Be Your Own Best Friend
by Betty Plotnick

1: The Fantastic Hook-Up

Afterward, Chris could count all the times that spring that it hadn't happened. It wasn't the time that Lance's new puppy got sick and Lance called him in a panic -- a Lance panic, with tension thrumming deep under the surface of his opaque, almost bored, "So, you know about dogs." Chris drove them to the emergency vet and sat there with a tiny ball of silky fur wrapped up in a vomit-stained towel in his arms while Lance signed his name twenty times and finally snapped out, "If I pay cash, right now, can we just forget this?"

When they had to leave Jackson overnight, Chris put his arm around Lance's shoulder and felt him relax, even though he only said, "Come on, man, wash your hands first." And Chris loved him a lot that night, but just in the way that he always had before.

It didn't happen during the week and a half that Justin and JC were fighting, even though that was a thin slice of hell that was mostly only relieved by being able to call Lance and hear about boring and non-ulcer-inducing things like what kind of investments Lance was recommending to his sister for the baby's college fund and recaps of Jean Harlow's Biography episode. "Why are they so insane all of a sudden?" Chris asked, soaking in his bath under the skylight, which he liked to do because it seemed sort of fucked-up, even though nobody could possibly see through the heavy, textured glass.

"All of a sudden?" Lance repeated.

"They were never insane like this." Worst of all, they both kept calling him, giving Chris detailed and wildly divergent accounts of their most recent skirmishes, and then waiting expectantly for Chris to say, You're right, he's a bastard. All the fumbling around for new ways to say, I'm sure he didn't mean it like that, had left Chris with a literal and apparently permanent pain in his neck.

"Artistic temperament," Lance said. "It was bound to happen. Stacy used to go through this every so often with her girlfriends. Carrah does it, too."

"They're not artists."

"Well, they're girls. In my experience, there's not as much difference as you'd think."

"I bow to your superior experience with girls," Chris said sarcastically, but it seemed that Lance was onto something anyway, because Justin and JC made up overnight, and the whole affair did sort of remind Chris of his own sisters. He didn't think it was an art thing, though; he thought they were just girls. He blamed Disney.

He was grateful as hell for Lance's supernatural calm during a time period when it felt like alley cats were fighting on top of his last nerve, but nothing really changed between them then, either.

Chris knew it hadn't happened yet on the day that he stopped in randomly at Lance's just to say hey and found Lance, Joey, and Briahna playing in the pool. Briahna was cradled securely in the swing of Joey's left arm, and she leaned forward and screeched happily while slapping the surface of the water, sending droplets spraying up into Lance's face while he held up his arms and pretended to be afraid. "Oh! You got me! You got me!" he cried out, his accent unusually strong and making him sound like a mortally wounded cowboy in a bad western.

"Can I be the cavalry?" Chris said, crossing his arms against the strange, lead-plated feeling in his chest. He didn't know what was up with him.

Joey looked over his shoulder at Chris and grinned, that goofy-daddy grin of his that had almost totally replaced the goofy-kid grin. "Yo, Chris! You didn't bring the dogs, did you?"

"Um. Yeah, I was gonna, but here's what's funny, they kinda remember your kid as the hideous thing from Mars that yanks on their ears. And then I couldn't get them out from behind the couch." He was still looking at Lance, who rolled over onto his back and kicked lazily across the pool, his chest dipping under the water and breaking the surface over and over as he moved. The water shone on his skin, and he was looking up at the sky.

"So you didn't bring anything?" Lance said, over the swooshing sounds of his arms and heels moving through the water. "No beer for you, then."

"Yeah, that's how it works," Joey agreed. He had to raise his voice over the pool noises, and Briahna's musical babbling. "Nothing for free at Chez Bass. I gotta bring the little squirt when I come, or he makes me drink water. Tap water, too."

"You're lucky I don't make you do my laundry, you're here so much," Lance said. He stood up, water pouring off of him. Shining so hard that Chris had to look down at the tiles around the pool's edge, two shades of blue, glossy and serene. "You're here more than the housekeeper. I think she thinks you are me."

"So, do you guys want to maybe go out tonight?"

Joey hefted Briahna up over his head. "I'm Actual, Non-Absentee Parent all weekend."

"Your new superhero name sucks, Joe," Chris said, but Joey just grinned, setting the kid on his shoulder. He didn't look like he thought it sucked. Chris didn't really think it did, either.

He looked at Lance then, who was lolling against the edge of the pool, his elbows behind him on the glossy blue tiles. Lance lifted his hand and shook it until the braided bracelet came unstuck from his wrist, then ran his hand through his hair. The wet licks of hair peeled away from his forehead and stood straight up instead. Lance made a wry face and said, "I'm on babysitting duty, too." His eyes were glossy and tranquil as the tiles, Mediterranean green. "But you can come with if you want."

Chris almost said yes, until he realized what Lance was talking about. "Oh, fuck, no, Bass. Oh, sorry about that, Joe, sorry. But, yeah. No."

Lance laughed. "It's not that awful. It's fun, really."

"Yeah, I just bet it is."

"No, mostly it is. There's like, a danger zone. After his first couple of drinks, before, say, the fifth. Right in there, he gets kinda dramatic. He's all," and Lance lifted the back of his hand to his forehead, and laid the other hand against his chest, "I just wanna call her, I just miss the sound of her voice! I'm not caving, it just ain't right is all, if we're still friends, why can't I just caaaaaall her?" Joey whooped with laughter, and Lance returned his elbows to the tiles, shaking his head. "Pretty sad. But then you just keep liquoring him up, and pretty soon he's okay again."

"You're doing a service to humanity, that's all I'm saying. I can't be around him when he gets like that. You're a better man than I am." Not that Justin wasn't his best friend and everything. It was just so fucking strange, seeing Justin down for the count like this. It made Chris edgy. Also, having to hate Britney sucked, because she used to be kind of Chris' fifth sister; he hadn't spoken to her since the breakup and didn't think he wanted to, but it still sucked.

"Course I am," Lance said calmly, shutting his eyes, tipping his face up toward the sun.

He spent the rest of the afternoon at Lance's house, and Lance made him bat his eyes and plead for the beer, but of course he got it, and Chris and Briahna tried to get Lance's weasel to ride willingly in the back of her Tonka dumptruck, the kind that ran by itself when you pulled it back to make it go, while Joey and Lance played gin rummy on the porch. Joey put a t-shirt on; Lance didn't. It was a pretty fun time, but Chris was pretty sure -- afterwards -- that if he'd been in love with Lance at the time, he would have known about it.

Briahna eventually fell asleep on Lance's lap, and she didn't wake up while Joey collected her and all the Briahna accessories and bundled her into the carseat. Lance stood under his carport, still in just his swim trunks, and kissed Briahna's cheek, then Joey's. "See ya, big daddy," he said, and Chris thought that only Lance could have that light, lilting tone in his voice, and still make it rumble.

Joey cuffed him on the side of the head. "Don't take any wooden nickels, kid."

"Don't eat anything bigger than your lawyer," Lance said back. That was some kind of private joke with the two of them; they always just looked at each other and smiled when anyone asked what was up with that, and they always said it when they expected to be apart for more than the space of a night. Some Lance and Joey thing.

It didn't make Chris jealous. It was nothing, really. He and Justin had in-jokes, too. It was just a best friend thing.

"You sure you don't want to go out with us tonight?" Lance said as Chris got on his bike and started to pull on his helmet. "More than welcome."

"I would, but, you know. I'd say something dumb, and he'd be all half-drunk and get pissed off at me. And he'd cry."

"Yeah, probably."

"Besides, I'm old and world-weary. Strippers don't do it for me anymore. I need forty-year-old crack whores in bright pink lipstick. I make 'em dance around my living room and sing Tearing Up My Heart while I beat off."

Lance threw his head back and laughed, leaving Chris looking at his throat. "Man, I'm glad I was already gay. That image would'a scared me off women for life."

"Yeah, who says they're women?"

"Get outta here," Lance ordered, and Chris did.

It seemed like it should have happened when Lance was going to Russia for the first time, back when everything seemed to be lining up neatly with the space thing, and maybe in a way it did, but at the time Chris' big goal had been not to make a big deal out of the whole situation. Between Justin's morbidly vivid preoccupation with all the ways that a person could die in a space shuttle and Joey moping around for days, like Lance was moving into a Tibetan monastery under a vow of silence, Chris figured they had all the weirdness angles covered and someone really needed to sit this one out.

Joey threw a going-away party at Lance's house, against Chris' advice. "Let's pretend we're a little less co-dependent than we are," Chris said. "I mean, he's only going to be gone a week." Someone whose name Chris didn't recognize, but who presumably worked for them, had e- mailed Chris a tentative copy of Lance's training schedule, and there was a lot of traveling back and forth for a while before the dauntingly long blocks of absence later in the summer and fall. Chris figured they should be pacing themselves.

"This is a big deal," Joey said. "This means it's really happening."

Lance hugged Joey and told him it was fantastic, but as soon as Joey left the kitchen, he sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. "This sucks," he said succinctly. "I go to parties for fun; I only host them for business."

"You're not having fun?" Chris said, and spiked Lance's drink with some extra vodka. He didn't know what Lance was drinking, but vodka went with everything.

"Parties that are for you, they're hellish. It's like you're on display the whole night. Aren't Justin and JC coming?"

"JC is here. Somewhere." Chris had seen him by Lance's big black fireplace, leaning on the mantle and kicking the rack of brushes and pokers so that they swayed together like a heavy iron windchime while he talked to some girl Chris didn't know. JC had fucking radar for the easiest human being in any given room.

"Oh, man, JC," Lance said, caught between bitterness and admiration. "I bet everybody's going to get laid tonight except me. Joey should've skipped the caterers and the guests and just sent over a handful of guys."

"How many is a handful?"

Lance smiled wolfishly. "Now, that all depends, doesn't it?"

"Well, if it makes you feel any better," Chris said, "chances are I won't get laid tonight either."

"Actually," Lance said, "it doesn't make me feel any better."

Booze, however, always made Lance feel better, and either he was a better actor than Chris gave him credit for, or Lance did start enjoying his party after a couple of warm-up hours. Everyone but the caterers were gone by three, and Joey and Lance were braided together and half-asleep in the recliner in Lance's den, Lance's legs folded around one of Joey's and his hand petting Joey's arm, Joey's chin hooked around the back of Lance's neck. The two of them shared a bed on their bus because Joey said it was more comfortable than the smaller bunks on Chris' bus, but Chris could never imagine how the strange positions Joey and Lance always ended up knotted into could possibly be comfortable. He hit them both with a pillow and said, "Wake up, you two. You got people cleaning upstairs, and you're making the band look way gay."

"The band is way gay," Lance said on a yawn. His hand slipped around Joey's ribs and shook. "Joe, you staying over?"

"Gotta go home," he said blearily. "Chris, how are you to drive?"

"Yes, you big lush, I'll drive you."

Lance fixed him with glittering green eyes, gone to that weird, fox-like knowingness that seemed to come over Lance when he was drunk. "Always count on you, Chris," he drawled, and he seemed to keep looking at Chris as he dropped a kiss on Joey's shoulder and said, "Go. You're falling asleep again, go."

"I really love him," Joey said in the car, half incoherent. "How can some people not love him?"

"No idea, Joe," Chris said, and kept praying that Joey didn't throw up in his car. He really didn't know; Chris was not one of the people who didn't love Lance. But still, that wasn't the night it happened.

He spent the next day pretending he wasn't spending the day recovering -- he wasn't that old yet, and he'd stick to that story under torture if necessary -- but the night after Lance's party he dreamed about Lance. They were all on the bus, and he thought maybe Lance was mad at him, because he wouldn't talk to Chris, wouldn't even look at him. He had his shirt off, and there were rivulets of water slippery on his back. All Chris could see was his back; he wouldn't turn around at all, no matter what Chris did.

He woke up hard, which was nothing incredibly unusual; Chris didn't think that meant anything. He jerked off before he got out of bed, not thinking about anything in particular except what a really fucking fantastic thing time off was, that he could just lie in bed until he was damn well ready to get up. He didn't think about Lance's smooth, pale golden back and the width of his shoulders until after he already came, and even then the thought wasn't exactly sexy, just vaguely amazing. He still sort of thought of Lance as a skinny kid who looked like a girl in photographs - - maybe kind of a dykey girl, but definitely a girl. He wasn't used to the new Lance yet.

A part of Chris wondered if that wasn't maybe bullshit, as he made himself chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast. He was used to the new JC, after all; when he went back and looked at the old stuff, it was the old JC he hardly recognized, all perfect posture and taut smile with too much teeth and awful Caesar haircut. And when he thought about Justin, he always thought about him the way he looked now; it was the other three who were still talking behind Justin's back about how he didn't look like Justin without the hair. He thought that goofy-daddy Joey was basically just like goofy-kid Joey, only different. For the most part, Chris was a pretty adaptable guy.

But he didn't know what other reason he'd have to be thinking about the definition in Lance's biceps, the way his wrists and the hollow between his shoulderblades were...just, weird. Just noticeable. The way he was suddenly sort of noticing they were there.

He kept on noticing stuff, for a few weeks. How good Lance looked in orange, a color that Chris' mother always said didn't look good on anybody. How distinctive his jaw was, jutted and sort of triangular. How his head tipped to the side and his bottom lip disappeared between his teeth when he sat on the floor in front of Joey in a chair and let Joey scratch his back good and hard. How Chris still couldn't tell Wednesday from Thursday, but he always knew the number of days before Lance would be back in the country without even really trying to count. It wasn't a big deal, like Chris was looking for stuff to notice. He just...noticed.

All of a sudden, one morning of nothing special while Chris was brushing his teeth, he noticed that he was doing all that noticing, and he noticed that he never used to notice anything about Lance except that he was, you know, Lance. He wondered when he started noticing, and then he thought it was weird that he hadn't noticed himself start noticing, and then he noticed that he was a complete and total moron, because only somebody who was in mad, crazy crush noticed stuff like Chris was noticing lately. Chris didn't think of it so much as the morning he fell in love with Lance as the morning he got less stupid, slightly.

He blinked at his reflection, foaming at the mouth. "Dude," he said aloud, around the toothbrush. "You're crushing on Lance." That was so major that he almost went back to bed for a nap.

Instead, he made breakfast. Pancakes again, with Cocoa Puffs baked into them, which was a special recipe that Justin had invented one Christmas vacation while he was staying with Chris and his family. Chris' sisters still called them Justin-style. That was the kind of thing, Chris realized, that you thought about when you thought about your best friends. You didn't think about their biceps. That was called something else entirely.

So, okay, Chris thought after he was finished with breakfast. Okay. Knowing that he wanted to get with Lance was definitely the first, crucial step toward getting with Lance, so. Step one, check. Got it covered. He had a thing for Lance. He was all about the Lance, who was smart, and laid-back and energetic at the same time, and had a dorky sense of humor, and always put up with Chris, and was very hot and not at all girl-like, which was something Chris looked for in a not-girl.

Step two was obviously to consult Lance about the getting with. Even among the rich and famous, it was a highly elite class of male who could just sit around and wait for the fantastic hook-up to drop out of the sky. Chris rarely had to knock himself out to get a date anymore, but he still had to ask. Which was not a problem, had never been a problem for Chris. He didn't understand guys like, well, like Lance, who got all angsty and tongue-tied when it came to the asking part. You just said, Hey, you wanna? Chris had been asking people on dates for fifteen years, and he thought he could lay it on Lance Bass with no problem. He figured he'd call closer to lunch time, just in case Lance had really tied one on last night; waking a guy up at almost ten-thirty in the morning was no way to start off when you wanted his mind to be on his sweet love for you.

Chris caught himself singing "Walk Like an Egyptian" as he loaded the dishwasher. Dating Lance was going to fucking rock, really. Because there would be none of that stupidity for the first few months, all that being on your best behavior and worrying about whether your ass was going to get dumped as soon as all your annoying little habits came busting out at last. Lance knew all his annoying little habits already. Lance knew that he always left his shoes in the middle of the floor and sang '80s girl-group music when he was in a good mood and he even knew that the mere sight of Dirk made Chris physically ache to do stupid and embarrassing things to the poor little weasel, like make it wear clothes and ride in tiny trucks, possibly down flights of stairs, and yet Lance liked him anyway. Lance was his friend, one of his very best friends on the face of the earth, and that was going to make the love thing so much easier that Chris almost felt like he was getting away with something. Like he'd found a loophole in the "love will rip your still-beating heart out of your chest and play badminton with it" law. It was like an emotional pyramid scheme.

It was just almost too easy.

And that was what made Chris start worrying.

Because, okay, Chris knew he wasn't the quickest study in the world, or even in 'N Sync. He had a short attention span, and he kind of missed things sometimes. Sometimes really key things, like that whole crushing on Lance business. So, fine, he was just now picking up on the many and glorious benefits there were to dating a guy who already cared about you, who was committed to you and knew what you liked and didn't like, a guy you knew you could have fun with, hell, a guy you knew you could live with, because you'd practically been living with him for years. Yes, hello, getting the picture now. Dating one of the other guys was a brilliant idea; no long-distance bullshit, no worries about jealous fans or bitchy press, no issues of shady motives or is this the kind of guy that'll try to shop your story when you break up. There was everything right with this giant, shiny smart idea.

Which kind of made him wonder why none of them had ever thought of it before this.

Okay, Joey was off the hook on this one, because Joey considered not-girl a full-on drawback. So obviously Joey wasn't going to date anyone inside the group. And Chris was slow, so that was his problem. Lance, though? Lance was always in some short-lived, quasi-fulfilling relationship with some guy that even he barely liked, because it was too hard to maintain anything real. If Lance was so smart, how come he hadn't thought of this? Or JC, because he knew JC wasn't straight either, even though if you said anything to him about it JC would just make a really boring speech about labels. He'd dated some of the same guys Chris had, though, so whatever. JC, totally queer. And Justin -- well, Justin. God, say "sex" to him for the last three years, and all he'd say back was "Britney blah blah blah," but that boy was either bisexual or the coolest fucking straight guy on earth, because back before three drinks made him start moaning about his grand and tragic love, three drinks made him debate enthusiastically with Chris and Lance about hot men. Surely no heterosexual man could really have that strong an opinion about Vin Diesel.

How was it possible that four not-straight men had been living together more or less all through the years surrounding their sexual peaks, and none of them had ever gone, Hey, you wanna? Really, it was almost spooky. It made Chris think that maybe he should get a second opinion before he got all gung-ho about this, just in case they all knew something he didn't.

He had to think for a second about where Justin was, which was weird; how long had it been since he didn't know exactly where all of them were at all times? New York, he was pretty sure, which was good, because last week it was L.A., and it was really early in L.A. He got Justin's voicemail, but all he had to say was, "Hey, I'm calling ya," and wait. Justin called him back twelve minutes later.

"'Sup?" he said. He sounded a little short of breath, and Chris sort of hoped he'd interrupted something good, by which he meant any sign that Justin was finding post-Britney life more interesting than post-Britney sympathy-sucking -- and even sympathy-sucking would be all right if there were any real sucking going on, in the happy, dirty sense. Chris realized that it was almost eleven, and Justin would be finishing up at the gym right about now, and he decided to settle for that. At least working out was ordinary Justin behavior, which was all Chris really asked for at this point.

"I got a philosophical question for you," Chris said.

Justin snorted a little, but all he said was, "Lay it on me."

"Is there any, you know, particular reason that none of us, you know, in the group, that none of us ever hooked up with any of the others?"

"This is your philosophical question?" Justin sounded suspicious, which Chris guessed was only fair. He, Chris, did have something of a reputation for executing jokes that required a set-up phase, and this might conceivably sound like the beginning to one of those jokes.

"I'm serious. I'm totally serious. It's just, don't you think it's weird? I mean, not Joey, Joey's straight and all. But the rest of us. We're friends, right?"

Justin snorted again, but this time it sounded more like a real laugh. "Oh, sure, I guess so."

"Right, well, that's the thing. Let's say you're, hypothetically, a rich and handsome pop star and you need to put a little love in your heart."

"With you so far. Hypothetically and all."

"Of course. And let's say that you happen to have this friend that you've known forever and who's fun and you totally trust, someone whose gender pretty much fits exactly what your preferences are and who even has pretty much exactly your same crazy schedule. And this person, this friend, you know you're good working with him, you know you don't kill each other after being locked in a moving vehicle for a couple of days, and let's say he's also a big, sexy celebrity like your hypothetical self and you're totally attracted to him. Would there be any really compelling reason not to make him your love puppy?"

"There, uh," Justin said, and stopped. He laughed a little bit, and then said, "Dude, there's always a compelling reason not to call somebody you actually like a 'love puppy.'"

"Sex monkey, then. The weasel o' your affections. Call it what you like."

"Can we just bottom-line this, Chris? I mean, just...tell me what you're trying to tell me, here."

Okay, maybe Justin wasn't the quickest study in 'N Sync either. Chris wondered if Lance really was the brains of this outfit like they always said in interviews. "Is it going to be weird if I ask Lance out?"

They got disconnected somehow. Fucking Verizon.

He called back, but he got sent straight to voicemail again, which was totally weird. He tried again, same thing. It was like Justin's battery was dead, which was very fucking unlikely. Justin never let his battery run dry; he'd cut off a thumb before he'd lose cell service. On the third try, Chris left voicemail, saying, "Dude, what the fuck? Call me back."

Chris waited another few minutes and tried again. This time Justin picked up, said, "Fuck you, Chris," and disconnected him again.

He called again, and left a message saying, "Dude, what the fuck?" and then again, and one that said, "You know what, Justin? Fuck you, too, then." That held him for a couple of minutes, until he caved and called back. "J, come on," he said after the beep. "You're freaking me out, bro. Pick up."

That must have helped, because Justin didn't pick up the next time, but he did the time after that. "Sorry," he said. "I'm sorry."

"Are you mad at me?" Um, hello. Captain Obvious.

"No," Justin said quickly, in his lying voice. Then he sighed, and said, "Not really, no," in his real one. "I just...that was my fault. I'm an asshole, sorry."

"Don't be like that, man. Just, seriously, do you have a problem with me and Lance?"

"I just didn't know there was a you and Lance," he said, and he sounded weird. Younger.

And then, oh. Right. So, still a complete moron. "There's, um. Not, but." In so many words, shit. Chris cleared his throat and said, "But if there was, that would be like, a problem, you're saying. A problem...between you and me."

"I just always thought," Justin said, and then fell quiet. He laughed, almost too softly to hear. "No, that's such bullshit. I didn't always. I gave up thinking that like a million years ago. Just, for a minute there, I thought. Well, yeah. But okay, Lance. Okay. You're, um. You're into Lance, huh?"

"Kinda, yeah," Chris said, knocking his head lightly against his kitchen wall. So, okay, so far? Not so much a loophole. "Justin, I, seriously, I didn't mean to act all fucking stupid. I just, you know, I didn't know, man."

"Yeah, you did," Justin said, not angrily. He sounded kind of confused. "I know you did. I mean, you let me down easy and all, not in so many words, but you knew."

"Yeah, when you were fourteen I knew. You had that stupid crush, Christ, you were so fucking obvious about it." Okay, that hadn't come out the way he intended at all. He could almost hear Justin's freezing glare. "I just, you know. I thought you grew out of that, is all."

"I did," he said, and now at least he didn't sound all vulnerable. "I told you, I gave up on that a long time ago. Look, can we forget the whole thing? It was a misunderstanding. I'm the best friend, I'm here for the moral support thing, right? Yes, go for, follow your dream, jump Lance's bones."

"You never said anything. To me. That's what I'm saying, Justin, how come none of us ever, no one ever said something?"

"Well, I thought there was kind of a rule."

"A rule? About dating in the group?"

"Yeah. You know, I thought, just. None of us ever did. I thought there was a rule."

"How come I don't remember this meeting?"

"An unspoken rule."

"An unspoken rule? We have those?"

"I thought we had one. That one."

"But.... Okay, now I'm confused. Do we or don't we have an unspoken rule against hooking up with each other?"

"How the hell should I know? I just thought we did. It was, you know, unspoken, so I can't really tell you if it happened or it didn't. I just thought you blew me off because of, because there was kind of this rule."

"I blew you off because you were fourteen, Justin."

Justin made an impatient growling noise. "Fine, I get it, I was stupid. There's no rule, there was never a rule, I should've asked you out three years ago, I asked out the wrong fucking friend three years ago. I get it." In a gentler voice, he said, "This thing with Lance, this is what you want?"

He thought maybe he should think this over; he thought maybe this was all happening too fast. But then he thought of Lance's wrist, the way Lance's eyebrows shot up when he smiled, how fucking cute Lance had been in that awful movie. "Yeah," he said. "It's weird, I know. Because you're -- you know, how you are and all, and you're my best friend in the world, and honestly, I don't know what the fuck is up with me, but yeah. I can't really help it, you know? I can't stop thinking about him."

"Well, there you go, then."

"But...are you gonna be okay, though? I mean, you're okay, right?"

"What, without you?" Justin said, just archly enough that Chris figured he'd be fine. "I guess I'll probably find a reason to go on living."

"It's not that I don't-- "

"Chris. Yes, it is that you don't. It's okay, man."

"No, it's not that I don't. I just never, you know, really thought about it. I just always thought it was kind of a little kid thing."

"Yes, Christopher, it was a little kid thing. A decade ago, it was a little kid thing. And then I grew up. And you're still just the coolest son of a bitch I ever knew."

"I just, but now I have this big ol' thing for Lance. Is all."

Justin laughed, a bright, cackling laugh that sounded exactly like Justin at his most carefree. Resilient boy; Chris knew he was milking this whole Britney business. "Dude, don't be describing your big ol' thing, dig?"

"Okay, well, if you're intimidated. I understand."

"There's no rule. There's no reason. Don't be a dumbass. Totally do it, ask him to be your stud puppy or what the fuck ever."

"You and me, J, seriously. Are we okay?"

"Golden," he said.

It was a good ending to the conversation, but when Chris hung up, he still felt uninformed. Because, hello, first there's a rule and then there's no rule? Justin was obviously unreliable in this situation, poor screwed-up kid. And anyway, he was Justin, who was good at every single thing in God's creation, except relationships. So maybe he wasn't Chris' best pick for a lifeline, best friend or not. Chris picked up the phone again.

"Is there a rule about dating inside the group or what?" he said right away

"Well, just the unspoken one," JC said. He sounded sleepy, but not cranky.

"Aha! I fucking knew it. There is an unspoken rule. And why didn't anyone ever tell me about it?"

"Such is the nature of unspoken rules," JC said wisely.

"Such is the passive-aggressive nature of all of y'all. There could've been a meeting. A memo. Someone really should've gotten on that at some point."

"All of y'all," JC repeated, slowly, in that way he had of really listening to the way words sounded. "All of y'all. You've been talking to Justin again."

"Well, of course I fucking have."

"Are you dating Justin?"

"No. No, I'm not dating -- no! Christ almighty. Lance, I have a thing for Lance."

They got disconnected. Chris poured himself a screwdriver before he called back.

JC, bless his heart, actually answered the phone. "I hung up on you," he admitted meekly.

"It's going around."

"That was wrong of me."

"You're forgiven, but seriously, I'm getting the feeling that my big thing for Lance is this huge, problematic...thing for everyone else I know. Am I onto something here?"

JC sighed. "No. No, Chris, I'll be okay, really."

"That's good to know, except, what? When were you not okay? Why are you not okay?"

"I used to be in love with Lance."

Of course he did. Chris lay down on his kitchen floor and balanced the empty glass on his forehead. "No kidding."

"Nothing ever happened," JC rushed to assure him. "Well, I -- kissed him. Once. But it wasn't his, he didn't, and nothing. It just, nothing. He turned me down."

"Because of the group."

"No. Because I told him I loved him, and he said I moved too fast and he wasn't looking for that kind of love. I didn't know about the rule until Justin told me about it, later."

"What?" He lost control of the glass, and it went rolling to the wall. "I thought it was unspoken!"


"It's not unspoken if Justin told you about it. It's Justin's motherfucking rule, if Justin told you about it."

"Oh, I think it was always a rule. Just...nobody but Justin realized it."

"I'm gonna strangle him. He's led a full life. I won't feel guilty about it at all. I'll make out with Lance on top of his grave."

"You don't mean that."

"Of course I don't mean that, C, Jesus. I'm just -- let me get this straight. There was a rule, which was unofficial if not entirely unspoken, against dating within the group. But it's not in effect, because Justin just now took it back, and anyway nobody ever followed it, since Justin hit on me and you hit on Lance, and the reason it didn't take was because Justin was in the eighth grade and you were a big loon, not because of any rule, which I was not even aware of and Lance was maybe not aware of. Is that where things stand?"


"And are you in love with Lance or what?"

"Now, you mean?"

"Now! Now! I'm not writing a book, JC! I just wanna know if you're going to cry if I ask Lance out on a date."

He didn't answer for, like, ages. But Chris just let him sit and ponder in silence, because you couldn't get anything useful out of JC by pushing him. Chris counted the tiles in his ceiling. "If I said I was still in love with him," JC said slowly, at last, "would you still ask him out?"

Suddenly, all desire to yell was gone. Chris' back was starting to hurt, and he missed JC a lot. "Yeah, maybe?" he said. "Yeah, I would, I think I would. Because -- I mean, I love you, man, you're like my best friend and all that, but it wouldn't be fair-- I mean, you asked him, you took your shot. I didn't get in your way or anything, and it ought to cut the other way. I'd feel bad, but.... There's this thing. I can't stop thinking about him. I just need to...try."

"Good," JC said. "That's the right answer."

"It is?" Because, funny, it made Chris feel like a very wrong person. He might not have admitted any of that to anyone but JC, who cared so much about Truth that it felt extra-deluxe wrong to lie to him.

"Yes, because Lance deserves someone who has the balls to fight for him. See, that was my mistake, Chris. I gave up too fast."

"I thought your mistake was you were already coming on too strong."

"Well, that's what he said. But that's not really what happened."

"It's not?" Of course not, because everything was simple until you asked JC about it, at which point it instantly became complicated and obtuse. Why, again, had Chris ever thought that calling JC was a good idea? He'd forgotten how obnoxious JC could be when he was, you know, awake, and for some reason, just the idea that he'd been away from JC long enough to forget this made Chris miss him even worse.

"No, of course not. Lance tries to push people away. He'd push everybody away, if they let him. You know who doesn't let him? Joey. That's why Joey has the best relationship with Lance of anybody. See, you need to be like Joey. Only more gay. If you really care about Lance, then make it work."

"I said I was going to try."

"There is no try."

"Okay, I missed you for about forty-five seconds there, but I'm over it now. I'm hanging up."

"I love you."

"So we're okay?"


He took the dogs for a walk while trying to decide whether or not to call Joey. On the one hand, Chris didn't really need any more sudden changes in his blood pressure today, but on the other hand, if it was going to happen, he might as well get it all over with at once. One big Morning of Stupid, and then, once it was over, he could go forward with a lightened heart or something like that.

"You're not secretly in love with me, are you?" he asked, before Joey could get started on some forty-minute story.

"What?" Joey laughed. "You're kidding me, right?"

"And you're not secretly in love with Lance, are you?"

Joey stopped laughing. "Of course I'm not fucking in love-- What is that supposed to mean, Kirkpatrick? What is this about?"

"I have this big ol' thing for Lance, and I want to date him and make him fall in sweet love with me and stuff. Any problems you may have with that, please, let me have it now. I'm ready, bring it on, let's go."

"I don't...." Joey sounded confused. "I don't have...a problem with that, I guess. What did Lance say when you told him?"

"I'm trying to clear up potential problems before I get to the asking him stage, and frankly, so far, it's a damn good thing I thought ahead like this. Because Justin was all, oh, if only, and JC was all, oh, the missed chances, and this is not shit I need to be dealing with while I'm trying to get my freak on, so now is the right time to deal. Get the freaking over with before the freaking, if you catch my drift."

"Okay, I don't have a problem, unless you keep saying shit like get my freak on about Lance."

"Maybe I didn't explain myself well. I have a thing, which is not the thing that I used to have for Lance, the thing with the friendship. This is the hot and horny type of thing, with his shoulderblades and-- "

"No, see, maybe I didn't explain myself well. Nothing would make me happier than to see two of my best friends get all boyfriendly and happy together and all that, but you don't get to talk to me about your and Lance's sex life, because that's horrible and disturbing, and it's going to make me want to kill you."

"It would be good sex. I mean, committed, respectful, I-love-Lance kind of sex."

"I don't care. He's Lance, I don't want to know what kind of sex he's having. He's -- he's -- Lance. He's sister."

"I'm going to tell him you said that."

"No, no, that didn't come out right. I started to say like my brother, but then I realized I didn't care what kind of sex my brother has. He's like my sister. I don't have to kill someone just because he has sex with Janine, but I do have to kill the guy if he makes me picture it."

It was finally sinking in on Chris that he was getting something pretty much like Joey's blessing. Joey, Chris loved Joey. Joey was clearly his very best friend in the world. "So, I guess you're not going to give me any highly classified state secrets that would help me rock his world, huh?"

"Well. Lance likes -- let me see. Cheesy pop country songs."

"Duh. I have met Lance. He's like my best friend; he's not my Russian mail-order bride." Chris felt his mouth curving into a grin, and he sent up a silent prayer for mercy upon his immortal soul for torturing his nearest and dearest. "Oh, unless you're telling me that Shania turns him on? That Martina McBride gives Lance wood, Lonestar makes Lance roll on his back and spread-- "

"Kill. You think I'm just a big musical theater fairy, but I know people who know people. It would be painless, because I like you, but you know. Killed."

"Roger that, Tony Soprano. We never had this conversation."

But Joey was a big, squishy romantic at heart, and so after clearing his throat for a minute he said, "Lance likes, uh. His hands, like, his fingers? You should -- touch them, and. Kiss them and stuff. Oh, holy Jesus. I'm fucking hanging up on you now. You're making me picture it, you little freakazoid!"

They got disconnected. Chris didn't call back, but he did get online and FTD a giant bouquet to Joey's theater with a card that said, "Thanks! Your sister is smokin' hot!" He only wished he could see the face of the florist flunky who typed up the card.

The only boring phone call Chris made that day was to Lance. "You want to come over here for dinner tomorrow?" he said, and Lance said, "Sure, what time?"

A lesser man -- and Chris didn't say that to be boastful, but he was a person who believed in complete honesty, at least with himself -- a lesser man would have gone the typical route, some boring salmon-pasta-lemon something ordered in from somewhere upscale, nice china and candles and soft music on the stereo. All that date crap. But then, Lance could go anywhere and get that kind of thing. Chris was a firm believer in playing up his own charming eccentricities. Funny guys got more play than the world's beautiful people entirely realized.

"I brought wine," Lance said at the door. "I didn't know what we were having, so is red okay?"

"Red's perfect." Chris was delighted by the idea that somehow there was a gestalt of dateness in the air, enough that Lance was playing right into Chris' plans. Either that or someone had called ahead and warned him, in which case, hell, he was still here, wasn't he?

Lance spoiled his mood slightly by saying, "I always get hangovers from the cheap booze at your house, so this time I came prepared," but Chris didn't dwell. Lesser men second-guessed themselves.

There were tall candles and soft music (Chris almost took a risk on the Dixie Chicks, but he wasn't sure if that was quite crappy enough to suit Lance's tastes, so he went with Alan Jackson instead), and even nice china, because Chris didn't want to be a cliche, but he wasn't shooting for a popcorn-and-Diet-Coke-wanna-fuck? type of evening either. "What on earth?" Lance said, stopping in the doorway of the dining room.

Chris put his hand on Lance's arm and propelled him further into the room. "Nice, huh?" he said.

Lance poked at the chalupa on the nearest plate. "You set up a fancy candlelight dinner for Taco Bell food?"

"I did," Chris confirmed, "and, see, there are some explanatory notes, because it's a real subtle, metaphorical kind of thing. You'll find it very charming."

"I'm sure I will," Lance said dryly.

Chris pulled out a chair for him, and Lance sat down gingerly, as if afraid it were some kind of trick collapsing chair. Like Chris would buy a set of four trick collapsing chairs that matched the rest of his dining room furniture just to entrap Lance, and without witnesses, even. Chris filed that idea away for possible use on Justin and returned to the important matter at hand. "You see, the Taco Bell symbolizes me."

"Because of the Chihuahua thing?" Lance said, and Chris was momentarily wounded, until he remembered that Lance never looked that innocent unless he was completely fucking with you.

"No, smarty pants. Because I like Taco Bell, and I make you drive through there and pick me up stuff when you come over, and because we used to eat at that one Taco Bell across from the high school when we were living together in the old house, do you remember that?"

"Yeah, I remember," Lance said softly, putting his thumb under the edge of his plate and angling it up to get a better look at Chris' china pattern in the candlelight.

"Right, so it's this whole sentimental memory thing, and it's, you know, me, that you know and you're used to and you like."

"So you're the chalupa, and I'm...?" Lance prompted.

"You're you. I'm the chalupa, you're still you, and all this-- " Chris gestured around the room with both arms, indicating the ambiance in general, "this is a new setting, which makes you experience the familiar old fast food in a new and potentially exciting way. Plus, you brought wine, and I'm thinking the wine might symbolize the kissing parts, not that I'm rushing you. We eat first, of course; I'm a gentleman."

"There are -- kissing parts?" Lance's voice sounded oddly high -- not by Chris' standards, of course, but certainly by Lance's. He sounded positively Joey-like.

Now that the fun of planning all of this was over, now that Lance was really here and Chris was going through with it, he was suddenly nervous. Chris hadn't really expected to be nervous; the worst Lance could do was laugh in his face, and actually, Chris had had a couple of good relationships that started out that way. You only had to watch out for the ones that ended that way, and he was confident that Lance wouldn't be one of those. Still. A little nervous.

"Well," he hedged. "I kiss on the first date. You know, so don't worry about my end of things. But I'm not into the whole, like, kicking the boys who don't put out out of the car thing, so. I mean, we're kind of doing a whole transitional thing, a post-friendship, pre-... Okay, I mean, you can date me with an option to kiss, at a later date if necessary, and then-- "

"Okay," Lance said abruptly, standing up. "That's the second time you said date, and I-- You're telling me this is a date?"

"It's, uh...." Jeez, how many non-date candlelight dinners did people throw for Bass, anyway?

"Why?" Lance said, which was one question that Chris hadn't really planned out an answer for. Why the hell did anyone ever date?

It didn't seem very soothing to say Why the hell does anyone ever date? though, so Chris struggled for something that would make Lance look a little bit less ready to bolt. "I guess just because I have this big ol' thing," he said. "For you."

"No, you don't," Lance said. "You don't, and -- and you're being a jackass. I don't know if this is the whole joke, or if this is just part of something-- "

"It's not part of anything, it's not a fucking joke! Lance, I-- "

Lance's eyes flashed evil green fire at him. He picked one of the chalupas off his plate and said, "Thanks for dinner," with arch fury, and he walked out the door.

Chris wondered how a lesser man would handle this. It seemed to him like a lot of lesser men had better luck on dates.

He hadn't owned the RV very long yet, and he'd only taken two short trips in it. Every time, Chris had trouble getting to sleep at night, which seemed weird. He should be the grand master of sleeping in new places by now, and the bed was close to the same size and firmness of his bunk on the bus, so it should be familiar and comfortable. That was kinda why he bought the fucking thing to begin with.

He thought maybe it was too familiar. He could lie there in the dark, facing the plastic paneling of the wall, and it didn't feel like a hotel room. It felt like a bus. Which would be fine, if there were feet clomping toward the bathroom, reading lights flipping on and off filtered by two sets of curtains, JC's noisy breathing that didn't quite rise to the level of a full-blown snore, the constant simmering music that came out of Justin, humming or beatboxing or plunking on guitar strings. It felt like his bus, only dead silent and empty.

Chris was not one to waste money, however, so he couldn't just keep the damn thing up on blocks, and anyway he still wanted to see his great nation up-close and personal. He had to acclimate was all, so he'd been sleeping on the bus under the carport in the back of his house for two weeks. At first he'd had to have a tv out there, or music of some kind, but now not all the time. Sometimes he just went to bed like a normal person. The night that Lance dumped him on his ass, however, he listened to The Goo Goo Dolls and Duran Duran, and finally -- not without a sense of guilt -- the Lonestar CD he'd bought the day before and rejected as ambiance music. Not the whole CD, just "Amazed" on replay. If that made it any better, which Chris sort of doubted it did.

He got a few hours of sleep, and he was awake and had his teeth brushed when Lance knocked on his door.

"Hey, what are you doing here?" Chris said, which was maybe not very welcoming, but he meant for it to be. Lance was always welcome, of course, in Chris' house or his hotel rooms or his RV, wherever, but he didn't really think Lance would be that particular day, or possibly ever. Along with the awkward bad vibes of being called a jackass by the object of your affections, the RV just wasn't so much Lance's speed, as evidenced by the pained way that Lance was eyeballing the plaid curtains.

"I, uh." With palpable effort, Lance disengaged from being judgmental about Chris' RV. That was almost kind of noble, for Lance. "This is really not some stupid Chris thing?"

Which, well, maybe it was and maybe it wasn't. Lance had dark circles under his eyes, and the sleeves of his grey silk shirt were unbuttoned and rolled up unevenly to his elbows. He didn't look like he'd been to bed the night before, but the smell of bourbon was faint on him and he looked pretty sober. Sober enough to have trouble meeting Chris' eyes. "Nope. This is some incredibly genius Chris thing, whose genius you maybe haven't discovered yet because of it being an idea that's clearly really far ahead of its time, but I don't want you to feel bad, because a lot of the finest boyband minds of our generation are also not totally on board with the brilliance yet, so you have plenty-- Oh."

Lance's hands on his arms, and Lance, so close to him, almost cheek-to-cheek, his skin radiating surprising warmth, for how pale he seemed. It wasn't dinner or date-night or night at all; the sun was filtering in amber through the brown plaid curtains and there were birds, honest to God warbling morning robins or whatnot singing outside, and Lance was breathing hard and he didn't go away when Chris put a hand on the small of Lance's back. "I like you," Lance said.

"That's the brilliant part." He was pretty sure he hadn't made noises like that in casual conversation since he was thirteen years old with his voice still breaking.

"You just couldn't wait until I got back, could you?"

"Shit, when did you get this tall?"

"I don't want to be boyfriends. I mean, later, maybe, we can be boyfriends. But you're gonna travel and I'm gonna -- travel, and -- later, okay?"

Chris leaned away from him a little and let his hand drift down, his thumb hooked in Lance's waistband and his hand settled lightly on Lance's ass. "Maybe you could just let me know when's good for you."

"Don't be like that," Lance said tiredly.

"I'm not being like anything. I just -- I can get laid, you know, if I feel like it, I don't need in your pants all that bad. I'm kinda trying to date you and woo you and make you my love puppy, and if.... Yeah, it's a bad time for you, I get that, you've got a lot on your plate. Just call me when you get back, that's cool. I'll be here. It's not like I'm going to leave the planet or anything."

"Love puppy?"

Chris grinned. "See, you're not feeling the love puppy either. Justin told me to lose that one, but I thought it was cute. What do I know?"

"Why are you being so mature about this? I'm trying to throw myself at you. The least you could do is-- Oh." Chris kissed him again, on the other side of his mouth. "The least you could do," Lance said again, softer, "is be your usual. Oh. Spastic self. Oh, and -- kiss me for real -- right now."

Chris cupped his other hand behind Lance's head and kissed him again, just a faint touch like the others. He let his eyes drift half shut and it all felt slow, so slow, like the pictures Chris had seen of things floating idly through space in zero-gravity. Lance's arm slipped around his back, and his hand moved forward so that Lance could let his head loll, his cheek against the heel of Chris' hand. "I like you, too," Chris murmured, bracketing it with whispering kisses that made Lance sway closer to him.

He kissed under Lance's jaw and the pulse in his neck while he unbuttoned Lance's shirt and smoothed his hand down the clean, bare skin. "You're such a gym bunny anymore," Chris accused fondly, kissing a well in his collarbone.

"I'm in training," Lance said.

"I'm thinking about hiring somebody to go to the gym for me."

"Good," Lance said breathlessly. "I think that's more real." When Chris started laughing, Lance hit him feebly in the back with the side of his fist. "No, shut up, I mean -- I mean -- not going to the gym, I like that. About you. In a man. Shut up."

"What do you know about real, Page Six boy?" Chris slipped two fingers of his other hand into Lance's waistband and pulled him closer with both hands, biting gently at Lance's ear.

"I know that I trust you," Lance said, and for a moment Chris couldn't move, except for the tossing of his stomach, because Lance. Lance and trust, Chris understood about that, knew what he meant.

He couldn't seem to get Lance's belt unbuckled until he got down on his knees, and then it came apart easily, and the button and zipper, too, so easily it was practically meant to be. He put his face against the soft grey cotton of Lance's boxer-briefs, his nose against the thick shape of Lance's hard-on underneath. Lance groped clumsily at the back of Chris' neck, and Chris realized Lance was saying his name over and over, trying to get his attention. Chris grunted to prove that Lance had it, and nuzzled his hands in through the slackened fabric of Lance's pants, looking for the solid curve of his hipbones. "Chris," Lance said again, and Chris was sure his voice was setting off Geiger counters somewhere nearby. "If you're gonna do this, don't tease me, okay?"

"Would I tease?" Chris asked, and Lance answered with a snort, which was pretty fair, because Chris would tease, was actually dying to tease, make Lance fall down and then beg, give it to him by ferociously slow increments. But not now. Lance trusted him and all. Chris slid his hand down the front of Lance's shorts, pushing them down just enough to get his mouth on warm skin. Lance thrust up, his hand catching in Chris' hair, and Chris would have minded, except that Lance was already half-begging, in senseless, low whining sounds.

"Baby," he thought he heard Lance groan as his hips started to move, pushing the head of his cock back and forth against the roof of Chris' mouth. "Baby," he said again, deep and slurred, the same voice Lance used at his very drunkest, "don't you know I'm the one who needs this?"

Chris didn't know, but based on the way that Lance said his name when Chris angled his head so that Lance's cock nudged deep down against the back of his throat, he was willing to believe.

There were no happy morning robins singing when Chris regained some sense of linear time, but the lack of sunlight and the crickets clued him in that it wasn't morning anymore. He tried to roll over and realized there wasn't any over to roll to, not on a mattress this size. Sex on a bunk, he thought, kissing Lance's shoulder. Just one more thing missing from 'N Sync's band experience because of Justin and his asinine unspoken rules.

Lance sighed, and stirred, and kissed him, warm and wet and awkward. He could barely see Lance, it was so dark, but the smell of him was unmistakable, and the warmth of his breath, and the sound of his soft chuckling. Chris found himself giggling back, not sure why. It was just...sort of funny. Him and Lance. Him and Lance.

"Me and Lance," he said, and didn't let Lance say anything back for a couple of minutes.

"I'll write you every day from space camp," Lance said when the kiss broke. He managed a fair amount of irony, for a guy who was breathing heavy. They hadn't talked yet about the fact that Lance was leaving again in two days, but Chris knew it, of course. That damn e-mail schedule was so carved into his consciousness by now that if he unfocused his eyes he could practically see a copy of it hovering holographically in front of him.

"I already said, no rush. I'll be here when you get done."

Lance kissed him on the cheek and said, "You're entirely too well-balanced. What have you done with my m-- Chris?"

"Stutter much?" Chris said, arching his eyebrows. It was amazing that a man who talked dirty during sex could go from blushless to Maine lobster in point-eight seconds. He slid his hand across Lance's waist and rubbed his nose to Lance's. "What? Your what, what were you going to call me?"

"N-nothing. Shut up."

"Your...?" Chris prompted, draping a leg over Lance's, nuzzling the side of his mouth. "Your?"

"My," Lance murmured, and Chris could feel Lance's eyelashes against his face as they fluttered closed. "My." He chuckled, a deep, hoarse sound, and drawled, "Oh, my."

They faked it for a few more minutes, making out and grinding against each other as if they really had the energy left to go again, but then once appearances were kept up, they relaxed into each other's arms by silent mutual consent, Chris' face in the crook of Lance's neck and his legs wrapped around Lance's legs. "Thank you," Lance said quietly. "For -- for dinner and the candles and everything. It was all really nice, and I was such a jerk to you."

"It was lame and kind of out of nowhere. If you like that metaphor for me better than the chalupa one."

Lance chuckled and rubbed his cheek against Chris' head. "It was sweet, it was very nice, and, yeah, a little out of nowhere. I mean...when did this...come along?"

"Just, gradually," Chris hedged. "Lately. I don't know. I've been thinking about you. What made you change your mind? I mean, not in an ungrateful way, but why are you here?"

Lance sighed and shifted around, pushing Chris toward the wall so that he could lie flat on his back. "I guess Joey, mostly," he said. "Joey vouched for your, you know, honorable intentions and everything. Then I went into the whole song and dance about the group and was it too risky and what if it ends badly, and.... He's just a very calming person, you know? Oddly enough. Because, yeah, Joey, parties and drinking and bouncing around being a big goofball, but he also has this way of just bringing you back down to the important stuff. So Joey was all like, But you say that about every guy who likes you, not just in the group. And he's right. I'm very easily stressed out by.... Well, I just kind of want you to realize that about me. That I'm not smart about men. I pick bad ones, and I get scared off by good ones, so if I seem scared...."

"That just means I'm good?"

Lance reached over to run his hand over Chris' ass. "Yeah. I guess that's what it means. Well, that's what Joey thinks, anyway, and he's probably right. He's usually right about me."

Chris propped up on his elbow to watch Lance slide out of bed and start gathering up his clothes. "Obviously I owe Joey more flowers," he said. State botanical gardens, even. Joey was his very best friend.

"So, I think that we should be clear on all the basics," Lance said in his brisk, business-meeting voice as he pulled on his pants. "I think we're looking at a relationship here, assuming you meant what you said and it's not some passing whim, and also I should go ahead and mention that I've had a crush on you for a while now, so we're pretty much on the same page, apparently. And if it doesn't work out, I don't want us to be able to blame it on a bad start or any other outside factors. I think we're going to need all the advantages we can get. So I would propose that we start being together after I come back to Florida full-time. Which I think I said earlier, but you should know that I still think that, even after the sex." Lance smiled over his shoulder at Chris. "Which was great, by the way. Wow."

Chris grinned back. "Okay, I'm with you so far. And until then, we're just...what? I am going to see you between now and then, right?"

"Yeah, I'll be traveling back and forth some over the next several months. And I do want to see you. But let's postpone any big commitments or decisions or anything like that." Fully dressed, he climbed back onto the bed, on his hands and knees over Chris. He licked Chris' ear and said, "It'll just be the friend thing, and then incidentally also the I'll-call-you-when-I'm-in-town great sex thing. Does that work for you?"

The ear thing definitely worked for him. Chris slid his hands up the back of Lance's thighs and said, "I think I get it. You just want to be available to sleep with all those hot astronauts you're going to meet. I know that's your real childhood dream."

"You're right," Lance said flatly. "I've always wanted to get gang-banged by cosmonauts. This is actually just the most unbelievably expensive trick in history."

Chris lifted his head to kiss Lance's neck, which smelled like sweat and CK1 and maybe a little bit like Chris, he liked to imagine. "Go, get it all out of your system. Go to space, have your torrid little affairs with hot astronauts who only speak five words of English. Just come back, okay?"

Lance kissed him, and it was gentle but it still almost hurt, Chris' lips were so raw and swollen after the last eight hours. "I will come back," Lance said firmly. "And when I do," he added in a lighter, teasing tone, "I just might be looking for a boyfriend."

"You have my number?" Chris asked, and there was a follow-up part to that joke, but Lance kissed him again, and Chris stopped caring anymore.

2: Not So Hideously Painful

Justin spent the whole ride to Radio City drumming on the limo's door handle, his expression the same icy, almost angry mask that Chris hadn't seen since NSA came out -- Justin's nervous look, Justin trying and failing to get his game face on. Chris didn't say anything to him about it, just slipped his hand behind Justin, resting it on the small of his back.

Across from him, JC pitched forward for no apparent reason, catching himself with his hands braced on Chris' knees; instinctively, Chris wanted to push him off, but he remembered in time that it was just JC. "Aw, man!" he said. "Aw, man, you lucky bastard, your boyfriend is so fine."

Chris tried to figure out how to get JC off of him without shoving, but JC seemed to be moving in for the duration, folding down with his sharp elbows on Chris' legs, smiling up into Chris' eyes. Chris thought it might look a little porny, if some photographer were to get a shot of it, Chris with his hand hidden by Justin's body, JC stretched out across the space between them in an attitude not unreminiscent of blowjobs. It didn't feel porny, though. It felt tense and strange, and he was grateful for the distraction when Lonnie opened the car door and waved Joey inside. "I know," he mumbled, "but don't talk about-- "

"Don't talk about what?" Joey asked cheerfully. JC leaned back into his own seat, tucking himself in under Joey's arm. Joey kissed his cheek without really looking at him and said, "Hey, superstar! You ready for this?"

Justin smiled, and Joey didn't seem to notice anything wrong with it. "Sure. Chris, you should've come with us the other night; Joey was so great. He's great, he's gonna be the new -- uh -- Robert Goulet? He's famous from Broadway, right?"

"Mandy Patinkin," JC suggested.

"You keeled my father," Chris said for no real reason, just to participate. "Prepare to die."

"I like Mandy Patinkin," JC said, slightly wounded. "I liked him on Chicago Hope. And in Evita."

"Did I say you shouldn't? Anyway, I saw him two weeks ago. Joey, not Mandy. I know, he's great. I told him. Joey. Not Mandy."

"Still, you could have gone on opening night," Justin said, and Chris rolled his eyes. He remembered this from the pre-NSA era, too, from harder times. Justin, so carefree and playful and good-natured when he was happy, fell to criticizing and complaining when he wasn't. Never about the important things -- he maintained his patience with everyone when it came to work, from producers to caterers to the other guys, correcting diplomatically where he had to and ignoring politely where he had to do that -- but it would come out about the most ridiculous shit.

"Actually, since I went two weeks before official opening night, I saw him before you did. Although I'm still waiting for Joey to explain to me why opening night isn't actually the night he opens."

Joey shrugged. "It's just the way they do it. So what aren't we talking about?"

"Chris' boyfriend," Justin said.

"Totally hot!" JC insisted, butting his head against Joey's shoulder. Joey oofed, and not in quite as pleased a way as he normally did when JC smacked up against him. "He's got ridges," JC said, running a demonstrative hand up and down his own torso. "All cut and sexy and hard; he looks like a model now, like someone you'd pay to take his shirt off in some GQ ad. I thought I was gonna drool on him."

"Okay, that's enough," Joey said gruffly, taking JC by the shoulder and pushing him sideways so that JC was sitting up on his own. "God, we get it. Lance is working out more."

"He's not my boyfriend," Chris said.

"I just wanted to -- well, not that I would, of course, but -- really? Because he -- oh. Okay."

"It's not okay," Joey said. "What the hell do you mean he's not your boyfriend? You think he's, you think he's what? What the hell is he, then, because he really likes you, and-- "

"Joe, hey." Chris held up his hands. "Put down the shotgun, Dad, come on. It's nothing like that, it's just, you know, the weird long-distance thing. We're in kind of a holding pattern."

Joey crossed his arms over his chest. "Holding pattern," he repeated, heavily doubtful.

"It was his idea."

"He's really hot," JC said, as if that were some kind of compromise point.

"I thought you were going to be boyfriends," Joey said.

Chris threw up his hand and said, "Look, I'm fucking telling you! I'm not jerking him around; I'm fucking crazy about him."

"Be nice to him, Joey, please." JC's voice was soft and wheedling, just audible. "He misses Justin and Lance."

Justin's head snapped around from the tinted window. "I'm sitting right here," he said, snapping the words out. "Everybody stop fucking talking about me like I'm dead, would you, please?"

"Yeah, but you won't be-- " JC began, and then thought better of it. He reached out and stroked Justin's leg instead. Justin didn't seem to notice.

It was almost okay once they were really on the red carpet, the same familiar faces behind the E! and MTV microphones, the same questions they'd all rehearsed the answers to even though they were no-brainers to begin with, Joey and JC's distinctive laughter, Justin's softened, thoughtful interview-voice broken up with bursts of his real, raucous laugh. If Chris kept his eyes on the camera lights, he couldn't really tell that anything was missing; Lance didn't usually talk at these things, just slouched casually against Joey's or Justin's shoulder.

It was almost normal, until the clipboard-toting MTV drones seemed to come up out of the ground, tagged with their bright plastic badges, talking into their headsets and at Justin all at once. They cut him off smoothly from the rest of the group and started to drive him discreetly toward his dressing room, and there wasn't time to say much of anything, to do anything except wave like JC or give him a thumbs-up sign like Joey. Chris couldn't even really do that; all he could think about was that Justin was giving him the same round, dark-eyed, unsure gaze that Busta and Korea always gave him when he handed them off at the kennel. They even liked being at the kennel, where they always got better food and more exercise than they did when Chris had them, but still they looked at him just like that every time he let them be carried off by strangers.

Joey put a hand on his shoulder and said, "Crazy, huh? You know, I fucking bawled when I took Lance to the airport for Russia that first time."

"They're not fucking kindergartners," Chris grumbled, unwilling to admit that he actually did feel better, knowing that. "Christ, they practically babysit us half the time."

Joey looked puzzled. "Of course they do. They're our best friends."

He was out late at the after-parties, but he set the alarm in Joey's guest room for seven o'clock, which was six in Houston. He wasn't exactly awake when it went off, but he rolled over and dialed Lance's number, which he had wisely left out for himself the night before, written in bright red pen on one of the Post-It notes from Joey's refrigerator. In general, Chris felt organized and pretty damn smart, although still nauseous.

"I can't believe you're not asleep," Lance said, sounding thoroughly awake, and probably even showered and onto his second cup of coffee. If they let him drink coffee anymore; Chris was obscurely convinced that there were all kinds of gross and depressing dietary restrictions involved with being an astronaut, things like wheat-germ and sprouts and no coffee or Pixie Stix.

"I'm not gonna swear to you I'm not," Chris admitted. "Also, maybe drunk." Maybe not maybe.

"How'd it go?"

"Did you watch?"

"I couldn't, I'm sorry. It's sitting here. The tape is sitting right here; I was planning to watch it on my dinner break. If Justin asks, though, I saw it, it was fantastic. Whose party did you hit?"

Figures that Lance would check on that before pressing for any of the other details. "Dude, honest truth, I have no idea. Somebody cool. I think I might have danced with Jennifer Lopez. Really, I was pretty drunk, I could have danced with George Lopez. For all I know they left me face-down in the limo all night and I hallucinated everything."

Lance chuckled. "So you may or may not have had fun. Okay, in five words or less, how was Justin?"

"Hm. High-strung. He did good. Is that four words or five?"

"You may have another if you like."

"Justin," he said, and Lance hummed in understanding. "Hey, it was weird, though. You not being there."

"For me, too," Lance said softly. "I really tried."

"I know, it's okay. Nobody was upset, it was just weird. JC says he had fun out there."

"I'm glad. I was afraid it would be boring for him."

"I think he's writing a song about the hotness of you."

"What?" Lance said, sounding frightened by the prospect. Chris laughed, and Lance said, "You jerk, you're lying."

"I'm kinda lying. As far as I know. But he did go on and on about how you're all hard-bodied and sexy after all that training. Didn't really do anything for the whole me missing you problem."

Lance was quiet for a minute, and Chris wondered if he'd said something wrong. No, though, he was pretty sure he always said he missed Lance, and Lance said it back. "When I first met JC, he could do one-armed handsprings."

"Yeah, well, when you first met me, I was hot, too. Cheekbones and abs and blah blah blah." Chris knew he was sort of fishing for compliments, but he didn't figure it would work. It rarely did, with Lance, and that was part of Lance's charm.

"You were all right," Lance said, his voice suddenly throaty and his words elongated lazily. It made Chris squirm. "I spend a lot more time thinking about how hot you were the last time we met, though."

It was Lance's get-Chris-hard-instantly voice, and Chris wasn't about to tell him that the amount of alcohol still coursing through his body was working against Lance this morning. That would be giving up hope, and Chris always counseled against that. He reached down to stroke himself through his boxers and said, "So, what are you wearing?" Lance chuckled. Chris waited a minute for an actual response. "Okay," he finally said, "I'm going to assume that's you laughing at the absurdity of the idea that you would be wearing clothes at all while you talked to me on the phone, and not, you know, you laughing at my attempts to be sexy, because that's very demoralizing, and as a man, you should really know better."

"You're being sexy?" Lance sounded actually surprised, and Chris groaned. "No -- I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that. I sex? Seriously?"

"Yes, seriously. Seriously. You don't have to make it sound so bizarre, you know. Plenty of perfectly upstanding members of society do it, and since you're, you know, an amateur and everything, I'm looking at all calls under twenty minutes for a dollar, not four ninety-five a minute, and I just know my financial advisor would totally get off on the savings there. That's twenty minutes, potentially three really good orgasms, one lousy buck, you can't even get coffee for a buck anymore-- "

"Okay!" Lance was laughing, low and rhythmic, making Chris' hips press up toward the warm pressure of his palm. "You've got me convinced, it's an excellent investment. I've just, I've never done it before. So be gentle."

"You spent six years living on the road, and you never had phone sex?"

"No," Lance said defensively. Then his voice softened, and he said, "Who would I have talked to, you know? I mean, if you're going to be with a stranger, you might as well do it in person. I didn't have...people I missed, like the rest of you did. Plus," he added, a little more lightly, "it always seemed so, you know. So Justin and Britney."

"Hello, you think that stripling invented phone sex? I fucking taught him everything he knows."

"Will it take long? Because if I come, I should take another shower before my meeting, and it's already a quarter after-- "

"You're the last of the red-hot lovers, Bass. I don't know, will it take long? Lie down and let's find out."

"Mmhm," he said contentedly. "I'm lying down. Oh, this is bad, I don't need people encouraging me to go back to bed first thing in the morning."

Chris rolled over onto his stomach, one hand still in his boxers. He was beginning to get the feeling that nothing wildly memorable was going to be happening down there this morning, but his hand still felt nice, curled firmly around his sleepy cock. "What are you wearing?"

"Navy-blue pullover and khakis. Socks."

"Okay, definitely get rid of the socks, because I'll forget them otherwise, and then you'll be jerking off in your sock feet, and that always bugs me. Nobody should ever do anything sexy wearing their socks; it's so wrong."

"Okay. Sockless."

Chris wished he'd had the presence of mind to get a glass of water before this started, or at least to call on his cell instead of the land-line in Joey's spare room, but it was too late now. Nothing for it but to ignore the overripe taste in his mouth and try to think about Lance. "Push your hands up under your shirt. Real slow."

"Okay," Lance said softly. Chris knew his mind was already skipping ahead; Lance had nipples that were more sensitive than most of the chicks Chris had slept with, and it was Chris' long-term goal to see if he could make Lance come just by sucking on them. But that was a project for another day. Focus, focus.

Lance breathed out with a little sigh of pleasure, and Chris said, "I hope you're not playing with your nipples yet. I know you're on a schedule, but if you don't mind, my role here is pretty much limited to giving instructions, so I'd like to be able to do that."

"Sorry," Lance said, sounding genuinely contrite. God bless the United States government for teaching him how to take orders.

"JC says you're all muscle now. I can't wait to see this new body that's driving the poor boy so wild."

"Just to see it?"

"Hm. Good point. Okay, I can't wait to run my tongue over all your ridges. Touch yourself like that -- over your six-pack, the line up the middle of your body, from your waistband up your chest. They still let you use that girly body-wash, at NASA? You always taste like kiwi. If I were there, licking you up and down, I'd put my hands under your thighs and push your legs up and apart, so the crotch of your khakis pressed tight against your balls. I'd hold you there like that while I kissed that slippery kiwi taste off of you."

In the pause, Chris could hear Lance muttering something. It sounded a little like "Come on, come on, come on...."

"I'd lie down between your legs," Chris said, rallying himself after the delicious distraction of Lance's semi-coherent longing noises, "and push your shirt up across your body. Slow. Is it soft? I bet it's made of something soft. Push it up to your shoulders, kissing as I go. Kiss your right -- no, your left nipple. My right, your left." Lance laughed breathlessly, and Chris' fist tightened around his cock. Still no more than slightly hardened, but he stroked a little anyway, the soft skin moving liquidly under his hand. Not bad. He scrubbed his forehead against the pillow, almost able to feel the way Lance's nipple hardened and rose up when he slid his teeth around it. "Suck on your fingers. Then roll your nipple between them, and God, I wish it was my lips, I wish I could suck on it and press my tongue against it and make you shudder."

"I wish that all the fucking time," Lance said, half-frustrated, half-wistful. "I'll be in some meeting or working on the computer and suddenly that's all I can think about. How soft your hair is between my fingers when I hold your head against me, how good your mouth feels working me like that."

Chris wanted to make something of the fact that clearly he'd been right and Lance completely wrong about the profound wisdom of first-thing-in-the-morning phone sex, second shower notwithstanding, but even Chris could occasionally identify the wrong time for told-you-so. "I bet you're shuddering now. Shaking all over like you're strung out, running your hands over your body and thinking about the things I'll do to you next time I see you."

"Yeah," Lance said simply. "Yeah."

"Get your fingers wet again -- left hand. Do your right nipple now, and unzip your pants at the same time. Oh, hold the phone so I can hear the zipper, okay?"

"Still just have the two hands, Chris," Lance reminded him.

"Really, you went to work for NASA and didn't even get any cool experimental cybernetics? It's amazing what twenty million bucks doesn't buy anymore. Okay, do the zipper and then the nipple." The sound of the zipper was perfectly audible, and just the right kind of slow. Chris felt his body surge along with it, his shoulders pressing down into the pillows, and he had to scrabble to keep from dropping the receiver. God, he could see it, Lance with his knees up and his legs spread, holding the phone so Chris could hear him opening up his pants. He wanted to kiss Lance's soft, warm mouth so badly that he was almost surprised it wasn't there to kiss. "Okay. Listen to me, now. I want you to pull on your nipple a couple of times, pinch like I'm biting it. Then slide your hand back down, inside your pants but on top of your underwear, and hold your cock like that. If I was there, that would be me sliding against you. You'd feel my hard cock just like that, pressed against yours." Well, not really, but a little fantasy never killed anybody, and having successfully turned his sorry state of inebriation into a joke earlier, Chris wasn't too interested in having the serious version of the conversation at that particular moment.

"What would you do, what would you do to me now?" He sounded distant and disjointed, almost as if he were talking in his sleep. "Chris, Chris. What would it feel like, if you were with me?"

"I'd touch you," he said, and it wasn't a lyrical masterpiece, but it was everything on his mind right then, the only thing he could think about in damn near the only terms he could think. Focus, focus. "I'd -- I'd run my hands up your sides, I'd pull your shirt off. I'd kiss your neck and feel your heart pounding for me. Lick your neck and grind down on you, and you -- you'd put your hands on my head and your legs over my shoulders and rock up against me. You'd make noises. Not words, just noises, and I'd slip my fingers into your mouth and my other hand underneath you, put my hand on your ass and pull your hips up. You'd bite me when our cocks pushed into each other. You'd moan when I held you like that."

"Beg," Lance corrected. "I want you to touch me, want your hand on my dick."

Chris bit his lip, picturing the taut, intense look that he knew was on Lance's face at that very moment. "So beg," he said. It sounded flippant; it wasn't that Chris couldn't act, he just preferred small, intimate audiences.

"Your hand -- my hand -- please, Chris, I really want it. I want.... Please let me do it, let me touch it for you."

Chris groaned, twisting his hair fiercely around the tip of his fingers, the slight pain keeping him alert, or at least alert enough not to slide into a pretty-begging-Lance-induced fugue state. "Yeah. Put your hand in there, slide it all the way down, your open palm, all the way down your cock. You hard yet?"

Lance answered his rhetorical question with a wild, unsteady burst of laughter that broke off with a gasp. "Hard," he mumbled, and Chris thought he could hear the bed creak as Lance twisted where he lay. "Wet. You, oh, God, this feels so good."

"You're so hot," Chris whispered, only fractionally aware that Lance could even hear him. He was just saying it because it needed to be said. "JC knows it, everyone knows it. You're so fucking hot, thrashing around under me, rubbing up on me, crazy hot, dying to come for me."

"Are you going to suck me, Chris?"

It caught him up short, just because it almost didn't sound like Lance, the thin, plaintive words in a distorted, translucent version of Lance's rich voice. It was like Chris didn't know this man on the other end of the phone, and maybe he didn't, in a way. It wasn't just his friend Lance, after all, not just his brother Lance, not even just Lance that he knew liked to have his nipples and his earlobes nibbled. This was a whole new Lance, one Chris hadn't known very long yet.

"Yeah," he said slowly. "Yeah, of course I am. Move down you real slow, drag my fingernails over your chest just a little. I'm gonna pull your pants down your hips, press my thumbs into your hipbones, use my shoulders to keep your legs pressed up. I'm going to suck you, silky smooth, with plenty of tongue, just like you like it. Put your -- put your hands on my back, okay? I bet they're hot, I bet your palms are all sweaty. Your skin on mine. God, next time I see you. Are you jacking off?"

Lance made an indeterminate noise, and then seemed to realize it and said, "Yes, yeah. I have, uh, the phone up under my neck, and I'm doing it with both hands, thinking about being in your mouth. Did I -- ever tell you -- you give the best head? Really, like. The *best* head. It's so good, I'm such a fucking addict already."

"Lucky thing I'm cheap and street-legal."

"In many states, yes. Dunno about Texas."

"Okay, then be here with me instead. I'm here in New York, I'm staying at Joey's condo. You've seen it?" Lance made an agreeing grunt. "So we're there -- we're here. And I'm lying on my side, right, and you've got your pants open and my hand down inside squeezing your balls, and I'm going down on you. The window's open a little bit-- " because it was " -- and we can hear stuff outside, some big dog, the air brakes on a big delivery truck, people talking. Nobody notices us, though, because we're real quiet. I've got your dick in my mouth, and you're kind of starry-eyed and mind-blown. You've got your hand in my hair and you're just breathing, and sometimes saying my name, really soft. No one down there has a clue that a Major Entertainment Figure such as yourself is gonna get off any minute on the third floor."

"Chris," he said, low and fretful. "Kiss me when I come."

"Come, and then I'll kiss you."

It wasn't too hard to figure out when Lance carried through with his half of the bargain; certain patterns of gasps and groans were, as near as Chris' sadly underfunded federal study had been able to determine, the universal language. "Mmmm," Lance purred, when his breathing steadied. "Did I get my kiss yet?"

"Yeah. Hope you like 'em sloppy and Lance-flavored."

"Shh," Lance said complacently. "We're still kissing."

Chris could live with that. He closed his eyes and slid a hand under his pillow, sort of like he was holding it to the soft curve of Lance's cheek instead of the soft curve of the pillow. He wasn't so far gone that he tried to kiss anything from the housewares department, however.

"Okay," Lance said, and suddenly it was Lance's voice again, alert and businesslike. Chris sighed. "How are you? Really."

Chris' eyes snapped open again; it was clear from the way Lance said it that "really" meant really. He must sound as shitty as he felt, or else.... Well, it was Lance, after all. Lance knew him pretty damn well. "Hung over," Chris said. "No, drunk."

"Yeah, you mentioned. And that's not like you." And it wasn't, and of course Lance would know that, too. Chris was no teetotaler, but he'd never thought it was either very smart or very attractive to get sloppy drunk in public, and in fact he'd rained a certain moderate amount of abuse down on the hung-over heads of all four of his less-fastidious brothers on a number of mornings-after.

Nothing for it but the truth, then. "I had such a fucking awful night. Justin wasn't happy with the performance. What do I know, I thought he was great, but he's not happy at all, and he wouldn't say anything. That's what really gets me, you know? He wouldn't even talk to us about it; fucking Timberlake wouldn't process his feelings, did you do that to him? You and your stripper therapy?"

"I don't know," Lance said, but to Chris' relief, he didn't try to say that it was probably no big deal. Lance knew what was and wasn't like Justin, just as much as he knew it about Chris. With Lance, Chris didn't need to fumble through some kind of explanation for why the whole thing was hellish, Justin's still eyes and still face, terse and protective even with just the guys, deflecting every gentle question with Let's not do this. It's over, let's just party. Opening the bottle of rum and passing it directly from his mouth to Chris' hand with a stubborn set to his jaw, daring him to do this Justin's way. And Chris had done it, because he was a co-dependent asshole who deserved to be hung over for all time.

"Also, Joey's pissy because he thinks I'm not putting a ring on your finger fast enough."

"Joey's one to talk about that. Bet he doesn't say it in front of Kelly."

"It just sucked, the vibe was all off, I fucking miss you. I puked my guts out last night, which I haven't done since I was legal, and I'm still wrecked, and I still...miss you."

His memories of the night were vague; he hadn't lied about that, earlier. Still, it's hard to forget puking. He stared up at fluorescent lights, so it was indoors, in a bathroom somewhere, probably, hopefully. He must have been sick half to death, because he remembered someone wrapping a coat or something around his shoulders, and firm arms around him from behind, a man's voice saying, "C'mon, honey, don't, don't do this to me tonight." It could have been Justin's, except that it sounded five hundred years old. He remembered lifting his head up and blinking into JC's calm, weirdly messianic-looking face, JC's pretty voice saying, "He's okay, he's just fine. I bet he feels better now, don't you, Chris?" It was soothing, just as soothing as JC's touch as he wiped Chris' face with something cool and wet.

"Do you remember that time in Belgium, when Joey had us doing depth charges on the bus, and Justin got so hammered? We had to stop the bus and get him off."

"Yeah, I remember," Chris said. "But it was the Netherlands."

"No, it was Belgium. And we did those depth charges, and then we drank -- heh. We had those midori-and-vodkas, because we found the midori in JC's stuff. He was pretty much not at all happy about that when he woke up. We had to pull Justin off the bus; he could barely move. He threw up all over his shirt, and it was that horrifying electric-green color."

"Yeah," Chris said. "I remember." He'd thought it was over after Justin barfed the first time, and he'd gone to the back of the bus to try soaking Justin's shirt in the sink. Justin had thrown up three more times by the side of the road, with Lance pressed to his side the whole time, one arm around his waist to keep him from toppling over, the other hand on the bare skin of Justin's back. He remembered Lance saying You're all right in the same tone JC used on him last night, while Justin seized up with the force of his insides turning against him, crying and shaking his head in panicked denial. You're all right. It was kind of a funny story now, typical teenage bullshit, but at the time they'd been seriously trying to figure out whether or not Justin needed to be in the hospital. When Justin could stand up on his own, Lance handed him off to Chris, and Chris could remember the strange, grainy texture of the sweat dripping between Justin's shoulder blades, and the way Justin reverted to his old habit of twisting his curls around his fingers, mumbling Please don't tell Lou, okay? I'm really sorry, but please don't tell.

"Well," Chris said, "that's about how stupid I acted last night. So you're not missing any new experiences, anyway."

"Don't coddle me. I know I'm missing everything." Chris couldn't quite figure out how to answer that, or even if Lance was kidding, or what. Lance broke the silence by saying, "And now I have to go. I'm sorry, I have to."

"Don't be sorry. Go. No, wait. Look...." Chris gave himself a split-second's chance to chicken out, but what the fuck anyway, right? JC and Joey would approve of him, at least. "Look, you know how we said it wasn't going to be a boyfriend thing until we had the time to do it right, and I said all that shit about hot astronauts and whatever? I lied. I mean, I won't -- I wouldn't be mad, if there were hot astronauts, but I don't want you to. It would suck. It would hurt. I'm not your boyfriend or whatever, but the truth is, you're kind of mine. I mean, I went to bed at 4:30, and I set my alarm and I wrote down your number so I could talk to you at seven in the damn morning. You're completely my boyfriend."

The pause lasted a little longer this time. Chris hoped to hell Lance wasn't trying to figure out if he was kidding, but that sounded depressingly likely. Lance never believed him the first time, for some reason. "There's no hot astronaut," Lance finally said.

"Oh. Okay."

"There's just you. And I have to go, Chris, God, I hate this, I can't talk anymore. I'll call you, okay?"

"Do good."

"I miss you, too. I do."

"I know," Chris said, and he did know, but he felt better after hearing it anyway.

"Sorry I was weird," Joey said when Chris visited him at the theater. "About the Lance thing. Sorry I was...weird. Here, have some candy."

Joey's dressing room was full of things like that, candy and flowers and a teddy bear with the same dark-rimmed plastic glasses that Joey's character wore. "You weren't weird," Chris assured him, wiping the orange-cordial center of the candy off his mouth. "You weren't, you were just looking out for him."

"Dunno what made me think he needs my help," Joey sighed. "I should've known that if there were commitment issues in your relationship, they're not your issues. I don't know, I guess I forget, you know? That he's not some naive teenager let loose in the big, bad world for the first time."

"Oh, God, we're so old," Chris sighed in return, moving on to getting the orange cordial off his shirt, or trying to. "Remember when we were the cool older ones instead of the old older ones?"

"Lance is...." Joey scratched his beard and picked out a coconut candy for himself while he picked out his words. "Lance is a romantic, you know? He'll just never say it. Jeez, I'm being weird again, I know. Look, I'm just saying, if you think it's some casual thing for Lance, like if he's telling you shit about his space or taking it slow and you think it means he's just messing around with you, that's not what it means. He's got his -- stuff, his Lance stuff, but I can tell how much he's into you."

"JC says he pushes people away."

Joey nodded vigorously. "Pushing, exactly. I don't know if he's scared people aren't going to want him, or scared that they are, or I don't know what, but you'll die of old age if you wait for Lance to take it to the next level. That's all I'm saying."

"I hear you," Chris said distractedly. He was looking at a bouquet on Joey's makeup table, dark purple irises with yellow streaks radiating from the center, fronds of tiny white bell-shaped flowers, a black glass vase and twined silver and gold ribbon tied in a bow around the neck. It looked expensive, and it looked like Lance. Chris didn't think he'd ever dated anyone he could recognize from the kind of flowers they would pick out over the florist's website before. "I think I might be all kinds of in love with him."

"Yeah," Joey said. "I think you might, too."

When the news started to filter in that Lance would have to leave Star City -- nobody who actually worked for or professed to care about Chris kept him up-to-date on anything; people were much better-informed on the internet, and maybe they were freaky losers with no lives, but it was kind of heartwarming how much they seemed to really like Lance -- Chris started waiting by the phone. Lance would call, he was pretty sure, and ask Chris to pick him up from the airport, or maybe drive out to meet him somewhere secretive, some little wilderness fuck- bungalow where he would nurse Lance back to health.

So when his phone's LED screen flashed Justin's name, he answered the phone with, "Dude, fuck off, I'm waiting for a call."

"Sorry," Lance's voice said, low and amused. "When would be a better time?"

Chris almost dropped the phone. "It's you! Why is it you?"

"Okay, here's what happened," Lance said, and confusingly enough, Chris could hear Justin in the background, laughing raucously at him. Brat. "I was on my way home, and I had a three-hour layover in London, so I called to see if Justin could meet me for lunch or something. So, and, you know Justin, an hour and two martinis later he had this whole epic bonding thing planned out-- "

"Hey!" Justin said in the distance. "Whatever, it was really all my idea. Innocent bystander, that's you."

"Anyway, we're kind of -- Justin, God, hello? Can I talk to him for a minute alone, please?" Justin laughed again and sang a few bars of a wakka-cha porno theme, cut off by some scuffling and the sound of a door. "God," Lance said again. "Oh, my God. I've never seen Justin like this before."

"Like what?"

"Unsupervised," Lance said darkly. "I never totally appreciated how you keep him in hand until now; you need to sue somebody for custody. Jive. Trace. The entire planet, I'm not sure."

"Okay, now you're freaking me out. Is he okay?"

Lance sighed gustily, and there was a creaking sound like he'd thrown himself down on a mattress. "Oh, he's fine, he's fine. He's just a little wilder than I'm used to, you know? I mean, Justin. He used to be our token prude, Mr. You-put-your-tongue-WHERE?-but-you-don't-even- know-him. And then he was all Britney all the time, like she was the only piece of ass in the whole entire world, and-- "

"Are you drunk?"

"Oh, a little, sure. My three-hour layover just hit seven hours, it's a regular Gilligan's Island type thing. Party-doll Justin, I dunno, man. I don't even know what he runs on; it's certainly not fresh air and a good night's sleep."

"Listen, are you, um.... I mean, hey, I'm sorry. About everything, it really sucks."

"Eh. Setback. Anyway, I was on my way home, and I got hijacked by Justin. I think he thinks he owes me, you know, for taking him out all those times after the breakup, and he begged. It was kinda pathetic. He misses us, I think. Whatever, so, I'm gonna stay a few days and play with Justin, and then I'm gonna come right home, all right?"

"All right," Chris said, bemused. He would never in a million years have expected Lance to take this route toward being nursed back to health. Though on reflection, he'd thought the same thing when Justin and Lance started hanging out after Justin's breakup, so maybe there was just something about the two of them that was comforting. Personally, Chris couldn't think of two less comforting people in the world, but maybe that was why they worked on each other. "Hey, uh -- have fun and all, but. Looking forward to seeing you again."

Lance hummed in his ear, and the sound sent chills over Chris' arms. "Me, too. You know, it's raining here. It's raining, and it's freezing cold, and I'm thinking.... Take me someplace warm, Chris, okay? When I get back, let's go someplace...warm."

"Sure," Chris whispered, closing his eyes and cradling the phone closer to his mouth so Lance could still hear his softened voice. "Someplace warm, baby, you got it. Be good."

"I will be so good," Lance purred, each word separated deliberately out like an individual promise.

Lance didn't call him again, although he did get on the phone to say hello and good, great and see you soon all four times that Justin called, and then not long after that fourth time, the doorbell rang and it was Lance. Lance, thinner and darker-haired than the last time Chris had seen him, with his car in the driveway, so he hadn't come directly from the airport. Chris said, "Hello, sailor."

Lance hugged him, and then it eased into something else, just the two of them standing in Chris' doorway with their arms wrapped around each other. Chris ran his hand up and down the curve of Lance's spine, and Lance put his cheek on Chris' shoulder, facing away from him. His breath hitched a couple of times, and Chris mumbled, "I'm sorry. I know it doesn't help, but I'm sorry."

"Setback," Lance said, just like before, but it sounded a little more torn out of him, now that his words weren't lubed and slippery with alcohol. "Fuck it, it's nice to have a break. Nice to be home."

Chris took hold of the cuff of his sleeve and pulled him inside and straight to the front stairs. Lance followed along without complaint, his hand dangling from the sleeve. "I hope you got as much fun as you could stand in London," Chris said, "because you're with me, now. No more fun, dammit."

"Sufficient fun was had. Well, by Justin more than by me, but I did all right. When did Justin turn into a transcontinental ho, anyway, and why wasn't I notified? You know I hate being out of the loop, Chris."

"He's not that bad."

"Huh," Lance said. "Then he's been feeding you a, shall we say, finessed version of events, at least if what I saw was in any way representative. Do you know how many times I watched him hook up? And I wasn't even there that long."

They reached the top of the stairs, and Chris reeled Lance into his arms and kissed him. "Felt like forever." Lance sagged into his arms and kissed back, his tongue lapping delicately into Chris' mouth, testing and tasting. "You know Justin," Chris said, sliding his hands over Lance's ass. "He always gets what he wants, and if what he wants nowadays is a whole lot of tail, can you really blame him? He works hard, he deserves it. I, on the other hand, am a lazy bastard who does absolutely nothing to deserve it, but lucky for me, you're the warm and generous type."

"That's the nicest way anyone's ever called me easy." Lance let himself be leaned up against the wall, and he kicked off one shoe and ran his foot over the back of Chris' ankle as they kissed. He bucked his hips up against Chris and whimpered into Chris' mouth. "I've seen way too many half-dressed guys this past week, and Justin's taste in men is way too good. I am so. Fucking. Horny. As if a few months of starvation-diet in Russia weren't...mmm...enough to make me plenty easy, and, oh, God, Chris." He gripped Chris' arms hard and arched against him, his head tipped back against the wall so his adam's apple jutted out obviously.

"Bed," Chris grunted.

They fucked once to take the edge off, Chris' cock against Lance's stomach, Lance's cock between Chris' thighs, and afterwards Chris could never really remember anything about that time.

It was the rest of it he remembered, the long, slow hours -- weeks, it felt like -- of drawing their hands over each other, mouthing each other's earlobes, pressing the tips of their tongues together. "I missed you," Lance said quietly as Chris stroked him toward his second orgasm. "Do you still think you want us to be boyfriends?"

Chris nodded, and then realized that Lance couldn't see him with his eyes closed. "Stay," he murmured against Lance's neck. "Stay, stay, stay."

He stopped what he was doing, in spite of Lance's groan, and cupped Lance's hand between both of his, lifting it to his mouth. Lance made a ragged noise and opened his eyes as Chris slipped Lance's two smallest fingers into his mouth. "I love this," Lance managed to say, around the noise of his short breaths.

"I know," Chris said smugly. He'd been saving this one for a special occasion. He ran his tongue down Lance's palm and then back up and between Lance's middle and ring finger, and Lance thrashed like he was drowning.

Not only did the hand thing make Lance crazy (Joey was Chris' very best friend), but it seemed to help counteract Lance's usual tendency to get all practical and efficient ten minutes after the sex was over. When Chris had sucked his hands and jerked him off, and then gotten blown and fucked as small tokens of Lance's deep gratitude, Lance stayed uncharacteristically still, draped heavy and hot across Chris' chest.

"You hungry?" Chris asked. "There's a couple of pizza places still delivering at this hour."

"That would be okay."

"Also, I've been thinking about what you said. I wanna take you someplace warm."

"Mmm," Lance said, fingering Chris' beard. He twisted one of the beard horns around his finger and said, "You've got to get rid of these."

"Okay, hello. Jamaica."


"Are you listening to me?"

Lance brushed his hand deep into Chris' hair and said, "No."

Chris grabbed at his wrist, trying to make Lance focus, but Lance just tucked his elbow in closer to both their bodies and sighed happily. Chris ended up holding him like that, his fingers still tangled in Chris' hair, all night while Lance slept.

"Golfing," Lance said. Chris snorted and lined up for his shot. "Well, Chris is golfing," Lance corrected, and Chris nodded approvingly. "I'm, uh. Supervising. You can kind of see the beach from here."

"Quit your bitching, Bass. Do you want to lose this tournament, or what?"

"Chris, seriously, I have zero interest in this tournament. It's a charity thing; our real job is to show up, golf optional. Plus, we are going to lose this tournament, regardless of my feelings on the subject, seeing as how I'm a bad golfer. You really needed to have resigned yourself to the losing thing back when you invited me. You take Justin to Jamaica to win tournaments; you take me to Jamaica to have risky and mildly uncomfortable sex on semi-private beaches. Sorry, Joe." He listened to his cell phone for a minute, sliding on his sunglasses. "Joey says you have two choices: lose the tournament and put up with my passive-aggressive punishments all day, or lose the tournament by a lot and have beautiful, lifelong memories of our first Carribean vacation as a couple." His eyes flicked back down to the phone for a second, and he smiled. "Yeah, well. I was paraphrasing."

Chris squinted into the distance. He couldn't see the beach per se, but he could see a crescent of blue ocean.

He walked back to the golf cart, tossed his clubs in the back, and hopped up on the runner board. Lance smiled placidly at him, but kept right on listening and making little confirming noises at Joey. Chris leaned down to put his ear near the phone as well, close enough to hear Joey say, "-- not the same chasing the Three B's without you here to hold down the Three C's."

Lance elbowed Chris away and said, "We all have our crosses to bear, don't we? Love you truly, madly, deeply, Joe, but I have to go now." His eyes flicked up to Chris, and he smiled slowly, lazy but not harmless at all. "No. You really don't want to know why. Don't eat anything bigger than your lawyer. I'll call later; kiss the girls."

"Booze, beer, and boobs," Chris said when Lance flipped his phone shut. "But what are the Three C's?"

"Cigars, Chivas Regal, and cock," Lance said without blinking.

Chris shook his head. "You two are a menace to society. I for one am glad you're both off the market now."

"You better be," Lance said.

"Well, I mean, of course it's a bootleg. Do you want it or not?"

"I dunno," Justin said. He sounded like he really didn't know, like Chris was asking him something about differential equations, and he was trying, really trying to come up with the answer. Chris grinned at the phone; his stupid boy. "Isn't that, like, bad for artists?"

"Oh, fuck off, I'm buying it for you anyway. Nick Cave will just have to go on eating cans of cat food. Or maybe tricking out members of the Bad Seeds. And it'll be all your fault, you immoral copyright flouter."

Lance surfaced from the soundtrack section and said, "Is that Justin?"

"Yeah. Hey, Lance says hi."

"I didn't say hi."

"You were thinking it. Seriously, he was thinking it. Dude, is that On the Line in your hand? J, he's buying a copy of the On the Line soundtrack."

"I am not," Lance said coolly, over Justin's amused squawk. "I'm shoplifting it. But I need your help; go distract the guy at the counter for a minute."

Chris replayed that in his head a few times. "Yeah, I heard it, too," Justin said.

"Just do it, Chris," he sighed.

"Are you kidding me with this?" Chris tried to whisper, but he wasn't very good at it. There were only six or eight other people in the store, though, far enough away that it was probably safe. "What are you, channeling JC? Pay for it, for Christ's sake."

"I can't, it's embarrassing. Buying my own CD? I'll look like some kind of egomaniac."

"You may be over-estimating your recognizability."

"What about the alarm things?" Justin suggested. "Aren't there alarm...things?"

Chris glanced around; it was an independent, hole-in-the-wall kind of place, and there didn't seem to be cameras or anti-theft tags or anything like that. "And why are you even stealing CDs you already own?"

"I just want to listen to it, okay? Jesus, you act like it'll mean the collapse of western civilization. I'll buy a bunch of other stuff from them. God, were you always this much of a nerd?"

"Okay, fine. God, the things I do for you. Look, you walk that way and I'll walk this way." Chris gravitated toward the end of the store with the cash register, pretending to thumb through CDs as he went. Abruptly, and as loudly as he could without making it spectacularly obvious that he was performing, he said, "Look, Timberlake, I don't care what your lawyer told you; you don't have grounds to sue just because I said I liked Nick Carter's album better than yours."

"What the fuck are you doing?" Justin screeched in his ear. "You fucker!"

"And while you're finally returning my phone calls, I want you to know that I've seen the new video, and that guy looks nothing like me."

"I hate you," Justin said, laughing helplessly. "You fucker, I hate you. I can't believe you're selling me out for fucking Bass."

"Well, you know. The sex is pretty amazing." Chris wandered out of the store; if Lance hadn't managed to find a hiding place for his ill-gotten goods while everyone was staring at Chris, then he didn't deserve the free CD. "This isn't one of those countries where they cut people's hands off, is it?"

Justin hummed thoughtfully, and then said, "Pretty sure not. Not rich people's hands, anyway. Bad for tourism, you know? You're thinking of, like, Turkey."

"No, they send you to prison there. Turkish prison, you know, Midnight Express?"

"No idea what you're saying to me, dude."

"You've never seen Midnight Express? Aw, you gotta. We need to rent it sometime. Shit, I walked out without your Nick Cave bootleg."

"Good, I already feel guilty about being an accessory to the whole shoplifting thing. How's Lance?"

Chris found a bench to sit on, wondering if he'd missed some words in there because of the wind whipping in his ear. "Lance? What do you mean, how is he? He's fine, you just heard him."

"No, I mean, about everything. I mean, how's he feeling?"

"About the space thing? Yeah, well...disappointed, I guess. I mean, who wouldn't be? But he seems okay. Pretty happy."

"Seems okay," Justin repeated. "Which I guess means you haven't actually talked about anything important. What are you, just fucking around down there?"

"Hey, I'll have you know there's been golf, in amongst the fucking around."

"You should talk to him."

"Why, what's he going to say? It sucks, he feels bad about it, but he might still get to go, so it's not the end of the world, and even if he definitely doesn't go, he's Lance, you know Lance. He'll tough it out."

"You're such a fucking loser. This is a really big deal to Lance; did it never occur to you that he might have, you know, feelings about the whole situation?"

"Yeah, I said already. Disappointed. He feels bad. That's why I brought him on vacation, that's why I'm being so freakin' sweet to him and all."

"People are more complicated than that, you know."

"Oh, God. You read a book about this, didn't you?"

"People have, like, feelings that fall in between 'good' and 'bad.' If you'd talk to him, he might surprise you."

"Hello, I think I know Lance better than you do. He's not all...full of surprises. He's Lance."

Justin sighed his put-upon sigh. "Okay, fine. I'm the one who talks to him, apparently, but whatever, you know him better."

"Since when do you talk to Lance?"

"Since always! Well, not as much lately, but we did when he was in London. We talked a lot."

Chris considered that for a minute. "About what?"

"What the fuck? You want me to relay messages between you and your boyfriend? Talk to him your damn self, you lazy fucker. I can't be your girlfriend this time."

Chris tried to consider that, too, but no thoughts really seemed to surface. "What did you just say?"

"You know, like I usually am. Where I do all those girlfriend things for you, like remind you about birthdays and tell you what you should say to people who are upset at you and rag on you to communicate more. You can't be calling me all the time to figure out what to do with Lance."

"I'm pretty sure that's not why I called you. I just wanted to know if you wanted the damn CD." Lance came out of the store and looked around, and Chris waved his hand over his head for Lance's attention. "I gotta go."

"Talk to him."

"I don't need your help, J, I got it covered."

"Happy to hear it, talk to him. I love you."

"Me, too."

"You, too, what?" Lance asked, sitting down beside him as Chris hung up his phone.

"Nothing. What's to eat in Jamaica?"

"I can't believe we need a ceiling fan in December."

"I can't believe we're already at that stage in our relationship where the first thing we have to talk about after sex is the weather."

Chris squirmed around for a better position, and Lance caught his elbow and gently aimed it away from Lance's throat. "We should sleep," Chris said, catching sight of the clock. "It's past two, and there will be cameras and stuff tomorrow."

"Are you saying I need my beauty sleep?" Lance said mildly.

"Yeah, you get all puffy when you're tired, it's horrible. Fuck you, you know you're hot. Think about me for once, will you?"

"Okay." Lance brushed his lips over Chris' temple. "Go to sleep."

But of course -- story of his life -- as soon as Chris was permitted to do something, it didn't seem like such a great idea anymore. Especially not compared to the alternative, which was to not sleep and lie here mostly on top of Lance, his arm bent and held between Lance's arm and body so that he could feel the hop of Lance's heartbeat against the sensitive skin inside his wrist. Chris stirred and lifted his other hand to play with Lance's hair, eliciting a vaguely displeased snort from Lance, who was so wedded to his hair-care routine after all these years in the public eye that he'd lost his ability to distinguish the right occasion for mussed hair from the wrong one. Chris kind of loved that about him.

Lance's hand ran soothingly up and down his back, but it didn't make Chris sleepy; it seemed to flip tiny switches all through his body, little lights coming on underneath his skin. Lance had the best hands. The best hands, and he was just generally an all-around great-looking guy, especially when he was spread out underneath Chris, sweaty and shuddering and biting his lip, which still looked a little scuffed and swollen. Chris kissed it, a soft, medicinal kiss, and felt Lance smile.

"Do you ever get this feeling," Lance said, "that it would be so cool, save everyone so much effort, if you could just jump in your time machine and go have a talk with yourself a few years back?"

"Space-time continuum," Chris said. "You gotta watch out with that shit."

"But still. Like, even just write a letter. Dear Me: See a doctor about your heart condition immediately. Quit lying, you are not bisexual. Factor in a few setbacks with the space thing. Everything Lou says about you is completely wrong. Everything Justin says about Chris is completely right. Best Wishes, Me."

"I seem to remember Justin calling me an evil frog-man. Also, there was some talk about my genetic makeup, and I don't remember the details, but there were definitely yaks."

Lance chuckled. "Well, you did put a Backstreet Boys tattoo on his ass while he was asleep. You can't blame him for not being at his most rational."

"Temporary tattoo, don't make it sound more dramatic than it was. Also, I think I remember you making thirty bucks in the pool on how long it would take him to notice, so don't be getting all superior on me."

"Anyway, that obviously was not the part I was talking about. I meant more, you know, the 'Chris is so cool, Chris is so fine, Chris has the sexiest eyes, I bet he's a really good kisser, I bet Chris is really good at everything.'"

"You and Justin talk about my -- everything?"

"Well, sure," Lance said, slowly. "I mean, not recently. This was a while back." He stirred restlessly under Chris and ended up with his ankle hooked over Chris'. "Lou didn't like us to have chocolate -- it's funny what you remember, right? We weren't supposed to eat chocolate, because of my weight and Justin's skin. And Justin used to get Trace to ship him these big ol', like, cartons of Mallomars and Three Musketeers bars, and we'd eat them all in one night. We'd be all wound up, all that sugar and we felt so rebellious -- I mean, not doing what we were told, can you imagine?" He sounded fond, not embarrassed at the memory like Chris was pretty sure he would've sounded two or three years ago.

"Which all led to the detailed speculation on your friends' sexual prowess and doing each other's hair and stuff, I guess."

"Yeah, something like that. He helped me with the choreography and I helped him with chemistry. You know, it was.... We thought we had more in common then. Than, I guess than we really do."

Chris propped himself up on his elbow, his head resting on his hand. "You guys are like brothers, you know? You know how there were guys at your school, brothers who were like really close in age, and their whole life's mission became to make sure they had as little in common as possible. One can throw a football and one gets an A on a test, and suddenly they get all fixated on who's the jock and who's the smart one, and everything gets to be about that."

Lance grinned. "You think I'm the smart one, right?"

"Missing the point. I'm just saying, most people go their whole lives without hardly knowing anyone who has as much in common with them as you have with Justin, and you'd never in a million years admit that. You're so freaked out by the idea of being the smaller, backup Justin Timberlake that you have to act like you're this whole other species of animal. You're not either one of those things."

"I kissed him," Lance said. It came out awkwardly and stayed there in mid-air. "I -- well, we kissed. Each other." Chris recognized the importance of saying something, but nothing came to mind, except that he felt he should have been notified, and that didn't sound like the right answer somehow. "It was -- a curiosity thing, just.... Neither of us had ever done anything -- well, with guys, I mean. I think I was nervous, you know, that if I ever did -- or, well, when I did finally get to kiss someone I really wanted to kiss, he'd just automatically know that I was this big clueless dork who'd never tried anything. Hello, are you going to say anything at all?"

"Sure, when I'm done picturing it," Chris said, and Lance socked him in the arm. Chris collapsed on top of him. "That just -- see, this is a case in point. That just sounds so you. Both of you. It sounds like exactly the kind of rationale I'd expect you two to come up with, in a locked room and stoned on sugar and hormones."

Lance wrapped his arms comfortably around Chris. "Yeah, well. I guess you take what's on offer, when you're seventeen."

"Okay, fine. Be all cool about it. I know you secretly loooooove him." Chris tickled him, even though Lance wasn't very ticklish, just annoyed enough by it to very nearly knee Chris in the nuts. Comedy gold. Settling down, he hooked his chin over Lance's shoulder and said, "So, he says you guys had a good visit in London."

"Yeah, it was nice," Lance said through a yawn. "Funny how much easier Justin is to hang out with now that he's been publicly humiliated by his superfox ex-girlfriend."

"Wow," Chris said, drawing the word out into several syllables. "That's got to be a new bitchiness record, even for you."

"Well, I didn't mean it to be particularly bitchy." Lance sounded so casual that Chris tended to believe him, not that it mattered now. There was this switch in Chris' brain, this thing that came over him when people said untender things about his brothers; it made Chris untender right back -- junkyard-dog mean, in fact. Maybe Lance didn't think that this basic law of Chris' personality applied in his case. "It's just, Justin's changed a lot since the break-up."

"Yeah, he's miserable. Does that turn you on?"

Lance struggled in Chris' arms until he could get a good look at Chris' face. "Are you mad at me?"

Chris sat up. "Well, what the hell kind of thing is that to say? You like him better now, woo hoo, thank God Justin's unhappy? You're supposed to be his friend, you're supposed to be on his side."

"I am on his side. Jesus, listen to yourself! Obviously I'm his friend, you fucking know that. Why would you assume-- "

"Because you just said-- "

"You don't even know what I said, you're not even listening to me. I'm just saying, it can be hard to connect with Justin sometimes, because he operates from this whole mind-set where nothing bad ever happens, where you get what you want just because you want it bad enough. Things come so easy for him that-- "

"Things don't -- see, why would you say that, that everything comes easy for Justin? You know how hard he works, you know he puts his fucking heart into everything he does. It's not easy, it's not some kind of magic trick-- "

"Fine, I'm sorry I said anything. Can we go to sleep now?"

"Everything you went through, man, we went through it all togther. All of Lou's bullshit, getting robbed, four shows a day in parking lots and getting booed and penny-ante comedians calling us dickless trained monkeys -- Justin more often than you, by the way-- "

"It's not the same, all right? You and me, we worried every fucking day that it would all come down around us, and he never did. He always just knew it would work out for him, because it always does for Justin, and he doesn't know what it's like to-- You know what? Forget it. You know, I'm not going to lie here and argue with you about Justin; I'm not going to defend myself when it comes to Justin, because I shouldn't have to. You should know that I care about him already, and if you don't, then fine, you know, that's what you think of me, so fine."

He almost knocked Chris in the nose with his shoulder as he flipped over, leaving Chris staring at the smooth slope of his back. Chris was maybe willing to admit that he needed some kind of on- call girlfriend to handle these sorts of situations, although he still balked at the idea that Justin was remotely hireable in that capacity. Like Justin knew anything about anything. Because if he knew about this, Chris liked to think he'd have the decency to warn a guy. "Lance," he said, touching Lance's side gently. "Man. Lance. Come on, you know I don't think anything of you. I mean, anything bad. I just, you know how I am. I get all crazed when people jump on us."

"So first of all, I didn't jump anywhere. And second, when did Justin become us?"

"Any of us, it applies to everyone." Lance wasn't shoving him away, so Chris let his hand wrap around Lance's hip. "Come on, I'm sorry," he whispered, bending down to kiss Lance's shoulder.

"I still have a hard time," Lance said, the quiet words muffled in his pillow, "figuring out when us is all of us and when it's maybe Like, us. You and me."

Chris shifted closer, pressed to the warmth of Lance's back, and let his hand drift down and across Lance's stomach. He kissed Lance's shoulder again, open-mouthed. "This sure feels like you and me."

"And yet it's apparently not, it's apparently me against Justin, which means me against you and Justin. That's extremely annoying, you know." Lance wasn't quite reaching full snippiness, but he was obviously still making the effort. Suddenly his tone changed, became rough and hurried, like he was ashamed of his own words. "Name one thing Justin ever went after and didn't get, one thing he really, really wanted and never had, even just for a little while."

"I don't know," Chris said. "I never thought about it. I just -- I mean, no offense, but I always more took the being happy for him route."

"Well, I've thought about it. You can think it makes me a bad person-- "


"-- but I have thought about it."

He kissed Lance's temple, where the breeze from the ceiling fan stirred his hair. "So, but you know, even if there isn't anything-- "

"There is, though," Lance said. "But just one."

He covered Chris' hand on his stomach with his own hand and pressed it there, over taut muscles and tense, lightly hitching breath. Chris tucked his face into Lance's neck and didn't know quite what to say.

It was a good thing that Chris rarely listened when his agent talked, because between the packing and housekeeping running the vacuum cleaner outside their room and Lance talking on his own phone, this time he really legitimately couldn't hear her.

"You're overreacting," Lance said. "Honey, it was great. Chris! Tell my sister Thanksgiving was really great."

"Great!" Chris yelled toward Lance and his phone. "No, wait," he said to his. "I didn't agree to anything. What did I agree to?"

"That's just not true. You know, do you think this could be a hormone-- It's not sexist, Stacy, it's just biology. You just had a baby, and I'm just saying you could be-- Okay. Okay, you're not. No, of course you would know." Lance rolled his eyes, and threw a shirt across the hotel room at Chris, mouthing This isn't mine.

"It's not mine either," Chris said. "Must be the pool-boy's. What? No, clearly I'm not listening to you. Why, are you saying something important?"

His call waiting began to beep, and immediately Lance said, "Stacy, I have to go, I have someone on the other line."

"It's not yours, it's mine."

"It's mine. Hello? Yeah, see, it's JC. Hi, C."

"It's mine."

"I'm talking to JC. C, he doesn't believe me."


"I can't talk, I have my sister freaking out on the other line."

"No, I'm not packed yet, are you kidding me?"

"Finally, some good news. Chris, we're all going to be at the wax museum; we have Justin for sure."

"I know."

"You know? How do you know and I thought it was still up in the air? You've been sneaking around, scheduling behind my back?"

"Would you chill out? I've known for twelve seconds." Chris held the phone in front of him and said, "Say hi to Justin." Lance waved at the phone. "He waved," Chris relayed. "Yeah, I know, but he did it anyway."

"Oh, just about my mom. She said something at Thanksgiving, I don't know, Stacy thinks she was criticizing or something. I think it's hormones. It's not sexist-- forget it, I'm sorry I brought it up."

"Shit, my agent's still on hold. I thought I got rid of her."

"Chris, half the shit you're throwing into my suitcase is not mine. Stop helping, okay?"

"Hey, I didn't think I could get text messages while I was actually on the phone. That's pretty cool."

"Hey! This is my mother we're talking about."

"Yeah, she's mad. You want me to call you back?"

"I can't leave my sister on hold. Wait just a second, okay?"

"Do you think we could settle this when I get back from Jamaica? Yes, I'm going to the Billboard Awards. No, I'm not going to Missy's party."

"Where's my razor? No, the good one."

"Because I'm going to be at my mom's. Oh, and also, because I said so."

"I"m not taking sides."

"I don't want to do Christmas things. I don't have to do Christmas things, do I? Am I on vacation, or is that my other personality?"

"First of all, I really don't think that she does think everything I do is perfect."

"You're funny. Have you considered stand-up?"

"If you're not going to take my advice, why did you even call me?"

"You have three thousand pairs of Tommy underwear."

"They were on sale."

"No, because that would be sexual harassment. I've actually started ignoring you again, if you must know."

"I've got another call. Look, just make Ford take you out someplace nice, okay? You're very negative right now, and it can't be good a good environment for Leighton."

"Fuck it, why can't we just buy new stuff when we get home?"

"Well, if you're going to interpret every piece of advice as critical, then I don't see how I can help you."

"Yeah, except she wasn't the agent, she was a personal assistant. Lance, the woman who shot Selena, she was her assistant, not her agent, right? Yeah, he's nodding at me."

"I love you, too. Hello?"

Lance stepped up onto the bed and kicked off a pillow and Chris' three-dollar straw hat and the fishbowl-sized glass that last night's Bahama Mama came in as he walked across the bedspread. He made a few uh-huh noises into the phone, but his eyes were on Chris'. He jumped down so close to Chris that Chris backed up instinctively and almost toppled over the wicker bookshelf behind him, stocked with linens and Jamaican knick-knacks. Lance reached up with his free hand, catching and steadying it. He was still looking into Chris' eyes, and now he was smiling.

It was a good thing that Chris rarely listened to his agent. He spread his legs apart for better balance and closed his eyes, letting Lance unzip him and reach inside; Lance was wearing a ring, and it was fiery-cold against Chris' cock, but he didn't care, not even a little. "It is interesting," Lance said into the phone, his voice a muted half-purr. "I'm just saying that every individual situation is a little bit different."

He didn't play nice, thank God, stripping Chris hard and nasty and making Chris' fingers scritch and scrabble against the hotel wallpaper. At some point Chris turned his phone off and flung it onto the bed; it skidded across the bedspread and disappeared somewhere on the other side of the room. Lance was still talking on his, holding Chris in place with one knee against Chris' thigh and his strong hand on Chris' dick. Chris quit scritching at the wallpaper and started grasping at Lance, his arm and his waist, trying to pull him close enough to kiss that smirk off his face. It didn't work.

Chris came as Lance's hand twisted on him, the sensation so intense that he wouldn't have been surprised to look down and see the prints of Lance's fingers warping the shape of his cock into a corkscrew. "I should go, C," Lance said a little breathlessly as Chris got his legs back under him and started pushing Lance toward the bed. "I'm not really packed yet."

The phone rolled out of Lance's lax hand as soon as he dropped back onto the bed, on top of unopened packages of Tommy underwear and Chris' haul from the second trip to the CD store. He moaned when Chris started sucking him, and the sound was immediately answered by the high-pitched trill of Chris' cell-phone, and then by the more sunnily musical tone of Lance's. "Fuck it," Lance muttered, sliding his fingers across Chris' scalp. "Oh, Jesus. Baby." Chris' phone was still ringing helplessly when Lance came.

He slid off the edge of the bed, melting into the space between the edge of the mattress and Chris on his knees, his legs still splayed vulnerably open. Chris burrowed his hands up Lance's shirt, sliding them across the heat of the minor sunburn over Lance's lower back, kissing his way up Lance's neck and behind his ear. "You wanna run away from home?" Chris suggested.

"Didn't we just do that?"

"So we'll do it again. Farther away this time," he said into Lance's ear. "How does darkest Peru grab you? Or maybe Asia, one of those places where they sell boys on the street corner, you know? This relationship could use a decent sex slave." Lance smiled.

"He's here!" Taylor yelled, although Chris already knew that. He could hear wheels on the gravel driveway, see the headlights cross the window-pane, and it couldn't be anyone else at 11:20 on New Year's Eve.

"Put your coat on. Jeez, kid." She didn't listen to him; none of them ever did. Chris followed her out without putting his coat on, either. That could be why they never listened to him.

"Why?" Lance was laughing as Chris came out onto the porch. "You think I got presents in here or something?" He was sitting sideways in his SUV, toes scraping in the gravel. He grinned at Chris over the girls' heads, and Chris raised his eyebrows, trying to look severe as he held up his wrist and tapped the face of his watch. "Oh, stop," Lance said. "I'm here before midnight."

The mere suggestion of potential presents got the girls to carry Lance's luggage inside without appearing to notice that they were actually consenting to do work -- the power of name-brand clothing, Chris mused. The temperature probably had something to do with how efficiently it was all accomplished. They wouldn't be cold, Chris found himself thinking with grandfatherly fretfulness, if they'd just put on coats when they were told to put on coats. He was different. He was older, and a man, and actually not all that cold.

Lance's leather gloves were cold, however, when Chris took his hand to draw him down from his perch on the driver's seat. "Happy New Year's," Lance said, and Chris let their hands drop down without pulling them apart. "What?" Lance laughed, and Chris realized how avidly he must be staring. "I'm not late."

Chris pulled his hand away and touched the loop of cherry-tomato sized purple and green plastic beads around Lance's neck. "You're really not late for Mardi Gras. Or -- ooh! Anal beads, right?" He waggled his eyebrows.

Lance grinned and pushed his hand away, the soft leather over his thumb raking gently across the outer line of Chris' thumb. "Going-away present from my god-daughter. And she started to cry every time I tried to take them off, which I'm sure works on her daddy 100% of the time."

"And on you, apparently."

"Of course, but I'm supposed to be spoiling her." Lance looked up toward the porch and waved. "Happy New Year's, Bev."

Chris' mom waved back. "Glad you made it, hon. Was it icy?"

"A little. Not bad." Lance took inordinate pride in being one of the rare Southern boys who actually knew how to drive in winter weather; he wouldn't admit he'd had trouble with the conditions unless he'd come from New York through eight feet of snow with a hitch-hiking yeti in the passenger seat.

"Well, come inside and let us get you liquored up. Chris, for God's sake, you're not even wearing a coat."

"It's barely cold. It's chilly. Brisk. Really pleasant, actually," Chris said, and his mother rolled her eyes and went back in the house. "Jesus, it's fucking freezing," he said, and reached for the coat Lance was wearing. "This looks warm, is it warm?"

"Yes, and it's expensive, too, so don't yank on it." Chris slid his arms underneath the coat, around Lance's waist, and Lance breathed steamy air close to his cheek. Lance reached up, hampered only a little bit by Chris' arms, and slipped Chris' glasses off between his palms, folding them up and putting them in an inside pocket of his coat. Everything looked less distinct without them, the porch lights and the dome light inside Lance's SUV and the Christmas tree in the window blurring together in a pleasant mess of soft yellow. Lance put his hand on Chris' face, mink-soft leather on Chris' skin, and kissed him gently.

Chris didn't move toward him or away, just let Lance's warm mouth linger on him and kissed him back carefully.

"Look, I should tell you something," Lance said, a bare murmur as though they could be overheard. He didn't move very far back from Chris' lips. "I figured you knew, but Joey said -- Joey thinks I really should say it, and -- actually, I don't know if saying it is a big deal, if it needs to be some big deal, but I don't want to -- I don't want you not to know. I mean. I want you to know."

Chris put his thumb up between them, against Lance's mouth. "You suck so bad at this." Lance smiled. "I do know. I know, and me, too. Which. You probably also know."

"I thought. I mean, I did know, pretty much."

"Well, okay, then. See, it wasn't so hideously painful, was it?" Chris pulled him down by the back of the neck and kissed him one more time, soft and steamy and winter-lit, and then he stepped back and took Lance's hand again. "Let's go inside."

3: A Lousy Reason to Break Up

He could hear Lance talking -- the voice was unmistakable, even through the bathroom door -- and he just assumed it was the phone until he'd flung the door open, towel over his shoulder and otherwise butt-naked. Then there was a moment of, Wow, how embarrassing could this potentially get?

But it was the phone, of course, because Lance lived on the telephone -- lived for the telephone, in ways that Chris, who'd never relied much on his until Justin's globe-trotting phase, was pretty sure he'd never understand. Anyway, why would Lance be entertaining company in Chris' bedroom?

Lance's eyes flicked up toward him, and he smiled just a little, somewhere between devious and appreciative. Chris struck a pose, something vaguely Grecian and maybe discus-inspired. Lance's little smile turned into a grin, wholly devious and wholly appreciative. He angled away, leaning his elbow on the desk that Chris never used, tucking the phone against his shoulder and rifling through the coffee mug full of broken and capless pens. He was only wearing the bottom half of his pajamas, and his waist looked great like that. "No kidding? So what did you say?" Lance listened for a minute, then laughed. "Well, I should hope."

"Is that Justin?" Chris didn't know how he knew, exactly, except that Lance only laughed like that with one of the guys, and -- he just knew. He started forward, hand stretched out for the phone.

Lance batted his hand away. "Uh-huh, he's right here. Well, you know, I would, normally." Chris made a grab for it, and Lance blocked it with his shoulder. "Yeah, but for some odd reason, he doesn't seem to want to talk to you. Are you guys fighting or something?"

"Give me the goddamn phone!" Chris didn't know why he bothered ordering; it so rarely worked on Lance. He tried tickling with one hand and grabbing with the other, which usually worked better.

"No, I can't," Lance insisted, trying to turn protectively further away from Chris while kicking at Chris' ankles. "He really, he just won't take it. He's over there making faces, doing that slit-your- throat thing. I'm sorry, J, I really don't know what's gotten into him."

The desk chair went over in the scuffle, and there was a certain amount of undignified yelping, which Chris preferred to believe came from Lance, but after a bit more tickling and some rolling around on the carpet, Chris gained control of the phone. "This guy -- " Chris panted, climbing up onto the foot of his bed. "Gave him a key -- dunno what I was thinking."

"I thought I'd be able to get in a call before the big, gay wrestling match started," Justin said blandly.

"No, it's nothing like that." Chris tried to take up as much of the bed as he could to express Lance's lack of welcome, but Lance just climbed up after him and sprawled out half on top of Chris' back. His fingers kneaded lightly at Chris' upper arm, which felt nice. "We have sex on Thursdays. I'm not a young man anymore. Seriously, though, you're way early. Anything wrong?"

"Nothing, no."

"Let me guess, you're in some horrible, boring town with no parties. Des Moines, maybe. Tulsa?"

"There happens to be a really great club in Tulsa, don't you remember? It had those World War II pinups painted on the ceiling? Something Joe's. Or Joe something."

"Then why aren't you at Joe something?"

"Because I'm not in Tulsa?"

"Des Moines it is, then." Lance stirred against him, his stubble scratching the back of Chris' shoulder. That felt nice, too, in a strange way.

"No, man, I'm in Philly; I'm sure there are plenty of places I could be. Chris and the dancers went out somewhere."

"I'm always afraid that someday I'll just think you're talking about Christina, and meanwhile you'll be having this huge psychotic episode and believe that you're back touring with us. I'll be merrily listening to you talk about me in the third person, unable to save you from your impending breakdown."

"You would just love to believe that I'm always talking about you. But they all went out, and I was kind of on my last leg, so I figured I'd come back, take a shower, maybe write something. I thought you might appreciate me calling before two in the morning."

"But you're okay?"

"Jesus, harp, harp, harp. I'm fine. I'm touring; you may vaguely remember that being a little tiring. Why is Lance always at your house?"

"He lives here." Normally Chris might have wrapped that in a joke, but the change of topic was so sudden that it startled the plain truth out of him. Lance didn't move at all; he felt heavy across Chris' back, and probably asleep. They'd never had any kind of moving-in conversation, but somehow it had happened anyway; one day he just realized that Lance had been there for weeks and was referring to Beth and Carrah as his ex-roommates. Since they still lived in Lance's house, there was only one way Chris could take that.

"But that's what I'm saying. He has that whole nice, expensive house, all decorated and everything. Your place is pretty sketch. I'm just wondering, why are you guys living over there?"

Chris had never really thought about it before. Lance came to his house once for dinner, ergo it sort of seemed like Lance now had to stay forever. He guessed it didn't make much sense, when you got right down to it. "I guess he likes our slummy little neighborhood. He didn't get too fancy for it, like some people. What are you writing?"

"Jack. I said I figured I'd write, but it doesn't seem to be happening."

"Well, you better get on it. We can't record without something to record."

"And what, that's all on me? Like, if I don't write four songs tonight, there won't be a new album and it's all my fault?"

"No, there'll be a new album, but it won't have anything on it but whatever JC rejected for his own album."

"You write something. Write your boyfriend a big, gay love song."

"You hate my songs."

"That's not true."

"Well, you don't like them."

"Okay, that is true."

"Oh, I'm so glad we could reach an agreement." Chris tried to move his arm out from under the pillow without disturbing Lance too much. "Did you call for anything?"

"Just for you," Justin said, sounding a little puzzled that Chris didn't know that already. "Can you not talk?"

Chris rolled just a little bit, to see if Lance would move with him. Lance snorted and stayed dead weight, breathing deep-sleep breaths against the nape of Chris' neck. Chris hooked his foot around Lance's ankle and drew Lance's leg in between his. "Sure, I can talk. I kinda have to, actually, because Lance fell asleep on top of me, and now I can't go hang up the phone without waking him up. Which, I guess I actually could do, but it seems mean."

"Don't you have a cordless? What is this, 1951?"

"Don't even. I have a cordless, I have lots of cordlesses. I have a phone with a cord in my bedroom, because I've had it for like fifteen years and it still works just fine, and some people don't throw things out and replace them for no reason."

"That's Communist talk. If you don't replace everything you own at least once every two years, then the terrorists will have won."

"And also -- don't get me distracted, I'm going somewhere with this -- also, this from the man who can't work anything more space-age than a toaster oven?"

"Hey," Justin protested.

"Christmas, 1999."

"Oh, shut up."

"*Christmas,* 1999, I bought you an X Box. I come over like a month later-- "

"Not a month."

" -- and it's still sitting on the floor, plugged into nothing. When I ask why it's not hooked up, you said, and this is a direct quote, 'Trace is visiting his grandparents.'"

"Look, it would only give me that snow thing on the screen."

"Six-year-old children all over the world can hook up a freaking X Box, Justin. You, however, are a little universe unto yourself, as per usual. I sometimes worry about you shaving with anything other than a strap and a straight razor."

"I'm an artist. It's this left-brained shit, I get all turned around."

"Luckily you're adorable, and people will always want to come in and save you from scary things like digital cameras and thermostats."

"You know what I was thinking about in the shower?"

"Do I get three guesses? Because I could probably get it in three."

"No, you don't, and no, you couldn't. I was thinking about kids."

"Jesus Christ almighty. Never admit that to anyone but me, ever."

"Ha ha, asshole. No, like, having kids of my own, assuming I can ever be non-neurotic for long enough on end to trick some non-neurotic girl into marrying me. They ran that Michael Jackson interview again on VH-1 yesterday, and I was all like -- I feel bad for him, you know? Because, okay, in many ways he's crazy, but with the whole kid thing, it's like I kind of see his point. I mean, it would be dangerous to just let them run around like normal kids. You get a really crazy crowd and some little tiny person could get crushed, or just scared and traumatized, and then there's evil kidnapper types-- "

"That's why rich people have bodyguards, J. You may have forgotten, but some of those people who follow you around are not so much fans of yours as they are your bodyguards."

"Still, I would just be really protective, too, is all I'm saying. And with their cute little masks and all, that's not so bad. I don't think."

"They'll be in therapy for their entire adult lives. You know they will."

"And that's just the definite issues, you know what I mean? Like, if I had kids, there would definitely be security and media and all that to worry about. That's all, like, just leaving alone the other independent things that could go wrong. What if they're -- epileptic, or allergic to something and we can't figure out what, or -- or -- hermaphroditic? Quit laughing."

"Oh, I really don't think I can," Chris wheezed. "I just have this image of you and your bitter, resentful, hermaphrodite baby who hates you because you can't provide a normal childhood. In its cute little mask."

He even got a reluctant chuckle out of Justin. "I was just thinking. It's going to be hard to have a family."

Chris could feel his eyes drifting closed; he wasn't sleepy, just ridiculously comfortable. Something about Justin being random and weird in the middle of the night made him feel almost like he could hear the tires of the bus grinding underneath him. "You're up for it. You and your hot, ex-child-star wife who faked being non-neurotic for long enough to trap you into marriage. Kirsten Dunst is hot. For someone who could be my fucking kid, you know what? Scratch that. Christina Ricci, you gone out with her yet?"

"Are you really in bed with Lance right now?" Justin asked abruptly.

"Yeah, why?"

"It's a little weird."

"Is not. I am often in bed with Lance when you call in the godforsaken hours of the morning. It's getting to be downright normal, actually."

"Is he going to move onto our bus?"

Chris didn't realize there was even a question about that, but he decided to walk lightly around Justin's low threshold for change. "I think it's a little early in the game to just up and tell JC he's evicted. I mean, we all need to talk it over sometime before we tour again. No rush."

"But you are still going to be together then."

"Don't see why not. Hey, maybe we'll adopt kids. We could get, like, half a dozen mixed-race, transgendered little Bass-Kirkpatricks -- a variety pack type thing. With freckles. And multiple personalities."

"Sure, hog the spotlight away from me and my masked, lactose-intolerant family."

Lance's hand twitched on the pillow beside Chris, and he kissed Lance's knuckles and ran his tongue gently up Lance's thumb; even in his sleep, Lance made a low, grateful murmur as Chris traced his cuticle with the tip of his tongue. Sexy, rumbly sounds from Lance in one ear and Justin's laugher in the other.... Chris didn't think he'd mind going back on tour again, not at all.

Joey was a problem from the very beginning, but Chris didn't think of him that way. See, Chris didn't think like that, always in term of problems and risks and mistakes. He was a very positive person, and very supportive of all the things that made Lance happy.

He was also never the first to notice anything. That was getting kind of old.

After Joey came back from the Great White Way, he was suddenly at Chris' house all the time, too. Which was great, because Joey was fun, fun in the big ways of parody albums and impromptu cabaret theater in Chris' living room, but also fun in little ways, like the way he bought giant, ugly paper umbrellas and stuck them in everything they drank, even beer and Lance's morning coffee. He brought Briahna, too, and now that she could walk, Chris felt that he and Joey's child had entirely too much in common. He maybe wanted, like, eight just like her, not that he would admit that even to Justin.

Joey brought movies, 50s screwball comedy and 70s sexploitation, Disney and Abbott and Costello, and he had a strange weakness for brother-acts -- Farrelly, Coen, Wachowski. He complained about the size of Chris' tv, but when Chris said, "So why don't you go watch on your own silver screen, Fatone?" Joey just laughed and wrapped his arm around Lance's waist from behind, yanking a startled noise out of him.

Chris didn't push the issue, because truthfully he was happier to be at home. Joey's theater, while unbeatable for serious movie-watching, wasn't built to kick back in. It had chairs -- tall, comfortable, Star Trek captain's chairs that reclined, but still chairs. Chris had a sectional couch, a wide as the futon he'd slept on back at his old apartment, and he liked to lean back in the corner bend of it, with Lance between his legs, head resting somewhere between Chris' chest and his stomach and hand tucked between his cheek and Chris' body. Joey sat at the other end with Lance's feet in his lap and one arm wrapped around Lance's legs, and they could all stay comfortable like that for two or three movies on end. Joey would take occasional breaks to refresh the popcorn and the drinks, and Lance would twist around in the dark, propping his hands on Chris' thighs and trading lazy, kahlua-flavored kisses with him. That was the kind of thing that just couldn't be arranged watching movies at Joey's.

Joey liked to dance -- not stage dancing or club dancing, but foxtrots and charlestons and merengues, things that Chris would have bet his left nut that Lance didn't know how to do, except that every time Joey grabbed him, Lance seemed to get it exactly right. Lance was more coordinated salsa dancing in Chris' front hallway than he was when he was being paid millions for it. Chris walked in on them doing the tango once, and said, "Shouldn't you have a rose between your teeth?"

"No roses," Lance said.

"You don't bring this man roses, Kirkpatrick?" Joey pretended to growl as he dipped Lance.

"I don't have to," Chris said. "He sleeps with me anyway. Guys are cool like that."

"It must be really convenient to be gay," Joey sighed.

Joey liked food, which was fantastically fun, since Lance would only eat things that had an "r" in the name, and twelve grams of B-12, and polyunsaturated blandness. It seemed to be his one lasting scar from the space program, since Chris was pretty sure he could remember Lance eating the same stuff the rest of them ate, back in the day.

But Joey liked buffalo wings and banana bread and Rice Krispy treats, and all of the other things that made life worth living, so Chris didn't have to feel like a loser when he ate them. Joey had a copy of The Cake Mix Doctor, and he and Chris and Briahna were working their way through it together at a furious pace (Briahna took a specialized role, and was held responsible for licking all beaters and spatulas), sending cake to Briahna's play group and Kelly's pottery class and Sexual Chocolate to mask the fact that they were eating plenty of the results, too. Lance always had one thin piece, just enough to be able to honestly tell them it was good. Joey also made barbeque and spaghetti, both of which he claimed had sauce that was "an old Fatone family secret," but which seemed to taste different every time.

It was cool, almost like having the group back together again, and Chris almost never looked over his shoulder anymore and expected JC and Justin to be standing there. It was half-normal, not quite the way the world was meant to be, but things were noisy again, and the jokes were lame but obscene, and he could see Lance in the dark now, could fuck him in pitch-blackness and know exactly what his face and body looked like, just from his hands on Lance's chest and Lance's harsh breathing on his face. One night they fell asleep naked on the couch and woke up the next morning with a blanket tucked around them and Joey on the floor watching cartoons and eating their last toaster pastry, and Chris wondered just exactly how weird it was to be so used to having no privacy that life seemed better without it somehow.

Joey didn't feel like a problem. Joey was Joey, one of Chris' best friends, and high up on the list of reasons to love Joey was the way he made Lance smile. There was a particular smile, a Joey smile, and Chris loved catching little secret glimpses of it. It felt like discovery.

It took him a long time to realize what he was discovering, but it happened all at once, one night when Joey was making a Caesar salad to go with the steak Chris was grilling out back. Chris could see them through the glass door between the porch and the kitchen, Joey all bright and animated, Lance leaning idly on the counter and smiling his smug, dismissive smile, the one he showed when you were trying to convince him of something and he was having none of it. He could vaguely hear Joey saying "salad" and "good for you," and he could see Lance shake his head and start counting something off on his fingertips -- presumably the numerous health deficiencies of Caesar dressing.

While he had his hand out counting, Joey grabbed his wrist and stuck Lance's fingers in the bowl of dressing and then shoved his hand toward Lance's mouth. Lance struggled, and all those hours at the gym were worth something, because he got the advantage quickly and smeared salad dressing down Joey's face. Joey's tongue flashed out -- instinctively, maybe -- to lick the corner of his mouth and up Lance's two middle fingers where they hovered by his face. Lance stopped moving, forfeiting his advantage. His eyes were wide and dark, fixed past Joey's shoulder on nothing for a moment, and then dropping. Joey bent his arm back, the back of his hand curled over the back of Lance's, and guided Lance's fingers into his own mouth. Lance sucked the dressing off his hand obediently, still looking down. The sooty smell of Chris' dinner starting to overcook behind him distracted Chris, but not enough to make him move.

Joey put his other hand under Lance's chin and made him look up again. He said something that looked serious, and Lance frowned and shook his head, then batted Joey away from him. Joey's hand settled on Lance's shoulder, and Chris finally remembered to turn the meat over.

When he opened the door and came inside, Lance was washing his hands. "I don't think we should feed Joey," Lance said, not looking at anything but the faucet. "He's being a jerk."

Chris put his hand on the back of Lance's neck and pulled him around to kiss him. Lance's hands, soaking wet, clutched at Chris' back, and he kissed back hard, pushing against Chris. He slid one arm around Chris' waist and the other across his shoulders and kissed him like it was life-or-death, until Chris couldn't breathe, and Chris ran his hands down Lance's thighs and felt them shaking. He could taste the Caesar dressing in Lance's mouth and feel Lance's hard-on against his stomach, and the temptation to drag Lance down to the cool wooden floor and fuck him just like this, fierce and desperate and strong as hell, was definitely there.

He pulled away and said, "Almost done." Lance nodded and turned away to find a dish towel for his hands.

Dinner was a little quieter than usual, but not wildly strange. Joey kept looking back and forth between Lance and Chris, not totally sure what the situation was. Lance focused on his food, but sounded like Lance when he talked. When Lance got up to clear the dishes away, Joey said, "So you know the wedding is this weekend."

"What wedding?" Chris said.

"One of my friends from the Rent cast is getting married. Lance met her a couple of times and really liked her, and she said she'd like to see him there. You know, regular boring wedding, but the parties should be good. Lance, you never really said if you wanted to or not."

Lance looked sideways at Chris while he rinsed off the plates. "I...don't know."

"Well, it's kind of this weekend, so you need to sort of make up your mind pretty soon."

"I keep forgetting to talk to Chris about it."

Chris worked on balancing the pepper shaker on top of the salt. "I don't know which of the jackasses you dated made you get permission for weekend trips, but it wasn't me."

"Yeah, I know, but-- "

"Go," Chris said flatly. "It sounds like fun."

"I think I might skip it," Lance said casually. Which figured, because no one was ever more contrary than Lance Bass.

"Aw, don't skip it," Joey protested. "Come on, I know you're old and married now, but you can take a couple of days of drunken stupidity in New York. Chris doesn't care. We haven't done anything like this in a long time, man."

"Jesus Christ, Lance, just go," Chris said, standing up. It was almost full dark outside, and he wondered if security would look more or less favorably on unsanctioned bike rides if it was nighttime instead of day. "See? The man is begging. Make the sacrifice for your best friend." The words kept pulsing in his throat as Chris walked out toward the garage.

Lance's fucking best friend. It wasn't quite Chris' definition of the term. When you looked at someone like that -- when touching them made you erratic and electric and starving like Lance had been, pressed against Chris.... That was called something else entirely.

He'd bought the newest bike with Justin, the day after Justin's release party; it was a silver Yamaha FJR 1300, and Justin called it the Batmobile because of the way the windshield slid smoothly from its swept-back position to full upright when you turned the key. It yowled like a panther as Chris tore out of the garage, jumping 40 to 80 to 120 in what felt like eyeblinks, until Chris' body was nothing but a roar of wind and thrill, until his mind was blank.

He stopped a little after eleven at a Break Time and bought a slushy and a sixty-minute phone card. Years of speed-dial made it a little tough to remember Justin's phone number, but after a minute's hesitation he remembered that the last four digits were the same as his ATM pin number. Justin answered in a guarded voice, obviously leery of the unfamiliar number on his screen, and Chris said, "What would you do if I licked you? It's me, don't call the cops; it's just me. If I licked your, your neck-- " because Chris had seen Britney do that many times and strongly suspected by the look in Justin's eyes that it was the Justin equivalent of Lance's fingers, "you would be, I mean, that would be -- what would that be? Wrong, right? I mean, that would not be normal best-friend behavior."

Justin was quiet for a minute, long enough to make Chris nervous that he'd jumped the gun, that the man with the guarded voice hadn't actually been Justin at all, and wouldn't that wrap up the evening nicely. "I hate your hypothetical questions," Justin finally said flatly.

Chris huddled away from the lights over the gas pumps, into the shadows cast by the three sides of the phone box; he missed phone booths, which just felt more private and secure. Not that there was anyone remotely within earshot of him now, but he still felt exposed. "It's not a hypothetical."

"It is a fucking hypothetical," Justin snapped, "because it's not true. You've never licked me. Now, am I here for the moral support thing? Because you're just gonna have to tell me what you want to hear, and I will say it for you, but if you don't tell me where the fuck you are and what this is all about then I'm just going to tell you the truth, and you know you don't want that."

"I don't want that?"

"What do you want from me?" Justin's voice rose and cracked, and he had to clear his throat. Chris thought he might say something else, but he didn't.

Which meant it was a real question, and on Chris to answer. "Just. Nothing. You're fine. I mean, I want you to -- be like you are."

"If you licked my neck, I'd fucking break your nose, is what I'd do. Because you don't need to be dating one of my best friends and then go around licking anybody, first off, and also because -- well, look, it would fuck with my head, okay? I'm sorry, I know we have our thing, we act this certain way with each other and we're not supposed to, you know, go outside of that. And I am over you -- I think I'm over you. But it would be too much, just -- doing that with you and not being able to keep on."

The wind was still on his neck, as if he were moving really, really fast. Only Justin knew how to help him pick out a bike; only Justin ever seemed to understand the rush of moving way too fast. "Maybe you could," he said. "Maybe we could."

"Why are you doing this? You know you don't want me."

"I do, though." He felt reckless, racing at two hundred miles an hour and still not able to outrun the way his heart had seemed to collapse in on itself when-- Jesus. He put his hand on the phone, like he was hanging off of it for support. "We went outside of our thing when you told me what you told me; we're so fucking far outside it now, we're off the map. Maybe I do want to. God, I miss you all the time. Maybe I could come out and stay with you for a while, you know?"

"Sure," Justin said reluctantly. "If you want to, but-- "

Chris closed his eyes and chose not to know enough to shut up. "I think it could be the fuck of our lives. I got seventeen years of experience, I suck dick so well I could leave you with third- degree burns, plus I'm also your big jack-off fantasy from when you were fourteen, and how often do you really get to go back and have that? Well, actually in your case pretty often, but still, it's pretty great, don't you think? And I don't know where you get this rock-solid faith that I don't want you, but don't think I don't ask myself sometimes what it would feel like to have you doing that slinky hip thing right underneath me. Maybe you-- "

"That's a hell of a lot of maybes," Justin said. "And, also, I think you're a mean shit for doing this to me, because you're -- it's just -- damn, Kirkpatrick! You're not going to do any of this shit, so why do we have to fucking talk about it, anyway? Why can't we just stay like we are?"

The last sentence sounded so much like something that Chris himself would love a good answer to that it made him close his eyes and lean his head against the cool plastic of the phone. Why couldn't things just be like they were? Why did Chris suddenly have a house that he didn't feel like he was welcome to go back into? Wouldn't want to get in the way, Joey and Lance with their private bus and their private jokes and their private smiles, Joey and Lance with their hands cradled together and anyway, if Joey was such a fucking pussy when it came to hearing about Lance's sex life, how did he even know that thing with Lance's hands? "Because I'm going to break up with Lance, and I just want something. Get out of the house, not be by myself."

"Oh," Justin said, a long, knowing sound. "Now I get it. Sure, yeah, that sounds like fun. I want to be your rebound fuck; I want to have as much sex with you as possible while you're thinking about Lance. Sounds hot."

"Okay, now you're just being sarcastic."

"I told you I didn't want to do this, Chris! I don't want to draw you a fucking diagram for how to get out of every fight you have with Lance. So this is it, okay? This is the absolute last time. I don't know where you are, but go fucking find Lance and tell him that whatever is going on with you two, it doesn't matter, and whatever your damage is, you can work it out."

"You and Britney didn't."

"Britney cheated on me. I didn't want to work it out."

He thought about Lance wrapped around him in the kitchen, shivering when Chris touched the small of his back, grinding against him. "Lance is cheating on me. Sort of. I think he wants to, and that's just as bad."

"Dude, you just offered to blow me!"

"Well, yeah, but...I wouldn't. Really." Sure, in some parallel universe, or in the cheerfully plotless world of a porn movie; he hadn't been lying when he said he thought about it sometimes. But in real life, there was one catch: he loved Lance, and Justin could be as silky-warm, as limber and hard-bodied and willing as Chris could ever conjure up in his wildest fantasies, but he still wouldn't be Lance. Chris' heart might twist inside him whenever Justin laughed or punched him too hard in the ribs, or even when his caller ID flashed "JT" across its screen, but Chris still ached just thinking about being that deep inside anyone who didn't feel like Lance, smell like Lance, make those noises that Lance made. The fuck of Chris' life, even if it was with his best friend in the world, just wasn't enough anymore.

"I know you wouldn't, just like you don't want to break up with Lance. And I don't know what's going on with him, but I'm sure he'll want to get through it if you do. He's so gone on you, dude. I asked him this one time in London, when he'd been there quite a while, if he didn't want to go back and see you, and he said everything was all romantic and exciting when it was phone sex and quick visits, but he was scared you wouldn't want him as much when he went back for real, and he liked you so much he didn't know if he could handle hearing that." Justin's voice softened, almost flickering out underneath the sound of a semi passing by on the highway. "I never heard anyone talk about you like that, you know? He even thinks your stupid love puppy thing is cute; he thinks you're being sweet when you're obviously just being dumb. Even I don't go on and on like you're all -- the hero in some movie. I mean, to me you're just Chris, and to Lance you're like -- you're someone he sings about. So just take my word for it, okay? If you go back and you tell him he can have one more chance, it'll all work out. He's a loser like that. When it comes to you."

Chris smiled at the slightly wistful tone in Justin's voice. The kid really needed a new significant other; he wasn't quite himself on his own. "Watch it, Timberlake. He tells tales out of school about you when you're drunk and vulnerable, too."

"He wasn't drunk."

Oh. That was a little hard to imagine, Lance getting all...mushy like that under his own power. "Thanks," Chris said. "It's still -- you know, it's fucked up. But thanks for trying to help. And I'm sorry, also, I'm actually really, hugely sorry for what I said earlier. You're going to break my nose next time I see you anyway, just on principle, aren't you?"

"No," Justin sighed, "but not because you don't deserve it. What are you thinking, jerking me around like that?"

"I don't -- I'm not thinking anything, J. I'm out of my head. I swear, I'm the sorriest bastard in the world. You're still my best friend, though, right?"

"Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure I am. I love you, you stupid shit."

"I love you. I do."

"Yeah, yeah. See you soon, right?"

There was a light on inside Chris' house when he got home, and he went in expecting Lance. "Joey," he said when he realized who was waiting up for him, "Jesus, go home."

Joey stood up from the couch where he was watching some VH-1 countdown, the 100 most something somebodies ever. "Wait a minute, I need to-- "

Chris threw his keys on an end table; they skidded its length and bounced off the wall. "You need to? Guess what? I don't really care what you need to do."

Joey stuck his hands in his pockets and looked down at his feet. "'re freaked out."

"Freaked out? Actually, I'm -- uh, what's the word I'm looking for? Angry. I'm angry, and I'm tired, and I want you out of my house." Chris realized that the mature thing to do would be to make those his final words on the subject, to go upstairs and hopefully find Lance up there and hopefully even know what to say to him. On the other hand, maybe it was equally mature to get all this yelling out of his system before he had to go and be the firm-but-fair boyfriend. "I mean, I don't usually ask my friends not to set foot in my home, but then, my friends don't usually come into my home at all hours, eat my steaks, and lick my boyfriend. I'm sorry if I'm freaked out, if I'm maybe not handling this the way you wish I was, but this is all pretty much new territory for me."

"That's all I wanted to say," Joey said quickly, cutting him off. "I just needed to say I was sorry. It was just an accident, it wasn't like I was planning to -- it was just stupid and I didn't mean to and...don't be mad at Lance, okay?"

"I'm not mad at Lance," he grumbled. Why the hell did he feel obligated to explain anything to Joey? Why couldn't he ever handle anything on his own, like an actual grown-up? "Lance can't help how he feels."

"This is a lousy reason to break up with him." You had to give Joey credit; he wasn't book- smart, but he always seemed to know what you weren't saying. Unlike Chris, who never seemed to learn anything without having it bashed like a railroad spike through his head.

"What, because he's in love with someone else? No, Joe, that's actually a perfectly legitimate reason to break up with somebody. It's on the approved list, along with...finding out he's your cousin, and...fuck, I don't know. It's a good reason."

He hadn't really said that yet, even to himself. Lance was in love with someone else. Lance was in love with Joey. Chris hadn't been completely, one-hundred percent positive of that until he'd put his hands on Lance's back and felt how he was shivering, how he seemed brittle and scared. Chris wasn't the quickest study on earth, but he'd touched Lance once before when he felt the same way, that morning in Chris' RV when Lance said don't you know I need this? and kiss me for real, right now.

"Please don't," Joey said. "Please, not because of what I did. It was my fault, not his."

"I just don't get it. Ever since this whole thing started, you've been shoving us together. Why would you do this now, why would you come onto him while I'm standing right-- "

"I didn't come on to him!"

"Oh, you fucking did, Joe! Maybe you didn't, I don't know, plan it or whatever, but still. I even fucking asked you, you know? I said, is there anything I need to know before I get into this with Lance. JC told me the truth, said he had feelings for Lance; we talked about it, we worked it out. Why couldn't you have just told me?"

Joey was staring at him with a strange mixture of confusion and horror on his face. "You think I'm trying to -- get between you and Lance?" Chris made a wild motion with his hands, meant to indicate that Joey had finally caught up to Chris' point. "No, man. No, I swear, I'd give up a kidney to keep you guys together."

"How would a kidney keep us together?" Chris was momentarily distracted by that idea.

"Or -- whatever, I'd give up something really important. Look, I've never seen him like this, he's never been this happy with his personal life. He needs you, Chris. I just know, I know that if it doesn't work out with you, he's going to go right back into his weird emotional shell, he's never going to put himself out there for anybody again. He's already so fucking paranoid, and this is like the one thing he's ever let happen for him without trying to fuck it up."

Chris pressed his fingers to his temples. The roaring sound of speed and wind hadn't quite left his head yet. "Well, you know what? Maybe if you're so worried about his happiness, you need to sleep with him and leave me out of the middle of it."

"Do you think we haven't tried that?" Joey said, and his eyes went huge and dark with surprise at his own words.

Chris sat down on his coffee table, the nearest thing that seemed like it would support his weight. "I can't believe," he said slowly, "that I'm the last person in this band to make out with my boyfriend." He didn't even bother to bring up the unspoken rule.

Edgily, Joey sat down on the couch near him. He was watching Chris warily, as if Chris might jump across and try to strangle him at any moment. "Well, I mean, maybe it was stupid," Joey said quietly. "But he seemed to want it so bad. I mean, he really does love me, you know?"

"I know," Chris said grimly.

"It's a strange feeling, having somebody...really love you, for no reason. I mean, he just -- it's not like I'm so great to him, or such a wonderful catch. He just always felt this way, and he never even asked for anything back."

Chris put his elbows on his knees and his eyes against the heels of his hands. "Holy shit."

"I thought I could handle it. You know, be like JC and -- and care about people's -- inner, human beauty and stuff. You know, love should be the thing that matters most. Like JC says. But I can't...I don't feel it. That. I don't feel what I should feel, and I couldn't go through with it. God, Chris, you have no idea. You remember how you told me once what the worst moment of your life was? That one time when Justin started crying in the courtroom, and you just knew it was all your fault? Well, that's how it was, it felt exactly like that. I tried, I wanted so bad to show him how he was the best thing that ever happened to me. And I couldn't. And we ended up sitting there for hours. I -- held him while he cried, and he said he'd never love anybody but me, and he couldn't ever be just my friend. And I didn't know what to say. What the hell do you say? I'm sorry? I said he wouldn't ever be *just* my friend. I said he'd be my best friend, and we'd always be together. And we always will, but still, it's like I let him down. I didn't want to, but I did."

"So enter Chris, is that how it works? I can fuck him for you, so he's all well-screwed and cheerful now, and you don't have to feel guilty anymore?"

"No, no, that's not how it works at all. I thought, because you always cared about him so much, you were always nice to him even back when he was kind of a loser -- I thought you could -- I *wanted* you guys to love each other. He's been alone for so long. He wouldn't even date for the longest time, until I took him out and practically *made* him pick someone up. I even picked out the guy. And it worked, I guess; he quit being such a fucking nun, at least. I guess I thought...if I could do it with sex, I could do it with love, too. Pick someone out. Push him into it for his own good."

"And did it work?" Chris asked sharply. "Your master plan, how's that going for you?"

Joey looked up and met his eyes. "It worked. You know it did."

"And how does licking him factor into this really great, for-Lance's-own-good program you've got going? The twelve-step Joey Fatone detox?"

He looked back down, head hung lower than ever. "It, uh, doesn't. Doesn't help." He laughed awkwardly, eyes flicking up to Chris. "Believe me, he read me the riot act after you left."

Chris couldn't hold back a chuckle. "Did he threaten to break your nose?"

"No." Joey echoed his laugh, probably more in encouragement than because he actually got anything funny out of that. "But he said he'd bury me in your backyard if I fucked this up for him. Fucked you up for him."

"Well, I'd take him seriously, if I were you." It helped a little, to think of Lance committing felonies to further secure their relationship. Maybe a lot. Lance was cute when he got all felonious.

"Oh, I do. It's just, you know something? I wanted him to love you, but I'm...not sure I really knew what it would feel like to see him love you more than me."

"You lied to me," Chris said. "When I asked you if you were secretly in love with Lance. Didn't you?"

"I did, I guess." Joey said. "I didn't lie on purpose or anything; I'm so used to feeling a certain way about him, I guess I don't even think about it anymore. Until I go and do something stupid, because I forget he' know. Not really my Lance anymore."

"You don't think he is?" Chris said. The anger had settled into a slow, churning pressure, and Chris didn't even know how to let it out anymore. Yelling wouldn't do any good, and you could only run so far away until you had to quit moving at least for a little while.

"Not like I wanted him to be," Joey said quietly. "There was a time -- you know, when I thought we made each other so happy that we'd never need anything else. Only that was never true, not really. Lance and I both, we need the -- the whole package, the double bed and the picket fence and a family. Someone to love where there's not all this that we have to hold back and all these lines that we know we can't cross. If he could really be my Lance, without all the fine print and everything, that would be one thing. I'd fucking snap him up. Only that's not the real world, Chris. You and Lance, that's the real world."

Chris stood up, wincing a little at the creak of his knees. "Okay. You win, you bastard. I won't dump him. I just want to -- I want to fix this somehow, and I don't know how to do it if you're over my shoulder all the time. So, no offense, but could you seriously stay the hell away from me for a while?"

"I can do that," Joey said quickly. "'s not going to be like this forever, is it? I mean, I don't think I should have to...lose him as a friend, because-- "

"I'm not taking out a restraining order. Can we just leave it at that, for the night at least?"

At the door, Joey said, "I know you must want to kill me. But, just -- you're still my friend, Chris, okay? And I wouldn't ever -- I wouldn't ever do anything on purpose that would hurt you. You get that, right?"

"Yeah," Chris said. "I get that."

He didn't do anything but strip down to his underwear before sliding into bed next to Lance, who rolled over right away, wrapping an arm around Chris' neck and nuzzling his chest. "I won't go, okay?" Lance murmured, his voice thick and sleepy. "I don't have to, it's no big deal."

Chris stroked Lance's bare shoulder lightly and sighed. And after the whole monogamy thing had fallen into place so easily for them. Why couldn't Lance just have wanted to fuck around with underage groupies like a normal guy? "I'm your boyfriend, not your parole officer," he said. "This is something you need. I had no idea I was this good a person, but you know, I really do get it that you need him."

"I don't want to," Lance said, barely audible. "God. You have no idea how many times I've wished I didn't need...."

"Hey, shh." Chris kissed his hair and brushed his fingers in soothing circles on Lance's shoulderblade. "Life's like that, you know? Guess I can't say I've never been there. Well, not that it's the same. At all. But you miss him, which is the part that I do get. You should spend some time with him. Go. I want you to go." Lance muttered an agreeing noise and seemed to go straight back to sleep.

He was gone when Chris woke up in the morning.

Lance was the one who woke Chris up when he came back, trying to creep into the bedroom and cracking the corner of his suitcase against the doorframe. Chris had fallen asleep reading Vibe, and the bedside lamp was still on. Lance stopped when he realized Chris' eyes were open and looking at him, and then he started moving again slowly, setting his luggage out of the way and toeing off his shoes.

He sat down on the edge of the bed, one hand lying empty between himself and Chris. "Should. Hi. Should I have called first?"

Chris looked at him for a second, then laid his hand in Lance's, pushing up on his elbow. "Ass," he said, reaching out with the other hand to start unbuttoning Lance's shirt. "Called first," he repeated disdainfully.

Lance smiled at him, that bemused, vulnerable smile that Chris never caught glimpses of, because Lance never seemed to use it except when it was aimed directly at him. Lance's Chris- smile. He rolled over, bracing himself across Chris, and kissed him, the kind of gentle, persistent kiss that wiped everything off the face of the earth but him and Lance.

Chris only knew one person whose social-call strategy involved banging on the front door, leaning on the doorbell, and calling Chris' cell phone simultaneously. Justin somehow had more arms than Shiva when he needed them to cause a commotion. "National. Fucking. Emergency," Lance said into his pillow, and Chris wasn't sure if that was abbreviated from "You'd think it was a" or "This had better be a."

"I got it. I'll get it." Chris lurched out of bed, vaguely hoping that he'd hit the floor hard enough to wake himself up for real. It didn't seem to work, because if he were really awake, he would never wear one of Lance's fruity velveteen bathrobes, particularly not in maroon, given that the only pair of boxers he could find on the floor were yellow. Chris might not be the label queen that his friends were, but he knew right from wrong.

He was only awake enough at the door to squint at Justin backlit by the sun and think that he was dressed funny, too. "You forgot," Justin said balefully.

"I didn't," Chris said quickly, wishing he knew what they were talking about.

Justin crossed his arms. "You forgot, you dickwad."

"I -- did not!" Aha. "I wouldn't forget. We're golfing. God, you have so little faith in me. We're golfing at, uh, at now. I was just getting dressed."

Lance came down the stairs behind him, wearing khakis and Chris' Guns N Roses t-shirt. "Hey, Justin," he said and tried vainly to smooth down his hair.

"Don't hey Justin me. Mister center-of-his-universe, you could take a little fucking initiative and make sure he gets to one lousy appointment on time. It's not like we haven't been booked for this for like a month, and I can't just reschedule things at the drop of a hat, you know."

"Yeah, sorry about your valuable time," Lance said. "I just got back from New York."

"I give a shit? I just got back from LA. Chris, are you gonna get dressed or what? Or are you canceling on me?"

"No, God, no, I'm not canceling. Quit freaking out for ten minutes and I'll be ready to go."

When Chris came back downstairs, he almost turned around and tried coming down them again to see if he could get back into his regular universe. They were both in the kitchen, Justin sitting on the table with his feet on a chair and wiping marshmallow off his nose from the mug of hot chocolate in his hands as he brayed a laugh over something Lance had just said. Lance was leaning, one hip braced against the table and one foot on the lower rung of Justin's chair, grinning his slyest grin. Chris shook his head hard. How the two of them did that he had no idea, that thing where they were sniping at each other one second and best friends the next.

Lance straightened up when Chris came closer, putting his hand on the small of Chris' back and kissing his forehead. "I'll meet y'all somewhere for lunch, maybe?"

"Look," Justin said; he was frowning, but not his angry frown. "If you two.... I mean, let's not do this if you'd rather stay home. Y'all have your couple thing going on, far be it from me to get in the middle." Chris shook his head, not quite sure what to say. You're not interrupting anything good? Except that he was. I missed you just as bad as I did Lance? Except then he sounded like a crappy boyfriend. Definitely some other time? Except that Justin's time was not an endlessly renewable resource, and it was Chris' job as a friend to make allowances for that. "Do you want to come?" Justin said suddenly to Lance, sounding startled himself by the idea. "I forget you golf."

"Badly," Lance said. "But they have a bar, right?"

"Yeah, there's a fucking bar," Justin said, rolling his eyes and shoving Lance's shoulder.

Lance did not leap from just-rolled-out-of-bed to presentable-in-polite-society half as efficiently as Chris did, but to Justin's credit, he only looked at his watch twice while they waited and only sighed noisily the second time. By the time they got to the course, they'd lost their reservation, but a little judicious threatening, tag-team courtesy of Justin and Lance, altered the situation slightly, and they were sent to the club patio and promised that they wouldn't be waiting long.

Chris wasn't wearing his watch, but they were waiting at least long enough for Lance to drink two Bloody Marys, which to be fair wasn't all that long. Normally the wait would have bothered Chris, but as little sleep as he'd gotten the night before, he didn't mind half-dozing at a little umbrella-capped table with one hand supporting his head and the other working steadily through a bowl of mixed nuts. Every time his eyes drifted more than half shut, he could almost hear Lance's deep voice muttering, "Harder, I missed you, harder," all over again while his hands twisted around under Chris' so that Lance could lock his fingers against his, and that was conducive to pleasant relaxation. Every time his eyes opened, he was looking at Lance, lounging on his barstool with his Gucci sunglasses and that faint hickey under his ear, and that was nice, too.

Justin, of course, was not waiting tranquilly. Oh, he was trying. He always tried. But Justin's trying to be patient looked an awful lot like other people's pacing and grumbling. Lance tried plying him with alcohol, but Justin's vodka and tonic ended up half empty on the bar, and Justin was still banging out an elaborate rhythm on the iron fence with an ashtray. Chris mimicked it discreetly with his fingers on the edge of his table and decided he liked it, but the other patrons of the club didn't seem to appreciate the musicality. Chris resisted the urge to tell them that people paid good money for Justin's creative outbursts and here they were getting a free sample. Lance caught Chris' eye behind Justin's back and rolled his eyes. Chris tried to give him a I'll-pay-you- back-in-trade look, but he wasn't sure if he got the message across.

Justin noticed Chris following the rhythm with his hands and raised his eyebrows skeptically before driving it up into double time. Fuck you, Chris mouthed at him, and Justin laughed, but the break in concentration cost him, and he was the first to miss a beat. He kicked the fence with his heel in frustration, and Chris said, "Now, what did I teach you about sportsmanship?"

"Cheat?" Justin said. "I can't; you always catch me."

"No, no, the part about being a gracious loser. Pretty is as pretty does, baby boy," he added as Justin raised his hand to shuffle idly at his curls. Justin seemed to notice his own hand with surprise and jerked it back down, sticking it in his pocket with a scowl.

"I'm about as pretty as I wanna be, thanks."

"I'm gonna take down my Justin Timberlake poster and replace it with Usher. He's always so friendly when we kick his ass at CFTC."

"Too bad he can't dance, though." After Usher danced at the Janet tribute, Justin had leaned over Chris and whispered into his ear, Think if I kill and eat him I could pull that off? It was the only time Chris could remember Justin ever seeming jealous of anyone else's talent; it was nice to know that it happened, sometimes.

Chris leaned forward in his seat and wrapped one hand around Justin's hipbone, the other twisting in the back of his shirt, and yanked him down into a chair. "Chill out, would you? It's your day off. Look at Lance -- see how hot he is when he lounges like that? Don't you want to be hot like Lance?"

"Oh, more than anything," Justin deadpanned. He slid the bowl of nuts right out from under Chris' hand and scooped up half of them at once. "But some of us are born to be hot, and some are just born to be pretty. Dude, Lance, how can you drink on an empty stomach like that? I'd be so nauseous."

"Born with it," Lance said, in a voice that didn't particularly invite further bantering. Justin looked at him for a second, then shrugged and nodded.

The up side to Justin's pique about having to wait was that when they were finally allowed onto the green, he was suddenly the happiest man on earth. He smacked Chris on the back and said, "About fucking time! I'm gonna level with you: I'm so out of practice you might actually have a prayer in hell."

"Whatever you have to tell yourself to sweeten the bitter taste of defeat, padawan." He noticed that Lance was following along behind them in spite of his stated intentions to spend the day at the bar, so he put his hand on Justin's elbow to slow him down.

Justin glanced over his shoulder at Lance and clapped twice, loudly. "Chop chop! Seriously, you gonna keep up or what?"

"Seriously, blow me," Lance said, but just far enough under his breath that Justin could pretend he hadn't heard it.

Justin got so far ahead of Chris on the first four holes that by the time they got held up at the fifth, he didn't seem to care about the wait anymore. Chris supposed it gave him extra basking time. Instead of bitching, he hummed under his breath and swayed in that casual way that meant he really had a song stuck in his head and wanted to dance. Chris grinned when he recognized the tune and poked Justin in the ankle with a nine-iron. "Your lips, your smile, I-- " he chimed in, wrapping his arm around Justin's waist.

Justin grinned down at him and nudged his hip into Chris' side. "Love it when you kiss me, baby."

"Your hips, those thighs, I-- "

"Love it when you thug me, baby." Justin broke away and did a few smooth dance steps, but came to an abrupt halt when Lance laughed rather nastily. "What?" he and Chris said at the same time.

"The two of you," Lance said, waving his hand between them. "I mean, you could hardly sound less like Ja Rule. And you, you look entirely too much like Ashanti when you do that. All you lack is the vinyl catsuit from the video."

He had taken his sunglasses off as he spoke, but he was turned away from Chris just enough that Chris couldn't quite see his expression. Justin could, though, and he flinched back, looking confused first, and then irritated. "Hey," Chris said, trying to do that clever humor thing that Lance was frequently so fond of. "You're not allowed to be fantasizing about my best friend in a vinyl catsuit."

"Trust me, that's not my fantasy," Lance said, his voice more clipped than before. He slid his sunglasses back on before Chris ever got a good look at his eyes. "This may shock you both, but Justin isn't everybody's type."

"That doesn't shock me," Justin protested. "I'm not even my type, I never said-- "

"Shut up and play," Lance said.

"I guess it's the wrong time for our rendition of 'All I Have,' then," Chris said, and Lance gave him a *you're not funny* look that even the glasses couldn't disguise, but Chris had never been the kind of guy to shut up just because nobody wanted to hear what he had to say. "'Dilemma,' maybe? I bet we know the words to that one."

Possibly trying to change the subject, Justin said, "I actually saw Kelly a couple of weeks ago at a Chinese restaurant, her and-- "

"I bet you do," Lance said, ignoring Justin completely. "It's hot and I'm bored. I'm going home."

As soon as Lance was out of earshot, Justin gestured after him and said, "Aren't you, uh-- ?"

"No," Chris said, deciding as he said it. "No, whatever, he's in a bad mood. He'll stew for a while and then calm down." Because really, how mad could he be? Everything last night had been all moonlight and romance and whispers of baby, so beautiful and good to be home. Chris hadn't had nearly enough time yet today to drive Lance into any type of homicidal frenzy. Justin looked dubious, and Chris grabbed him by the shoulders and steered him forward. "Golf, man, golf. Don't think you can get me to let you off the hook by faking the sudden concern for Lance's feelings."

"I care," Justin said, half-plaintive and half-defensive. "Also, I'm winning."

Chris released him with a last affectionate pat to his shoulders. "I know you do, but just...let me worry about it, okay? It's the first time I've seen you in person since dinosaurs ruled the earth, and I want to just -- I want to just do this, and I'll think about Lance later. It's like you said; I have to do this shit on my own eventually. Also, I'm pacing myself."

"How do I look like Ashanti, what's that supposed to mean, anyway? What, I dance like a girl?"

"I don't know, maybe Lance wanted to be the pretty one. Look, for the love of Mike, would you hit the little white ball?"

Justin did beat him, but not by as much as Chris had feared, and they went out for pizza afterward, to a mom-and-pop place that gave the two of them and their bodyguards the back room that usually went to parties of 15 or more. Justin regaled him with tales of his single-guy conquests, and roughly seventy percent of them were true; man of the world though Justin might be nowadays, he still curled his index fingers in underneath his thumbs when he lied to Chris. Chris didn't call him on it, just smiled and let Justin eat more than his share of the toasted ravioli.

"What about you?" Justin finally said, gesturing with his fork and a chunk of sausage.


"Lance, you know." Justin's mouth quirked slightly, not entirely a smile. "He as hot as he thinks he is?"

Chris laughed gruffly. "Well, lemme put it to you like this. If it's actually humanly possible for one man to be as hot as Lance thinks he is, then I figure Lance is probably that man."

"You love him?" Justin asked casually, studying his pizza. "Because you act like you do, but you never just...say."

"Well. Yeah." He found it strangely difficult to cop to, maybe because that night where he'd regretted that exact fact so intensely was still pretty fresh in his memory. "I mean, always did."

"Sure, but-- "

"I know what you mean. I -- yeah. Whatever, yeah, hearts and flowers and yadda yadda. Yeah, the whole shebang." Justin stared at him for a moment, obviously not entirely satisfied by that, but then he shrugged and let it drop. Apparently he had decided either that Chris was managing just fine, or that he was so fucked up that there was no service a part-time girlfriend could offer that would make the slightest difference at this point.

Since Lance had taken the car they both went to the club in, Justin dropped Chris off at his own house, even though Chris insisted he could walk the two blocks from Justin's. He left the car in idle, and Chris said, "You're not coming in, I take it?"

"I'm thinking not. Look, just apologize."

"For what?"

"Who cares? It works."

"Oh, it works. Yeah, you wrote the book on relationships." Justin leaned his head back against the seat, and Chris said, "Okay, so I'm a shit. You wanna run me over a couple of times? Seriously, I don't mind."

Justin smiled. "You're a shit, but you're not wrong. Listen, I came here -- I wanted to say. I wanted to say something, I wanted to tell you thanks."

He seemed to be shaking a little bit. They'd been sitting long enough that the motion light over Chris' garage went out, and all they had was the green gauges and the diffuse headlights of Justin's BMW, but Chris was pretty sure he was shaking, and positive once he put his hand on Justin's shoulder, high enough up that he could feel Justin's heavy heartbeat against the side of his smallest finger. "You okay?"

"It's been such a crazy year. Shit! It's been a year. I think my mom was right. I think maybe I should've taken it as a vacation, you know, like you did."

"Yeah, whatever. You can't convince me that you regret that album."

"No, not regret, not really. I'm just -- it was so much. I didn't think my life could get crazier than it was before, but it totally did. I mean, I don't even sleep anymore; it's like I forgot how. And all that traveling, and there's always a schedule and everybody's always asking me things. I mean, I like it, but it's stressful, too. And I look at you guys, you and Lance, and it's not like you guys didn't do anything, but you found time to do this thing for yourselves, too. I don't even know where you go for that, how you find time for yourself. But. Whatever, that's not what I was saying. I'm saying, you were always there when I called, and that helped. I couldn't have done it otherwise."

Chris leaned in and hugged him. "You could," he said near Justin's ear. "You don't need anybody but you. And you know you can call me anytime."

"I was probably a complete pain in the ass. I just -- I love the new stuff, but I miss so much. No matter how good things are, it's like in the back of my mind, I'm still thinking about you, and C, and all of you, obviously. And I miss our damn bus, and I miss the old music, and I miss my girlfriend."

"It's probably healthier if you don't call her that," Chris pointed out gently.

"I know, I know. It's way past time for me to get over it, but it just happened so fast. I keep thinking about that, how it was perfect one day and then it was just a fucking wreck, and do you really think time heals all? Is that true, or is that just one of those bullshit things people tell you to shut you up?"

Chris sighed and squeezed Justin in his arms. "I don't know, J. I think it's true."

"When I hurt my foot, I remember feeling it -- it just sort of gave out, and it didn't even hurt at first, but I knew what happened. I remember thinking that I knew something had to break, but I didn't want it to be me. And then, you know, Trace says that when you get sick or hurt it's your body trying to tell you something. Of course, he was like, it means go home and rest, stop doing so much, but maybe it didn't mean that. Maybe it's about, like, other people don't hurt you, other people don't let you down. Only you ever really hurt yourself."

"No shit, you want to come in? It's fine, you can. You can stay here, whatever."

"No." Justin pulled away from him and tried to wipe his nose on the shoulder of his polo shirt surreptitiously. "No, you have that thing with Lance to work out."

"Oh, fuck Lance, he'll be fine."

Justin smiled. "Oh, but I'm not fit to be on my own? Nah, I'll be fine, too. It's just weird, seeing you face-to-face these days. Like -- wow, you really exist. It's cool. I just wanted to say thanks. I never got scared that I'd wake up one morning and you and me would be all broken and shit, too."

Chris kissed his temple. Justin stiffened a little, holding himself at nervous alert, but then he put his arms gingerly around Chris and hugged him. He didn't quite kiss Chris back, but he turned his face against Chris' so that Chris could feel Justin's mouth against his beard for a second, and then he pulled back and looked down at his own fingers, which started twisting in the hem of his shirt. "Was that stupid?" Chris said suddenly. "Am I going to hell or something?"

"No, it's fine," Justin said, with a weak smile. "You're fine. You can still touch me and everything; I'm not going to break down."

"Call me," Chris said. "Call me if you -- whatever. Anytime."

"I will. Look, I'm flying out tomorrow afternoon, but you guys, why don't you come out? You haven't seen the new house since the remodeling got done."

"Yeah, we should do that. I'll work on finding the right time. Who should I call for your schedule?"

"I'll get it faxed to you. Tell Lance I said goodbye, okay? And he could call me, too; it wouldn't kill him. You can tell him that."

"I will, uh, pass along the sentiment. Night, Justin." Justin blew him a kiss as he got out of the car.

Lance was on the phone in the kitchen when Chris crept in, feeling somehow like it was three in the morning instead of ten at night. "-- however late, okay, whenever you get this. Just call me, Joey. Bye."

"So," Chris said to Lance's back when he hung up. "You're, uh. You kinda stormed off, before."

"Oh, did you notice that? That must be why I got kicked out of the KGB."

"I brought you pizza. Artichoke hearts, and I thought Justin was gonna have me fucking committed, so-- "

"Look," Lance said, and his face was frozen as hard as his voice when he turned toward Chris. He almost didn't even look like anyone Chris knew. "I'm sure you think you're being sweet, but whatever, I don't want to talk to you right now."

As if that ever worked. Chris left the pizza on the counter and followed Lance out of the room. "If you didn't want to come with us-- "

"Why wouldn't I want to come with you?"

"-- not even like you don't know how to say no; I know you do -- "

" -- watch you flirt with Justin all day -- "

" -- here by yourself all day working yourself into progressively higher states of snit -- "

" -- fun for me?"

"What? You think I was flirt-- "

" -- couldn't see you perfectly well, fucking canoodling in the goddamn driveway?"

"Canoodling? That's an actual word that people who are not staff writers for Us magazine use in conversation?"

"Don't do it, Christopher! Don't be cute; it won't work this time."

"I hugged him, and you think I'm supposed to feel guilty about it? Fuck that."

"Fuck you!"

"What the hell is the matter with you? I wasn't any different with Justin today than I have been for the last six years. Nothing's changed."

"A lot has changed. Number one, you weren't dating me for the last six years."

"This is the stupidest fight I've ever had. You should know that."

"And number two, Justin didn't used to be single and a slut."

"You're jealous. You are jealous. That's fucking priceless, that's very amusing."

"Well, you know I live to amuse you."

Chris followed Lance up the stairs, fully willing to continue yelling about this, but unfortunately at a loss for words. It was so beyond logic, so stupidly unfair, to be trying this hard not to mind Lance's wholly inappropriate relationship with his best friend, and to get slammed at the same time from the other side with this. He could hear his mother's voice in his head, sighing, "Honey, who ever told you life was fair?" but he didn't want to listen. He'd always ignored her when she said that, and he couldn't see a reason to stop now. Chris liked his righteous indignation just the way it was.

Righteous indignation changed to something less familiar and not very pleasant when Lance threw his still-packed suitcase on the bed and opened it, grabbing things out of the dresser. "What are you doing?" Chris said, although he guessed that was pretty obvious. He probably meant something more along the lines of How could this possibly be happening?

"Leaving," Lance said. "I'm sorry, I really don't feel like spending the night here."

"Well, you can't go to your house," Chris said. Although technically Lance could, he had a contract with Beth and Carrah, on actual paper, regarding things like privacy, and one element was that Lance couldn't just come in and out in the middle of the night except for an emergency. Chris wasn't completely sure about Beth and Carrah, but he liked to imagine it was so they could have sex together on the kitchen table without interruptions.

"I haven't balanced my checkbook lately, but I think I can probably afford to check into a hotel. Or, I don't know, maybe I'll sleep at Justin's."

"What, to make sure I don't end up over there?" It wasn't necessarily fair; Justin and Lance did have their whole bonding-in-adversity groove, which might have been all that Lance meant, but there were a lot of things on Chris' list of emotions that ranked above fair right now. Lance slammed his suitcase shut, and Chris put his hand on it, preventing Lance from picking it up off the bed. "Jesus Christ, Lance, you know me. You know I don't do that sort of thing; I've never cheated on anyone in my whole life, I'm not going to start now."

Lance turned to look at him, his face flushed and his eyes full of some kind of desperation that wasn't entirely anger. "Maybe you should end up over there. Maybe you should just go ahead and do it."

"Goddammit, I don't want Justin!"

"Who cares what you want? It doesn't matter what you want, Chris! He wants you, so it's going to happen. Christ, I made out with him, and I'm not even attracted to him! It's going to happen, so just --- whatever. You know, now or later, I don't care anymore, it's for you two to work out. I'm sorry if I just don't want to be here when it happens.

"I mean, look at us!" There was something rising in Lance's voice that, in a lesser man, would have sounded like hysteria. "God, look at us! You're the only person I know who's even half as stubborn as I am, and isn't that the reason why-- Chris, anybody could look at us and see that it was supposed to be you and Justin, me and Joey. Maybe you guys will be the ones who finally get it right."

"I'm not in love with him," Chris said, feeling numb and feverish at the same time. He was all too aware of what Lance was feeling. That lightheaded confusion, that heart-pounding last- minute stage fright. What if I'm making a terrible mistake? What if there really were such a thing as soulmates, and what if it was supposed to happen differently, if some great, queer choreographer in the sky had designed Justin to be Chris' nagging, adoring, Ashanti- singing girlfriend, and designed Lance to know how to dance only when it was a tango with Joey Fatone? "I'm not in love with him," Chris said again, relieved that Lance hadn't talked him out of believing it yet, and a little sorry, too. It would be easier, wouldn't it? If they would all just do what they were supposed to do. It wouldn't hurt like this, he didn't think, if he could just relax and love Justin. It wouldn't hurt like this, but then, it wouldn't be Lance, either.

"How do you know you're not? I mean, you just woke up all of a sudden wanting to be with me, and I'm tired as hell, Chris, I'm tired of waiting for the other shoe to drop, for you to wake up one day and change your mind again."

That was a little insulting. Chris had not just woken up wanting Lance. It happened over weeks and months of dwelling and picturing and noticing. He just woke up one morning knowing that he wanted Lance, which was different. "We've been together for more than a year. You really think this is some kind of phase?"

"I don't know what it is. I just know that every time he's around, you get completely caught up in him, and-- And I don't know what this is anymore."

Lance tried to get around him, and Chris grabbed the handle of his suitcase, his fist lined up right next to Lance's. "You're not a coward. You don't have to do this by disappearing."

"I'm not disappearing," Lance mumbled, looking down. Good; Chris thought he should be ashamed.

"Stay here. Just spend the night here, you can have the room to yourself. If you're going to walk out on me, I want you to do it on purpose, in the morning when you're not yelling and you're not worked up, when it's you deciding that you want to go and going. If you want to leave me, do it like a damn grownup, okay?"

After a tense, silent minute, Lance lowered the suitcase to the floor. "Fine, but you have to get out. I don't want to see you tonight."


Chris microwaved Lance's artichoke pizza downstairs. He poured a drink, and then poured it out, because he couldn't imagine any scenarios for that night or the next morning that were improved by him being drunk or hung over. He sat down and watched ESPN for twenty minutes, the Golf Channel for fifteen, E! for seven. He ran his fingers over the quilt on the back of the couch, a family thing of Diane's that had been Lance's bedspread in the old Orlando house. Chris remembered creeping in after nights out clubbing, trying to navigate the room without waking Lance up. He remembered turning on a lamp and sitting down on his bed, looking at the tucked- in curve of Lance's body, one bare arm clutching that quilt up against him, and the way Lance's face looked worried even in his sleep. Chris could remember kind of loving him back then, too, and maybe it was a kind of optical illusion, but he thought he could remember looking at the stubborn little kid who wouldn't admit how out of his depth he was in a group full of professional showmen and thinking, Mine.

He wasn't as angry anymore; he felt sad, mostly, because it had been almost ten years since then, and Chris didn't remember ever telling Lance, Nothing's gonna happen to you, you're mine. He didn't think he'd ever said anything like that to Justin, either, and it was equally true in that case, but Lance was right about Justin not needing that, not doubting that nothing would ever happen to him that he couldn't spring back from, better than before. Besides, maybe the nicest thing about having a best friend was that an awful lot could go unspoken and understood.

This must be the flaw in the pyramid scheme, Chris thought. It didn't really get easier, just because he and Lance had been friends first. It was just harder when it was love, would always be harder, maybe was a little sweeter because it was harder.

Chris was halfway up the stairs before he had consciously made the decision, was still trying to sort out the jumble of words in his head as he stood by their bedroom door. He needed to say so many things, stuff about what he wanted, about the future, about the parts of love he'd had before and how it was the same as this, and the parts he hadn't had until now, the parts that made it different. He really kind of wished he'd taken some kind of girlfriend weekend seminar to get ready for this, but there wasn't any time now. He wanted, right now, to--

Through the door, he could hear Lance's cellphone ring, just once, and then Lance's muffled voice, answering with, "Thank God, where've you been?" He turned around and went back downstairs.

Chris could only think of two people in the world that it didn't hurt to think about right now, and his mother was probably already asleep, so he sat down on the couch and called JC instead, because somebody needed to be sharing his misery. "For your information," he said when JC answered, "there is no such thing as just like Joey only more gay."

"Oh, Chris," JC sighed, and not in the exasperated way that people usually sighed, Oh, Chris. JC sounded really sorry for him, which was nice, because Chris felt pretty sorry for himself, too. It also kind of sounded like JC already understood everything without having to be told, so Chris didn't bother to explain. He curled up in the corner of his couch and pulled the quilt down around him, listening to JC's breathing with his eyes closed.

"It's all so fucked up," Chris finally said. "I'm having to be the mature one, C!"

"You are seven years older than him," JC reminded him gently.

"Don't throw that at me. Seriously, you have to be doing it deliberately to be less mature than me."

JC giggled. "I don't know, you should be pretty good at it, I think. You're a lot more experienced than he is. You've had boyfriends, girlfriends, you've even been in love before. It's Lance's first time."

"I haven't, though. I mean, I've had boyfriends and girlfriends, but they were the three-to-six- month variety -- heavy dating, sure, but I don't know how much that prepares you for this whole - - house-sharing, life-sharing type of thing. I don't really know what I learned that's helping me out now. know, I loved Dani. I mean, she really made me feel...amazing. But I never had to do any of this with her. We had to worry about not having enough time for each other, not about what to do once we had each other. I know Lance over his head. But I think I am, too, really."

"Did you try just telling him that?"

"Of course I didn't. Does it sound like a reasonable thing to say? Then obviously I didn't. I suck at this. I suck at this worse than Justin. Which reminds me -- Justin, I think he's kind of in need or something, and I can't really -- right now I don't have time to focus on him. He's flying out there tomorrow, would you jump across the way and keep him company for a little, if you can? This solo thing, I think it's got him kind of lonely. I mean, not that he's alone, really, but-- "

"Chris. Sure I will."

"Maybe sleep with him while you're over there. This dating-inside-the-group thing, it's my best. Idea. Ever."

JC made a sound in between a chuckle and a coo. "Honey, I did warn you. You know, you picked Lance, and he's not easy to be with."

"You know he's sort of part-way in love with Joey?"

"Yeah," JC said sadly. "Yeah, you can kind of tell. I always wondered if that was -- if, like, subconsciously, he thinks he needs to stay available for Joey, and that's why he always ends things so fast, no matter how well they're going. Do you even realize how much longer you've stayed with Lance than anybody else has?"

Of course JC could kind of tell. "Of course I realize. Joey says -- Joey fucking begged me to hang onto him. He says that if I can't make it happen with Lance, nobody can, and Lance is doomed to die alone."

JC hummed skeptically. "Joey's wrong," he finally said, in the tranquil way that JC said things he was rock-certain sure of.

"You think?"

"Lance is too -- oh, he's Lance, you know. He's sexy and fun and honest and just, just, he's got such a good heart. People like Lance, with that much to give, it just has to happen eventually. He can drag his feet, he can be slow about it, but broken hearts go away. You kind of can't help it, eventually. Someday, Lance is going to give up on Joey for real. And whoever's there in his life when he does, well. I'll be jealous." He said it kindly, truthfully but not bitterly, and Chris wanted to hug him and pull on his stupid hair.

"When you said he'd push me away...I didn't think it would suck this much. I usually barely even notice when people try to push me anywhere. It usually never hurts like this."

"Sounds like a song," JC said dreamily. Chris didn't see how it did, but he guessed that's why he wasn't JC. "Honey, I'm going to go; I have a guest, okay?"

"Oh -- oh. Sorry, man."

"No, it's all right. But I do have to go. Just hang in there, okay? We'll all be back together soon."

Damn JC for always seeming to know what Chris wanted to hear, even when Chris didn't. "Sorry in advance for kicking you off my bus, too," he said.

JC laughed. "Oh, I hope you need to. I really hope you do."

Chris almost fell asleep on the couch, but in his last minutes of consciousness, Chris realized that Lance was exactly the kind of duplicitous bastard who would sneak out of the house in the middle of the night, and maybe even blame Chris later on for letting him go. So he took a pillow that smelled like Lance's dog, and the quilt, and bedded down outside his own bedroom door, figuring that Lance would have to trip over him to go anywhere. Maybe that could be their new metaphor.

The next thing Chris remembered was Lance kicking him in the stomach and then falling with what felt like his whole weight coming down on top of his hand where it pressed into Chris' chest. "You moron, what the hell are you doing?" Lance said, his voice still morning-scratchy.

"Ow," Chris said, and then, "Aha! What am I doing? You're sneaking out!" He rolled over Lance in a tangle of quilt and sat across his hips to trap him. Only then did he notice that Lance was wearing boxers, which seemed like poor running-away-from-home attire. "What time is it?"

"Nine-thirty," Lance said dryly. "I was hungry."

"I ate your pizza," Chris said, and put his hand to Lance's face, smoothing his thumb across Lance's lips. "I'm sorry."

"I'm sorry," Lance whispered back, running his hand up Chris' arm. "I'm sorry, I'm jealous and scared and stupid, and I'm really, really sorry."

Chris stretched out on top of Lance and said, "Okay, I've been thinking about this, and I think we should be honest with each other. Now, don't freak out on me -- I'm not talking about all the time. Just this once, and after that we go back to normal, because seriously, this honesty business is nothing to build a relationship on. I've tried it."

Lance's lips twitched into a reluctant smile. "Okay. Just this once."

"I'll go first, and I won't insult your intelligence by saying me and Justin are just friends, because you and I both know that J's not just anything to me. If he'd been single a couple of years back, and if I'd known he was interested, sure, we probably would have given it a shot. Because we get along, and we trust each other, and we have the same basic priorities, and he's goddamn good looking, as of course am I. I don't know if it would've worked out or not, and nobody will ever know. That doesn't really bother me, but if it bothers you, I'm sorry, and if it bothers Justin, I feel bad about that, too. Maybe we do have a lot going for us, but what we never had was the timing thing, and there's just no way to know if it would've been better, or terrible, or what. Okay? That's the truth. Now, you wanna go next?"

Lance just looked at him, his jaw tense and his eyes unreadable. Chris sighed. He knew he wasn't going to like being the girlfriend. "Okay, I'll do you, too. If Joey woke up gay one morning, the two of you would have Kelly packed and out of the house by noon, and you'd be in Vegas by nightfall. Vermont. Whatever, you'd dump me on my ass, and you'd raise his kid and love him forever."

"No, I-- " Lance said croakily, and then cleared his throat. "It's not that simple, Chris."

"Babe. Just this once. Tell me the truth."

"The truth is.... I don't know. The truth is, if Joey were gay, everything would be different. My whole life, it would just all be different. I don't know what I'd do. I don't even know how I'd feel. Honestly, Chris? I can't even imagine it. But I know it wouldn't be as easy as you make it sound."

"Okay," he said gently, stroking his thumb down Lance's face. "I hear you. So the truth is, if Joey woke up gay one morning, all bets would be off, right? Whole new ball game." Lance nodded. "There. Now, so, it's all out there, it's all been said. How horrible is it? Is any of this -- do you think any of this should make a difference to us? Because, listening to it, these sound like lousy reasons to break up to me."

"You don't understand," Lance said, and yanked Chris down to kiss him. Lance rolled them over so that he was kneeling on top, leaning over Chris and kissing his lips and his face.

Chris put one hand on Lance's back and tucked the other into the bend of Lance's knee, but he turned his mouth away from Lance's and said, "No, come on, we can't do this. I know that my willingness to have sex with you is pretty much my big selling point, but I need -- just this once, I need more from you, okay?"

"You don't understand," Lance repeated, frustration throbbing in his voice. "It's so easy for you. You're with me, but if you weren't, there might be this, or that, or -- someone would come along for you, some new Justin or Dani would fall for you -- and I'm jealous of her, too, by the way, except luckily she's not always right there in my face like Justin is. I'm jealous of everyone in the whole fucking world that you could fall in love with, because it seems like there's a million of them. You're funny and sweet and rich and great in bed, and if it hadn't been me that you decided to want, it would've been someone else. You would never have to be alone, Chris, unless you wanted to be."

"Do you -- feel alone?"

Lance rested his elbows on the quilt and started smoothing Chris' hair back from his forehead over and over with the tips of his fingers. "No, but. I mean, there are only so many people that I can really say I feel something for, something really deep. You four, my family, maybe Carrah. I used to -- God, I've never talked about this to anyone, even Joey, so -- I don't know how it's going to come out, okay? But sometimes, when I'm with guys, I can't stop thinking about Justin, about that time we made out in Europe. I mean, it wasn't exactly the high point of my sexual history or anything like that, but -- but he's Justin, and I love him, and he loves me, and it felt...good. Not just regular making-out good, but -- what? Special, I guess? I can remember the way he put his hands behind my neck, and the way he kept swinging his foot and kicking the bedframe, and -- it was Justin. And later on, Christ, I've done every conceivable sexual thing, with all kinds of men, and it was never quite like that. They were just hook-ups, just somebody that I saw and I wanted, and I'm not saying it wasn't stellar sex, some of it, and I don't regret any of it, but it was...never the same."

Chris opened his mouth, and Lance covered it with his hand. "No, listen. I'm telling you, you can't think like that, like it's just sex that makes you special. It's not a just. You were the first person, Chris, you're the only person who ever went to bed with me and cared about it. Look, we're not even getting along that great right now, and look where we are." Obediently, Chris looked at his hand still spread across Lance's back, the fingers of his other hand still curled around the warm, sweaty skin on the back of Lance's knee. "You touch me. You want to. From the very first time you kissed me, it wasn't just people kissing, it was us, and I don't ever want to go back to drunk tricks with strangers, I don't want to fuck anyone who doesn't look at me like you do. And I don't know what's wrong with me, that I can't just date and meet people and fall in love with them like the rest of you can, but it's like you guys are it, you four and my family and maybe Carrah, and I don't love anyone else and I don't think I can. I hate it that you could if you wanted to. I hate it that I'm just one of your options, and you're -- I feel like you're my one chance."

"Can't you think of it like -- I chose you, and you got stuck with me?"

Lance processed that for a minute, and then started laughing, short bursts of laughter that sounded painfully close to sobs. He pressed his forehead to Chris' shoulder and said, "Stop, dammit. I can't concentrate on how bad my life sucks when you're making me laugh."

"Well, we can't have that. I'll be all earnest and boring, okay? Jeez, you always make me go here, you always turn me into the cliche somehow. The hardest part about relationships -- this is wisdom gleaned from my vast experience, you understand -- is finding someone who wants the same things you want. I mean, the world's full of great, smart, cool, sexy people, but it's practically fucking impossible to find one who wants to stick with you while you're doing your thing. And you're a lucky son of a bitch, Bass, because you found one your first -- okay, your second time out of the gate, and that's still damn lucky. Because I want exactly what you want, okay? I want you to go to space, and I want us to make more albums and make all our critics eat their words, and I want the -- the double bed and the picket fence, and I want a family, and I want to touch you and fuck you and make you laugh, and I want to die with you. Uh, not in a threatening way, but -- get old and then die with you. And I'm not totally crazy about being your second choice, but I'm a lot less crazy about not being with you at all, so-- "

"You're not listening," Lance said, curling his fingers briefly and painfully into Chris' shoulder. "You're not my second-- You're not a choice at all. Okay, it's like -- Santa Claus. Jesus, I can't believe you're making me resort to one of these stupid metaphors, do you see what you do to me? When you're a little kid, Santa Claus is the most amazing thing in the world. Just the idea that there's this person out there, who has all this power and can do these incredible things, and all he wants to do is bring you what you want more than anything? It makes the whole world seem like magic, like this really good place where really good things happen on a regular basis."

Chris smiled up at him slightly, stroking the back of Lance's hand with his thumb. He didn't think that his childhood Christmas memories were as much like Lance's as Lance was assuming, but he didn't bother correcting him. Chris had seen movies; he could imagine. "So, what are you saying? Then you find out there's no Santa Claus, and...."

"And at first it's depressing. But you're a little older, and you pretend it doesn't matter, and then Christmas comes around again, and this time.... You know. You know that there really is still this really good part of the world, these people who want more than anything for you to be happy on Christmas. You used to think it was magic, but now you know it's your parents, and you didn't choose it, you didn't decide to quit believing that Santa Claus brought the bike and fed your cookies to his reindeer, but. Oh, fuck. I'm worse at this than you are."

"You should work with visual aids. I find them useful. Or you could just try saying it."

Lance took a deep breath. "All I ever wanted was for someone to want me, all of me, someone I could trust who wanted to be with me and made me feel good. I always thought, ever since the day I met him, I thought it should be Joey, or that it would be Joey, if I was good all year long and I just waited long enough." He said it with a weary sort of bitterness that made Chris squeeze his hand instinctively. Lance's downcast eyes flickered to meet Chris'. "But it's not him. He's not the one who-- It's not him. It's you. Chris, you're the one who makes me -- makes me -- all those things I wanted, they come from you. I mean, I would never have guessed. How the hell could I have possibly known? You, for God's sake. But it is you. I know that I'm all fucked up, which is the reason that maybe sometimes I don't know how I feel about that, but I do know that it's always going to be you. I think it's even -- I think that's a better thing than I can really wrap my mind around yet."

Maybe he should have been insulted by the idea that he was such a bizarre option, but really it just made Chris feel light and warm inside. "So if I got there differently, does that have to matter so much to you? It's still you and me, isn't it? We're still the real thing -- in fact, the whole enchilada, which marks a kind of Renaissance for my Taco Bell metaphor, an oldie but a goodie, and I think actually vastly underappreciated to this day."

He sat up across Chris' stomach, and suddenly he didn't look like needy, vulnerable Lance, but like the guy who could survive a week alone in the woods in Russia, and also get anyone in Los Angeles on the phone in thirty minutes or less. "So are you going to ever fucking say it, you asshole, or are we going to get old and die while I'm suffering through your fucking metaphors, waiting for you to get to it?"

It took a Chris a minute to understand what he was talking about, and then he grinned. "Why don't you say it first, if you're so anxious? Who died and made me-- "

Lance hit him in the solar plexus with the heel of his hand, which actually hurt a lot. "Christopher!"

"I love you," he promised, wrapping his arms around Lance's waist. "I love you, and think that sooner rather than later you're gonna be ready to give it up for somebody, and I want it to be me. I love you, I picked you, and I'll pick you as many times as you let me have the choice, okay?"

Lance slithered down in his arms, and Chris flung the quilt over both of them. Lance wrapped his fist in the stinky old golf shirt that Chris had been wearing for twenty-four hours and kissed him, a brief, sweet kiss. "I'm ready," he said huskily. "I'm ready. Don't let me go."

Chris had a stupid metaphor in mind about Santa Claus -- and a really dirty one about the North Pole to go with it -- but he decided to ditch them both. He tucked them both together in the quilt and let Lance rest peacefully against him. He didn't let go.

All the thanks in the world go to my beta readers: torch, Cesperanza, Lesa Soja, and Jae. More thanks than there *are* in the world go to Merry, who did three drafts of this with me. (Merry Is Always Right!) And of course to Mary, who listened to more whining about this story than y'all could possibly imagine, and suffered Justin with good grace.

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