torch, flambeau@strangeplaces.net
November 21 - December 20

Disclaimer: But that was in a different country, and besides, this is not a death story. Written for Edie in the 2004 Don We Now Our Gay Apparel challenge. Most abject thanks to synecdochic and Merry (and elynross, heh) for brainstorming and hand-holding and editing, and also thanks to Georgina and Kim G for providing some crucial elements. Do not archive this story without permission.

Why do birds sing so gay

1.

"Is that a ring?" Howie asked, squinting across the room at Nick's left hand. "I thought you didn't like rings." He took a small pile of shirts out of his bag and put them down on the bed, shook one out, and hung it up in the hotel room closet.

Nick rolled over on his back on the other bed and held his hands up over his head. "I like these."

Howie hung up a second shirt, frowning at the creases. "Have you seen the iron? Where'd you get them?"

"I was with Kevin in a junk store back when we were in Heidelberg." Nick stared in astonishment. "We have an iron?"

"Antique store," Howie said, rummaging in his second bag.

"Yeah, whatever. I found a box with little hearts on it and I bought it to send to Angel, cause she always needs something to put her earrings and shit in. And these were in the box."

"You didn't think she'd like them?" Howie straightened up with his hands full of socks and underwear.

"Like they'd fit her," Nick said, wiggling his fingers. "And I think they're kinda cool." The rings gleamed in the lamplight. "They have these symbols, see, kind of like a tattoo AJ showed me that he said he was gonna get sometime."

Howie squinted across the room again. "I don't see any symbols." He pulled out a drawer and dumped his underwear in. "Someone has a travel iron. I thought it was me, but maybe Brian or Kevin borrowed it."

"You need glasses. And why do you even bother to unpack? We'll be outta here in. Soon."

"You need glasses. I saw you with your homework last night, Nick, you had your face in the book." Howie put the socks in another drawer. "And we're going to be here at least a week."

"Really?" Nick looked out the window. "Too bad it's so boring here. And last night, I was asleep."

Howie picked out a fleece sweater and put it on. "You're going to graduate from high school when you're thirty."

Nick shrugged. "Yeah, maybe, but I'll have a lot of gold records."

1.5

"Nick! Are you ready?" AJ yanked the door open and drummed with his gloved fist on the wall. He was already dressed for a polar expedition; only his sunglasses and the tip of his nose showed between the hat and the scarf. "Get a move on, already."

"Yeah, yeah, I'm ready." Nick scrunched his nose up and looked around for his jacket. "Do I really gotta go? Are people gonna talk German at me?"

"Only until you fall asleep," AJ said, handing him his gloves off the bedside table. Nick whapped him with them. "It's not like we're the only suckers who have to go play nice for promo purposes. 'N Sync is gonna be there. You can talk to them. Not in German."

Nick stuck his hands in his pockets and rolled the rings around his finger with his thumb. "Chris is gonna be there?"

"I guess, yeah. Unless they kicked him out of the band since yesterday." AJ probably shrugged, but inside the huge down jacket, it was hard to tell.

"Okay. Cool." Nick got his hat and his muffler and wrapped up. "Let's go, then."

2.

The party wasn't a party, it was a buffet table and bar in a large hotel conference hall. It was full of people who all peeled out of twenty layers of wool and fleece to talk about marketing segments. In German. Nick went and sat next to Chris and talked about basketball and vinyl records and comics.

Chris unzipped his down vest and got himself a mug of glühwein. "Kid, don't do that thing with your eyelashes," he said sternly.

Nick had a mug of hot fruit punch with spices. He drank some of it and made a face. "Why not? Doesn't it work?"

"No, it's working all right. That's the problem." Chris shook his head. "Tell me about your homework."

Nick put his mug away and moved his chair closer. "Homework is boring."

Chris laughed. "Tell me something I don't know."

The chair wouldn't go any closer. Nick bumped his knee against Chris's. "I like you."

"Great." Chris clapped him on the back and tried to push his chair away. "Come back in ten years."

Nick did that thing with his eyelashes again. "But Chris, in ten years you'll be old."

Chris snorted glühwein. "Fuck! Not when I'm drinking!"

Nick grinned.

2.5

Kevin crossed his arms and stared across the room. "Someone should go peel Nick off Kirkpatrick."

"Why?" AJ looked amused. "He looks like he's enjoying himself."

"Chris is a good guy." Howie tried to balance a large piece of chocolate coffee cake on a small paper plate. "He can look after Nick a while." He dropped the plastic fork on the floor.

AJ looked even more amused. "Yeah, I just bet he can."

Kevin did not look amused. "Good thing Jane isn't here."

AJ crossed himself. "Good point. You want me to go do something?"

"I'll handle it."

Howie shook his head and put his cake plate on his glühwein mug so he could put a hand on AJ's chest and stop him. "I'll handle it. And Kevin, relax. Nick is just talking to him. He's got a crush. It's okay. It's Chris."

"Jane Carter," Kevin said pointedly, and went to get Howie a new fork.

3.

"Cool rings," Chris said. "Is that, what kind of symbols are those?" He squinted at Nick's fingers. "They're kind of hard to make out."

"I know," Nick said, turning his hands this way and that right before his own eyes, and then right before Chris's eyes. "They don't look like anything I've seen before. You think you maybe know what they are?"

Chris shrugged and put his glühwein down. "Lemme have a closer look."

"Sure," Nick said and tugged off the outer ring and handed it over.

Chris held it between thumb and forefinger, peering at the outside of the band, and then the inside. "Now I can't see the symbols. It's like the light has to be just right or something. Damn, this is tiny, how'd you get it on?"

Nick struggled with the inner ring, which would not come over his knuckle. "I dunno, now I can't—"

"Still, if you could wear it, stands to reason—" Chris put the ring on.

3.5

Pink, pearlescent lighting came on in the room. Soft music began to play. Rose petals and soap bubbles drifted down from the ceiling, obscuring all those perfectly boring people. Nick Carter, who sat there haloed in light, was the most perfect young man in the entire world, with a smile like a sunrise, and lovely hands, and great legs, and...

Really great... legs.

The soft music developed a suggestively throbbing bassline.

4.

Chris clutched his head. "Well, fuck."

Nick leered at him.

4.1

"Is there a," Nick said, starting to rise, "because I thought I—"

"I'll show you," Chris said and jumped to his feet, nearly oversetting the nearest table with its bowls of chips and dip and twenty abandoned mugs of glühwein. "This way."

They stumbled out of the hall through the back door and down the service corridor, and barely made it into a deep, sheltered doorway before they were groping each other, leaning back against the grey metal door in the dim glow of an exit sign. Chris grabbed the neck of Nick's sweater and dragged him down to kissing height. Bells rang and rose petals drifted down from the ceiling. Chris shook his head. "Do you see that?"

Nick stuck his hand down Chris's pants. "See what?"

Chris's eyes rolled back in his head. "Never — mind—"

4.5

Someone opened the back door they'd left through, and a wave of light and voices and smoke and music poured out. Chris and Nick leaped about a foot apart. "We can't stay out here," Nick said.

"No." Chris looked at him. "Hey, this is our hotel."

"Yeah?" Nick looked back. "Maybe you should show me where your room is. I've always wanted to see, um. A hotel like this one. With a room in it."

"Course you have. You never get to see any hotels. With rooms in. You're deprived." Chris grabbed Nick's hand. "Come on, then."

They ran for the elevators, got in, and went up a couple of floors. Nick kissed Chris in the elevator, and Chris kissed Nick in the hallway, and Nick kissed Chris leaning up against the door of his room, and Chris kissed Nick leaning up against the inside of the door once they got through it, and Nick kissed Chris while they fell over two sports bags and a pair of boots, and Chris kissed Nick and pushed him down on the bed.

"Wait," Nick said, yanking Chris's shirt off. "Is there, shouldn't there be—"

"Here," Chris said and slapped a battered plastic tube down on Nick's chest. "Now fuck me, dammit. Join our bodies and souls together."

4.7

"I don't see Nick anywhere," Kevin said. He stared searchingly from one end of the hall to the other.

"Mm," Howie said around a mouthful of cake.

"Or Kirkpatrick."

"Mmhm?" Howie swallowed and looked around, too. "Oh, right. They probably went off to play a game or something." He handed his plate to Kevin and tried to brush the crumbs off his hands. "I'll go get Nick back, okay, and try to make him behave until we have to leave."

"What about Kirkpatrick?"

Howie snorted. "I don't think anyone can make Chris behave."

Brian came up to them, carrying three mugs of glühwein and a folder about a new conference center. "Where's Nick?"

"Howie's just going to get him," Kevin said. He looked at Howie. "Right?"

"Right." Howie went.

4.8

Howie walked across the hall, looking around. Nick and Chris were not hiding under the tables or lurking in the corners. Howie picked up another mug of glühwein on the way. He went over to the nearest member of 'N Sync who was not deep in conversation with someone. "Hey, Joey."

Joey turned away from the buffet table and grinned. "Howie! What's up?"

"We've lost Nick." Howie gestured with one shoulder to indicate the completely Nick-free room, and sipped at his glühwein. "I think he probably went off with Chris so they could be twelve years old together, but we kinda need him back. You have any idea where they might have gone?"

Joey nodded. "Try the hallway down that way," he said and pointed, "there's an open space by the service entrance that's big enough to play ball in, if you've got a ball. Or Chris is in 807, they could be there, with the games and toys and videos and stuff."

"Thanks." Howie clapped him on the back with his free hand. "You're a lifesaver. Want me to make sure Chris comes back, too?"

Joey made a show of thinking about it. "Yeah, why the hell not. He makes the rest of us look sane." He dug into a pocket. "Here — spare key card, in case they've got the TV on too loud or are having a water war in the bathroom or something. You never know."

4.9

Chris and Nick weren't outside in the service corridor or down by the entrance, although Howie found Nick's scarf lying in a doorway a little way down. He tried the door, but it was locked. Howie slung the scarf over his shoulder and went the other way, until he found an unlocked door that took him into the main part of the hotel.

Next to the elevators, Howie found Nick's blue overshirt. He picked it up and looked at it, and pressed the elevator button.

There was nothing of Nick's lying in the elevator. Howie went up to the 8th floor and got out. There was something lying on the floor about halfway down the corridor. Howie went over and picked it up. It was one of Nick's boots. The sock was in it. Howie looked up. He was standing outside room 807.

Howie knocked briskly on the door, opened it with the key card, and went in.

4.9.1

Howie reeled back against the door and dropped the boot, the shirt, the scarf, and his half-full mug. Nick eeped and disappeared under the bedcovers. The lube fell to the floor. Chris sat bolt upright and stared at Howie. "Um. Hi?"

5.

"Chris, I'm going to kill you," Howie said very seriously.

"I can explain," Chris said. Then he thought a little. "Actually, no, I can't."

Howie clutched his head in his hands, crossed the room and sat down on the foot of the bed. "I'm going to kill you. And then, when I'm done, Brian is going to kill you. And then, when he's done, Kevin is going to kill you."

Nick stuck his head up from under the covers again. "Oh, shit." He wrinkled his nose. "Not AJ?"

"AJ," Howie said, "is probably going to think this is funny." He reached out and smacked Chris's bare chest, hard. "He's sixteen! What were you thinking!"

"It's not like that," Nick said with dignity. "And I'm seventeen."

"Nicky. Shut up and get dressed. I'm taking you out of here."

"You can't take him away from me," Chris said. "We belong together forever more." Then he clapped his hands over his mouth, and his eyes bugged out.

Howie made a small, pained sound. "What did you just say?"

"We're meant for each other," Nick said. "Nothing can separate us." He looked adoringly up at Chris, who took his hands off his mouth and looked adoringly back down.

Howie smacked Chris again. "Stop that."

"I can't," Chris said, petting Nick's smooth, shining hair. "Nothing will part us."

Howie drew a deep breath. "I take it all back. I'm not going to kill you, and Brian's not going to kill you, and Kevin is not going to kill you."

Chris beamed. "You've seen the truth of our great and beautiful love?"

"No. We'll just leave it to Jane."

Nick jerked back and stared at Howie in utter horror. "My mother is here?"

"No. But if you don't get dressed right now and come with me, she's going to know exactly what just happened here." Howie paused. "Actually, no. I don't want to know exactly what just happened here. But she'll get the general idea."

Nick flung his arms around Chris's neck. "Save me!"

5.1

The door opened again, and JC stuck his head in. "Holy shit." He came into the room, stumbled over the glühwein-soaked shirt and scarf, and stood and stared. "Chris, are you — holy shit, man."

"You know," Chris said to Nick, "I think maybe we should get dressed. I want to die with my boots on." He got out of bed and put his foot on the lube, which squirted all over the carpet.

JC's laugh sounded like a kitchen sink getting unclogged. He came into the room and picked the bedspread up off the floor and wrapped it around Chris. "Dude, you can't — no one wants to look at that."

"I want clothes," Chris said, trying to fight his way free of the bedspread. "This isn't a toga party."

"Here," Howie said, throwing a pair of sweatpants at Chris from the pile at the foot of the bed that he was sorting through. "And Nick, you put this on before Kevin comes looking for us."

"Hey, Howie," JC said, letting go of the bedspread to clap Howie on the shoulder. "How're you doing?"

"Apart from the fact that I'm going to kill Chris for seducing Nick, just fine."

JC blinked, then shook his head. "Oh, Chris. That's so not cool, man."

"He's my soulmate," Chris said reasonably. "It was meant to be."

Nick nodded. "We need to be together. It's like, you know, fate."

JC blinked again, looked from Chris to Nick, then turned back to Howie. "You think someone drugged them?"

Howie threw one t-shirt at Nick and another at Chris. "That's the only thing I've heard from anyone in this room so far that's made sense." He yanked the sheet back and started to pull the t-shirt over Nick's head. "Can you make Chris get dressed?"

"Well, I can try," JC said, not sounding entirely sure of it. "Chris, don't make me look at your naked ass. And um, other bits. Here." He held out the sweatpants and a pair of socks.

Nick and Chris got dressed, though they insisted on holding hands as much as possible while they did it. "My precious turtledove," Chris said, and leaned his head against Nick's shoulder.

"Okay," Howie said to JC, "you hold onto that one, and I'll take this one."

Howie grabbed Nick by the arm, JC grabbed Chris by the shoulders, and Chris and Nick clung to each other. After a minute, JC and Howie looked at each other. "I don't think this is gonna work, man."

Howie glared at Nick. "I swear he was a foot shorter last year. And not nearly so stupid. Nicky, are you gonna come quietly, or do I have to get Kevin?"

"You don't understand," Nick said, staring imploringly at Howie over Chris's shoulder. "He's the one that I want."

"Light of my life," Chris agreed. "Joy of my existence."

Howie threw his arms up. He turned to JC. "Would you please make sure they keep their clothes on? I'm going for reinforcements."

5.2

"Brian." Howie tapped Brian's shoulder and leaned in to speak in his ear. "I need you to help me. We have a bit of a problem."

"Yeah?" Brian edged out of the group he was listening to and put his glass down on the nearest table. "What do you need? Where's Nick?"

"We need to get Nick out of here. He, um." Howie tugged Brian towards the door. "He isn't feeling well."

"Wait, wait." Brian dug his heels in and frowned with concern. "Lemme get the rest of the fellas, and we'll all go. No one's gonna want to stay if Nick's taken ill."

Brian pulled away. Howie grabbed for his arm, but missed. "Brian!"

"Just a minute," Brian said and went into the crowd again in the direction of Kevin.

5.3

JC tried to make the bed. After the third time he slipped in the patch of lube on the floor and nearly fell, he put the pillows down on top of it, put the bedspread down over the messy sheets, and piled most of the stuff on the floor on top. Then he looked at Nick and Chris. "Could you guys stop that?"

Nick and Chris separated with an audible suction-cup plop. "Stop what?"

"That whole... face-eating zombies horror movie thing." JC took a closer look. Then he clapped his hands over his eyes. "Jesus! Chris, get your hand out of there!"

"We're soulmates, C," Chris said seriously.

JC peered through his fingers and shuddered. "Yeah, well, that is not his soul, okay? So knock it off."

"We need to, um, be together," Nick said.

"To consummate our bond," Chris said. "To become one."

JC whimpered. The door opened and Joey came into the room. He stumbled on Nick's boot and kicked it aside. "Hey, guys, what's up? Did Howie find you?"

JC grabbed Joey. "Thank God you're here. Make them stop."

"Stop what?" Joey took a closer look at Nick and Chris. "Holy shit."

"That's not the worst part," JC said. "The worst part is when they start talking like Barbara Cartland."

"The pure beauty of our love needs to be expressed in the world of the senses," Chris said.

JC dropped his head on Joey's shoulder. "Kill me now."

5.4

"Look, guys." Joey patted Chris's shoulder, grabbed his arm, and tried to tug his hand to a better and more G-rated place. "I don't know if this is a practical joke or if someone fed you shrooms or what, but you need to stop it right now."

The door opened and Justin came in. His jaw dropped. "Holy shit." He stared from Nick to Chris and back again. "Holy shit."

"Close the door, Justin, please." JC joined Joey in tugging on Chris's arm. "Chris, man. You can't do this. Let go of Nick. Howie's gonna come back with Kevin, and we need you in one piece."

"No one is going to tear us apart," Chris said. "We are joined forever. There is no reason for anyone to be upset."

"Oh, I kinda think there is," Joey said.

JC nodded. He put a hand on Chris's shoulder and stared earnestly at him. "Chris, they're gonna be upset. He's a kid, he's their baby brother. Just imagine if it was Justin you were doing that with."

Justin started to edge towards the door.

"Are you suggesting I would be untrue to my love?" Chris looked outraged.

Justin stopped.

"Well, imagine it was JC sleeping with Justin, then," Joey said. Justin edged closer. "Or Kevin." Justin almost left skid marks on the floor.

Chris looked up from Nick's collarbone. "JC wants to sleep with Justin? Hey!"

JC clutched at his hair. "Can we leave me out of this? And Justin. And everything that isn't you groping Nick Carter and Backstreet is gonna be so pissed and you have to stop it, like, right now."

5.5

"I couldn't find AJ," Brian said, towing Kevin behind him. "I guess he went to the bathroom or something."

"Maybe Kevin should stay here and look for him," Howie suggested.

"We'll get him on our way out." Kevin followed Brian towards the door. He slung an arm around Howie and tugged him along. "Please tell me Nick isn't sick because he's been drinking."

"Um."

Kevin shut the door behind them, and the noise from the party died down. "Howie?"

"I really don't know exactly what he's been doing," Howie said truthfully. "I think maybe we'd better just go get him." He pressed the button for the elevator. "It might be possible that he drank. Something. He's in Chris's room."

"So at least someone's looking after him, right?" Brian got into the elevator and leaned against the far wall with his arms crossed. "That's pretty nice of Chris."

"Mm. Er. JC's there, too." Howie tapped his fingers against his arm and watched the lights on the elevator panel. Five. Six. Seven.

Eight.

They all piled out and walked down the corridor. "What room is it?" Brian asked.

"Here," Howie said, and got the key card Joey had given him out of his pocket. He opened the door.

5.5.1

Justin was sitting on the edge of the bed, mopping up glühwein and lube from the floor with Nick's socks. Joey was threatening to beat Chris over the head with the hotel phone. JC was just standing there with his hands over his eyes. Chris was licking Nick's throat, and Nick was making squeaky noises.

"I'm going to kill him," Kevin said.

5.6

"Nick!" Brian burst into the room. "What is going on here?!"

"What's going on is I am going to kill Kirkpatrick," Kevin said, striding forward despite Howie trying to hang on to his arm, "and then we're taking Nick home."

"Don't touch him!" Nick said and tried to stand protectively in front of Chris.

"You can't take him away from me!" Chris said and tried to stand protectively in front of Nick.

JC lowered his hands and looked beseechingly at Kevin. "Please take him away. Please. But don't hurt Chris, okay? I think they've been drugged or something."

Brian looked concerned. "Nick? Nick, are you okay? Turn around and talk to me."

"Everything's fine," Nick said. His eyes were shining. "I've found my true love, and everything is wonderful. And I think you should all go away now and stop bugging us."

"You've found your what now?" Brian stared from Nick to Chris to Nick again. Then he turned to JC. "So. They've been drugged or something."

"If Kirkpatrick drugged Nick," Kevin said pleasantly, "I'm going to rip his spine out."

Joey stepped into the middle of the group and held his hands up. "Whoa. Wait. Everybody calm down. No one's gonna rip anything out of anyone."

"I dunno," JC said uncertainly, "I think I might claw my eyes out if those two don't stop pawing each other like that. I mean, just look where Chris has his—" Howie stepped on his foot. "Ow! Hey, what was that for, man?"

"Look," Justin said from the bed. "Can't you guys just take Nick and leave before Jan or Petra or somebody, like, official comes up here to find out what's going on?"

Brian nodded. "If Nick's been drugged, we should get him to the hospital."

JC frowned. "And if Chris has been drugged—" He paused to peer closely at Chris. "Huh. And I always thought we'd never be able to tell the difference."

Chris wrapped himself more tightly around Nick. "You will never be able to tear us apart. Don't even try."

"Oh, I'd love to try," Kevin said murderously.

"Kevin!"

"Howie, move out of my way."

"Nick, you've gotta come with us."

"Don't you touch my precious beloved!"

"Chris, let go of. That. Nick."

Someone knocked on the door.

5.7

Justin got off the bed and went to open the door a crack, peering outside carefully. Then he stood back and let Lance and AJ into the room. "Hi. Welcome to where the crazy people are."

AJ stared across the room at Nick and Chris, and started to grin. "Way to go, Nick."

Lance looked at everyone in the room in turn, finally settling on Howie. "What is going on here?"

"We think maybe Chris and Nick have been drugged," Howie said, "and it's making them act a little funny, and we'd just like to take Nick with us and get out of here."

"I'm not leaving," Nick said. "He's wearing my ring. We're, like, connected now. Forever."

"No, you're not," Kevin said.

"Wait." Lance went around Kevin and Joey and stood next to Nick. "First I think we should check out what you two ate and drank at the party. And what was that about a ring?"

Nick and Chris each held up a hand. The rings shone in the light. "These are the symbols of our love and our destiny," Chris said.

AJ howled with laughter. "Talk about moving fast."

"Shut up," Lance said over his shoulder. "Did you get your drinks from anywhere besides the bar? Did you see when they were poured? Did you leave your mugs somewhere and come back later?"

Nick shook his head. Chris shook his head. "You don't understand," Chris said. "This is a spiritual experience."

"Right," JC muttered. "That was why you had your hand— Ow! Howie!"

Lance rubbed at his forehead. "Chris. When did you start feeling like this? Was it right after you drank something?"

Chris shook his head. "Nick gave me his ring. I knew then that we were destined to be together for ever more."

"Maybe they fell and hit their heads," Joey suggested.

AJ sucked in a deep breath and stopped laughing, mostly. He came over to Nick. "You gave Chris one of your rings? With those funky cool symbols on? You barely let me look at them." He tried to choke down another spurt of laughter. "You must really like him."

Joey squinted. "I don't see any symbols."

JC blinked at him. "You don't? They're right there." He tried to point, and Nick yanked his hand away. "They were right there."

Lance frowned and turned to Kevin. "Why don't you just take Nick with you—"

"That's what we're trying to do," Kevin said in a cold voice.

"—and keep an eye on him, and maybe they'll sleep this off."

"What if they don't," Justin said from the bed, sounding skeptical.

"Then we'll deal with it in the morning. Joey, C, you hold on to Chris."

Kevin and Brian took hold of Nick and dragged him away. "You can't do this!" Nick yelled. "I'll come back for you, my love!"

Howie handed the key card back to Joey. "Thanks for the loan. I appreciate the—"

"I know you will!" Chris yelled back. "Our souls are united in holy—"

JC slapped his hand over Chris's mouth. "Leave faster," he said to Kevin.

5.7.1

"I'll never forgive you," Chris said. "You have cruelly parted me from my own true love."

Joey shook his head. "No, what we did was, we kept you from certain death by stopping you from groping Nick Carter in front of Kevin. Seriously now, Chris, what the hell is wrong with you?"

Chris wrapped his arms around his knees and sniffed. "I'm not with Nick. That's wrong."

"Maybe they're putting us on," Justin said. "Maybe this is Chris's idea of a joke."

"Putting your hand in Nick's pants when Kevin is looking isn't a joke," JC said, "it's like, trying to commit suicide by boyband." He sat down next to Chris on the bed and put his arm around Chris's shoulders. "Um, Chris? Do you think I could maybe look at your ring for a minute?"

Chris clenched his hand. "I'm never taking this off," he said. "Ever."

"No, okay, but I just want to see it. Keep it on, man, relax." JC patted Chris's shoulder. "You can just hold your hand up so I can see it, that's okay, right?"

"Yes," Chris said cautiously and held his hand up.

JC leaned in close. "Huh. It's got these little..." He blinked. "I could have sworn there was something engraved on here."

Lance came over and bent down to look. "I don't see anything." He grabbed Chris's hand by the wrist and turned it this way and that. "Wait, there's something."

"Right!" JC waved his free hand in the air. "Kind of a swirly bit and a bit with a sort of..."

"I can't see a thing," Joey said.

Justin came over. "Hey, let me look."

"No." Chris yanked his hand to his chest and curled protectively around it. "You all can just stop breathing on my wedding ring."

There was a brief pause.

"Your what?!"

5.8

JC left, clutching his head, to get some painkillers. Joey left to see if the event downstairs was still going on and to make their excuses. Lance left to make a few calls. Justin stayed behind and tried to play cards with Chris and distract him with general conversation, but Chris replied to every comment by saying how much he was missing Nick and how he intended to never eat again and waste away and die and then they'd be sorry, and after about an hour of that, Justin, too, clutched his head and left.

Chris sat cross-legged on the bed and petted his ring. Another hour passed.

Someone tapped on the door. Chris got up and opened it, then bounced happily on the balls of his feet. "Nick!"

Nick came in and wrapped his arms around Chris. "I sneaked out through the window," he said. "I had to come and be with you!"

Chris kissed him. "My hero," he said.

"Also," Nick said, pink-cheeked with cold and embarrassment, "I bought new lube."

They fell onto the bed.

5.9

Chris didn't come out of his room the next morning. Justin, Joey, JC, and Lance all looked at each other, and then Lance got the extra key card from Joey and he and JC went to 807. Lance keyed the door open. JC peered inside. "Oh, no."

Lance followed JC inside. Nick and Chris were in bed together, glued to each other under the covers. "I guess they weren't listening when I told them to watch Nick."

JC sighed. "Can't we handcuff them to something?"

Lance got his phone out. "Hello. Howie? We've got Nick. Yeah. We'll send him back as soon as we can get some clothes on him." There was a longish pause. "No, I really don't think there's any chance he's still a virgin. We can trade you Justin." Another pause. "You guys haven't seen any marks on Nick's ring, have you? Like, symbols and stuff."

JC poked warily at Nick. "Wake up. Get up. Stop... whatever is is you're doing."

"Right. Oh, AJ did? Can he describe them?" Lance scratched at his chin. "Can you put him on?"

Nick blinked big sleepy blue eyes. "Go 'way."

JC poked Chris instead. "Chris, get up. We have a radio interview. You have Nick Carter in your bed."

"Mmm," Chris said and snuggled closer to Nick.

"No," Lance said, "no, I really don't think you should — AJ? I really don't think you should make tattoos out of those symbols. I think that might be a really bad idea."

JC went to the door and stuck his head out. "Guys? I could use some help here."

5.9.5

JC sat on Chris's legs while Joey and Justin yanked Nick out of bed. Once he wasn't in physical contact with Chris any more, Nick put his clothes on without too much argument.

"I'll take him downstairs," Joey said, "put him in a taxi."

"We won't be parted long," Chris said from the bed.

"I'll see you soon, my love," Nick said and let himself be towed out of the room, walking backwards with Joey's arm around his waist, staring at Chris for as long as he could.

Chris sat up and pushed JC off his legs. "Can I get out of bed here?"

JC looked assessingly at him. "Are you gonna run after Nick?"

"No." Chris scratched his stomach. "I'm going to take a shower and get dressed."

"Yes!" JC got up off the bed and did a victory dance. "He's back to normal!"

"No, I'm not," Chris said. "Not unless I've always wanted to spend the rest of my life making Nick Carter happy and I've just been hiding it really well." He swung his legs over the side of the bed. "Do you all have to stand there and stare at me like this?"

"We really do," Justin said. "It's kind of special to hear you talk like a mostly sane person again."

"Did you even hear what I said?" Chris stood up. "Nick. Love of my life. Anything to make him happy. You think I should send roses to his hotel?"

"No," JC said. "So how come you're better now than you were last night?"

Chris stared at his toes. "I think it's cause we. um. Consummated the relationship."

JC sat down abruptly on the bed. "Chris! You fucked Nick Carter?!"

"No," Chris mumbled.

JC blinked. Then he fell sideways on the bed and wheezed. Justin reached out and grabbed Chris very gingerly by the shoulders and aimed him at the bathroom. "Go. Please don't come back until you've got clothes on."

JC lay on his back on the bed and sang White Wedding. Justin had just started to beatbox along when Lance hung up the phone. "You guys keep an eye on Chris, okay?" he said and went out of the room.

6.

The radio interviewer was small and perky and had a very low-cut shirt. Her name was Lena. She leaned forward across the table and smiled. "So, Justin, what's your favorite color?" Her accent made the name sound like Chustin.

Justin dragged his gaze up towards the microphone and her face. "Baby blue."

Lena moved on to lean towards Joey. "Joey, what did you want to be when you were a child?"

Joey didn't even try to look at her face, but he did smile. "I pretty much always wanted to sing and dance and act, really. Been doing it since I was so high."

"Chris, who's your celebrity crush?"

"Nick Carter," Chris said between clenched teeth. "I think he's dreamy."

Lena giggled. "Chris is the funny one, yes?"

"Oh, yeah," Joey said. "Chris is a bit funny."

6.1

"This sucks," Chris said as they piled into the back of a van to be driven back to the hotel. "This sucks like a convention of vacuum cleaner salesmen."

"What?" JC put an arm around Chris's shoulders. "You're not happy having found the love of your life and being, um, married to him, right?"

Chris socked JC in the chest. "I'm in love with Nick Carter! I can't think about anything else! And we've got, what, three more days in the same city!"

Joey began to hum under his breath.

JC frowned. "Oh, man, you're right. Are you gonna be talking about him in every interview we do? Maybe we should have left you behind at the hotel. People are gonna think you're in the wrong band."

Joey broke into song. "Why do birds si~ing so gay, and lovers await the break of day..."

"Shut up," Chris said.

Justin fell in. "Why do they fall in lo~ove?"

"I hate you."

JC opened his mouth, too. "Why does the rain fall from up above?"

Chris flung his hands up, shook his head, and made it four-part harmony. "Why do fools fall in love? Why do they fall in love?"

"Seriously," Justin said when the song was over. "I hope someone can figure this shit out before we have to take you anywhere in public again."

6.2

Nick looked at his watch. "So we have almost four hours, right? Before we have to be anywhere?"

Howie looked at Nick, then sat down on the armrest of the couch, next to him. "No, you can't."

"I'll be— Hey, I didn't even ask yet!"

"You cannot go see Chris." Howie leaned over Nick, which only worked when they were sitting down, any more.

"Yes, I can."

"You cannot go see Chris."

Nick tried that thing with his eyelashes. "You won't even notice I'm gone."

"Yes, we will." Kevin loomed over both of them.

Nick sighed. "Look, I just wanna go see him. Howie can come with. Hell, AJ's probably over there right now. How come he gets to hang out with 'N Sync and I don't?"

"AJ isn't sixteen—"

"Seventeen," Nick said patiently.

"And he's not having sex with them."

Nick stood up so he could be eye to eye with Kevin. "How do you know?"

Kevin made a sound of badly suppressed distress. Then he looked at Howie. "Maybe you should take Nick over there," he said. "See what's up with AJ, too." He turned back to Nick. "And even if he is, it's not because he's been drugged, or whatever it is that's happened to you. Nick, you're just not yourself right now. You'll thank us for this later."

"I really don't need you to protect me from my soulmate," Nick said. "But, you know. Thanks anyway, I guess." He looked at Howie. "Are you ready? Can we go right now?"

6.3

JC and Joey were trying to keep Chris distracted by playing poker with him. Chris was losing badly, mostly because he threw away everything that wasn't hearts. JC was just threatening to cut him out altogether when there was a knock on the door. Joey went to open. "Oh, it's you. Hey." Then he looked over Howie's shoulder. "Oh God, you brought Nick."

"It was either that or tie him up," Howie said, "and I don't really think we're in a bondage kind of relationship."

Nick pushed his way past Howie and Joey with single-minded determination. "Chris!"

Chris leaped up from the bed, scattering everyone's cards. "Nick! Sweetheart!"

They fell into each other's arms and made cooing noises. Nick kissed the tip of Chris's nose. Chris leaned his head against Nick's shoulder.

"I brought you flowers," Nick said, poking Chris in the face with a couple of long-stemmed roses.

"Oh, Nick, you shouldn't have." Chris beamed. "They're gorgeous. Just like you. I wanted to send you flowers, too."

"I don't need flowers. I've got you."

They kissed.

"Seriously," JC said to no one in particular. "I need to be sedated."

6.5

Justin and JC lounged on opposite ends of Lance's bed, watching German commercials with nearly naked people in them and kicking lazily at each other's legs to get more room for themselves, when Lance opened the door. They both jumped up.

"You can't just take off like that!" Justin said. "We had interviews. We had a radio thing."

"I went to the library with AJ and did some research," Lance said, walking into the room and putting notebooks and papers down on the desk.

Justin stuck his chin out in the underbite of extreme annoyance. "You went to the library. Radio, Lance!"

Lance looked pointedly at Justin. "If we don't get this thing figured out, Kevin is gonna kill Chris, and he'll never let us take Howie instead."

"Okay. True." Justin looked mollified. "You went to the library with AJ? He can read?"

"Probably," Lance said. "I went to the library with AJ cause he's the only one to get a good look at those symbols on the rings, and I needed him to identify them for me."

Justin frowned. "Why are you looking at symbols on rings when Chris has gone totally insane?"

"Because." Lance looked around. "Where is Chris, anyway?"

JC sighed. "Guess."

"He went over to them? Do we know he's still alive?"

"No, no, Howie brought Nick here. Or maybe Nick brought Howie. Either way, they're in Chris's room. Fully supervised."

"And Joey?"

"Babysitting, too. Last I saw, he and Howie were playing cards."

"Okay." Lance nodded and picked up his notes from the desk again. "So, listen."

Justin looked around. "Where's AJ? Did he go back?"

"No, I'm here," AJ said, coming into the room. "I was just checking up on a few things. Howie is totally cleaning Joey out, so I hope he doesn't owe you guys any money. He's being a total sucker for Howie's never-seen-a-deck-of-cards-before act."

Justin scowled. "Don't you have a band of your own to be in?"

"I like yours," AJ said. "Parts of it, anyway. And I wouldn't miss out on you guys telling Nick and Chris about this for Neve Campbell lying naked on top of a million dollars." He paused. "Well, I wouldn't miss out on it for half a million. Or half naked."

Lance cleared his throat in a way that made JC jump. AJ just grinned. "Listen. About those rings—"

"We never even gave them drug tests," Justin said morosely. "It's too late now. Maybe we're stuck with them being broken."

"I talked to some people last night," Lance said. "About those rings—"

"We're never gonna be able to take Chris to another interview ever again." Justin poked JC. "Think you can learn to be funny to make up for it?"

"No," JC said.

"About those rings," Lance said. "I know what's going on now."

Justin blinked. "From looking up the symbols in the library? I just don't see how that's going to help us."

"We didn't exactly find out about the symbols," AJ said. "We found out about the rings. We think."

"They were all supposed to have been destroyed or disappeared." Lance shuffled his notes until he got to the right page. "Apparently this was from, like, the days of arranged marriages, and the whole point with the rings was to get two people who maybe hadn't even seen each other before to stick together and ensure the succession."

"I want to tell Nick," AJ said. "Please, please, please, let me tell Nick."

"Wait," Justin said. "What, you're saying this is like, magic or something? That's stupid."

"Justin." Lance tapped his notes. "Have you seen Chris and Nick lately? I think a really stupid theory is exactly what we're looking for here."

JC scratched his chin. "So those symbols on the rings are making them do this?"

"Seems that way."

"Huh. Okay. I thought they looked kinda funny." JC nodded. "So how do we make them stop? Is this, like, the forever kind of magic, or does it have an expiration date?"

AJ grinned, radiating glee from the tips of his boots to the frames of his sunglasses. "I want to tell Nick," he said again. "I really, really want to tell Nick."

7.

Joey came into the room. "Hey, AJ. Guys. Can anyone lend me a hundred?"

"No," JC said. "Lance has figured out what's wrong with Chris and Nick."

"Great!" Joey smiled and clapped Lance on the back. "Good work, man. So how do we fix them? We gotta do something, I can't afford to keep playing poker with Howie if this is gonna go on for days and days."

"Well, we may have a problem," Lance said.

"We already have a problem," Justin pointed out. "This is not news."

"Kind of a different problem," AJ said. "Did you listen at all when Lance told you what these rings were used for?"

Justin looked puzzled. "Sure I did. Marriage, succession, whatever. I don't care, I just want them fixed."

JC's legs gave out and he sat down plop on the floor. "Holy shit."

"What?" Justin stared at JC, at Lance, at AJ, who was grinning. "What what what?"

"The rings are supposed to make people stick together and have babies," JC said from the floor. "We are so fucked."

"Well, someone sure is," AJ said.

"But Chris said he hadn't, um." Justin blinked slowly.

"It kinda depends on who's wearing which ring," AJ said. "Think about it."

Justin turned red. Then he made a face. "Really, really don't want to."

"So they're gonna be like this until Chris gets pregnant?" Joey shook his head. "Man, is he going to love that piece of news."

7.5

AJ looked at his watch. "I gotta collect Howie and Nick, we're running late. How about we hurry up and tell them?"

Lance nodded. "All right. You want your sketches back?"

"Nah, you can keep them. I guess I won't be getting those tats after all."

"And then what?" JC demanded.

"Then we watch the screaming and the running around in circles," Joey suggested.

"Come on," AJ said and walked out of the room. Lance went after him, and the rest of them went after Lance.

Chris and Nick were sitting on the bed. Howie was sitting between them with his elbows out. He looked up with relief as everyone came into the room. "Thank God. A little assistance here?"

"Absolutely," AJ said and walked over to the bed and plopped himself down on Nick's lap, making a show of getting himself comfortably settled. "We bring assistance. And news. Man, do we bring news."

"We've figured out what's wrong with Chris and Nick," Lance said.

"Thank God." Howie looked eagerly at them. "Tell us, then!"

Lance told them.

7.5.1

Chris leaped up and stared around wildly. "Oh, you have got to be fucking kidding me. I'm not going to have Nick's babies!"

"Shoulda picked the other ring," AJ said. "Except then Kevin would have really killed you."

"Weird as it is, somehow I don't think that's my biggest problem right now. Babies! Fuck!"

JC tipped his head to one side thoughtfully. "Maybe you can adopt."

Chris looked at JC. "Do not make me beat you to death with these roses."

Howie came out of the bathroom with a wet towel and laid it across Nick's forehead. "Nick? Nicky, you have to wake up now."

"Nick!" Chris leaped to Nick's side. "Angel baby, are you okay?"

Nick blinked slowly, looked up, saw Chris hovering over him, reached up, and dragged him down.

"No," Howie said. "No! Nick! Chris! Oh, for—"

"Anyone got a bucket of cold water?" AJ bent over to get a closer look. "Or we could leave them alone for an hour, see if they work out this baby problem on their own."

Lance glared at AJ. "I thought you three were in a hurry for something."

"You never let me have any fun," AJ said. "Okay, okay. You guys pull Chris away and Sweet D and I will take Romeo here to a wardrobe meeting and hope he'll remember wherefore he is."

"Actually," JC said, "that's—"

"Joey," Lance said commandingly, and Lance and Joey took hold of Chris and pulled.

"Chris, let go," Joey said. "You're not gonna get pregnant on my watch, so please stop trying."

"Oh, God," Chris whimpered and let go. Joey and Lance and Chris staggered backwards. "I want to get pregnant. I want to get pregnant. I want to get—"

"Okay, shut up," Justin said, looking a bit green. "We're going to fix this." He looked at Lance. "Right?"

"Right." Lance nodded a bit too heartily. "Of course we are."

Nick jumped up from the bed and tried to get to Chris. "I need you!" Howie and AJ held him back, with some difficulty.

"I need you, too," Chris whimpered. "Just shoot me, someone, please."

Justin and JC helped Howie and AJ get Nick out of the room. Joey looked at Lance. "Tell me you know how to fix this."

Lance drew a deep breath. "I might have an idea."

7.6

Justin sat with Chris, on the strict understanding that Chris would not talk about anything he and Nick had done while less than fully clothed. To get him to not talk about Nick at all seemed to be wholly impossible. JC, Joey, and Lance had a council of war in Lance's room.

"So we have to get those rings off them," Lance said.

JC nodded. "Good idea. Except did you see Chris when all I tried to do was look?"

Lance set his jaw. "That can't be helped. I don't care if they're glued on, those rings have to come off."

"I'm against anything that involves cutting people's fingers off," Joey said. JC nodded in fervent agreement.

"We're not cutting anyone's fingers off," Lance said. "We'll just have to drug them."

"Oh," JC said faintly. "Great."

"Okay. You two get hold of Backstreet, tell someone to bring Nick over, do not tell Kevin we're going to drug Nick when he gets here." Lance got up and put on his coat and hat.

"Where are you going?" Joey asked.

Lance looked a little grim. He pulled his hat down nearly over his eyes and wrapped his muffler around his face. "Shopping," he said.

7.6.1

"I don't see why we have to go over to their hotel in the middle of the night," Brian said.

"I don't mind," Nick said.

Howie sighed. "We know." He pushed at Nick's legs. "Move over. The rest of us need to get in, too."

"I hope they've really figured something out," Kevin said, climbing into the car. "We can't do a tour with Nick like this." He ruffled Nick's hair. "He'd probably try to dedicate all the songs to Chris."

"That's just so sweet," AJ said, getting in last and sliding the door shut. "Young love." He leaned forward and talked to the driver in fractured German.

Brian snorted. "They have to be sweet in the middle of the night?"

AJ leaned back again. "It's like going to a pajama party," he said, adjusting his sunglasses. "We can all sit and listen to Nick and Chris talk about cute boys."

"As opposed to what we've been doing all day," Kevin muttered.

"Wait," Nick said, flinging a hand up and nearly hitting Kevin in the face. "We have to stop somewhere so I can get Chris some more flowers. And chocolate. And champagne."

"Everywhere's closed," Brian said firmly. "I'm sure Chris will understand."

Nick looked uncertain. "Yeah?"

Howie patted Nick's hand. "Of course he'll understand." Under his breath he added, "I could really use a drink, though."

"Lance will have thought of something," AJ said. He grinned wickedly. "He usually does."

7.6.1.1

"Okay, Nicky," Howie said in the elevator, "please make an effort to control yourself. We'll all appreciate it. Especially Kevin."

Nick nodded seriously. "I'll be good," he said.

The elevator doors opened. Justin and Chris were throwing a frisbee to each other in the corridor. Nick's face lit up. "Baby!"

Chris looked up. "Angel!"

They rushed at each other. Nick picked Chris up and spun him around, nearly hitting Kevin in the groin with Chris's flying feet. "Baby, I've missed you so much!"

Howie thumped his head against the wall.

7.6.2

Lance came out of the door to the service stairs, unwrapping his muffler. Nick and Chris were spinning around the corridor like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in winter boots. Lance sighed, then stared at Howie. "Get them into a room. Any room." He looked at Justin, Brian, Kevin, and AJ. "Get everyone into a room, and stay there."

"Key card," Howie said.

Lance pointed at Chris. "In his pockets somewhere. I think Nick is about to find it."

AJ looked on, fascinated. "Does it count as public indecency if it's in a hotel corridor?"

Kevin and Brian went to break it up. "I've got the card," Justin said, and he and Howie got the door open.

Lance went into his own room and glared at JC and Joey. "Which part of don't tell Kevin did you two not understand?"

"I talked to Howie," JC said. "Don't look at me like that, man. They're in a group together. I guess they tell each other things. Unlike some other people who just say they're going to fix things and then they go shopping and don't explain."

"I just didn't want you to worry," Lance said.

Joey frowned. "About how we're going to fix things?"

"Well, that, too." Lance stuck his head back out the door. "AJ!"

AJ wandered over. "Yeah?"

"Get some fruit juice and a couple of glasses."

"Hi, I'm room service," AJ said to Joey and JC. "Anything else you want?"

"Well, we haven't had dinner yet," Joey said. "I like mustard on my sandwiches."

7.6.5

Lance got a foil strip out of the pocket of his coat. He took off hat and muffler and gloves and coat and dumped them on the bed, and looked around the room. "I need something heavy."

JC looked around the room, too. "The bed?"

"I was thinking something just a little smaller." Lance hefted the desk lamp, which had a flat, clunky base. "This should do."

There was a knock on the door. Joey opened, and AJ came in with a tray. "Juice and sandwiches," he said. "And glasses."

Joey grabbed a sandwich. "Did you remember the mustard?"

"No." AJ put the tray on the desk and looked at Lance. "Now tell me how orange juice is going to get those rings away from Nick and Chris."

"Like this," Lance said. He popped one pill out, crushed it with the lamp, and brushed it into a glass and poured juice on.

AJ looked on in fascination. "You're slipping them roofies?"

Lance popped out a second pill and hefted the lamp again. "You have a better idea?"

"No, no. Go on. Remind me never to cross you." AJ poured juice in a second glass and held it for Lance to brush the pill fragments into.

"Oh my God, you went out and bought drugs," JC said. "You could have been recognized! Or arrested! Or killed!"

"See, I knew you would have worried." Lance went across the room, dug into one of his bags, and came up with a small bottle of vodka.

"Are you sure that's a good idea?" Joey said nervously around a mouthful of sandwich.

"No," Lance said and added a judicious splash to each glass. "Now let's go drug our friends and steal their things for their own good."

7.6.6

Nick and Chris were sitting on Chris's bed, cuddling. Kevin and Brian and Justin were watching them, looking pained. Howie was at the desk, playing solitaire. Lance put the tray down on top of the cards. "I think we could all use a drink," he said.

He started to pour juice into empty glasses. JC took the two already full glasses on the tray and handed them to Nick and Chris. "Here. You can, um, toast your love, or something."

Their eyes lit up, and they cuddled closer.

"Forever," Chris said and tapped his glass gently against Nick's.

"Forever," Nick echoed, staring into Chris's eyes.

They drank.

Lance added a very small splash of vodka to each of the other glasses and started handing them out, one by one, as slowly as he could.

Kevin frowned. "I thought you had a plan." He looked at the glass in his hand, sniffed it, and tasted the contents. "This is not a plan."

"And you mix kind of weak drinks," Howie said.

"Sorry." Lance added another splash of vodka to Howie's glass. "I just thought we could use a minute to relax." He checked his watch. "Or twenty."

Justin held out his glass, too. Lance just looked at him and shook his head. Justin pouted and sipped at his weak drink, then made a face and handed the glass to JC.

"You're so beautiful," Chris said, staring into Nick's eyes. He drained his glass. "Beautiful, beautiful blue eyes. And kind of. swirly."

"I want to drink to. Um." Nick blinked very slowly. "Your mouth, and your hands, and that cute mole you have on your—"

"Just drink," JC said. "You really don't have to tell everyone."

Nick drank.

Justin looked at JC. "You know where Chris has a cute mole?"

"No," JC said. "I've known him for a couple of years and I've seen him in a Speedo and I don't know where he has a cute mole. That's kinda my point."

Justin thought about it. "Oh."

"So, about that plan," Kevin said.

"Maybe we should lie down," Chris said in a slurred voice. He and Nick tilted slowly backwards, holding on to each other. JC helpfully lifted their legs onto the bed, shifting them a little so they were lying more or less the right way around.

Kevin stared at them. He looked down at his own glass. "What was in this orange juice?"

"In yours, just vodka," Lance said. He walked over to the bed and poked Chris's shoulder. Chris smiled sleepily up at him, then closed his eyes and snuggled into Nick. Nick kissed Chris without opening his own eyes, and put an arm around him.

"They're actually kind of cute," JC said. "When they keep their clothes on."

Lance carefully picked up Chris's hand and started to work the ring off his finger. Chris mumbled something unintelligible, but didn't try to get away. Lance slipped the ring free.

Brian came to sit on the edge of the bed and loosened Nick's arm from around Chris so he could get at Nick's fingers. He twisted the ring loose from Nick's finger with quick, sure movements and handed it to Lance.

"You wanna explain this to us?" Kevin asked with deceptive mildness.

"It was the rings," Brian said. He looked up at Lance. "You think this'll work, just getting the rings away from them?"

"I hope so."

Kevin frowned. "The rings. What do you mean, it was the rings?"

"Magic," JC said cheerfully, having finished both his own and Justin's drink. "The rings have, like, some weird old mojo. Lance has a lot of research you can look at."

Kevin stared at Brian. "You believe this?"

"Well." Brian looked thoughtful. "It kinda fits with what we've seen. I'm not saying it's not crazy, but Nick got those rings and he gave one to Chris and then all this happened. I don't see we've got anything to lose, finding out if this helps."

"Unless one of them has a bad drug reaction," Kevin said darkly. He looked at Lance. "All right. Now what?"

Lance put the rings in his pocket. "Now we wait till they wake up."

"How long will that take?"

"I haven't actually ever drugged anyone with Rohypnol before," Lance snarled. "This is not something I do for fun. How the hell should I know?"

Kevin took half a step backwards. "Sorry."

Joey checked his watch. "What time do we have to be anywhere tomorrow?"

7.6.6.1

Kevin looked at Nick, who was flat on his back and snoring, with most of Chris on top of him. He sighed. "I'll go down to reception and see if I can get rooms for us close to this one," he said to Howie. "We can take turns sleeping and keeping an eye on Nick."

7.6.6.2

"They only had one room free on this floor," Kevin said, tugging off Nick's boots.

"We can double up," Lance said, dumping Chris's shoes on the floor. "We're gonna be awake in shifts, too. It's better to have two people in here so they can keep each other awake. JC, why don't you go share with Justin, and Howie can take your room, and Kevin and Brian can take the room Kevin got."

"Sure," JC said and yawned. "You'll wake us when you need us, right?" He spread a sheet over Nick and Chris and tucked it around their shoulders.

"Right." Lance looked at his watch. "I think you should all go to bed now. Try to get as much sleep as you can." He pulled the desk chair up next to the bed and sat down.

Brian patted Nick's calf and went out with Kevin. Howie got JC's key card, and they left with Justin. Joey snagged a last sandwich and left, too.

"Okay," AJ said and grinned. "So. You wanna play poker?"

7.6.6.3

Lance knocked on the door to JC's old room until Howie came and opened, blinking blearily at him. "You're up."

"Okay," Howie said and yawned. "Who else?"

"Joey," Lance said and went across the hallway. It took a while longer before Joey came to the door. "Babysitting time."

Joey squinted across the corridor at Howie. "I'm not playing cards with that guy again," he said. "Just saying."

Howie paused outside the door to Chris's room and looked around. "Where's AJ?"

"Probably already in bed," Lance said, went into his own room, and shut the door.

7.6.6.4

JC and Brian had the last shift, and at six thirty they went around and knocked on everyone's doors. They all piled into Chris's room and watched Chris and Nick, who were still out cold. Justin fell asleep again, sitting on the floor with his head leaning on the edge of the bed.

At seven, Kevin and Joey went down and raided the breakfast buffet for coffee and rolls.

At a quarter past seven, Howie finished his coffee and said, "We should just try to wake them up. We're taping a TV appearance today, we have to know if Nick can do it or not." He went over to the bed. "Nicky? It's time to get up."

"Mrrp," Nick said.

JC went around to the other side of the bed and pushed at the lump next to Nick that was presumably Chris. "Up," he said. "Photo shoot. Work. Move." He yanked the sheet down until Chris's face was visible.

Chris blinked slowly. "Wha'. Oh. Oh, fuck, my head." He clung closer to Nick. "Not getting up."

"Chris, you have to." JC looked at Lance. "Maybe we should get them some water or something."

"I can pour water on Nick," AJ said. "No problem. Just say the word."

"Shut up," Lance said. "Joey, water. Justin, painkillers." He looked at Justin. "Are you sleeping with your eyes open?"

"I was sleeping with my eyes closed until you went all world dictator on me," Justin muttered and levered himself upright. "Is it safe for us to give them painkillers?"

"It's not safe for you not to give me any," Chris said. "What the fuck did you do to me! And — Nick! Nick, angel darling baby, talk to me! Are you all right, precious?"

"Mmf," Nick said, and kissed Chris without opening his eyes.

"Oh, yeah," Kevin said. "That worked real well."

7.6.6.4.1

Brian and Kevin pried Nick off Chris and out of bed with a mixture of friendly talk, painkillers, and brute strength. "At least he's already dressed," Brian said. "Finish the whole glass of water, Nick, and we'll get you another one, and then you can have breakfast." Nick looked faintly green. "Or not."

Howie hovered. "He doesn't look good. Nick, do you think you're up for taping that tv show?"

"I'm fine," Nick said, staggered to the bathroom, and threw up.

"Maybe we should cancel," Howie said. He turned to AJ, paused, and frowned. "AJ, what is that shirt you're wearing?"

AJ stared blankly. "It's a shirt."

"I thought you were wearing a black shirt last night."

AJ patted Howie's shoulder. "How much sleep did you get, D?"

"Not enough," Howie said, rubbing his forehead. "We need to get Nick back to our hotel, and get some people on cancelling that appearance. He can't go on camera like this. I don't think he should go anywhere."

A wail like an air raid siren rose from the bed. Howie jumped straight up and landed on AJ's foot. AJ eased him off. "Ow."

"My ring!" Chris yelled."My ring! My ring is gone! Which of you fucking fuckers took my ring!"

"I always thought he kinda looked like a hobbit," Kevin said.

7.6.6.4.2

Nick came out of the bathroom and tried to fling himself at Chris to comfort him. Kevin and Brian and Howie caught him and towed him out of the room, with some difficulty. AJ grinned at Lance. "It's been great fun hanging with you guys. We have to do it again soon."

"Tonight," Lance said. "I will fix this. I swear. Chris, shut up."

7.6.6.5

"You are evil betrayers," Chris said, "and I'm not at all sure I want to be in a band with you any more."

"Too bad," JC said, "cause we have a photo shoot in half an hour. Try to look as if you love us."

7.6.6.5.1

Fortunately, Chris didn't feel sick, and after a few glasses of water and a couple of pills, he looked nearly normal. They were all ready on time, and huddled together in the back of the van on the way to the photo shoot, trying to impress on Chris that he shouldn't talk about Nick, or his missing ring. "How about if you just don't talk at all," Joey said after a while.

"Right, cause I'm the quiet one."

"No, you're the crazy one," JC pointed out. "In case you hadn't noticed. Especially right now. We can say you're coming down with something and you need to rest your voice."

"I need Nick," Chris said. "I hate you all. Can I have some more water?"

Joey got a bottle of Evian out of one of the large pockets of his large coat. JC rummaged for more painkillers. Justin peered at Lance. "Lance, what is that shirt you're wearing?"

"It's a shirt," Lance said. "I wear them sometimes. You want me to go topless?" Lance waved a hand at the snow and ice outside. "Cause this is not the season."

"No, I just thought you were wearing a blue shirt last night."

Lance shifted so he could reach to pat Justin's shoulder. "Yes, Justin. And sometimes I even change my clothes. Take a shower, and stuff. It's good, you should try it. Can we move on, here?"

"Move on to what," Justin said bleakly. "Chris is broken and we can't fix him. This sucks."

"I have a plan," Lance said.

"That's what you said yesterday."

"Well, now I have a better plan."

"Hooray," Justin muttered, and Lance reached out to smack him, but then the van stopped and they had to get out and try to look awake and pretty.

7.6.6.5.2

"So." Joey went straight for Lance's no longer secret vodka stash. "Tell us about the new plan."

"Backstreet is bringing Nick over here in an hour," Lance said. "Stop messing up my socks."

Chris perked up. "Nick! I get to see my true love again!"

"So far this is sounding a lot like the old plan," Justin said. He sat down on the bed and kicked his heels against the bedframe. "Tell us the part where this is going to work better."

"How about you sit in a corner for an hour with your positive visualization books," Lance said. "Look, we need to break the spell. I thought just taking the rings away from them would work, but it didn't, so we need a ritual."

Chris looked suspicious. "You're trying to think of a way to part me from my true love. I can't allow that."

"Chris." Lance looked him in the eye. "Do you want to spend the rest of your life barefoot and trying to get pregnant, or do you want a successful career as a pop star?"

"I love Nick more than life," Chris said, "and nothing will ever change that. But if you can get me out of this whole wanting to be pregnant deal, you can have my first-born child." He scratched at his head. "Um. That I hopefully won't want to have right now. You're okay with waiting a few years, right?"

"I think I can cope with that," Lance said. "Don't hurry on my account or anything." He got a wrinkled sheet of notepaper out of his pocket. "We're gonna need some stuff for this. Candles. Justin."

"What?"

"You have candles. If you don't, go out and buy some."

"Yeah, yeah." Justin sighed in a put-upon manner, but he got up from the bed and walked out of the room.

Lance turned to Joey. "And I need a piece of string. About twelve feet should do."

Joey saluted. "You got it."

JC looked at Lance. "You're not gonna make me get a rooster or a toad or a brain in a jar or something, are you? Cause man, I think I'm probably allergic to black magic, and it's against my religion, and stuff."

Lance shook his head. "I'm gonna make you go down to the hotel kitchen and get sage. And a couple other things. I wrote them down here."

JC looked at the note Lance handed him. "I don't know what half these things are called in German. I gotta look them up, man."

"Just bring all the herbs you can find." Lance paused. "Oh, and a big knife. Sharp."

"I think maybe you're overestimating my stealth capacity," JC said, but he went.

Lance sat down on his bed and took a swig of vodka straight from the bottle. Chris looked suspiciously at him. "I don't get to do anything?"

"You're going to stay right here where I can see you," Lance said. "Want some vodka?"

7.6.7

Justin came back with two vanilla-scented white pillar candles and thumped them down on the desk. "Will those work?"

Lance sniffed the candles and sneezed. "Sure." He took another swig from the vodka bottle. "Did you bring matches?"

"No," Justin said.

"Well, do you think you could get some matches?"

Justin sighed in an even more put-upon manner and walked out of the room again. Lance took a further swig from his bottle. Chris cleared his throat. "You know, if you're gonna do magic and mess with my head and try to separate me from my true love and all that, I think I'd prefer it if you were mostly sober."

"Well, if you didn't go around getting magically married to people and wanting to have their babies and acting like a complete lunatic, I wouldn't be driven to drink in the first place," Lance said, but he put the bottle down on the desk.

Chris leaned back against the wall. "Well, I don't do it often."

Justin came back with matches. Joey came back with ten feet of black velvet ribbon. "Will this do?"

"I don't want to know why you have this, do I." Lance tested the ribbon between thumb and forefinger. "Will you mind it getting ruined?"

"Not if it means I don't have to watch Chris checking how anatomically correct Nick Carter is any more," Joey said. "No offense, man."

Chris sniffed. "Well, let me tell you, he's very—"

"Chris," Joey said. "I mean it. Shut up."

Justin nodded vigorously.

Chris looked wounded. "You're just jealous."

Justin shook his head even more vigorously.

JC came back with a huge cleaver in his hand. Chris eeped. "Um. Just checking here. You're not planning to use that on Nick, are you? Or me. Cause I'm against that."

"Not planning to, no," Lance said. "Thanks, C. Did you get the sage and stuff?"

"I think so." JC started to dig spice jars out of his bulging pockets. "This is sage, right? Salbei? And here's some other green stuff, and something in a bag." He handed Lance a small bottle. "And I didn't know if you'd need oil. I have trouble reading your handwriting, man. And one of the cooks was looking at me funny."

"Great," Chris said brightly. "If this doesn't work, we can make a salad dressing!"

There was a knock on the door, and Justin went to answer. "Hey, guys. Come in. Watch out for the human spice rack in the middle of the floor."

Howie and AJ came in, followed by Nick, who immediately went to Chris and wrapped his arms around him and kissed him. Kevin and Brian, last into the room, closed the door and leaned back against it. "All right," Kevin said. "We're all here. Tell us what you're planning."

"A ritual," Lance said.

"A ritual." Brian looked thoughtful. He eyed Chris and Nick, who were whispering sweet nothings to each other. "You mean, cast the demons out of them? I don't know. We might not recognize them afterwards."

"Very funny," Chris said. He looked at Brian. "You are joking, right?"

"Well, I am about Nick," Brian said.

"A ritual to end the magic of the rings." Lance reached for the bottle on the desk, then stopped himself. "I need for Chris to sit here, and Nick over there, and the rest of you to sort of fan out around them."

"You know," JC said, "this would all look much cooler if we wore robes or something. And chanted a bit."

"Yeah!" AJ agreed enthusiastically. "And Lance should wear one of those pointy hats with stars on."

"You know," Lance said, tapping the back of the cleaver against his palm, "this would all go much faster if you all did what I told you. Chris, sit there. Nick, sit there."

"No, wait," Nick said. "You're going to do something to separate me from my pookie bear, aren't you?"

Justin made a retching noise. "Oh, God, yes."

Lance gave Nick a level look. "You have a very simple choice here. Either you shut up and cooperate, or we drug you again."

Chris leaned up on tiptoe and kissed Nick. "Do what he says, angel baby. Our love is eternal. Nothing will change."

7.6.8

Nick and Chris sat down. Howie, Kevin, and Brian stood behind Nick. JC, Joey, and Justin stood behind Chris. AJ came over to look at everything Lance had on the desk. "You got everything you need here?"

Lance took inventory. "Candles, sage, ribbon, knife. I think so. Oh, wait." He paused and checked his hand-written list again. "I need blood from a virgin."

Everybody looked at everybody else. Then everybody looked at Justin.

"What? Hey!"

Lance held up the cleaver. "Come over here."

"Um, Lance," JC said, looking at Justin, who was pale as a sheet, "I don't know if—"

"Only a little blood," Lance said reassuringly. He went over to Justin and grabbed his hand. "This won't hurt."

Lance made a shallow cut across the ball of Justin's thumb. Justin winced. "Ow!"

Lance squeezed, then soaked up the blood with the middle part of the velvet ribbon. "Thanks, Justin." He tied a knot in the ribbon right at the bloodstain, then passed the ribbon to AJ. "Hang on to this a minute."

Lance set up the pillar candles between Nick and Chris and lit them. He unscrewed the top of the sage spice jar and shook it over each of their heads in turn. A few sage crumbs fell into Nick's face, and he sneezed. "Sorry."

"Give me the ribbon," Lance said, and AJ handed it over. "You wore the ring on this finger, right?" Nick nodded. Lance tied one end of the ribbon around Nick's finger. Then he turned around and tied the other end around the finger Chris held out to him, arranged the knot halfway between them with a candle on each side, went to the desk, and took a swig from the vodka bottle.

7.6.8.5

"You're making this up as you go along, aren't you," AJ murmured in Lance's ear.

Lance glared at him. "How did you guess!" he hissed. "I'm a Baptist, for fuck's sake!"

"I'm sure it'll be fine," AJ said. "Breathe. And gimme that bottle."

7.6.8.6

Lance turned away from the desk, straightened his back, and hefted his cleaver thoughtfully. Nick blanched. Stepping forward, Lance knelt between Nick and Chris and lifted the ribbon in one hand, looping it around the cleaver. He glared at Nick, and then at Chris. "May this spell be ended," he said and cut through the knot.

7.6.9

"That's it?" Kevin said.

Lance turned towards Kevin and stood up, still with the cleaver in his hand. "Yes."

Kevin took a step backwards. "Just asking."

7.6.9.1

"Nicky?" Howie bent forward and put a hand on Nick's shoulder. "Nicky, how do you feel?"

Nick made a face and brushed stray bits of sage out of his hair. "Kind of weird," he said slowly. He started to untie the velvet ribbon from around his finger. "Could I have a glass of water?"

"Chris?" JC sat on the floor next to Chris. "You okay?"

"Fine. Um. Yeah. Fine." Chris stared across the room at Nick. "Great." He turned his head and looked at JC. "Did I really—"

JC nodded. "Yeah. Like, really, really."

"Oh, God." Chris crawled across the floor to Nick. "Look, um. I'm sorry."

"No, I'm sorry," Nick said and turned pink, staring at his toes. "It was all my fault."

"No, really, I shouldn't have, I'm so sorry."

"No, man. I did, with the, um. Really sorry."

"I think I liked them better before," JC said.

7.7

Lance handed the rings to Joey. "Get them out of here. Throw them away."

"Sure," Joey said, and put them in his pocket. "No more crazy wanting to have babies."

7.8

AJ patted Lance's shoulder and took the cleaver out of his hand. "You did great," he said. "Hey, that shirt looks good on you."

Lance grinned.

7.9

"You need a bandaid for that?"

Justin poked at the cut on his hand, which had mostly stopped bleeding. "Maybe." He looked at Nick and Chris, and then he looked at JC. "Um, do you think we should tell them—"

"No," JC said.

8.

"So this is all over now," Kevin said. "End of the spell." He stepped forward and shook Lance's hand. "Thanks. I gotta admit, I didn't think you could do it. Thanks."

"Up you get, Nick," Howie said, helping Nick to his feet. "Are you dizzy? Do you need more water?"

"No, I'm fine," Nick said. "Honestly." He didn't throw up this time.

Justin blew out the candles and picked them up. "Is it okay if I keep these? I mean, you hardly used them."

Lance waved his hand. "Take them. And not to be rude or anything, but I'd be really happy if everyone got out of my room. I don't know about you, but I could really use a good night's sleep."

"I'm off," Joey said. "It's been weird. You guys are still on for that charity gig next weekend, right?"

"Yeah, we'll be there," Howie said. "All normal and everything, I hope. See you then."

Justin and Joey left. JC hugged Chris, said "It's great to have you back, man," and left. Brian, Kevin, and Howie began to tow Nick out of the room and towards the elevators.

Chris grinned at Lance. "Seriously," he said. "You can do magic. See you in the morning."

Chris went to his own room and opened the door. He stepped inside, and then leaned back out. Nick stood just outside the elevator doors, looking up along the corridor.

Chris blew Nick a kiss. Later, baby, he mouthed.

Nick smiled and stepped into the elevator.

* * *

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