That would be what, paper? No, that's a year. Two weeks and three days. Cardboard? Or is that a kind of paper? What's less time than paper?"

"It's about to be the kicking-you-in-the-head anniversary if you don't shut up in like one second."

JC grinned, and shut up.

"Good." Chris watched him for a minute, just to be sure, and then grinned back. "Good. Okay. Reach under your pillow."

He'd wrapped it this time, because he'd seen how much fun JC had at Lance's birthday party, making little origami birds out of the wrapping paper and then nesting them in Justin's hair. So, maybe it was birthday wrapping paper and maybe it was left over from wrapping Briahna's finger-paint set and had little puffy-cheeked angels on it, but it was the thought that counted. The wrapping had required real effort and quite a lot of tape and Chris was absolutely sure his hard work would be well-rewarded.

"Are there like, top-secret government files in this thing?" JC demanded, spitting out a piece of tape. "Missile launch codes? Justin's phone number?"

"Do you want my Swiss Army knife?"

"No, I'm fine, I can do it!" JC swatted Chris's hands away. "There, see? I'm --"

Chris held his breath. JC blinked. He looked at Chris, a blush creeping up his cheeks, and Chris held his breath some more until JC's mouth curved and he was smiling and --

"Oooomph!"

JC hugged like a boa constrictor. Chris loved it. He smiled into JC's shoulder until his face hurt, squeezing back.

When JC pulled back, his face was so red it glowed and Chris did his best to glow back. It was a whole different kind of light from what he was used to, but he really liked it. "So," he said, a little bit breathless. "Can I have one?"

JC pulled back out of reach, pressing the Pixie Stix to his chest. "Hands off, dude. These are mine and mine alone."

"Scrooge." Chris nudged at JC's knee with his foot. "Here's a hint. Those ain't from Lance."

"I know that!" JC slapped at his foot. "They were given to me," he said with great dignity, "by my boyfriend."

Carefully, JC examined them. There were fifteen, and they were all green, and Chris knew he'd get one because JC couldn't eat them all at once unless he'd picked up a lot more tolerance than he'd had at nineteen. Chris could steal one while JC was bouncing off the ceiling.

Eventually JC looked up, his face solemn and still. "There's um." His mouth twitched, and he almost held it, but then he laughed and nudged Chris back and said, "There's no note."

Chris nodded. From the table by the bed he picked up a fat blue Sharpie and waved it lazily in front of JC's face.

"You think I don't learn from my mistakes? Of course there's a note." He grinned, and leaned back against the headboard, displaying every charm he had and a lot that he didn't.

JC's eyes went wide. "There is?" His voice squeaked, and he blushed and cleared his throat. "There is. Right."

Chris threw the pen across the room and looked at JC, flushed and waiting. He smiled at JC so hard it hurt, but in a good way, the best of all possible ways, and spread his arms wide open. "Come and find it."