torch, flambeau@strangeplaces.net
October 21 - November 27, 2002

Disclaimer: Well, did you evah! Many, many thanks to Merry, who did more for this story than I can easily say, and to Mia, who gives great beta. Most of the peculiarities are deliberate. Do not archive this story without permission.

The Legendary Grapefruit Gurus of Southern California

Chris hadn't thought about what he was going to say. He usually didn't. When JC picked up the phone, Chris said the first thing that came to mind. "What weird and useless stuff did you buy yesterday?"

"What?" JC sounded distracted.

Chris recalibrated for JC-world. "What's the most interesting and useful thing you bought yesterday?"

"Oh. Um." There was a pause, and a weird sound. "Grapefruit spoons."

"Grapefruit spoons."

"Yes." JC was clearly doing something else while he was on the phone, something that was preventing him from concentrating on Chris's scintillating conversation. "Five of them."

"Five of them?" Chris shook himself to make the echo go away. "C, there is no way you're going to use one grapefruit spoon, let alone five."

JC made a huffy sound. "I'm using one now."

Then he made a pained sound, and Chris deduced that the grapefruit had exercised its natural right to self-defense. "It got you in the eye, didn't it," he said.

"Maybe," JC said.

"You can't use spoons to deal with grapefruits." Chris shook his head. "You need big knives. You need to intimidate them."

"I probably just need some practice," JC said. "Ow."

"Yeah, well, don't blame me if you go blind."

JC grinned. Chris wasn't sure how he knew that JC grinned over the phone, but he would have bet everything he owned on it. "Or grow hair on my palms?"

"JC! What are you doing with that grapefruit?" Chris stared at the phone. "No, don't tell me. I don't want to know. A poor innocent virginal grapefruit, fallen into the clutches of a depraved pop star with a spoon kink. Bound to end in tears."

"You could come over and find out," JC said.

"I'm." Chris looked out the window. "I'm in Chicago."

"Mm," JC said, sounding as though his full attention was on the grapefruit again.

"You're in LA."

"Yes, Chris. I know that. I live here."

"Okay." Chris scratched at the back of his neck. "I'll be over in a couple days, then."

Chris was not about to drive straight through from Chicago to LA just to look at spoons. He had a plan with this RV thing, and the plan was to meander, to take things slowly, to look at giant balls of twine and eat in little roadside diners. The plan did not allow for rushing to someone's side because he was having a silverware crisis.

So he put the RV into long-term parking at O'Hare, patted it when the attendant wasn't looking, and said, "See you soon. I promise!" And then he bought a ticket on the next flight to LA and wondered if there was medication for this kind of thing.

There was an article about table settings in the in-flight magazine. Chris carefully tore it out, read it through, and shredded it.

In the taxi, he gave JC's address. Then he sat back, tried to relax, and sat up straight again. "Hey, I need to stop at a grocery store on the way."

He pulled his hat down low and put on a pair of cheap airport sunglasses. No one accosted him as he bought as many grapefruit as he could carry and two packs of nsync fruit snacks.

Chris felt pleased with his powers of disguise until he realized that the cashier was eyeing him nervously. He wanted to tell her to stop gaping, she must have seen weirder things, but there was a line and the taxi was waiting, so he picked up his grapefruit, wondered if he should have picked plastic instead of paper, and made it across the parking lot without trying out grapefruit bowling, which would probably be a sucky sport, anyway.

When he got to JC's house, it occurred to him that he should, perhaps, have called. He paid the taxi driver, who sped off looking relieved, and got out his cell. After five rings, he got a distracted, "What?"

"Phone," Chris said helpfully. "It rings. You talk in it to people who are not in the same place you are."

"Oh, hey." There was a short pause. "Which of the places where I'm not are you?"

Sometimes, Chris reflected, everything fazed JC. Sometimes, nothing did. "Your driveway."

There was the sound of a phone being dropped on the floor. This was evidently one of the former times.

Chris folded his phone shut, and a moment later, the door opened. JC was wearing a ratty t-shirt, mismatched socks, and a cut-off pair of sweatpants that had belonged to Justin about five years ago. "You said a couple of days," he said, blinking.

"And you were planning to sleep till then?" Chris grinned. "I took a shortcut." He pushed the bag of grapefruit into JC's arms, and the bottom fell out. A rain of grapefruit fell on JC's feet.

"Ow."

Chris bent and picked up a grapefruit. "I don't get why fruit is diet food when it's so heavy. I mean, a big bag of chips? It weighs, like, nothing."

JC picked up a grapefruit, too, and hefted it in his hand, eyeing Chris. Chris held out the bags of fruit snacks in a pacifying manner, but JC shook his head. "I already have all the backstage passes," he said.

Chris sighed. "All right. Take me to your spoons."

It wasn't like they could get the grapefruit back in the bag, so Chris kicked them inside, and put a hand on JC's chest and pushed him backwards.

"I'm not sure I should let you touch my spoons." JC hitched at what was left of the sweatpants. Justin had abandoned them, Chris remembered quite clearly, because the elastic was giving way. How they stayed up on JC was up there with Atlantis and the pyramids. It could be a big mystery, or there could be a really simple, mundane solution. Like maybe he'd tied them with a piece of string. Chris tried not to look too closely. A little mystery was probably good for him.

"Come oooonnnnnnnn," Chris said. "I came all this way to sit at your feet and learn about the mysteries of the grapefruit spoons. I want you to be my grapefruit spoon guru, man!"

"Okay," JC said. "You can sit on the grapefruits at my feet. Or you can help me pick them up and take them to the kitchen."

Chris thought about dribbling all the grapefruit out into the kitchen, soccer style, but something about the way JC was looking at him made him think that might not be a good idea. He picked up the nearest three, tried to squeeze a fourth under his elbow, and dropped the lot.

Grapefruit? Wily.

To distract JC, he said, "Did I wake you up? And has it occurred to you that you are rich and can afford to buy sweats that don't actually fall off your body?"

JC yawned. "Nap. I like these, they're all soft." He shifted his grapefruit to the other hand and wandered off. Chris chose another, and followed.

The kitchen was...

"Your kitchen is psychotic," Chris said.

Since the last time he'd been there, JC's big sleek modern kitchen had acquired a layer of gadgets and tools, another layer of freaky art stuff, and a third layer of dried flowers and little ceramic spice jars.

"My great-aunt," JC said. "I can't just. I can't throw this stuff out."

Chris looked at a spice jar shaped like a pig, and shuddered. Then he looked at a framed picture of three colorful blobs chasing a monochrome blob, and shuddered again, in case JC had missed the first one. "Oh, yes, you can. I'll help."

JC put the grapefruit down on the big marble countertop and got out a large knife that looked vaguely Japanese and two smallish spoons that looked like torture instruments.

He cut the grapefruit in half and handed Chris one half and one spoon. "I think it'll be easier to eat if you don't sit at my feet, though. There's um. Bar stools, by that kitchen counter. Island. There."

Chris hopped onto a stool. He looked at the spoon. He looked at the grapefruit half. He jabbed the spoon into the grapefruit, and it spat grapefruit juice onto the tip of his nose.

"Did you see that?" he asked. "That was, like, deliberate. Premeditated. That was, whatsit, malice aforethought."

"I think you have to kind of saw at it. Like this." JC put his grapefruit half next to Chris's and dug into it. Grapefruit juice ran freely over the countertop.

"Wow, am I glad I'm not sitting at your feet," Chris said. "I'd get that stuff in my eyes."

JC tried again, carved out a mangled piece of grapefruit slice, and ate it. "See?" he said indistinctely. "It's easy." He swallowed. "Chris. Did you really come all the way to LA to eat grapefruit?"

"Yes," Chris said, bending his head over the grapefruit. "There was this rumor about the, like, fabled grapefruit gurus of California. The Sultans of Citrus, man, how could I miss out on that?"

JC took the grapefruit spoon out of Chris's hand. "You're holding it wrong."

"It's a spoon," Chris said. "I'm pretty sure I was using spoons before you were born."

"Like this," JC said, undeterred. He put the spoon back between Chris's fingers in what seemed like pretty much exactly the same way, and wrapped his hand around Chris's, which was totally new, and they poked the spoon into the grapefruit together. "See?"

"No." Chris kept his eyes on the grapefruit. JC's fingers were warm and a little sticky with grapefruit juice. "This is the famous Way of the Grapefruit? Cause I'm not sure I—"

JC took his hand away. "I don't think you're ready," he said seriously. Chris blinked. "We can. We can go out and have breakfast."

"It's three in the afternoon," Chris said before he could stop himself.

JC just looked at him. "So?"

So JC put on some slightly less indecent pants and they went out and had breakfast. JC turned his phone off and talked at length about production ideas and projects and songwriting and this great new sushi place and how Alyssa seemed like a nice girl but he wasn't sure she was right for Justin. Chris didn't turn his phone off, but nobody called him. He wondered if his RV was okay, abandoned in the wilds of Illinois. Or the wilds of O'Hare, anyway.

"So," he said, interrupting in the middle of a story about Dallas and realizing he had no idea if JC was talking about the guy or the city, "I should really get back."

JC put his fork down. "You only got here two hours ago."

"I had plans." Chris shredded his napkin. "Chicago plans, and this is pretty much not Chicago."

"No, but you're here now," JC said, as though that somehow made a difference. "Chicago isn't going anywhere."

Chris meant to ask if LA was, but then, somehow, he didn't. "Are you?"

"I'm going to go look at some shirts, and then I'm going out to dinner," JC said. "Come on."

Chris hadn't really expected JC to go to Rodeo Drive, but he hadn't expected a place that looked like a hole-in-the-wall thrift store, either. The only clue that this wasn't a big motley collection of other people's cast-offs was that the store didn't have that musty other-people's-sweat used-clothes smell that Chris hated possibly more than any other smell on earth. JC disappeared behind a huge rack of clothes, and Chris dug his hands into his pockets and thought about kicking something, but the rack of clothes would probably fall over and smother JC to death, and he couldn't even see the walls for the shelves and clothes and posters.

If he got a late flight back to Chicago, he could stay overnight in a hotel by O'Hare and be on the road again early in the morning. Well. Early-ish. Or any other time he damn well pleased. Chris looked over his shoulder towards the exit.

When he looked back again, JC was standing in front of him, wearing something sleeveless in dingy rainbow stripes that looked like it had escaped from Baby Gap. "Jesus," Chris said involuntarily. "That would be small on Britney. Can you breathe in that?"

"They have some t-shirts back here that you might like," JC said.

"No," Chris said firmly.

JC smiled. "They have them in other colors."

Chris looked at what JC was wearing. "There aren't any other colors. You've got them all right there. I think you've got some colors there that didn't even exist before."

"Come on," JC said, slung his arm around Chris's shoulders and pulled him along.

Some of the other t-shirts were, in fact, halfway sane, but Chris still refused to try anything on. He found one shirt that said BIGGER AND BETTER and decided to get it for Joey, and then his phone rang. "I'm incredibly busy," he said into it.

"What, you got lost again? You should put triple-A on speed dial." Justin laughed, loud enough that Chris held the phone away from his ear for a while.

"I'm in LA," he said when Justin had stopped laughing.

"Yeah? Damn, that was fast. You still gonna be there in a couple of days, cause I'm coming out there for. Um. A show and some interviews and stuff." Chris heard the sound of rustling paper.

"I don't know," Chris said. "I might be leaving again really soon. Like maybe tonight. I— Hey!"

JC took the phone out of Chris's hand. "Hey, Justin," he said. "What's up?"

Chris stared at JC, who turned his back and went on talking to Justin. "That's my phone," he said.

"Uh huh. Yeah, he'll still be here. He's staying with me. Mm." There was a pause, and JC laughed. "No. Not yet. I think maybe—"

Chris grabbed the phone back. "I'm flying out tonight," he said to Justin.

"No, no, you're not, you have to stay there," Justin said. "You have to stick around and keep C company and be there when I come. I haven't seen you in ages."

"It's only been five days," Chris said.

"Yeah, and by the time I get to LA it'll be a week, c'mon, Chris, you think I can live without you that long?" Justin was laughing, damn him, but then he said, "Seriously, it'd be really good to hang with you and C. It's weird to just meet you guys one and one the whole time."

"Maybe," Chris said, and that was all he got out before Justin interrupted him.

"That's great! See you in a couple days, then, and I'll call you tomorrow, okay? Love you. Bye!"

Chris stared at his phone. He looked up at JC. "I think he's cracking under the pressure," he said.

JC had picked up another t-shirt that looked even smaller than the first one. "What do you think about this one?"

"I think Briahna will be big enough to wear it in another six months," Chris said. "Look, if you're going out to dinner and stuff, you can just," he stumbled over the words, "drop me back at your place, okay?"

"No, no." JC shook his head. "You're coming out with us. You gotta eat, dude, and there's no food in my house."

"I can eat grapefruit," Chris said. "Or there's this new exciting thing where you call out for pizza and they actually bring it right to the door."

"Oh, you want pizza?" JC got his phone out, turned it on and pressed a button. "Hey, Carlos. It's me. You think we could go to that pizza place instead, the one that — yeah, that one, right. No, Chris is here, and he really wants pizza. So I thought. Right. We can go there any time."

Chris waved his hand right in front of JC's eyes. "This isn't about pizza," he said. "You go out wherever, I'll just. Chill. Rest. Relax."

"Oh!" JC said, a world of understanding in his voice. Unfortunately, that world seemed to be a planet in a galaxy far, far away. "You know what, Carlos, I think we might have to take a rain check — right — Chris is kinda tired, and I'll just. Mm. Yeah, you too. Bye."

"You just don't want to be seen in public in that shirt," Chris said, then realized that JC had been seen in public in a lot of shirts that put that shirt to shame. "Look, you don't have to bail on your friends for me, okay?"

JC looked at Chris. "You're my friend," he said, put a hand on Chris's shoulder for a second, and then wandered off to pay for the shirts.

"Great," Chris muttered to himself. He kicked the nearest clothing rack, just a little. "Wonderful."

JC came back, still wearing the rainbowy shirt. Chris thought JC had probably had to buy it because there was no way to get it off without scissors. JC smiled at Chris and slung an arm around his shoulders again. "Come on," he said. "Let's go home and order pizza."

"Okay," Chris said weakly.

On the way back, he thought again about his RV, sitting there all alone and forlorn in long-term parking, probably crying to itself and hoping he would come back soon, but the thought didn't quite manage to make him rush to the airport. He decided he was probably hungry, and he'd been promised pizza, so.

"Or there's a sushi place that delivers," JC said, apparently continuing a conversation he'd been having with an imaginary Chris in his head. "But I guess you really want pizza."

Chris shrugged. "I know you eat pizza, Chasez. I've seen it."

JC grinned. "Oh, yeah. It's just with pizza, your mouth tastes like grease and tomato sauce for hours."

"Not if you drink enough beer with it," Chris pointed out.

"Beer!" JC cut across three lanes and made a sharp turn into an overcrowded parking lot. "You go pick up some beer you like, and I'll go get some other stuff, okay?"

"Okay," Chris said, because it was no use making JC buy the beer. JC, sent to buy beer, would come back with something Belgian, made by demented old monks who didn't get out enough, in six different fruit flavors because it looked cool. Or two bottles of wine. Or ten bars of soap and a model airplane kit. Chris got out his airport sunglasses again and put them on. JC started giggling. "What?"

"You look like a bug," JC said and giggled some more.

"It's a boyband thing," Chris said. JC stared blankly at him. "The Beatles?" JC kept staring. "Beetles. Bugs. Oh, forget it."

"Beer," JC said and got out of the car.

Chris went to buy beer. There was something very reassuring about beer, about the weight and heft of a full can, the way it felt to pick up a six-pack. He got some other stuff, too, beer nuts and chips, because JC might decide to get tofu snacks or dried seaweed or, in keeping with his new rainbow obsession, Skittles.

JC was already in the car when Chris came back. He smiled, a big enormous smile, as though he hadn't seen Chris for several years and had possibly thought that Chris was dead.

"I got that stuff you like," Chris said. "Those rice cake thingies, the little orange ones."

JC's smile grew even bigger. "Thanks," he said. "That's really nice of you."

"And then we can make fruit salad," Chris said. "With grapefruit, grapefruit, and grapefruit."

Even with that reminder, he nearly tripped on the grapefruit still lying just inside the front door. JC, with some presence of mind, rescued the beer and let Chris fend for himself. "You could pick those up," JC said and headed into the kitchen. "Extra cheese?"

Chris picked and carried and picked and carried and when he was done, there was a line of seven grapefruit on the counter island. They didn't really look any odder than the rest of the decor. If he drew little faces on them, they might match the pig spice jars.

The pizza came faster than he'd expected, and they settled in the living room in front of the tv with the important things, beer and paper towels. Chris opened the pizza carton. "Is that tofu?"

"No, it's mushrooms." JC handed him a paper towel. "Did you want tofu, cause you should've said, dude. They do avocado, too."

"If I weren't such a nice person, I'd totally hit you with this beer can," Chris said.

The pizza was good. So was the beer, but that went without saying, since Chris had bought it. The bags of chips and beer nuts and little crackers might have been overkill, he admitted after finishing a slice that might not have been entirely necessary to his continued survival. They watched the second half of a bad movie and played a half-hearted game of Guess the Next Cheesy Line, drinking beer when they got it right, as a reward, and when they got it wrong, as a forfeit. JC played a tape by a band he was thinking about producing, and Chris said they couldn't sing.

"You made me listen to early New Order," JC said.

"Yeah, but those were special circumstances." Chris got himself another beer. "Forget the kids, C, show me what you've been writing yourself."

So JC played stuff on the small portable keyboard, and sang, and made big hand gestures to suggest production effects, and Chris nodded in all the right places and hummed along a bit just for fun and wondered what the lyrics meant, and then JC was looking closely at him and he realized that he'd just yawned.

"I didn't mean to keep you up late," JC said. "You said you were tired and everything. Do you have, um. Do you need to borrow stuff? Cause I noticed you didn't have a bag or anything."

"A toothbrush would be nice," Chris said.

JC had six unused toothbrushes, still wrapped individually in plastic. Chris wasn't surprised. They were arranged in a rainbow color sequence in the bathroom cabinet. Chris wasn't surprised at that, either. He took the green one.

JC opened the door to the guest room. "You want a t-shirt to sleep in, or something?"

Chris shook his head. "Nah, I'll be fine. Actually." He twirled the toothbrush between two fingers. "I'll get up early tomorrow, get a flight back to Chicago. I can't just leave my RV like that."

JC looked thoughtful. "Why not? It'd be great if you stayed. We can hang out, and J's coming in a couple of days, and all."

"I'm sure the Divine Mister Timberlake will survive," Chris said.

JC snorted. "I'm gonna tell him you said that. Are you sure you don't wanna stay?" Chris shook his head. "Why not?"

"Well, you said yourself that I'm not ready for the grapefruit zen or whatever," Chris said.

"Oh, no," JC said. "That's not what I meant. I meant that you're not ready for this."

He leaned forward and kissed Chris.

Chris dropped the toothbrush.

"JC," Chris said blankly. He knew there were other words in the language, but he couldn't recall what they sounded like.

JC smiled. "Good night," he said and went to his bedroom and closed the door.

Chris went into the guest room and dropped the toothbrush on the bed. He walked to the window and stared out for a while, walked back to the bed, picked up the toothbrush, put it down, picked it up and stuck it in his back pocket, and went out of the guest room again. He could hear running water.

Maybe another beer wouldn't kill him.

He went to the kitchen and glared at the grapefruit. They looked blankly back at him. He should draw mustaches and glasses and little devil horns on every single one of them.

When he'd stared at the grapefruit for a long time and nothing new seemed to be happening, he got his phone out and dialed.

"Whoever you are, I hate you," Justin said sleepily. "Chris?"

"Yeah, um, sorry," Chris said. "I didn't realize it was that late."

"It is that late. It's even later than that. What's wrong?"

"Nothing."

"Chris, I love you, but you don't get to call me at four in the morning and say it's nothing. You do get to call me at four in the morning and tell me what's wrong, so start now. And talk fast."

"JC kissed me," Chris said. Then he put his hand over his mouth. He'd just told Justin. Justin, who thought there were how-to books for every relationship situation in the world, Justin, who spent his days dissing his ex on national television, Justin, who had taken to one-night stands like Vegas-era Elvis to sequins. "Forget it."

"You're kidding me," Justin said. "You called me to tell me JC kissed you?"

"Yeah," Chris said. "It was a joke, ha ha."

"Chris." Now Justin sounded, uncannily, like his mother. Or possibly even like Chris's mother. "Are you saying that JC kissed you, and what you did was phone me and wake me up at four in the morning? What are you, twelve? Do you need advice on where to put your hands and what to do with your tongue? Cause I know you did all that for me, and I really appreciate it and I know I said I'd do anything for you, but I was kinda hoping you knew what you were talking about back then."

"It's not about the hands," Chris said, looking down at his fingers and not picturing them at JC's waist, trying to slide up under that tight, tight t-shirt. "It's JC."

"You don't like him?" Justin asked. Chris didn't say anything. "Chris, I need my sleep, you also do not get to call me at this hour and sit there and say nothing at me. I gotta go out and look sex-ay in front of a camera in four hours, and it works better if I'm not up all night."

"Ungrateful brat," Chris muttered, though he didn't point out that he was actually standing up. "Who got you out of trouble in Heidelberg?"

"You did," Justin said immediately, "and I was grateful and I'm still grateful, and I think almost gettin' beat up by three really big big brothers is not the same thing as being kissed by a guy who is like the walking definition of sweet and has teenage girls all over the country building shrines to his pretty eyes. Oh, and I think he's your friend, too."

"You talk a lot for someone who was asleep two minutes ago," Chris said. "And I don't think you understand my situation here. JC kissed me."

"You're a very confused person," Justin said and hung up on him.

Chris walked around the kitchen island three times, counterclockwise, and said rude things about Justin in what he remembered of his German. The third time, he walked straight into JC.

"I thought I heard something," JC said, putting his hands on Chris's upper arms. "Are you, is everything all right?"

"I was just making a phone call," Chris said.

"Oh. I see. Cause it looked kind of like you were walking round and round my kitchen saying that Justin is a pig-dog."

"That was a side effect," Chris explained. "If I kiss you now, are you going to say that I'm not ready?"

JC just smiled and didn't say anything at all, so Chris kissed him.

And kissed him again.

And again.

They leaned against the kitchen counter and into each other, and Chris found that he could just barely work his fingertips in under the t-shirt and touch warm, soft skin. JC kept his hands on Chris's arms. He kissed the way he sang, with complete concentration and an intensity that Chris could feel all the way down to his toes. Chris stroked his thumb over the edge of JC's hipbone and thought hazily that it was kind of difficult to grope people in too-tight clothing.

He pressed closer, licking at JC's jaw, and JC bit his ear, and Chris jerked and knocked a grapefruit off the counter. It fell to the floor with a thump louder than the beating of his heart and rolled off towards the fridge. JC let go of Chris's arms and took a step back. His mouth was a little open, and his lower lip looked wet, slick. He smiled.

"Bedtime," he said softly and turned away, walking out of the kitchen. Chris stared stupidly at the grapefruit on the floor for several seconds, and then went after JC. He was just in time to see JC look back over his shoulder and say, "Good night, Chris," and close his bedroom door once again.

Chris staggered into the guest room and flopped onto the bed, lying on his back and staring at the ceiling. The discomfort of lying on the toothbrush in his back pocket distracted him from other discomforts, and after a while the twin urges to either murder or molest JC receded to bearable levels. When he thought he might be able to walk again, he went to brush his teeth.

The next morning, Chris got up early and made coffee. Well, early-ish. He was sitting on one of the bar stools by the kitchen island eating a toasted bagel with some unidentifiable spread on it when JC came into the kitchen. Chris looked up from the paper. "So what do you do for fun in this town, anyway?"

JC muttered something that sounded like "Sleep," took Chris's coffee and drank half of it, and turned off the punk station that Chris had managed to track down on the kitchen radio. He drank some more of the coffee and said, "Isn't Justin on that show now?"

"You missed it," Chris said. He was watching the Cartoon Network on the small tv tucked away next to the microwave, and he put the remote behind his back when JC reached for it. "He said, let me think, he said that he'll always respect Britney, that that band he's in hasn't broken up yet, that it was a great honor to work with Janet," they looked at each other and rolled their eyes, "and oh yeah, he did some little dance number."

"Did he fall over?" JC asked with mild interest.

"Nope." Chris shook his head. "Maybe next time."

JC yawned. "So what do you want to do today?"

Chris shrugged. "I dunno. What do you want to do today?"

"Well." JC finished the coffee and went to refill the mug. "I was gonna have lunch with the guys and because I bailed on them yesterday, I should probably go. And then I was gonna work on some songs, just, not in the studio, just here. And I thought, since you're here — but you probably want to call your LA friends."

"I'm looking at them," Chris said. JC raised an eyebrow, and Chris amended it to, "I don't really feel like it. I might check out some used record stores."

JC nodded. "That sounds good. We can do that before lunch."

Chris nodded, too, slowly. "Okay." He ate some more bagel. The weird spread didn't really taste like anything. At all. "What is this stuff, anyway?"

JC's eyes crinkled. "Tofu."

Chris made JC go past a McDonald's for Eggs McMuffins, and past a Starbucks for candy coffee, flavored to within an inch of its life ("No, two extra shots. No, I'm not kidding."). It turned out that JC knew of a couple of places that had a lot of vinyl, and with the non-taste of tofu out of his mouth, Chris browsed happily, wondering why the old-and-musty smell of record covers was so comforting when the old-and-musty smell of used clothing wasn't. JC only got CDs, no vinyl, even though Chris knew he had a turntable.

Then they went to lunch with JC's guys, and really, it wasn't as though Chris didn't know any of them or anything, and there was a lot of talk and food and nobody asked him why he was in town, so he relaxed and decided he was, maybe possibly, enjoying himself.

"Hey, C," he said when they left the restaurant. "Stop by Wal-Mart or something?"

"Sure," JC said, sounding a little confused. "You need something?"

"It's probably because I haven't really got the hang of grapefruit zen yet," Chris said, "but you, like, you saw what my luggage was like when I came, right? And the grapefruit didn't turn into razors and clean socks overnight."

JC smiled, and Chris thought it was really way more of a smile than a small boring joke like that called for, but he wasn't going to complain. He picked up toiletries and some clean clothes, plain boring stuff, and at the counter they tried to give him a complimentary tie to go with his five pairs of socks and he barely escaped with his life.

By mid-afternoon, they were back at JC's house. JC got out the portable keyboard again, and tons of paper and notebooks and pens and a guitar, even. "You think maybe you could help me with this a little?"

"Sure," Chris said, but first he had a shower and put on some of his new clean clothes. He put the rest of the stuff in the guest room. Apparently he was staying with JC for a while. Huh.

JC made Chris sing the same melody line eighteen billion times and sang eighteen billion different harmonies with it. Eventually, Chris got bored and started to harmonize against JC's harmony, and JC punched his arm, not at all hard, and then said, "Wait. Do that again."

So he did it again, and JC started scribbling in one of the notebooks, and trying out notes on the keyboard. They were four bars into the new and improved version when the doorbell rang. "Ignore it," Chris suggested.

"But it could be important," JC said.

"We're writing a song. That's important."

The front door opened, and then slammed close. "Hey," Justin yelled. "Anybody home?"

JC jumped up. Chris sighed and followed, a lot more slowly. Justin was standing in the hall with three large bags at his feet, grinning. He grabbed JC and hugged him, with much back-pounding, and then hugged Chris and leaned back, and Chris dug his fingers into Justin's waist to keep his feet on the ground.

"I didn't think you were coming till tomorrow, J," JC said.

"Change of plans," Justin said. "Seemed more fun to hang with you guys. Joey's having a baby-picture phase."

Chris looked suspiciously at Justin. Since Justin, on seeing Briahna, hearing about Briahna, seeing pictures of Briahna, or even just thinking about Briahna had a tendency to lapse into baby talk, and since Justin had only two weeks ago bought her six different kinds of teeny tiny sneakers for her teeny tiny feet, it was hard to imagine him on the run from any excesses of fatherhood that Joey might feel inclined to commit.

"At least you probably brought your own toothbrush," JC said.

Justin nodded. "And my own dental floss. I'm fully equipped, yo. You guys hungry? It's been a while since lunch."

"I could eat," Chris said.

JC nodded. "You guys wanna go out, or just call out for something?"

"Not taking another step," Justin said, leaning against the wall. "But y'all can go out without me if you want."

"No, no." JC smiled. "Thai?"

Justin nodded, Chris nodded, and JC went into the kitchen. Chris waited until he heard JC on the phone, and then he poked Justin in the chest, hard. "What are you doing here, J?"

"Appearances," Justin said. "I'm booked at the Sheraton, really, cause my house is being rewired, but I thought it'd be nice to hang with friends for a while."

Chris shook his head. "Try again. You're here because?"

"Because one of my best friends called me at four in the morning and was upset because a cute boy kissed him and he didn't know what to do." Justin ducked as Chris swatted at him. "And then another of my best friends called me at four thirty, and I figured I had to do something or I'm never gonna get any sleep."

"Oh, so you decided to fly out early so you could share your ineffable wisdom with us? Men are from Mars and oh hey, men are also from Mars?"

"Nah." Justin grinned toothily. "I'm just here to watch the show."

"You're not too big to put across my knees and spank," Chris said.

"Euw. Save the kinky shit for C, okay?"

"What kinky shit?" JC asked from the doorway.

Chris glared at Justin. "The kid's got a dirty mind."

"Fully equipped," JC said and giggled, and Justin drew himself up and looked down his nose at JC and tackled him and tickled him, and Chris accused Justin of having three bags full of dental floss and hooked an arm around Justin's neck so he could pull him down and give him a noogie, and JC wiggled out from underneath them and went and got beer for everyone.

"So what you guys been up to?" Justin asked as they settled down in the living room, holding his beer can loosely in one hand, a butter-wouldn't-melt look on his face.

Chris glared at him. Justin just grinned. JC bounced a little in his chair. "We're writing," he said. "I had this song I was working on and Chris really helped me a lot. I think it's gonna be good."

"Yeah?" Justin's grin turned into a wide, warm smile. "Cool."

Chris cracked his knuckles and decided to get a little of his own back. "You know, I never really understood why you two don't, like, write together more. You'd be a great creative match. J, you wanna sit in on—"

"No," JC said very definitely.

"No," Justin said just as definitely.

"You know that just never works—"

"Y'all really don't want me to do that—"

"—last time I couldn't get a word in—"

"—refuse to listen to anything I suggested—"

"—everything his own way—"

"—total control freak, man, know what I'm saying—"

"—perfectionist obsessive hopeless—"

"—anal nitpicky weirdo—"

Chris sat back and drank his beer until the food arrived. He went to the door and got it, picked up paper towels and forks from the kitchen, and put everything down on the coffee table. "Time out, guys."

JC twitched, as Chris had known he would, at the threat to his table, and went to get newspapers to put under the cartons, and plates, and even more paper towels. Chris got more beer. Justin ate all the green curry and most of the Drunken Noodles before anyone could stop him. "This is good," he said, and started picking the carrots out of the pepper and garlic chicken.

"I'm sure it was," JC said and took the carton away from him. JC's hair fell forward over his neck, and Chris wondered if JC would ever pull it back in a ponytail, or tuck it behind his ears, or if he'd suddenly turn up wearing a barrette or a row of rainbow-colored hair clips or something equally freaky.

Justin waved a hand in front of Chris's face. "You awake in there?"

"Yes," Chris muttered and opened another beer.

JC handed the carton back to Justin. "You still look hungry. Are you pregnant?"

"Fuck you," Justin said with his mouth full of chicken.

"What was that?" JC looked around. "I thought I heard something, but I didn't say anything, and Chris didn't say anything, and Justin had to go back to the Sheraton, so...."

Justin swallowed. "I even brought my own towels. You won't even notice I'm here."

Chris gasped. "My God, we've lost Justin! Alert the media!"

JC nodded. "You think we should call in to TRL? Maybe they've seen him."

"No, no." Chris leaned forward. "You'll make Carson cry. You know how he feels about Justin and his pretty face."

"Carson's bound to find out when Justin's pretty face ends up on, you know, a milk carton," JC pointed out.

"No, a takeout carton," Chris said. "To commemmorate the true Justin Timberlake spirit, his face will be on takeout cartons across the country. And Carson will cry into his beef in black bean sauce as he looks at Justin's funny nose and scruffy little eyebrows—"

Justin took the beer out of Chris's hand and put it on the table, looked at Chris very seriously, and said, "If I wrestle you down and tickle you, are you gonna throw up all over C's floor?"

"Oh, look! JC, look, I found Justin! But I think Justin's a little over-excited and needs to go to bed."

"I'm not even gonna," Justin said, shaking his head. "It's too easy. C, you got a room for me and my stuff or do I get to sleep on the couch?"

"Well, you can if you really want to." JC stood up. "Of course I've got a room. C'mon and I'll show you."

Justin and JC went into the hall to get Justin's bags. Chris picked out a couple of carrots that Justin had missed and turned on the tv. He flipped back and forth between CNN and a Friends rerun, keeping the volume down low. Not that he could hear what JC and Justin were saying, wherever they were, or anything. Not that he wanted to know what JC had said when he'd called Justin last night. For all Chris knew, JC had just wanted to consult Justin on the best way to match up his pillowcases with his pajamas.

On the other hand, maybe Justin was saying all kinds of appalling things to JC about Chris right at that very moment. Justin had had some practice recently, after all, saying all kinds of appalling things in interviews and getting away with it. Chris decided that Justin might be getting too big for his cute little crocheted hats and in need of a serious talking-to.

He finished his beer and cleared the coffee table, keeping the red curry in case anyone needed a midnight snack and throwing the rest of the stuff away. When he put the curry in the fridge, he discovered that the two lowest shelves were stocked with imported flavored mineral water. He pulled a bottle out at random. Grapefruit.

Chris put it back, picked another one, and went back to the living room. He didn't even have time to open the bottle before Justin bounded into the room like a Doberman puppy on speed, dropped to one knee before Chris, and held something up before him with both hands, a look of earnest supplication on his face.

"Why, Mr. JT," Chris said and fluttered his eyelashes. "Are you proposing to me?"

"Nah, I know you're taken," Justin said easily. He waved the game box in Chris's face. "Halo?"

"Now you're talking." Chris grinned. "Wait, C has an X-box?"

"Yup." Justin bounced to his feet, grabbed Chris's hand, and pulled. "C'mon!"

Chris decided he could save the talking-to for another day. Justin was bound to be annoying at some point in the future, too.

Things went boom. An hour later, Chris looked at Justin and said, "Where'd C disappear to?"

Justin hit pause. "Anybody ever tell you what an observant guy you are? And if they did, were they on crack at the time?"

"Anybody ever tell you what an annoying kid you are?"

"Now and then," Justin said dryly. "And C, what he did, he said something about syncopated beats and then he wandered off."

"Huh." Chris looked down at his hands. "That stuff he was writing — we were writing, it sounded pretty good."

"So go make sure he doesn't mess it up, then."

"I dunno," Chris said. "You know how JC gets when you interfere with the creative process."

"Oh yeah, I know. But you two are already working together. Were, anyway. And you know if he doesn't want you there he'll kick you out."

Chris winced. "Yeah." He toggled pause on and off on the game, again and again, until Justin yanked the control away from him. "I just. I don't want him to get, to be. You know. I don't want to be all there if he doesn't want me to be there."

"Chris. I've known JC half my life." Justin paused, and blinked. "Literally. Anyway, he doesn't have a whole lot of tough but he sure as hell makes up for it with stubborn, and after an apocalypse I would personally bet on C against the cockroaches, know what I'm saying?"

"No," Chris said.

"I'm sayin', stop worrying so much about it. And that's all I'm gonna say about that." Justin looked straight at Chris. "You wanna play and get your ass kicked, or you wanna go write kick-ass songs?"

"Well, when you put it like that," Chris said. He got up, looked down at Justin and rubbed his knuckles over Justin's jaw, feeling the stubble rasp against his skin. Justin grinned at him and then turned back to the game.

Chris went looking for JC. He tracked him down by the sound of humming, and stood in the half-open door for a while and looked at JC singing into the phone. Chris thought JC was communicating with his voicemail, or maybe higher forces, but then JC said, "So what do you think?" into the phone. "Mm. Mm hm." He sang some more. "What about that?" Chris was just about to leave, when JC went on, "No, no, listen, sugar angel face, I'll make it better."

Chris had only heard JC call one person sugar angel face, ever. He grinned a little and his hand brushed the door and it swung wider open, and JC jerked his head up and stared and then, when he saw Chris, he relaxed. Chris took a step backwards, but JC shook his head and waved Chris into the room. He handed the phone over, and Chris said, "Hello, princess. You're up late." There was a pointed silence on the other end. "Want me to sing for you?"

Chris hummed a little, a soft wisp of not quite melody, and then JC hummed along with him and they went through everything they'd worked on during the afternoon, only much slower, gentler. Chris thought he could make out a tiny little yawn.

They'd gotten to the end and started over when there was a rustle and Joey's voice said, "You put the audience to sleep. I hope you're not planning to make a career out of this or anything."

"Don't worry," Chris said. "I'm not quitting my day job, and you know JC always has his work as a scarecrow to fall back on. Ow!"

Joey laughed, a long, rich laugh. "Chris, I bet if you ask C, he'll put his hair in pigtails just so you can pull them."

"Shut up," Chris said, looking desperately at JC, who was standing right next to him. Really very next to him, so close their arms brushed against each other. "Shut up, or I'm gonna give your kid a drum of her own for her birthday. A whole drum set."

Joey chuckled. "Sure, you do that."

"And I'll send Nick Carter over to teach her how to play it."

"He's probably a good baby-sitter," Joey said thoughtfully, "with all those mini-Carters in the family. Stop being an ass and give the phone back to C."

"I'll tell him hi from you," Chris said.

JC leaned forward and said into the phone, "Hey, Joey, kiss your girls from me, okay?"

"One of them, maybe," Joey said in Chris's ear, and JC was still leaning in, was almost cheek to cheek with Chris, but Chris wasn't sure if JC could hear what Joey was saying. Not over the crazy beating of Chris's heart. "Night, you two. Put the phone down and keep your kissing over on the west coast where it belongs."

"Not a bad idea," JC said, so it seemed he could hear Joey after all, and he turned his head a bit and kissed the corner of Chris's mouth. "Not a bad idea at all."

"Freaks," Joey said fondly, and hung up.

And that seemed about right, Chris thought, because he was freaking out, and JC was getting freaky, catching Chris's mouth in tiny little nipping kisses, biting his lips very softly, teasing slowly closer and deeper and Chris put his hands on JC's hips and thought about highschool physics and calculating elastic potential energy. He could feel the movement waiting to happen.

He wondered if this was what it felt like to stand on the shore of a tiny Pacific island and see a giant wave come closer and closer.

JC pulled back a little. "Chris," he said. "Are you okay?" He looked closely at Chris. "You're not okay."

"I'm. I am. I just." Chris was holding onto JC's hipbones so hard his fingers hurt.

JC put his hands on top of Chris's and unwrapped his fingers very carefully. "Stop worrying," he said. He kissed Chris again, but just on the cheek, a whole different kiss, the way Chris had seen JC kiss Justin a thousand times. "We'll work on the song again tomorrow."

JC walked out of the room. Chris sat down, right where he was, plop down on the floor. His knee screamed at him. He straightened his leg out and when he did, he kicked one of the notebooks lying on the floor. Chris looked at it for a while, but he didn't open it. A sleeping JC was fair game, and so was most of JC's wardrobe, but bad things happened to people who touched JC's song-writing notebooks without permission. Chris was still scarred from having JC read The Bridges of Madison County to him for three hours.

He picked at loose threads at the knee of his jeans for a while, then reminded himself that he was a grown man, and the manly thing to do was probably to go get another beer. It took him three tries to get his knee to cooperate, and he kicked the notebook some more, until it was half under the rug.

When he passed the doorway to the living room, he looked in and saw JC and Justin sitting together in a pool of light at one end of the couch, their legs pretzeled together, talking quietly; JC's hands flew, and he almost hit Justin's nose. Chris only paused for a moment, then he went on to the kitchen. The row of grapefruit stared at him like malevolent yellow eyes. He glared back at them, got a beer from the fridge, and sneaked back to his room, which wasn't really his room, but one of JC's rooms, in JC's house, and he was going to sleep between JC's sheets, and he wished he'd bought some hard liquor.

Chris drank his beer, brushed his teeth, and went to bed.

The sheets didn't smell of anything but fabric softener.

He woke up with Justin sitting on the side of the bed, whapping him in the face with a pillow. Chris grumbled and flailed an arm, hitting back, until the pillow fell on the floor. "Go 'way."

"Nope. Get up. We have a busy, busy day."

Chris scrubbed at his eyes and sat up. "There's no we here. You have a busy, busy day. I'm on hiatus and I need my sleep."

Justin tugged at the covers. "You're coming with me, because you're my best friend and you want to keep me company."

Chris tugged back. "You're letting me sleep, because you're my best friend and you want to be nice to me."

"Beep, wrong answer, try again. C'mon, Chris. It's just a radio station and a photo shoot. And maybe if you're there they won't go on forever about have we broken up."

"You did break up," Chris said and yawned.

"Not me and Brit, you ass, the group."

"Right." Chris grinned at Justin. "So I'll come along and say the group has broken up but you and me got married last week, is that it?"

"Yeah, yeah. You complained for an hour about that other interview, man. This is your chance to keep me in line, so get up already."

Chris swung his legs over the side of the bed and scratched his stomach. "Are you making me breakfast?"

"I already had breakfast," Justin said, which was a no-brainer, since he was both upright and civil, at least for Justin. "C's doing something with fruit, I think."

Chris stood up. "Is he using his Spanish Inquisition tools?"

"I don't know. I wasn't expecting the Spanish In—"

Chris picked the pillow up, threw it at Justin, and staggered into the bathroom.

When he came back out after showering and shaving, he had the room to himself. Chris put on new, cheap Wal-Mart pants and the BIGGER AND BETTER t-shirt. He'd get something else for Joey, maybe. He scrubbed at his hair with both hands and headed for the kitchen. It was empty, but there was a large bowl of fruit salad on the counter next to the grapefruit. Chris looked in the fridge, decided against red curry first thing in the morning, and got himself a spoon.

Justin came in after a while and hopped up on a bar stool next to Chris. Chris handed him a spoon. "Eat. You need your vitamins."

"We're leaving in twenty minutes," Justin said and scooped up a healthy mouthful of banana and pineapple.

"I was joking about the marriage thing, you know." Chris spoon-wrestled with Justin for the seedless green grapes. "Whither thou goest, I really don't have to go at all."

"That's not about being married," Justin said. "That's about someone who was freakishly attached to her mother-in-law."

Chris grinned. "Well, you're not my mother-in-law, either."

They looked at each other, and Justin said it first. "Euw."

Chris nodded. "Euw."

"What, is there something wrong with the fruit?" JC said. He came into the kitchen and leaned against the counter. He was wearing the reallyverytight rainbow t-shirt again, and carried a denim shirt with a rainbow embroidered on one pocket.

"Wow," Justin said, looking him up and down. "You're like a one-man pride parade."

"I like rainbows," JC said peacefully. "I'm leaving now, so J, you've got everything under control, right?"

"Right." Justin raised his hand as if in solemn pledge, and he and JC did a little hand-slapping routine that might have looked halfway cool if Chris hadn't known that it was a leftover from their mouse days. "See ya tonight, man."

"Wait," Chris said, swallowed a large mouthful of banana and tried again. "Wait, where are you going?"

"Chew before you swallow," JC suggested, smiled a huge brilliant smile, and walked out of the kitchen again.

Justin's phone rang.

"Yeah. Yeah, I know. I'll be there. I know. I'm on my way right now." Justin sighed. "Look, just cause you can't see me don't mean I'm lying dead in a ditch somewhere, okay? No, I don't need you at the station, I'm going with Chris. Yes, that Chris, how many chrises do I have to choose from? Right. Yeah. See you at the shoot."

Chris hunted through the fruit salad for more seedless grapes. "Where's C going?"

"He's meeting Tony, they've got a. Something. A thing." Justin took the fruit salad bowl away. "Get moving, get your shoes, we gotta go."

Chris threw the spoon into the sink, where it hit Justin's cereal bowl with a satisfying crash and clatter. "What am I, your personal assistant now?"

"No. Chris." Justin came and stood next to Chris and leaned against him a little. "I hate doing interviews by myself. And they'll love having two pop stars for the price of one, so come on."

Chris sighed and scrubbed at his hair and went to put his shoes on. On the way to the door, he stopped in the kitchen and wrote a note on the back of an envelope and left it propped on the kitchen counter.

There was a small crowd at the radio station, nothing scary, and Eric was waiting for them. Well, waiting for Justin, anyway. It turned out that Justin was pretty much right and Chris was welcome to join in the interview, though he mostly sat back and let Justin talk and chimed in here and there. Everything went well until the DJ said he was going to bring out the hard-hitting questions, went through a couple of stupid ones about Justin being a pretty-boy and nsync having no street cred, and then said, "We all know you and Britney did it, so why don't you just tell us what it was like?"

Justin opened his mouth, a glint in his eyes that did not bode well, and Chris kicked his shin and leaned forward. "Actually, Justin's not gonna have sex until he's thirty-five. I promised him that if he could wait that long, I'd buy him a bicycle."

"With twelve gears," Justin said seriously. "And one of those holders for a water bottle like real racing bikes have."

"That's right. Your album's gonna have a song about a bicycle, isn't it?"

"Man, all the songs are about bicycles." Justin grinned. "And hey, coming up next is Avril Lavigne with a song about what it's like to ride a bicycle — Complicated."

"That's a good song," Chris said. "But I'm a little scared of Avril, like, I think she's gonna kick my butt. She's a pretty fierce young woman."

"No, no, that's Eminem."

"Eminem's a fierce young woman? Better not let him hear you say that."

The DJ cut them both off with an unconvincing laugh, Avril came on, and the rest of the interview went smoothly. Afterwards, the DJ told Justin that he was welcome back any time, and pointedly did not tell Chris the same thing. Chris, who was not gearing up to launch a solo career any time soon, smiled brightly and dragged Justin out of there.

"You realize you totally came across as my twisted sugar daddy," Justin said.

"I am your twisted sugar daddy," Chris said, "and don't you forget it. Where's this photo shoot?"

"Here." Justin handed Chris a much-folded piece of paper. "Read me the directions and I'll drive."

Chris read the directions, Justin drove, Eric sat patiently in the back seat, and they ended up at an empty construction site. "You've got the wrong address here," Chris said.

"You read the directions wrong," Justin said. "Gimme that." He looked down at the address and squinted across the street at the street sign. "The hell?"

"Uh oh." Chris ducked down in his seat. "It's a trap! Christina's lured you here to set hitmen on you so you're not a threat to her new release!"

Justin snorted. "Right. Anyway, Christina? Not Nick Carter?"

Chris shook his head. "C'mon, Nick doesn't have it in him to order a hit on a housefly." He grinned. "Jane Carter, now, I wouldn't put anything past her. There's a guy standing on top of that cement block thing, holding a camera."

Justin turned his head slowly. He sighed. "One of the arty ones. How come no one tells me these things?"

"Because you were at C's place and your phone was off," Chris said and patted Justin's cheek. "Go off and be pretty. I'll take the car and—"

"Oh no you don't," Justin said. "I need moral support. I need it really a lot."

"I want lunch."

"There's gotta be sandwiches somewhere. They're not gonna let me starve."

"As opposed to the fifteen other people who ought to be here somewhere and apparently don't rate sandwiches in your world."

Chris got out of the car and stretched and followed Justin onto the construction site. It turned out seven cars, four vans, two trucks and a trailer were parked on the other side of the site, which would've been understandable for a video shoot but seemed completely out of proportion for a simple "say cheese." Chris scrounged chicken sandwiches and bottled water and a cushion and made a seat for himself on a pile of cinder blocks.

Justin only got two bites of a sandwich before he was stuffed into a shirt that looked a lot like the one he'd already been wearing and posed artfully against metal girders. Chris demonstratively unwrapped his second sandwich and wished he'd picked up a couple of magazines or something. Looking at Justin being made to pout soulfully while staring into the distance was fun, as these things went, but he knew from experience that it wore thin after about ten minutes.

Then it started to rain.

The photographer yelled for an assistant with an umbrella, and decided that Justin's sex appeal was only heightened by rain dripping all over him. Justin was wrestled into an even thinner and more see-through shirt, and his pout was starting to look dangerously natural and familiar.

No one brought Chris an umbrella, so he went into the trailer and made friends with the youngest makeup assistant and played Go Fish with her for a while. The head of wardrobe went out for a smoke and came back in and watched the game, and Chris gave her his best smile and said, "Please please pretty please, put him in that bright pink thing with the feathers?"

She looked out at Justin, who was exhibiting all the friendliness and charm of a wet cat, and back at Chris. "I'd like to live to see forty-six."

"I'm surrounded by wusses," Chris said, and got cuffed upside the head with a padded clotheshanger. Chris rubbed his ear and reflected that no one ever seemed to stand in pop-star awe of him. He'd have to work on that.

The drum of rain on the trailer roof got louder. The makeup assistant, whose name was shygiggleJaniceshygiggle, peered out the open door. "I think I saw lightning."

"Then I think it's time to call it a day," Chris said. "I'd like for Justin to live to see twenty-two, or at least not catch pneumonia on my watch. He's got a disturbing work ethic; I think I'd better go out there and tell him to pitch a diva fit and stalk off home."

He got to his feet, braced himself, and went out into the rain. It was wet, it was chilly, and it made him want to pout like Justin. Chris wandered onto the site, stopped a little behind the photographer, and waited for Justin to catch sight of him. When Justin's eyes focused on him through the rain and the superfine colorless mascara, Chris stuck his tongue out. He folded it up towards his nose, crossed his eyes, and tried to wiggle his ears.

Justin lost his pout and started to laugh. The photographer straightened up and muttered something. Chris went past him, up to Justin, and said, "J, I'm sorry to have to tell you that you don't have enough sense to come in out of the rain."

"I think we're done any minute now." Justin wiped a drop off the tip of his nose with his soaked sleeve.

"And I think the makeup assistants are marching two by two and you didn't get any lunch and it's going on for dinner. You'll still be pretty tomorrow."

"Is that the voice of my twisted sugar daddy?" Justin sneezed.

Chris turned to the photographer and said, "We're wrapping this up now. Thank you for your hard work and dedication. I'll send you the bill for the Nyquil." Justin kicked his shin. "That was, of course, a joke. Because I'm the funny one."

Justin looked a lot less cranky and a lot less sneezy once he got out of his wet clothes and got intimate with a couple of large towels. Chris tracked down a leftover sandwich and a banana and some diet root beer, which Justin hated but drank anyway. "They have something dry for me to wear?" he asked from the depths of the towel folds.

"Yeah, I got you something. You'll love it." Chris held up the pink thing with the feathers.

Justin pounced on Chris and tried to stuff the banana peel down his shirt, and in the ensuing struggle, what was left of the root beer spilled all over one of the towels and Chris's left pants leg. The head of wardrobe stuck her head in the door and promptly put her hand over her eyes. "I'm putting some clothes here," she said and left.

Justin sighed. "Did I just flash that nice lady who's the same age as my mom?"

"Don't worry," Chris said. "I'm sure she's seen, like, way scarier things in her days." He patted Justin's head. "More impressive, too."

"Hey!" Justin was out of food items to throw, so he had to settle for glaring before he went over and put on pants that were only a little too short and a big cable-knit sweater. "Hey, my nails aren't blue any more." He sneezed again.

Chris wriggled out of his root-beered jeans and into a pair of brown pants that fit him remarkably well. He scooped up his jeans and Justin's wet clothes and stuffed them into a large plastic bag. "Let's make JC do laundry."

"Excuse me? JC?" Justin blew his nose on a napkin. "As in oh I'm so sorry I accidentally turned your stuff purple Justin I swear it was an accident I don't know how that scarf got in there it's not even mine I don't know why you don't just throw your old underwear out anyway, that JC? You're gonna let him near your clothes?"

"Oh, that wasn't an accident," Chris said. "I put that scarf in there when he wasn't looking. I figured from C you'd buy that it was an accident, but not from me."

Justin balled the icky snotty napkin up and threw it at Chris. "Sneaky mother. I owe you one. I put jello in JC's bed for that."

"That was why you, with the jello?" Chris laughed. "I had no idea. What, you went all vengeance on C?

"For turning my lucky shorts purple, you bet your ass I did."

Chris tried to stop laughing, but it didn't really work. "Lucky shorts, J? I didn't know you had lucky shorts. Why didn't you ever tell me you had lucky shorts? I'm all hurt, my feelings are all hurt, man, I thought we shared these things."

"Like I'm gonna share my lucky shorts with you," Justin said, deadpan. "But you can have them now they're purple."

"I'm moved. Anyway, if you did the jello thing, it's C who owes me one, right?"

Justin shook his head. "After I did that, he knew it was me, and he came to me and he was all sad and he apologized all over again and he bought me new stuff and he tried to give me his dessert at dinner. He tried to give me the pillows from his bed to make up for it, Chris, I'm not kidding! He made me sleep with my head on his shoulder and when I woke up he couldn't move his arm and I thought we were gonna have to cancel a show!"

Chris tried to stop laughing again. "Was that when he kept telling you that the cornrows looked great and you shouldn't listen to the rest of us? Cause man, if it was, I'm never messing with your laundry again."

"Yeah, try to remember that." Justin picked up the bag. "Laundry and C, it's a bad combination, it's nothing but heartache, I'm tellin' you. C'mon, let's go."

But of course they didn't, because five people came in and started talking to Justin about his schedule over the next couple of days. Chris sneaked off and looked for the makeup assistant again, but she was packing up stuff and only had time to give him a hurried smile. Wardrobe was catching a smoke break in the shelter of an open van door, and Chris wandered over to her. "Ma'am, I would like to apologize for the disgraceful behavior of my young friend in being bare-ass naked when you opened the door. It won't happen again."

"No?" She blew a smoke ring, but it dissolved right away in the rain. "How about if I bribe you?"

Chris grinned. "No, no. You had your chance, and you wouldn't make him wear the feathers. So you're not permanently traumatized? Cause I think Justin might be."

She grinned, too, like an amiable shark. "He'll get over it. Couple of artful nudity shoots and he won't think twice about waving it around in front of the whole world."

Chris twitched and covered his eyes with both hands. "Oh, God, don't even." Then he took his hands away again. "Can I be there when you tell him that? I wanna be a witness to the first ever case of spontaneous popstar combustion."

"I thought that was Michael Jackson," she said and flicked her cigarette into the distance. "Pants fit you all right?"

"Yeah, they're fine, thanks. I'm gonna go collect junior before he starts thinking he's gotta work some more."

"Off you go, then." She swatted his ass as he left, and Chris eeped a little and hurried to find Justin.

Finding him wasn't much of a problem, but extricating him from publicist and assistant and publicist's assistant and assistant's assistant and Eric was like trying to sneak a secret agent across the border in full view of the bad guys. They made their escape eventually, when Justin had sneezed one time too many and the publicist agreed with Chris that it would be very, very bad if Justin came down with something and couldn't, say, sing.

They still didn't rate an umbrella, but the rain had lightened to a drizzle.

"Has it occurred to you," Chris said as they walked back to the car, "that some people would call you a total masochist for doing this?"

Justin blew his nose. "I like doing this."

"I know. That's the scary part." Chris grinned. "Though not as scary as having my ass patted by the wardrobe lady."

"Really?" Justin looked faintly impressed. "She's a total fox. She looks like Pam Grier in that movie, with the gun, except without the gun. Man, how come she's making a pass at your completely gone on someone else ass?"

Chris blinked and unlocked the car door. "Excuse me, are you the same skinny little white boy who had a meltdown twenty minutes ago when she saw you nekkid, and said she was old enough to be your mom?"

"Well, Pam Grier's old enough to be my mom, and she's still fine." Justin got into the passenger seat and started going through the glove compartment for CDs.

Chris started the car. "Pam Grier is old enough to be my mom, Justin, so — okay, let's just stop this conversation right here before I'm traumatized."

When they got back to the house, JC was there already, standing in the middle of the kitchen and looking around. "Hey, guys." He scratched the back of his neck. "Where'd my stuff go?"

"Your cleaning lady came today," Chris said, pointing at the schedule taped to the fridge door.

"I know, but. She's supposed to dust the stuff, not hide it away."

"Well." Chris coughed. "That would be because J and I left her a note to throw all the pigs out."

"Hey!" Justin backed away, hands held high. "Do not involve me in this. You left that note."

"Well, you didn't stop me, did you?"

JC stared. "You told her to throw my pigs out?"

"You didn't like them anyway," Chris said. "This way, it's not your fault."

Justin smiled in a way that made Chris feel faintly uneasy. "That's right, he did it for you, C."

"I did it for humanity," Chris said. "No, J's right, I did it for you, cause they were so gonna come alive one night and eat you." He cleared his throat. "Justin wants to use your washing machine."

Justin shook his head. "Chris had a little root beer accident."

"You were my root beer accident." Chris picked up the bag of wet clothes. "Okay, okay. Where's the laundry room?"

Loading the washing machine, Chris reflected that JC probably wasn't too mad about the pigs. At least he hadn't said anything. At least he didn't sound as though he planned to have Chris killed and dismembered and for the body parts to be buried on separate continents.

When he came back into the kitchen, JC and Justin were in mid-reminiscence about something, with Justin waving his arms to make some point or other. "No, it was in that hotel where Britney and I had that fight when she threw the onion soup at me."

"Right, right." JC grinned. "I remember that one."

Chris hopped up on a barstool next to Justin. "We all remember that one. What was that all about, anyway? You never said, you just suddenly turned up smelling like a French restaurant."

"Um." Justin looked down. "Britney asked me what I thought about when I, uh. Jacked off."

Chris boggled. "And you told her?"

"She said she wanted to know!"

Chris shook his head. "Justin, Justin, Justin."

JC looked confused. "So what was the problem?"

"I told her," Justin said. "I mean, I told her the truth."

JC looked even more confused. "And? She think you were too kinky or something? Except you're really not."

"JC," Chris said patiently, "think back to the way way distant past when you had a girlfriend. Are you telling us you only ever had sexual fantasies about her when you were together, and never, like, the Brazilian women's soccer team wearing French maid outfits?"

"All of them?" JC looked interested. "That'd be pretty hot."

"And you're so missing the point," Justin said. "I told Britney I had fantasies about other women. I mean, would you have told a girlfriend that?"

"Sure," JC said. "Like, Bobbie and I used to tell each other that stuff all the time."

Justin shook his head. "You're making this up. You told Bobbie you fantasized about other women and she didn't go nuclear on you?"

"No, she thought it was sexy. And she'd tell me, um, stuff. J, you know fantasies are just, they're not real, they're maybe not even stuff you really want to do for real, like it could just be—"

Justin broke in ruthlessly, "You told Bobbie you had fantasies about guys? Cause I bet she didn't like that."

"Yeah, I did. I told you, we told each other... all kinds of stuff. It was, like, a thing."

Justin blinked. "Bobbie didn't break up with you cause you told her you thought about other women?" JC shook his head. "Bobbie didn't break up with you cause you told her you thought about guys?" JC shook his head again. "The hell did you two break up over, anyway?"

JC's mouth tightened. "That's private."

"That's private? Y'all were having these kinky sex conversations and you'll talk about that, but that's private?" Justin grinned. "Anyway, I wish Bobbie'd had a talk with Brit, is all I can say. I got first degree burns from that soup."

He sneezed again. JC gave him a worried look. "You okay, J? Are you feeling warm?"

"No, I'm good, I'm just fine." Justin batted JC's hand away before JC could feel Justin's forehead. "You wanna be my substitute mom, you can fix dinner."

JC nodded earnestly. "I thought maybe we could go out tonight, Tony was talking about a place, but I think if you're coming down with something we oughtta stay in, take care of you."

"I'm fine," Justin said, and sneezed again.

"Sure, J, that's why you sound like you're auditioning for one of the seven dwarves," Chris said.

Justin grinned. "Right. I'm Sneezy, C is Sleepy, and you're—"

"Sexy," Chris said.

"In your dreams, sugar daddy."

"Which one of us was groped by a scary, foxy woman today?" Chris patted Justin's head. "And she hit on me after she saw you naked, I might add."

Justin turned a puppydog look on JC. "Gimme some echinacea and make the bad man go away."

JC smiled sweetly. "I can run down to the deli and get some soup and stuff. You want chicken mushroom? And grilled cheese?"

Justin nodded. "And Pepperidge Farm milanos, and don't you say a word."

"What kind of word could he possibly say to that?" Chris said. "I mean, there's a lot of words. Does it start with an A?"

Justin let his head fall forward onto JC's shoulder. "Make him go away," he whined. "Take him with you to the deli and drop him in the pickle barrel."

"I get no love," Chris said. "After everything I've done for you today, you want to get me pickled." He turned to JC. "Any beer left?"

JC smiled.

They put Justin on the couch and wrapped him in two blankets and gave him mint tea with honey, which he said he hated, and put a box of kleenex within easy reach. Chris kept moving it along the table to find out just how far Justin could, in fact, reach, until JC grabbed one of his belt loops and dragged him out of the room and all the way out to the car.

When JC said that he was going to run down to the deli, what he meant was that he was going to drive just far enough to find a street that looked like people got mugged there every ten minutes and park outside a storefront with a malfunctioning neon sign from approximately 1952. Chris squinted up at it. "Eli Foo. Is that one of the new Hong Kong action stars?"

The inside of the deli smelled like fresh bread, garlic, and Lysol. "Why don't you get the milanos," JC said. He squeezed Chris's shoulder and wandered off.

Chris went to look for milanos. He considered pretending that he couldn't find them, so he could ask Justin if there wasn't a place he could call for that, but then he realized he could get the same effect just by holding them behind his back, and having the actual milanos to placate Justin with afterwards would probably be wise.

Then he almost couldn't find them anyway. The deli was tiny, and there weren't a lot of other people there. After a while, Chris noticed that everyone else in there was by themselves — browsing the magazine rack, choosing between chocolate bars. Trying to pick out a bag of cookies. One woman was eyeing the jars of pickled walnuts as though there was a secret message from God inside them. Chris checked his watch and his mental calendar, and then he grabbed the milanos and hurried to find JC.

JC was slouching against the deli counter, watching a large man with large beefy arms make and wrap a sandwich. Chris stood next to him and put the milanos on the counter next to two styrofoam soup containers and four packages wrapped in white paper. "C, this is scary. This is like the Eleanor Rigby deli. I wanna go home."

"In a minute," JC said. He straightened out of his slouch, and his arm brushed Chris's.

The large man finished wrapping the sandwich and gave them a bored look. "That all?"

"Mm. No, wait. Chris, you want soup?"

"I dunno." Chris shifted his weight from one foot to another. "What kind of soup do they have?"

"Those kinds," the large, bored man said, gesturing with his thumb over his shoulder at a chalkboard with a list on it.

Chris squinted. Chicken, chicken with a whole lot of other things, tomato, cream of Jerusalem artichoke, the fuck? Mushrooms, lentils, onion, blah. He looked back at JC. "Nah, I'm good."

JC looked thoughtful, and then he said, "Chicken noodle, please."

"What, no. No soup. And I don't like chicken noodle."

"Chris, you know you're just gonna eat Justin's soup for him if you don't get any." JC smiled. "And what's wrong with chicken noodle?

Chris sighed. He looked at the man behind the counter, who still looked bored but whose inner stenographer was probably taking down every line. "Okay, all right, soup. Tomato soup."

"Yeah, that's good, too," JC said. Then he disappeared "to check on the car" and Chris ended up paying for soup and sandwiches and cookies and a few things he didn't even know what they were. He lugged the bags out to the car and glared at JC, who was already sitting in the driver's seat, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel in time with the music in his head and smiling to himself.

"Cheapskate," Chris said grumpily. "And drive like a sane person, okay, or you're gonna have to pay to get soup out of the upholstery."

JC started the car. "You've stayed in my house and eaten my food for two days and you can't even pay for a little soup? What kind of guest are you, anyway?"

"Hey, I bought the beer," Chris said.

"Yeah, and you drank all the beer, too."

"Did not! And what about J? He's putting his germs all over your furniture and you're not charging him rent."

"He's sick," JC said. "I'm being nice to him."

"He's totally faking it," Chris said. "Hey, if I catch his cold, will you be nice to me, too?"

"I am nice to you," JC said. "If it weren't for me, you wouldn't have any soup. Hey, Chris, I was thinking. Or, I don't know, maybe you just wanna hang with J, when he's here. But that stuff we were working on, with the song? I just thought, if you want."

"Sure," Chris said. "Yeah. Absolutely."

"Cool."

The soup was still hot when they got back. Justin had built a nest out of couch cushions and the blankets and was curled up, asleep, with only his nose showing. He looked about twelve. "We should get him a teddy bear," Chris said. "Hey, remember that stuffed dinosaur Lance dragged all over Germany and pretended was some kind of good luck charm mascot thingy?"

"I remember when you kidnapped it and held it for ransom," JC said. "And I got it back for him by beating you at Scrabble."

Chris huffed. "I still say zymurgy is not a word."

"And you call yourself a beer drinker." JC looked down at the sleeping Justin and smiled fondly. "We should let him sleep."

"No, we should wake him up and make him eat. You know how pissy he'll be if he wakes at midnight and he's starving. You don't wanna be around that."

"I can hear you, y'know," Justin said drowsily. "Where's my soup?"

"Right here." JC plopped down next to Justin and somehow managed to wind himself into the blankets and the pillows and the arms and legs, filling out the available spaces, like water. "I got you a sandwich, too. Ham and swiss, coleslaw, no mustard."

"You're the best," Justin said, putting his head on JC's shoulder.

Chris huffed again. "I'm the one who actually paid for your soup and sandwich, you ungrateful child. Carried them with my own two hands, too. And what kind of sandwich did you get for me, anyway, C?"

"Pastrami on wheat, extra horseradish," Justin and JC said together, and giggled.

JC smiled up at Chris. "Chris, would you go get the spoons?"

"I'm not your household slave, Chasez," Chris said, and went anyway.

He knew where the spoons were, and he got the paper towels and thought that maybe they should have bought more paper towels. Then he looked at the row of grapefruit on the counter. Chris was pretty sure that this was all the grapefruit's fault. He made a threatening gesture towards them, and a couple of mocking fruitflies rose from the nearest one.

When he came back to the living room, Justin had already inhaled three-quarters of his sandwich; if he was sick, it didn't seem to be messing with his appetite any. JC was getting milano crumbs all over his couch, but that was his problem, and all over Justin, and there was probably a joke in there somewhere. Chris sat on the floor and started in on his tomato soup. It was good. It was really good. He tried the pastrami sandwich, and that was really good, too, made just the way he liked it. Chris imagined JC annoying the big, bored man in the deli by leaning forward and saying things like "no, spread it more evenly" and "can you put some more of that stuff on?" and it made him smile.

JC had, of course, gotten the cream of Jerusalem artichoke soup for himself. Justin insisted on trying it, made a horrible face, and crammed a milano into his mouth. JC held a spoonful out to Chris. "You wanna try it?"

Chris looked at Justin, who was still grimacing. "Do I look crazy to you?" But he knew what the answer to that one was. He put his hand around JC's wrist, just to make sure the spoon stayed steady, and tried the soup. "It's... different," he said.

JC grinned. "You hate it."

"Yep." Chris grinned back. He looked straight into JC's eyes, dancing with laughter, and quickly looked down and noticed that he still had his hand around JC's wrist. He let go. "I'm gonna get some beer and water and stuff. Not that I'm trying to wash the delicious taste out of my mouth or anything."

"Get me a Coke," Justin said indistinctly.

JC shook his head. "I picked up an echinacea ginseng fruit juice drink for you, Justin. It'll clear up your cold in no time. There's green tea in it, too."

"Well, it'll either cure him or kill him," Chris said and escaped to the kitchen again. He got some water and some beer, didn't find any coke, and stuck his tongue out at the grapefruit. As he headed back again, his phone started ringing.

"Hey, your phone's ringing," Justin said.

Chris set the water and beer on the table. "No, really? I thought that was my tinnitus." He got the phone out. "Kirkpatrick personal shopping services, how may I help you?"

"Hey, Chris. I didn't know you were settin' up a business again."

Chris sat on the couch, squishing Justin's legs. "Lance! Where are you?"

Justin and JC shouted Lance-greetings from either side of Chris, and he shushed them. There was a pause.

"I have nooooo idea." Lance sounded as though he were speaking through a layer of thick, chocolate brown velvet. Chris placed a large bet with himself that Lance's cheeks were bright pink and his eyes were glassed over. "Where are you?"

"I'm at C's, Justin is here, too, and you're drunk."

"'mnot. And what's Justin doing there? Justin shouldn't be there. Lemme talk to Justin."

"If you wanted to talk to Justin, you should've called Justin. And what's he doing here, he's, hmm, sneezing and ordering me around."

"Well, he shouldn't be there. Tell him to go away. You, you should be there. You should really be there. Want me to tell you why you should really be there?"

"Not particularly. I want you to tell me where you are, cause man, you can't just drop off the map like this."

"I'm right here," Lance said, and Chris heard someone giggling in the background. "Thass not the point."

"That is so the point, you know we're booked a couple of places together in a while? And Johnny keeps asking me where you are like I buried you in my backyard to get more solo exposure, if I'm taken in as a murder suspect it's totally gonna be your fault."

"Thass later," Lance said. "Laaaaater. I'll be there."

"Well, you'd better be."

"I'll be there, and you know what, Chris?"

"No."

"You know what? You want me to tell you what?"

"No."

"You know what, if you and C don't have your act together by then, I'll kick your ass all the way down to. Uh. That place with the whales."

Chris held the phone away from his ear and stared at it. "What is it with people and my ass, today?" Justin snorted crumbs through his nose. "Lance, listen, man, look around you and see if you see anyone who looks sober, and then give the phone to them, cause I don't have all the time in the world to figure out where you are."

There was another pause. "No."

"No, what?"

"I don't see anyone who looks sober. At all. Chris, listen. Listen. I'm serious. About C? I'm really serious. Really really serious."

"Yeah, I get it, you're really serious about him." Justin snorted crumbs again, and JC reached around Chris to thump Justin on the back.

"Chrissen to me, liss. I mean. Listen to me, Chris. It's not gonna be like you think. There's enough, whatever it is you think there's not enough of, there is. So get it together and stop being all scared and weird, or I'm tellin' you, whales."

Chris held the phone away from him again. "Whales?"

JC took the phone out of his hand and curled himself towards the other corner of the couch. "Hi, Lance."

"He's someplace with whales?" Justin said.

"Nah." Chris tried not to think about what Lance might be saying to JC. Sober, Lance was determined, manipulative, and sneaky. Drunk, Lance was still determined, but lost every shred of subtlety. "I don't know where he is, but there's a lot of booze and scantily clad women."

Justin looked skeptical. "How can you tell over the phone what they're wearing?"

"I could hear one of them squeaking about Lance dropping ice cubes into her cleavage. Even when he's drunk, he's multi-tasking. And annoying people."

"Dude, you do that so you can offer to help get them out again," Justin said. "Course, you have to pretend like it was an accident."

Chris looked at Justin. "Don't even try to tell me that I taught you that one. That is not one of the fail-safe Kirkpatrick pickup techniques. It sounds more like one of the failure-guaranteed Bass seduction disasters."

"Don't even, yourself, Chris. Your idea of flirting with someone is chasing them with a Supersoaker."

"It is not. And J, if you think I've been flirting with you all these years, think again, okay?"

Justin sniffled. "Now you tell me. Right, go ahead and break my heart." He grabbed a kleenex from the box on the table and blew his nose loudly.

JC had been murmuring into the phone, but now his voice rose in a squeaky, "What?!" Both Chris and Justin turned to look, but JC was still curled away from them, against the armrest. "Besides," JC went on, "I like them."

"Maybe he likes whales," Justin suggested.

Chris whapped Justin's shoulder, because really, that went without saying. JC had once gone on a seven-hour whale safari, been seasick all the time, and called it a wonderful time. That didn't solve the worrying problem of what Lance might be saying.

"Yeah, no, okay." JC chuckled. "Just, take care of yourself. You should come here, it would be — what? No, of course you wouldn't be in the way, why would you think—"

Chris reached blindly for a beer. Justin reached for one, too, and Chris shook his head. "You were gonna have that echinacea thing C got for you."

"Yeah, well, have you seen it?" Justin pointed to a plastic bottle with a colorful label. "It's green, man. Dark green. It looks like liquid mold."

"That's the spirulina," JC said. "It's like a plankton thing, I think. No, Lance, really, I mean it."

"Are we back to the whales again?" Justin looked at his echinacea-green tea-spirulina-ginseng drink and shuddered. "Can't I, uh, donate this to some kind of save the whales campaign? I love the whales so much I'll give up my own food and drink for them! That oughtta sound good."

"J, just suck it up and suck it up," Chris advised.

"Yeah, love you too. Don't forget to drink a lot of water. Yeah. Bye!" JC handed the phone back to Chris. "Justin, it's good for you. Drink it all, okay?"

"Okay," Justin said glumly, and drank.

Chris drank his beer, hoping it was good for what ailed him. Also, he was going to kill Lance. A lot. And maybe Joey and Justin, too. He'd never talked about this, and they'd respected his not-talking-about-it stance, and everything had been fine, so he didn't get what was suddenly different now.

Well, apart from the way he'd left his RV in Chicago and come to JC's house and spent a lot of time with him and maybe kissed him twice, but there was no way Lance could know about that.

Unless Joey had told him, the rat fink. Because Justin had told Joey. Chris was surrounded by rat finks. He stole one of Justin's milanos and discovered that they tasted like ass with beer.

"That wasn't so bad, was it?" JC said.

"Yes, it was." Justin shuddered. "I think, you know, I'mma go to sleep now and try to forget that you're mean to me and make me drink horrible things and you didn't even let me talk to Lance." He burrowed into the blankets and closed his eyes.

"You'll feel better tomorrow," JC said and smiled a little. "So, um, Chris? You wanna, like we said before?"

"Sure," Chris said. He grabbed his beer, glared down at Justin, who kept his eyes closed and his face almost suspiciously blank, and went with JC.

It was fun, actually. It was relaxed and fun, and he could go get another beer whenever he felt like it, and he'd always liked singing with JC. He liked the way their voices sounded together. JC's new stuff sounded good, too.

Chris didn't ask what Lance had said, and JC didn't tell him. Chris did tell JC that "crave" didn't rhyme with "heavy."

"It depends on how you say it," JC said. "You gotta be flexible, man. Language is, like, this evolving thing. Like, we don't talk the same way Shakespeare did, you know?"

"Especially some of us," Chris said, and then quickly drank some more beer, because he knew JC was too fond of his carpet to hit Chris while he was drinking.

They made it all the way to the chorus, which as it turned out was all about why do you run from me when all I want to do is show you, and Chris sang it just the way JC told him to and then he got up really fast and went to the bathroom because whoo, all that beer.

He went to check on Justin on his way back. Justin was asleep and snoring. Chris tugged the blanket more securely around Justin's shoulders and went to the kitchen. He didn't really want another beer, though. He was past the beer thing; beer was so totally five minutes ago. JC kept vodka in the freezer and Chris took a mouthful and felt all his interior organs turn to ice. Also, it made his teeth hurt. He cursed a little to himself, idly, had another mouthful, put the vodka back and went back to the room where JC was and sat down next to him and kissed him.

Then he pulled back, and fell on the floor.

JC looked at him, all sweet and serious. "Chris. Why don't you... I mean, I would totally respect that you don't want, you, I guess you don't feel — but then really I think you do, like now, and — I just, what is it? Cause I don't want things to be all wrong between us. Only, I thought, you know."

And Chris did know. He pulled his legs up and put his arms around his knees. "I'm sorry," he said.

JC stretched one of his legs and poked his toes against Chris's foot. "You could tell me about it. Make it less wrong."

"Nothing's wrong," Chris said. "I mean, there's nothing wrong with you, there's, fuck no. You're great. And you guys, you're going places. Maybe literally, in Lance's case. And I." He stared at his toes, and at JC's toes next to them. "I'm so fucking proud of you, all of you, you wouldn't believe."

JC scratched his head. "Is this about. You think the band is breaking up? Is that what this is about? Chris, I don't get it. Cause we're not, for one thing. J's said all along, and I, you know."

"No. I mean, yeah. I mean, I don't think we're breaking up right now or anything. But you're gonna do things, you guys." Chris looked at JC. "You have to understand, C. This was the thing I did. I put a group together, and it was the best fucking idea I ever had. And I really love you guys. A lot."

"Still not seeing the problem, here." JC stretched out his other leg, too, and rubbed both his feet against Chris's.

"Like, really a lot. And you know I'm always gonna be there for you."

"Yeah. That's kinda what I'm trying to get at, Chris. I don't want you to be there for me. I want you to be right here with me." JC slid down on the floor, too, and sat next to Chris, leaning into him. "But if you're not okay with this, if it's not what you really want, I don't want you to be. I don't want this to be weird."

"This already is weird," Chris said. "Look at J out there. He's like a horse at the starting line and you know he's just gonna run and run. And so are you, and I just don't ever want anything to slow you down."

"Okay, you know what, Chris, fuck you," JC said, and Chris turned his head in sharp surprise, and JC kissed him. Hard. "I want you, and if you don't want me you can say that, but you don't get to make this about my fucking career. And you're never getting into my vodka stash again, man. It's fucking with your head."

"Mm," Chris said, not really listening because he wanted to be kissing JC again. His knowledge of why it was a bad idea was crystal clear, it really was, but JC was so warm, and right next to him, and had a really sexy mouth, and he tasted good. Really good. Chris kissed him some more.

"And I'm telling J you think he's a horse," JC added, a little breathlessly. "And now you're fucking with my head. Tell me what you want."

"I'll tell you what I want. What I really, really want." Chris shook his head before he could start singing. "I just want things to be right for you. For all of you guys."

"I think," JC said carefully, then stopped and looked at Chris. "Is this gonna be one of those things where you wake up tomorrow and you pretend like you don't remember anything cause you were drunk?"

"No," Chris said.

"Is it gonna be one of those things where you wake up tomorrow and you really actually don't remember anything cause you were drunk?"

"No."

"Good. Cause I think, you know. I think you're right for me. I want you to be right for me. But if you're not ready, you know, if you need to drive around the country some more and not have any grapefruit, that's okay, too. You just have to tell me."

"I'm not that drunk," Chris said. "I think." He tried to edge a bit closer. "I think I want you to teach me about, you know. Grapefruit."

"Good," JC said again, and kissed him softly and sweetly this time.

"I'm sorry I was an idiot."

"That's okay," JC said and kissed Chris's chin.

"And I'm sorry I drank your vodka."

"Mm hm," JC said and licked just under Chris's ear.

"And. Um." Chris decided talking was overrated. He held onto JC's shoulders and leaned backwards until JC was draped all over him and then there was just the kissing, for a long time. And yeah, he probably really was drunk, because floors were hard, he knew that, but this was the softest, bestest floor ever and he never wanted to leave it.

JC put his hands under Chris's t-shirt like it didn't even exist, and Chris got goosebumps from nails over his ribs, he always did, he wasn't ticklish or anything. A little, maybe. JC liked having his earlobes sucked, and made a happy sound when Chris ran his hand all the way down JC's back and over his ass to curve around the back of his thigh.

It wasn't possible to get a hand in under JC's t-shirt. JC was shrink-wrapped in rainbows and denim, and Chris was going to buy JC a lot of baggy clothes really soon. He rubbed his thumb across JC's nipple through the cloth and pushed his thigh between JC's legs, and JC rocked against him and bit his neck, a bit too hard really and Chris didn't know why his eyes were starting to roll back in his head and his breath came short. It was just that JC made these sounds, nothing like porn and everything like oh God I want you so bad, and there was no part of him that could say no to that.

One more kiss, and JC was writhing against him, and Chris realized that JC would, that JC was really, that JC was going to, God, any second, and his whole body jerked and he slammed the back of his head against the floor as he came and it really hurt. JC collapsed on top of him, suddenly twice as heavy.

Chris twitched his fingers and toes to make sure he could still move them and hadn't accidentally broken his neck or anything. He felt completely gross, sticky, in pain, and extremely happy. He tried to share this with JC by poking his nose half-heartedly against JC's cheekbone.

After a little while, JC pushed himself off Chris and sat up. His hair looked like he'd been dragged backwards through a car wash. He was smiling. "I think that stuff you put in the washing machine is probably done now," he said.

Chris blinked. "Washing machine?"

"So we can start another load."

"Another?"

JC smiled so big Chris thought his face might break. "C'mon," he said and rolled to his feet, stretching a hand out to Chris. "Upsadaisy."

Chris got up, and JC tugged him along to the laundry room, moved Chris's and Justin's clothes from the washer to the dryer, and started to strip. The rainbow t-shirt came off easily, and Chris decided there was probably a secret technique to it. Maybe JC could be persuaded to teach him. Maybe it was some kind of rainbow zen. He shifted his weight and made a face at the distinctly unpleasant sensation. "Holy shit, I'm fifteen," he said. "On the floor? I had bad sex with you on the floor?"

"No, you had good sex with me on the floor. Now take your pants off."

"See, that should be the other way around," Chris said and started to unzip. "Well, either that, or I've been doing it wrong for years."

"There's nothing wrong with the way you do it," JC said and kissed the corner of his mouth.

Chris stumbled a little, getting his pants off.

They stuffed everything in the washing machine, and JC measured out washing powder while Chris licked his spine, which seemed like an ideal division of labor. "I mean, you probably don't do a lot of laundry," Chris explained, "so that's good for you, and I've spent a lot of time not licking you, which seems really stupid now that I think about it, so I need to make up for it."

"Whatever, man," JC said and closed the lid, "you're just lazy is all." He took Chris's hand tugged him along again, and then stopped as they passed the living room. "J's still on the couch."

"Yeah, you know, I'm sure he's fine there," Chris said.

"Maybe, I dunno. Maybe we should tell him to go to bed."

Chris looked at the top of Justin's head, barely visible over the back of the couch. "Nah. Better to let him get his sleep, not wake him up."

"You sure?"

"I'm sure. And I'm really sure I don't wanna hear what he has to say if he wakes up and we're standing here bare-ass naked."

"Yeah, okay. But hey, it's my house, I'm not allowed to be naked in my own house?"

"You totally are. Especially with me. But not so much with the Timberlake," Chris said and pushed JC away from the door.

He looked back over his shoulder to see Justin wink at him over the back of the couch.

They washed and brushed and flossed, elbowing each other out of the way at the bathroom counter the way they'd done in any number of hotel bathrooms, though usually not quite so naked. JC made Chris drink two large glasses of water. Chris threatened to wet the bed. JC threatened to wrap him in plastic. "I have a lot of saran wrap. Somewhere."

"Kinky fucker," Chris said. "I want my own pillow."

JC blinked. "You brought your own pillow?"

"No, you—" Chris couldn't decide what the best word was to describe JC, any more. Moron, while accurate in its own way, didn't seem to cover the really-nice-to-kiss parts. "I know what you're like. You hog pillows, you hog covers, you even hog the mattress."

"Uh huh. You want your own mattress, too?"

"No."

Chris went back to the room where he'd slept before and got the pillow. It was a bit flat, but he could squish it together. He walked into JC's bedroom and got into bed next to an animated lump of covers and blankets and pillows that he assumed was JC. The lump pounced on him and pulled him deeper into the depths of the bed, until he was all wrapped up in JC. "You got the pillow?" JC said into his collarbone.

"Somewhere." Chris did some pouncing and wrapping right back. "If you snore, I'm gonna kick you."

"Mm."

"And if I have a bad dream, I'll wake you up so you can read Winnie the Pooh to me."

"Mm."

"And if—"

JC kissed him. "Shut up. Sleep."

"Okay."

He slept.

JC didn't really care much about curtains, as long as no one could see through his bedroom windows. That was because JC could sleep through anything, including bright morning sunlight on his face.

Chris, on the other hand, woke up, got his eyes full of sunshine, and winced. Someone was breathing softly on the back of his neck, and he was pretty sure it was JC. Someone also had a hand wrapped around his cock, and he really, really hoped it was JC. He had a crick in his neck and no pillow. Groping around for the pillow, he found it wedged under JC's head.

Chris tugged on the pillow. JC tightened his grip on Chris. Chris tugged on the pillow some more, and JC tightened his grip some more, and things were getting kinda interesting when JC mumbled, "Not. 'wake."

"Morning has broken," Chris said. "All over the floor. You didn't say I'd need sunglasses to sleep in your bed."

JC made sleepy, grumpy noises against Chris's spine. Then he said, "You're, um. Sexually molesting my hand."

Chris spluttered. "The fuck?! Your hand is molesting me, okay? I woke up and it was, you know. Like that."

"Like this?" JC said, squeezing some more.

"Yeah," Chris said, running his fingers down JC's arm. "I like this."

JC started to chew on his shoulder, and Chris closed his eyes and rocked into JC's hand. JC was pressed all hard and hot and close against Chris's back, but then he moved away. That wasn't good. Chris rolled over to get closer, and JC kissed his chin and his throat and his chest and disappeared under the covers and oh. Yeah. Really, really sexy mouth.

Chris wound his fingers into JC's crazy hair and watched through closed eyes as the sunlight burned to gold.

JC kissed Chris's jaw and said, "You make these noises."

"Do not," Chris said drowsily. He trailed a hand down JC's chest, down over his skinny little stomach. "Dignified, manly silence." JC squeaked. "Unlike you."

"Noises," JC insisted, and then he moaned and thrust into Chris's hand.

"Yeah, I can hear 'em," Chris said, and watched the way JC's eyelids fluttered.

What with one thing and another, it took a while before they got out of bed, and even longer before they were showered and dressed. Shaving seemed unnecessary. Chris thought dressing was unnecessary, too, really, until JC reminded him that Justin was around somewhere. "And, you know, being naked around J, it's just. It's not the same thing."

Chris put his glasses on and looked at JC. Still looking pretty damn good, there. "We could lock him in a closet somewhere."

JC kissed him. Chris kissed him back. JC shook his head. "It's not like he's gonna stay forever. You can start a nudist colony when he leaves."

"A really small, exclusive nudist colony," Chris said. "I'm thinking maybe two people, max. How does that strike you?"

JC nodded seriously. "Don't want it to get crowded or anything."

Chris nodded, too, winced a little, and rubbed the back of his head. Definitely a bump, though at least he hadn't cracked his skull open. "And no vodka," he added. "Sorry 'bout that." He looked at his nails. Hm. Ragged cuticles. "Everyone's a maudlin drunk, you know?"

"I'm not," JC said. Which was perfectly true. JC, drunk, tended to either giggle a lot, or fall asleep, or both.

"Well. You know." Chris kicked at the floor. "Sorry 'bout that, too. Didn't mean to get all, you know."

"Freaky? Cause, you know, I pretty much liked that part of it."

"Yeah, um, no. I just, you know what? Forget it."

JC grinned. "Does that mean you're not gonna sit in a corner like someone's grandfather while the rest of us take over the world or turn into horses or whatever it was?"

"Oh, fuck you," Chris said and swatted JC's hip. "I'm not gonna sit in a corner while you try to rhyme 'girl' with—"

JC kissed him again.

When they made it to the kitchen, Justin was sitting on a bar stool by the kitchen island, knife in hand, looking at the row of grapefruit. He looked up as they came in, and grinned. "You're up already? I didn't think I was gonna see you all day."

Chris rapped his knuckles against the back of Justin's head. "Don't you have places to be and interviewers to be terrorized by? And put that knife down."

"Yeah, later," Justin said. "I got the morning cancelled. On account of my cold." He coughed unconvincingly, then gestured at the grapefruit. "And hey, someone's gotta eat those."

"Well, it's not gonna be you." Chris took the knife from Justin and sliced a grapefruit in half. He picked up a grapefruit spoon and looked suspiciously at it. Freaky thing. Then he looked at JC. "Okay, show me how this works," he said.

JC smiled.

* * *

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