VII. The Prize
Lance kept his face composed as Justin sputtered. "You didn't? What do you mean, you didn't have sex with him?"
Chris shrugged. "Exactly what part of that sentence do you need explained, J?"
"But - but Lance said he came to your room last night," Joey said.
"Well, unlike you, Joe, I don't actually fuck every single person who comes by my room. No wonder you can never get extra towels."
Justin sat down heavily on the arm of JC's chair. "Yo, I'm pissed," he said. "If I knew Nick wasn't gonna do it, I never would've let AJ -"
"Do not finish that sentence," Chris said.
"But he said -" JC pinched him. "I mean, not that we thought you couldn't. On your own. Although I guess it looks like -" JC pinched him again. "Quit that."
"Look," Chris said. "I appreciate what you tried to do. As long as I don't have to hear about it. And I want to encourage this trend. Please, all of you, continue to offer sexual favors to anyone you think might have a friend who would fuck me."
"So what happens now?" JC said.
All eyes swung toward Lance. He fought the urge to look at the floor.
"Well," Chris said, "time's up this morning. I lost the bet, and Lance won, so -" He smiled at Lance. Lance didn't say anything.
"I think he's gone into shock from the excitement," Chris said. "Yes, Bass, it's really true. The Kirkpatrick ass is at your disposal for all your kinky fantasies. Break out the nipple clamps and the French maid's outfit."
JC and Justin exchanged a look.
"For the record," Chris said, "I never ever want to know what that look was about."
"I kind of do," Joey said. JC laughed.
"You know, Joe, that's the kind of sentence you really should start with 'As a straight man,'" Chris said.
"It's too late," Justin said gleefully. "We've unstraightened him. He's all twisty now." Joey gave him the finger.
"Okay," Chris said, "this is starting to cross the line from flattering to insulting. Are you alive over there, Bass? Justin, hold a mirror up to his mouth. See if he's still breathing."
Lance found his tongue. "You know I'm not really gonna make you do it."
"No, no," Chris said. "You won fair and square. I'm going to live up to my end, no matter how personally distasteful I may find it."
"I said you don't have to do it," Lance said.
"But it's the rule," Justin said. Lance gave him a dirty look. "Well, it is," he said.
"It's okay, Lance," Chris said. "I'm no weasel like some people in this room. I'm a man of integrity, a man of my word. I promised a night of disgusting sinful rutting, and I'm going to deliver."
"Look," Lance said angrily, "I don't want to sleep with you, all right?"
A chilly silence struck him. Justin looked angry. JC looked thoughtful. Joey looked confused. He couldn't tell how Chris looked. He had his head down, staring at the table, one heel drumming frantically against the floor.
"Damn, Lance," Justin said, "that was cold."
Lance stood up and ran a hand through his hair. "I just. I don't. I didn't mean anything by it," he said. "I just. I think it would be a bad idea. Okay?"
"Sure," Chris said softly. He didn't raise his head. "Sure, I understand."
"Maybe we should go," JC said.
"It's our room," Justin said. "Hey! Enough with the pinching already."
"No, no, it's cool," Chris said. His laugh was hard and brittle. Lance looked away from his eyes. "It's just a stupid bet. And I mean, it would be a bad idea. Cause you know, Lance would sleep with me, and of course he'd find me all irresistible, because who wouldn't, and then he'd probably fall in love with me and sing Barry White songs under my window all night and I'd never get any -"
"I cheated," Lance said.
Another silence surrounded him. Finally JC said gently, "What do you mean, Lance?"
"I cheated," Lance said again.
"So you didn't have sex with Brian?" JC asked carefully.
"I. Um. Okay." Lance took a deep breath. "I got him drunk and staged incriminating photos to blackmail him into pretending to you guys that he'd had sex with me."
Lance was getting awfully tired of silences. He stole a look around the room. Joey was still looking confused. Justin's lips were working, but no sound was coming out. JC's brow was creased in concern. Chris had an odd look on his face, one Lance couldn't identify. He dropped his eyes again.
He looked up when he heard Chris laughing. Not the hard, brittle laugh from before, or even his usual easy chuckle. No, this was a strange high-pitched hoot that Lance rarely heard. Everyone watched as Chris kept laughing, clutching his stomach and rocking back and forth. He slid out of his chair and banged a hand on the floor.
"Lance," he gasped. "Lance, you fucking rock. You took. Photos. Blackmailed. Oh my God." Chris tried to catch his breath. "You're an evil genius over there. You're like Lex Luther or something, plotting in your secret lair." Chris shook with laughter. "Incriminating photos. Of Brian. Brian Littrell! Please God tell me you still have them."
"I don't think you understand," Lance said.
"You cheated?" Justin said. JC put a hand on his arm. "I knew it. I fucking knew it!"
"Oh, you did not," JC said. "You never thought he didn't sleep with Brian. You thought he said something about you to AJ."
"What?" Justin growled.
Lance braced himself. "I may have told AJ that you'd do anything he wanted to win a bet."
Chris whooped. Joey snorted. JC covered a smile with his hand.
"You little fucker!" Justin yelled. Only JC's restraining hand held him back. "I can't believe you set me up."
"Oh, calm down," Chris said. "You loved it."
"Fuck off! I did not. How would you know anyway?"
"I sleep in the room next to yours," Chris snapped.
JC looked down and bit a knuckle. Justin crossed his arms over his chest and stared furiously at Chris.
"Glare at me all you want," Chris said, "it's not going to make me forget what I heard last night."
Justin stormed out and slammed the bedroom door behind him. JC said, "Oh, mean," but he was smiling. He squeezed Lance's shoulder on his way out.
"So, Joe," Chris said into the silence, "you got any straight man things you could be doing right now?"
"No," Joey said, and then, "yes. Yes. I've got some, um, porn. And NASCAR. And some, um, woodcraft -"
"Don't need the details," Chris said. "The leaving is enough."
As Joey left, Chris scooted across the floor until he was sitting at Lance's feet. He patted Lance's leg. "Get down here, you criminal mastermind," he said. Lance sat. Joey smiled encouragingly at him as he shut the door.
Chris looked at him.
They were alone.
"So what's up?" Chris said.
"Nothing," Lance said.
"Then why do you look like that? Do you have some other elaborate escapade to confess? Are you secretly Lou Pearlman in disguise? Have you been manipulating the stock market? Do you control the weather?"
Lance said, "I cheated, Chris. I lied to you guys and I cheated."
"Well, you did," Chris said, "but it's not like we mind. Clearly no one's mad at you over this. So why are you still a big bag of misery?"
"Justin's mad at me," Lance said stubbornly.
"Justin doesn't count. Come on, why aren't you laughing and gloating over the success of your evil plan? That's the best part of having evil plans. Well, that and the world domination."
"It's not funny," Lance said.
"It is, Lance, it is." Chris shook his head. "Things would move along a lot quicker if only you'd all acknowledge that I am the resident expert on funny. If I say it's funny, it's funny."
"You don't understand," Lance said. Chris looked at him for a minute, then slumped down a little and slung an arm around Lance's neck.
"Then tell me," he said softly. "What's the big deal?"
"I got him drunk and took incriminating Polaroids so I could blackmail him!"
Chris chuckled. "That's my favorite sentence in the whole world," he said. Lance slid out from underneath Chris' arm. Chris took another look at Lance, and his face grew serious. "That can't be all this is about. What's up?"
"I did something. It did something to him," Lance said miserably.
"What happened?" Chris said. Lance told him, keeping his eyes down, picking at the carpet. When he finished, there was a long silence. Finally, he snuck a look at Chris, and shivered. Chris was livid.
"I'm sorry," Lance said. "I didn't mean to. I didn't know, I know I should have thought but I didn't -"
"Shut up a minute, yeah?" Chris said, in a gentler tone than Lance had expected. Lance sat and watched Chris' fists clenching and unclenching on his knees. It was the only interruption in a sudden unnatural stillness, a sure sign of Chris' fury. Lance closed his eyes.
"I'm going to fucking kill him." Chris' voice was ice. Lance looked at him.
"But it wasn't - it was me, Chris. I did -"
"You did what?" Chris said harshly. "You took some stupid pictures of him that you never would have done anything with? You made him sleep on your couch one night? You revealed the existence of homosexuality to him?"
"I made him. He didn't, Chris, before he didn't and then -"
"Bullshit," Chris spat, and Lance looked down. He pulled his knees up to his chest and hunched over them. From the corner of his eye he saw Chris rub a hand hard through his hair. "Lance," he said. Lance didn't look up. "Lance, you basically played a prank on him." Lance opened his mouth to speak, but stopped when he felt Chris' hand on his arm. "Maybe a mean-spirited one, maybe a stupid one, but it was pretty much a practical joke. And in return, he got drunk, shoved his way into your room, laid a guilt trip on you, bullied you into blowing him, and knocked you on your ass." Chris' voice was flat.
"It wasn't like that," Lance said.
"It was enough like that," Chris said. Lance didn't say anything. "Okay," Chris said, "I'm not saying. This was no one's most shining hour here. But there's more than enough blame to go around here. And as far as I'm concerned, most of it's on his side."
"You didn't. You didn't see him," Lance said into his knees.
"No," Chris said. "No, I didn't. But I see you." Lance's lips twitched into a brief smile. Then he frowned.
"What do you think will happen to him?"
"I don't know. Don't really care." Chris sighed, and said, "He'll probably get over it. People mostly do. Or maybe he won't. Frankly, I can't get all that worked up over it. I don't have a lot of sympathy for Mr. Littrell right now."
"You don't know. You don't know him," Lance said.
"No," Chris said. "I know you, though." Lance looked up. Chris was watching him, his eyes dark and soft. He put a hand on Lance's shoulder. "Baby," he said, "whatever you did, and maybe we have to agree to disagree about that, it was an accident. You didn't mean to hurt him. You would never hurt anyone on purpose."
Chris' gaze was warm and welcoming, and for a moment Lance relaxed into it. He hadn't meant it. He hadn't known. Then he thought about the look in Brian's eyes, at the end, when Lance had refused to take his hand. He wrapped his arms around his body against the sudden chill. He pulled away from Chris.
"You don't know," Lance said. "You don't know. I planned the whole thing, Chris. I didn't just come up with it on a whim. It wasn't some drunken prank like you or J would play. I calculated. I plotted. Hell, I flew someone in from out of state. And for no good reason. Just so I could win some stupid bet. A stupid bet with my friends. I didn't think twice about doing it either. God," he said, "I'm so fucking cold, you don't even know. None of you know."
"Yeah," Chris said. "Hmm."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Well, Lance, about that. The thing is." Chris took a deep breath. "See, we've met you."
"Do you think we've never noticed you're a calculating little bastard? Do you think we haven't figured out that you hate to lose? Clearly you've never played poker with yourself. You're fucking vicious when there's any kind of competition, baby. It's all part of your offbeat charm."
"Oh," Lance said.
"Did you really think nobody knew?" Chris grinned. "Baby, you ain't that good an actor."
"Nobody ever said," Lance said.
"Well, no. Thought maybe we shouldn't say anything."
"But you tell Justin -"
"Justin doesn't care. But it seemed like you. Kind of. Did."
Chris put a hand on his cheek. "Hey," he said. "We love you anyway. Hell, we love you for it. You're a sneak and a liar, but you're our sneak and liar."
"Thanks," Lance said, but he smiled a little. It was comforting, in a strange sort of way. "So you don't really care, about the whole cheating thing?"
"Nah, none of us care, Lance. It was just a stupid bet. Nobody was supposed to take it seriously."
"I meant. You. You don't, like. I don't know." Lance trailed off.
"No, I don't care." Chris grinned. "In fact, I'm kind of impressed."
"So you think it's okay that I'm a sneak and a liar?" Lance said, leaning into Chris. "You don't think I'm, like, cold and petty and a bad friend?"
"I know this will come as a surprise, I know how all you guys idolize me, call me St. Christopher and hang on my every word, but I am not perfect. Technically. I have one or two small faults myself."
"You? I don't believe it."
"Well, I prefer to think of them as alternate interpretations of virtues, but less evolved people would call them flaws. Namely, I am short-tempered and impatient and I can be mean and I use my wit as a shield. Also, I hold grudges." Chris smiled. "We're a good match."
"Excellent," Lance said. "You can remember who all our enemies are, and I can think up elaborate revenge schemes."
"Together we can take over the world," Chris said.
"That's right. The sneak and the psycho. The liar and the short fuse. The cheat and the maniac."
"Actually," Chris said, "that would be the cheat and the cheat."
Chris laughed. "I cheated, Lance."
"What? But you said. You said you didn't. Oh. You. Oh. Oh." Lance paused. "Oh."
"Not exactly the reception I was hoping for, but I guess it's better than screaming in horror and fleeing."
"But. You. Why?" Lance said.
"Okay, I thought you got that a minute ago," Chris said. "I'm starting to suspect maybe you're some sort of criminal mastermind idiot savant. We might have to rethink our plans for world domination."
"No, I mean. I know why. I mean, I didn't know why, but. I guess I know. I mean, I think I know." Lance blushed.
Chris laughed at him. "You know why," he said, and Lance smiled.
"Why did you do it like that, though? Why didn't you just, like, tell me. Or something?"
"It has been pointed out to me," Chris said, "by Nick fucking Carter, of all people, that my courting technique is a little too subtle for the general populace."
"You were courting me?" Lance said. "Really?"
Chris sighed. "I get that a lot. And hey, you could sound a little happier over it."
"No, I'm pretty happy." Chris raised an eyebrow. "Very happy. Very. I just. You were courting me?"
"I thought I was being obvious," Chris said.
"When? When were you courting me? Give me an example."
"Okay, I was hanging out with you all the time, and we sat around at that dinner and made fun of all the other losers, and I kept defending you to Justin -"
"That was obvious?" Lance said.
"I thought it was very obvious. Like, almost embarrassingly obvious. What did you want me to do, start wearing an I Love Lance T-shirt?"
"Chris, that was not obvious."
"What would be obvious?" Chris said.
Lance kissed him. Chris' lips were soft and warm beneath his.
"See, I thought that would be too obvious," Chris said breathlessly.
"Do you think that was too obvious?"
"I don't know," Chris said. "Do it again." Lance did. "No, I think that's just the right amount of obvious. Let me try." Chris kissed him.
"Perfectly obvious," Lance said.
"All right," Chris said, his hand moving under Lance's shirt, "I had this other thing I wanted to try, but I thought it would be too cliché. Maybe you can give me your opinion."
Lance's shirt was off and Chris was lying on top of him when Justin's voice came through the bedroom door.
"You're still in our suite, yo," Justin said. "I can hear everything you're doing."
"Now you know what it's like," Chris said, but he rolled off Lance and tossed him his shirt. "Cover your nakedness."
"I'm not naked," Lance said.
"Yes, and I'm kind of pissed off about that." He reached a hand down and hauled Lance to his feet. Lance kissed him quickly.
"What are you going to do about it?" he said.
"Don't worry," Chris said. "I've got a plan."