Many thanks to uhmidont, silveryscrape, withdiamonds, and NicoGrrl for insightful beta. Mardi Gras Cowboy belongs to Rico de la Playa and Vidkid Timo.

by Lesa Soja

Justin had liked Chris ever since he met him, at an audition where Chris grinned at him while everyone else in the waiting room was glaring at each other. "Knock 'em dead, mischief," Chris said, and Justin went in smiling and got the part.

But when Chris called and told him he was thinking about starting a group, Justin realized Chris was the coolest person he knew. Chris said he knew a guy who might be able to help them get a deal, and Justin nodded. "Yeah," he said, calmly, maturely, "that'd be really cool." For days after that he didn't hear a word anyone said, though his mother chattered at him continuously while she was driving and he was strapped into the passenger seat, staring up at the telephone wires by the side of the road. Chris was starting a group. He wanted Justin to be in it.

Chris taught him things, not so much about singing, because Justin had had a vocal coach and was getting plenty of training as far as that went, but just useful things, like how to put oil in a car, how to jimmy certain kinds of locks with a credit card, and how to swallow pills. Justin had been complaining about sore muscles in rehearsal one day when Lou was there, and Lou finally came over and shoved some painkillers at him

"I, um, no thanks," Justin said.

"Take them," Lou said, smiling. "We can't have rehearsals without our best dancer." He pressed the bottle into Justin's palm and folded Justin's fingers down over it.

"I - I can't," Justin had to admit. "I can't swallow them." Then he had to keep his eyes on the floor during Lou's rather loud laughter.

"In that case, you better get a stiffer upper lip," Lou said, and slapped Justin on the shoulder.

"Chris," Justin said afterwards, holding out the bottle. "Help?"

Chris studied him carefully. "All right," he said.

Back at the house, Chris got out some vitamins and chopped them into smaller and smaller slivers, and filled endless glasses of water for both of them. He threw his head back and swallowed, and then said, "Now you. You just - yeah, like that - no," time after time, until Justin finally found the twitch at the back of his throat that would send the pill down. Justin hugged Chris impulsively when he realized he'd managed to do it, and Chris's arms came around him for a moment. Chris was pretty strong, Justin thought, stronger than he looked.

"Y'know, I'm kinda surprised your mom didn't make you learn this before now," Chris said.

"She tried," Justin said. "I dunno. I just never could get it before."

Chris smiled. He flicked his fingers against Justin's back and said, "So, listen, now you can, and that's good. But don't make a habit of it, you hear me? I don't want you coming out of rehab saying 'Chris opened the door to my destruction.'"

Justin nodded seriously, agreeing, because he got it. You knew you could; then you didn't have to. That was cool.

Justin's mom had told him to try to get some rest on the plane to Germany, but he was too wound up to sleep. Chris turned on the reading lights above their seats and pulled out three decks of cards mixed up together. They split the stack evenly between them and started a game of War.

When the flight attendants came by with snack boxes, Chris had about two thirds of the cards again, and Justin was yawning. He closed his eyes after eating his candy bar, and woke up to the bump of the landing gear on the ground.

Part of the reason Chris knew so many things was because he learned so fast himself. He picked up some German in a matter of weeks and talked to people, receptionists and cashiers and waiters, and they told him things, like where there were American-style basketball courts, and who else was playing in town, and how to get back into the hotel after the front desk closed at midnight. Justin tried not to ask to go along too often, because he was a little afraid of getting on Chris's nerves and not being allowed to go at all any more. More often than not, though, Chris would tilt his head to the side anyway and say, "You comin', J?" Then Justin would get his jacket, and they would go.

Justin went into Chris and JC's room to get them for breakfast. JC was gone already, but Chris was still there, brushing his teeth with some German toothpaste that came in a red tube. "Oh, man," Justin said. "Why are you using that shit? Doesn't it taste nasty?"

Chris spit into the sink. "Life can't be strawberries and milk all the time," he said.

"Bullshit," Justin said. Chris looked up skeptically. Justin ignored him and went to fetch some nice normal toothpaste from his mom's stash.

He was kind of bugged sometimes by the way Chris kept crappy stuff around, his suitcase getting more and more battered with every stop, the T-shirt he slept in frayed at the hem and unraveling at the seams under the sleeves. Justin didn't see any need to live like that if you didn't have to. He knew Chris didn't believe in throwing things away while any use could be gotten out of them, so he usually didn't say anything about it. But this was just over the top - buying shitty stuff new. Justin wasn't going to let Chris get away with it.

"Here," he said, coming back into Chris's room.

"I'm not taking your toothpaste, Justin."

"Don't be stupid. We've got plenty." Justin held his hand out farther, almost in Chris's face, and eventually Chris sighed and grabbed the tube. Then he attacked Justin, circling his knuckles over the top of Justin's head. Justin twisted away and ran down the hallway screeching, but inside he felt relieved. At least that was one thing fixed.

Justin thought that he was getting better at dancing, and his voice was getting stronger, more settled. He would have liked to have a bigger range, but he could work on that, practice more every day, and he would improve over time. They were getting plenty of attention already, anyway, people watching them and singing along when they sang. Justin watched Chris a lot, the rapid movement of his feet and the strong lines of his back and arms as he spun through a twist. Chris was really good.

Justin sat down next to Chris on the couch and glanced at Chris's leg. Chris had had a scrape on his knee from a failed flip attempt, and though the bandage was gone, there was still some gum from the adhesive left on his skin. Justin reached over and rubbed it off with his fingertips. Chris's leg tensed under his hand. Justin smiled.

"Does that tickle?" he asked.

"No," Chris said.

Chris was lying, Justin could tell, but he felt too lazily comfortable to get into it. He flicked the gum off his fingers and curled up against Chris's side. After a moment, Chris put an arm around him.

Chris had the cards out again, playing solitaire nonstop. Justin was supposed to be studying, so he was sitting at the table where he couldn't watch. He got an itchy beat in his head, though, every time he heard Chris slapping down seven new columns. "Chh chka, chh chka," he breathed between his teeth, tapping his pencil in counterpoint. He thought he could dance to it.

"Ten minutes, boys," the choreographer said. JC and Joey made a beeline for the water cooler. Justin hung back a little, letting them go first. Chris bent over to catch his breath for a minute, with his hands braced against his thighs. Then he straightened up and lifted the hem of his T-shirt to wipe the sweat off his upper lip. Justin could see the faintest outline of Chris's mustache, a shadow under his skin, and the sheen on the cords of his throat, and the sprinkling of hair down his stomach.

"Justin?" JC said behind him. Justin flinched, feeling hot, and turned to face JC. "You want?"

Justin accepted the paper cup and drank a long swallow. "Thanks," he said.

"No problem," JC said. He smiled at Justin, his broad, sunny smile.

Justin and his mom flew home for a week, and all the guys came with them to the airport in Frankfurt to see them off. Justin hugged each of them in front of the passenger checkpoint, and then saw Chris standing there and came back and flung his arms around him again. "I'm gonna miss you!" he blurted out.

"Sucks to be you, then," Chris said, shoving at Justin and punching him in the arm. His eyes were warm and dark.

Chris bought an enormous, pointed gray felt hat in the train station in Munich and wore it every day for a week. Justin slung an arm around Chris's neck. "You know," he said, "that's really a good look for you. Brings out the idiot in your eyes."

"Oh yeah?" Chris said. His eyes gleamed as he stood up. "I called my doctor on the telephone, help me, Doc, there's something wrong!" he belted out.

"Cut it out!" Justin yelled, chasing Chris down the length of the bus. He'd really hoped he'd never have to hear that song again.

But Chris evaded him and went on singing. "No doubt love's got a hold on you!" Chris finished, pulling the hat coyly down over his face. "- A good look, you were saying?"

"Asshole," Justin said, dropping into a seat. He couldn't believe Chris knew his entire routine. Chris laughed and plunked the hat onto Justin's head.

"Justin," his mom called sharply, "could you come up here and do your homework, please?"

"I already did, Mom!"

"I'm sure you haven't finished it all," she said. She came a few steps towards them down the aisle, her arms folded in front of her.

Justin rolled his eyes. "I gotta go get educated," he told Chris, pulling the hat off his head and handing it back.

Chris grinned. "Yeah, you do that, mischief," he said.

Justin told himself for several days that he was just tired, but after a while his head felt so thick that he guessed he did have a cold. After their last interview his face felt flushed and hot, and he thought maybe he had a fever too. He crawled into bed at the hotel, and the pillow felt smooth and cool for only a moment against his cheek. He turned from one side to the other and back again.

"Justin?" Chris said. His hand was gripping Justin's shoulder. "J?"

"Hnh," Justin said.

"I'm gonna call your mom," Chris said.

"No," Justin said. If his mom knew he was sick, she would try to get Lou to cancel their schedules for the next few days, and no matter who won that argument, they would both be pissed. Justin tried to sit up, reaching for Chris's arm. "No, don't - she - Lou -"

"Okay, shh, okay," Chris said. He took Justin's hand off his arm and held it for a moment. "You need to sleep, though, okay? I'm gonna go get you something. I'll be right back."

Justin nodded. Chris's hands felt so hot on his skin. He watched Chris out the door, and then watched the door itself stupidly until Chris came back.

"Here," Chris said, and Justin picked the pill off his palm. "Here," Chris said again, and there was a cup of water at Justin's lips.

After Justin had swallowed, Chris took the water back and turned away. "Chris -" Justin said, willing to whine if he had to, but Chris was only setting the cup down behind him. He pulled the spindly desk chair over next to Justin and sat down with a magazine on his lap.

"Try to sleep now," Chris said. His voice sounded oddly stern.

Justin closed his eyes, but his mind wouldn't settle, turning circles around rehearsals, his mom, the shows, and Lou. Rehearsals. His mom. The shows. Justin shook himself and looked up at Chris, who met his eyes steadily. Justin took a deep breath and relaxed.

He rolled over at one point and turned his head, looking at Chris through his lashes. Chris sat immovably on. Justin moved his fingers to the edge of the bed near Chris's knee and drifted away again.

He woke up all the way sometime later, keeping his eyes closed because his head hurt. Next to the bed, someone turned a page. "Chris?" Justin said in a croak.

"No," JC said, "it's me." Justin opened his eyes, and JC was leaning over him. "We sent Chris to take a nap. Do you need another pill?"

"Yeah," Justin said gratefully. JC helped him sit up, and he swallowed the medicine in one gulp. His arms and shoulders felt shivering cold outside the blankets. It was good Chris was sleeping, he told himself.

JC took the glass back and set it down on the nightstand. Then he took Justin's hand and squeezed it. JC was being awfully nice, really. Justin gave him a wan smile before sliding back down under the covers.

"I don't know, Justin," Chris said in a carefully dubious tone. "You were so sick, and all. I don't think it'd be good for you to go out on such a cold night."

"Chris -" Justin began, and then stopped himself. He'd seen Chris watching him; Chris knew perfectly well that he was fine. "Hmm," Justin said instead and wrapped his arms around Chris, lifting him up bodily off the floor. "I dunno, I'm feeling pretty strong again." Chris was pounding on Justin's shoulder. "Feel like I could do this for a while."

"You fucker!" Chris said, kicking at Justin's legs. "Put me down, or I'm never taking you anywhere again."

"All right," Justin agreed. He swung Chris around in a circle and set him down hard. Chris stumbled backward a step.

"Clearly delirious," Chris said, shaking his head. His hair was mussed and his cheeks slightly flushed. "Could be contagious. Very dangerous." He sighed dramatically, picked up his room key, and went to the door. Justin grabbed his coat and followed.

"You know who's over here right now?" Justin's mom said at breakfast. "Britney!"

"Britney?" Justin said. "From MMC?"

"Yes! Wouldn't it be fun to get together with her sometime?"

"Sure," Justin said. "We haven't seen her in, in a really long time. JC's gonna love this!"

The day that they were in the same city, though, JC had to stay late at rehearsal, and Justin wound up going to see Britney by himself. She spotted him first when he walked into the restaurant and waved her hand madly. "Wow, you look great! You look so old!"

"Thanks!" Justin said. "You look great too!" He hugged her, and saw a flash out of the corner of his eye. "Hey, look, we're gonna be in the magazines next week," he said.

She giggled. "C'mon, tell me what you've been doing," she said. "What's it like working with all those guys?"

"Oh, it's been awesome," Justin said. He grinned back at her happy smile. "They're all really cool. Like, you know what Chris said yesterday after rehearsal?"

"So how's Minnie?" Chris asked at breakfast.

"Britney," Justin said. Chris rolled his eyes and picked up some jam packets, piling them on his palm. "She's fine. She's recording in Sweden too."

"All the best people do," Chris said in a stilted British accent. He added a honey packet to the stack in his hand and then balanced another strawberry jam on top.

"Bet I can hold more of those than you," Justin said.

"Bet you can't," Chris said instantly in his own voice.

Justin reached for the remaining packets in the dish, but Chris knocked them away with his free hand. Justin leaped up and grabbed for Lance and Joey's dish, while Chris raced around the room snatching packets from every unoccupied table. Justin chased after him till he caught Chris's arm and then clawed at Chris's clutched fingers till the foil split and both their hands were red and sticky. He laid his palm on Chris's cheek and smeared it around luxuriously. Chris's eyes were sparkling.

"Gotcha," Justin said.

Chris laughed and brought his own hand up. Justin screeched and wrenched away, but not before Chris rubbed a handful of currant jam into his hair.

"Fuck!" Justin yelled. Chris giggled and danced away.

"Boys, please!" Diane said. Justin hadn't noticed her come in, but now she was standing behind them with her arms crossed. Even she couldn't quite keep from smiling, though.

The first thing Justin did when he got up was to shuffle into the kitchenette and pour cereal into a bowl. Next he took a banana, peeled it, and began pulling off the strings. One of them broke halfway down and Justin had to pick at the end again to get the rest of it off. Then he got a knife and cut out the brown spots before slicing the banana into even wheels over his bowl.

When he turned to reach for the milk, he found Chris looking at him with a strangely strained expression, like Chris needed to laugh and sneeze at the same time and couldn't do either. "What?" Justin said. But Chris only shook his head.

"Nothing," he said. "Eat your damn breakfast, J."

The hem of the too-short sleeve on Chris's undershirt slid back over his biceps as he stretched his arms above his head. Justin spooned up some cereal and chewed dutifully as Chris headed back towards the bathroom.

Justin lay in bed listening to his mom in the adjoining room. She wasn't quite yelling, but she was speaking very loudly and distinctly, biting off the end of each phrase, and there was only one person she talked to like that. Justin lay perfectly still. He himself hadn't talked to his father in a while, so at first he'd thought she would come in before long and call him to the phone. But the sharp clear tones went on and on, on and on, floating over him and his open eyes in the dark.

He got up abruptly and went across the hall, where Chris was watching TV. Justin sat down on the bed next to him and swung his legs across Chris's knees. His mother's voice was faint from here, but still audible.

Chris stretched his arm out, and Justin leaned into it, scooting up until he was almost in Chris's lap. They sat like that for some time. Justin stared at the TV, though he couldn't have said what show was on. After a while Chris touched his face and said, "Hey. It's gonna be okay."

"Yeah," Justin said. Chris squeezed his shoulder and kissed Justin's cheek next to where his fingers had been. That didn't seem like enough, so Justin turned his head and kissed Chris on the mouth. Chris didn't say anything, just looked at him when Justin pulled back, a serious, quiet look, and Justin rested his head on Chris's shoulder and closed his eyes. Chris's body was warm through his T-shirt. Justin curled closer, letting himself drift a little. He felt better.

When Lou told them he was sending them back to start promo in the States at last, they all nodded seriously and tried to look reliable. As soon as Lou left the room, though, Chris grabbed Justin and squeezed him fiercely, almost knocking the wind out of him. "I - unh - Chris! Too tight!" Justin gasped. Chris let go immediately.

Justin hugged JC and Lance and Joey, and then he hugged Chris again. "I can't believe it!" he said.

"Believe it, baby!" Chris said. His arms lay loosely on Justin's back.

Being back in Orlando was familiar and weird at the same time. Things were quieter when they were out - no fans screaming after them in the streets - but with Chris and JC both still staying with Justin and his mom, and Joey and Lance over every day, the house was just as noisy as the buses and vans and hotels had ever been. Justin liked it that way.

Chris and JC were rooming together, across the hall from Justin. Justin left his door open while he was putting his stuff away before bed, so he saw them going back and forth from the bathroom, JC shouting at Chris not to use his clean towel, and Chris cackling madly.

"You shithead!" JC yelled, and their pounding footsteps stopped just in front of the door. Justin looked up to see JC yanking the towel from where it hung over Chris's shoulders. "For fuck's sake, Chris, I have to shower too, you know!" JC stalked back down the hall towards the bathroom.

Chris caught Justin's eye and shrugged, his shoulders rising and falling in a warm, smooth line. "High-strung," he said. Justin grinned. Chris's own towel was knotted neatly around his waist, lemon yellow clashing oddly with his newly tanned skin. There were still a few drops of water on his legs.

"'Night, Justin," Chris said abruptly, turning on his heel to go into his room. Justin barely had time to call out an answering "good night" before Chris's door swung shut behind him.

Justin shut his own door and got in bed. He stared at the streetlight outside his window while he slid his hand into his pajama pants.

Justin watched Chris a lot, trying to read Chris's expressions. In fact, he did it so often that it pretty much amounted to staring. At first he would look away as soon as Chris glanced up, but that made him feel stupid, and he resolved to make Chris be the one to break his gaze first. After that they spent a lot of time looking at each other, till at length Chris would quirk an eyebrow up and turn back to what he'd been doing.

Once, in a club in Chicago, when Chris finally dropped his eyes, Justin looked around and realized the rest of the guys were no longer anywhere near them. It was just the two of them, twisting and swaying in step with each other. A shiver went through him. He couldn't look at Chris's face anymore, so he fixed his eyes on Chris's hands instead, the same capable fingers and short, wide nails he'd been seeing for the last four years. He tried to clear his mind while his legs went on dancing.

After breakfast one day Joey asked to borrow Justin's Walkman. "Sure," Justin said, "just, gimme the CD out of it first, would you? I have to give it back to Chris."

Joey opened the casing. "Indigo Girls?"

"Yeah," Justin said. "They're good." He met Joey's eyes stolidly.

"They sure are," Joey said. He smiled at Justin and went away with the Walkman.

Justin looked across the room at Chris, and Chris looked down right away. Justin smiled to himself.

Justin hadn't thought he was expecting anything in particular, but when his eighteenth birthday came and went and Chris didn't invite him to anything more exciting than midnight costume basketball, Justin realized he was disappointed.

He decided he needed to stop messing with Chris - stop fooling with his hair, and slouching onto his shoulder when they watched TV, and all the rest of it - because it was probably stupid, and a mistake. So he made an effort to keep his hands to himself.

If he sat next to Chris it was too easy to forget, so he sat by Lance as much as he could instead. Lance seemed pretty safe. The first few times Justin slid in next to him, Lance threw curious glances his way. But Justin ignored them, so then Lance ignored him, too.

Chris didn't say anything about the sudden change, but after less than two weeks, Justin really hated it. He could keep himself from touching Chris, he always caught himself in time, but he couldn't stand having to constantly remind himself about it. It was really getting on his nerves.

They were sitting on the couch together on the bus in the afternoon. Lance had been sitting between them earlier, but he'd gotten up to get a drink and stayed in the kitchen talking to Joey. Justin looked at Chris's face, intent on the TV.

He reached a hand over to the back of Chris's neck suddenly and ran his fingers up into Chris's hair. It was as thick and soft to the touch as ever, and Chris's skin was warm against the inside of Justin's wrist.

Chris exhaled, and his eyelids drooped, but he still didn't say anything. So Justin left his hand there. After that, things just went back to the way they had been before.

They had a party for Lance's birthday in the hotel, but it broke up fairly soon after the cake because they had another show to do the next day. Justin wasn't that tired yet, so he followed Chris back to his room. Chris flopped dramatically onto his back on the bed.

"You look wiped," Justin said.

"I'm old," Chris declared. "Lance is entering the prime of his life, and I'm just a worn-out old goat with bad knees. I don't know what you're still hanging around for."

Justin laughed, young and powerful. He sat on the edge of the bed and pulled off Chris's sneakers, and then quickly bent down and kissed Chris's ankle.

"You little fucker," Chris said. He had propped himself up on his elbows to look down the length of his body at Justin, and his grin nearly split his face. "Come up here and do that again."

Justin crawled up into Chris's arms. He flashed Chris a smile and kissed his cheek, slowly, and then the other one, and his temples, his eyelids, the tip of his nose, and finally, finally, ever so lightly, Chris's mouth. Chris growled then and rolled them over, pushed Justin down flat into the mattress and kissed him hard.

Chris's mouth was new and strange, his hot clever lips and judicious teeth, and Justin couldn't get enough of it, held close in Chris's arms. But Chris wasn't a stranger. Chris's hands were on his shoulders, and his hands were in Chris's hair, and that was exactly how it had been all along.

Then he started wanting more.

He wanted Chris's weight, and he shifted, sliding farther onto his back so that Chris had to roll with him. Justin was hard, not that it ever took him long to get hard, but nowadays if Chris even glanced at him with that dry, dark gaze, he'd be aching before Chris blinked. He moved his thighs farther apart and hummed at the feel of Chris's hand on his hip, arching restlessly under it.

Chris pulled back, and Justin sighed. Then Chris's hand settled, warm and deliberate, over Justin's cock. Justin breathed in sharply.

"Justin," Chris said, and Justin looked up at him. Chris moved his hand in the softest of strokes across Justin's boxers, and Justin tried unsuccessfully to roll his eyes and bite his lip at the same time.

"Chris - yes," he ground out.

Chris smiled.

Justin thought he knew about coming from jerking off, but under Chris's mouth he realized he didn't know shit.

He was almost too embarrassed afterwards to try it himself. But there was the taut line of Chris's neck, and the darkened color of his cock, and his voice hissing, "aah - Justin -" when Justin touched his thigh, and Justin got his courage back.

Chris made a harsh, unmusical sound in the back of his throat right before he came. Justin sat up after Chris stopped moving and touched his knuckles to the side of his own lip. Chris opened his eyes and smiled, still breathing hard, and Justin broke into an uncontrollable grin. Chris pulled him up and kissed him.

At first Justin thought he could have lain down every night and just fooled around with Chris until the wake-up call came. In fact they did pretty much that for the better part of a week, both of them stumbling around giddily during the day for lack of sleep. Justin felt thick and slow in his brain, but Chris touching him, Chris kissing him flowed over everything like a flood of molasses, and Justin floating along in it was never cranky, no matter how tired he got.

He kind of wanted to spend what little free daytime they got lying on the couches in the dressing rooms petting Chris's hair. But Chris wouldn't sit still long enough for him to do it.

"Make way for ducklings!" Chris yelled, tearing off down the hall, and Justin jumped up and ran after him.

"You're goin' down in two seconds flat!"

"Never!" Chris shouted back, speeding up, but Justin had longer legs, and he tackled Chris at the end of the hallway.

"Help! I'm trapped!" Chris shrieked. "However can I escape?" He fluttered his eyelashes desperately.

"I'm never lettin' you go," Justin said.

"Okay," Chris said agreeably. Justin leaned down and covered his mouth lightning-fast. Then he stood up quickly and reached a hand down to help Chris up, too. As soon as Chris was back on his feet, though, he started scrubbing his fists through Justin's hair.

"Hey, hey," Joey said behind them. "What's all this noise about?"

"Just keeping the infant in line," Chris said. Justin snorted.

Then came a horrible day when Lance turned white during sound check, and then gray, and then he was lying there with his eyes closed and his cheek pressed flat to the stage. Justin took a few quick steps but JC was faster, kneeling down with a hand on Lance's chest and his ear over Lance's mouth. Justin heard Joey yelling and someone else snapping into a cell phone behind him.

Finally paramedics came and loaded Lance onto a stretcher. Justin looked around and saw Chris coming back up one of the side staircases. Justin sighed gratefully and went over to him. "Chris," Justin said as soon as he was close enough. "Can we, um. Can we get a taxi, do you think? Follow them to the hospital?" But Chris shook his head.

"I called Diane. She's gonna go there directly to meet him," Chris said. "But Lou wants us to stay here and do the show."

"Do the - " Justin said. Then he stopped himself.

Chris's lips were pressed in a tight line. He laid a hard, warm hand on Justin's shoulder. "We'll go see him tomorrow. First thing in the morning. He's gonna be fine."

Justin nodded. Then Randy called in a slightly shaky voice for places, and they went to find their spots.

In the morning they got to the hospital so early that visiting hours hadn't even started yet. JC and Joey wandered off in search of coffee, while Chris and Justin sat down in a deserted lobby. Justin folded his fingers together in his lap. Then he untwisted and refolded them.

"Don't, J," Chris said.

"But -" Justin said.

"Just don't," Chris said, his voice gentler than the words. He put his hand on the back of Justin's neck and leaned their foreheads together. Justin turned his head a little so he could press his lips to Chris's rough cheek. Then Chris turned too and kissed Justin's mouth.

"Hey you guys, we -" JC said. Chris pulled back, and Justin turned around. JC and Joey were each holding two steaming cups. "Got you coffee," JC finished slowly. "Um. Is this, uh, new?"

Justin glanced at Chris, but Chris didn't seem inclined to answer. "Uh, pretty new, I guess."

"Wow," JC said. "That's really cool."

"Yeah, nice goin', Kirkpatrick," Joey said.

Chris rolled his eyes. "Gimme that," he said, taking one of the coffees from JC's hand.

"How much longer do we have to wait?" Justin said, after sipping from the cup Joey gave him.

"Not long," JC said. "Diane's gonna come get us when we can go in."

But it still seemed like an eternity until Diane came into the lobby, her hair all flat on one side, and gave them a thin smile. They followed after her till she stopped in front of a door and said, "He'll be pleased to see you, boys. I'll just -" She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and moved away down the hall. Then there was a bit of a shuffle while they all squeezed into the room.

"Hi," Justin said when he got inside the door.

"Morning," Lance said in a dry croak. He wasn't sitting all the way up, but the head of the bed was raised a little behind his shoulders, and he looked pretty awake.

"Um. You look better," Justin said.

"I'm fine," Lance said. "I'm just gonna be at home tonight, and then tomorrow I'll be back with y'all in Fort Lauderdale."

Doing the show without Lance had been so weird that Justin started to say "Great!" But looking at Lance's pale face, he wasn't so sure that was what he wanted to say after all. He stood there, hesitating.

"Hey Lance, this'll cheer you up," Joey said into the silence. "Would you believe these two -" he gave Chris and Justin each a shove in the back - "have gotten their acts together and hooked up?"

Lance did smile then, if only faintly. "Fuckin' finally," he rasped out.

Chris burst out laughing. Justin felt his face getting hot, but then Lance started laughing too, everyone was laughing, and he reached for Chris's hand and joined in.

Lance made it all right through the last few shows of the spring leg of the tour, and then they were off the road for a while, which was a relief. It made it harder for Justin to sneak into Chris's room, though, and that got really annoying. Justin tossed and turned a long time before falling asleep in his own twin bed. When he came down to breakfast with his hair still all knotted up, Chris smirked at him from across the table. Justin could feel his face getting warm.

"C'mon, Justin, let's go shoot some hoops," Chris said. It was stifling hot already long before noon, but Justin put his sneakers on and followed Chris outside. Chris led him all the way back around the corner of the garage and then took Justin by the elbow and kissed him hard. Justin nearly forgot that they still had to at least get the basketball out.

Fortunately, they still had some appearances and awards shows to go to, even during their vacation. Justin had never been so pleased to arrive at a hotel before.

Justin's mom started looking tenser and tenser. Finally he got an afternoon alone with her so he could ask her what was wrong.

"Well," she said, "honey -"

In the pause before she went on, Justin suddenly wondered if she'd seen him and Chris somewhere, after all. His lungs clenched up inside him.

"I wasn't going to say anything just yet, because, well, because I don't know for sure. But since you're asking - you know how Diane went to talk to a lawyer." Justin exhaled. Then he nodded quickly. "It seems there are some questions about the contracts you boys have."

"About our contracts? You mean with BMG?"

"Yes," his mom said. "And - with Lou."

"Oh," Justin said. He paused in his turn. "Um. What did the lawyer say?"

"He's looking into it."

Justin nodded.

"We're gonna figure this out, baby," she said. He kissed her on the cheek.

Chris went very still when Justin told him about the lawyer, and then his foot started tapping.

"What do you think?" Justin said.

"I don't know," Chris said. "It took so long to get those contracts..."

"Yeah," Justin said, "but, Lance - . And you know that's not all."

"Yeah," Chris conceded. Justin picked at a loose thread on his jeans and watched Chris's knee bouncing. After a while Chris gave Justin an effortful smile and bent down to pull his shoes off. "Well, it's not gonna get fixed tonight. You comin' to bed?"

"Sure," Justin said. He tugged his T-shirt over his head and kissed the back of Chris's shoulder on the way to the bathroom.

The first time Chris fucked him was their first week back out on tour. Justin was kneeling over Chris kissing his neck, his own legs wide open, and Chris's fingers smoothed back over Justin's ass. Justin caught his breath. "Chris," he said, "please -"

Chris stretched up to kiss him and said "okay" in his ear. Justin rested his forehead on Chris's shoulder for a moment. Then he moved to the side and let Chris turn him over.

Justin had felt ready, but the first thrust still took him by surprise. For a while he tried to brace himself, tensing his forearms against the sheets.

"Relax, mischief," Chris said, and nipped at the back of Justin's neck. Justin laughed out loud. Chris pushed in again, and Justin tried to let go and just feel it. An especially hard thrust drew a groan from him. He rocked back on the next one trying to get that again, and the next, and then gradually he started to get the hang of moving with Chris.

After Chris came, he wrapped his arms around Justin, pulled him down onto his side, and reached over Justin's hip to finish jerking him off. Justin felt too bone-tired after all that to do anything more than kiss Chris languidly. "That was awesome," he said, yawning.

Chris chuckled and tugged on his hair. "Go to sleep, J," he said. Justin was only too happy to comply.

When Chris and Justin went down the hall for breakfast the next morning, they heard snickering coming from JC's room. "- other side of the wall till, like, 3 AM," Joey was saying.

"Virginia is for lovers," Lance said.

"That's great, if they'd give the rest of us rooms in another state," Joey said.

Justin decided to avoid Joey for the rest of the day.

But Joey snuck up behind him in the quiet room during their lunch break and poured an entire supersized cup of soda on him, "to cool you down, little steam engine that could!" Justin was about to get mad when Chris climbed into his sopping wet lap and kissed him.

"He's just jealous, baby," Chris murmured.

"Uh huh," Justin mumbled. Chris kissed him again.

When Chris let him go and got up, yelling that he needed a towel stat, Justin looked rather blankly around the room. Lance smiled discreetly at him from the other couch.

"You got a dog?" Justin said.

"Just a little one," Chris said.

"A dog."

"He followed me home, and your mom said I could keep him."

"A dog."

"He has a name, Justin. Some people! No manners, I tell ya." Chris sniffed and turned away, his hands cradling the puppy to his chest.

Justin sighed. "Well, what is his name?"

"Busta," Chris said proudly, turning back. "Don't you think it suits him? Dani named hers Kariya, but I thought this guy looked more like a Busta."

"You made Dani get one too?" Justin said. "She's never going to hang out with you again."

"Oh yes, she will," Chris said. "Busta and Kariya have sibling visitation rights." Justin rolled his eyes. Busta wriggled between Chris's hands, sniffing in Justin's direction. "Wanna hold him?"

With a warm puppy cuddled in his lap, Justin found it harder to remember why he thought it was a bad idea. "But, Chris," he said, his hand curving carefully over the back of Busta's head, "what are you going to do with him while we're on tour?"

Chris's smile stretched into a harsh grin. "Well, Justin," he said, "considering we currently have no money to record another album and no rights to the name of our group, I don't think that's gonna be much of a problem."

"Jive will come through," Justin said. "As soon as the lawsuit's settled, we'll be back in the studio."

Chris shrugged.

"Chris," Justin said.

Chris closed his eyes. After a minute he said, "It's just not that easy, J. We can't turn our backs on the people who gave us our start and expect them to just let us go."

"It's going to work out," Justin said. "We're gonna win."

"I hope so," Chris said. He reached over to take Busta back, and the puppy's tail thumped rapidly against his arm.

They all had to go downtown for the hearing, dressed up to look as adult and serious as they could.

"You look hot in that suit," Justin whispered to Chris while the BMG lawyers were filing into the other side of the room. Chris raised an eyebrow without turning to look at Justin. Beneath the table, his foot slid over to rest against the side of Justin's shoe.

They tried it with Justin fucking Chris, and it was amazing, Chris's heat around him, but Chris came in the middle of it, and even though Justin did too, he somehow still felt obscurely disappointed.

"C'mere," Chris said, and he slid a finger into Justin's ass, and then another. Justin sighed happily and shifted against them.

Then he opened his eyes again. "Next time, it's my turn," he said.

Chris grinned and stroked Justin's forehead with his free hand. "Okay," he said. "Okay."

Justin climbed into Chris's bed, accidentally jamming his knee into Chris's stomach in the process. "Fuck!" Chris wheezed. "Justin - "

"Sorry!" Justin whispered. He pressed his fingertips to his own lips and then to Chris's belly. "Sorry, Chris."

"What do you want, J?" Chris said, trying to sound stern, but shifting closer. "JC's probably trying to sleep, y'know."

"Nothing, just - " Justin said. He slid his arm over Chris's shoulder, counting on Chris not being able to stay mad at him. Chris's breath was warm on his neck.

"Ah, c'mere, then," Chris said finally, and kissed him. Justin grinned and kissed back. Chris went on kissing him for a little while, light brushes of their lips together. Justin turned his face up to Chris's mouth and closed his eyes, and didn't even know when he fell asleep.

"Mom," he said, "I have, um, I need to tell you something."

"What is it?"

"I. I'm. Uh - Chris and I - we - we're, um - together."

"I know," she said.

"You do?"

"Well, I thought. And you asked me all those questions, before, about what do I think about gay people and all. So, really."

"Oh. Yeah."

He didn't know what to say. She sighed. "I can't say I'm not disappointed, Justin, but I know you're not going to feel like listening to reason about this. I'm sure it'll turn out fine. So. Is that everything you wanted to tell me?"

"Uh, I guess so," he said. "But, Mom -" and then his voice cracked and he had to stop.

"Oh, honey," she said. "Don't feel bad. There's nothing you can do about it, so don't worry about it."

He bit his lip and nodded into the phone.

"Something you should think about, though," she said after a moment, "is how what you do is gonna affect the group. What you do in private isn't anyone else's business. But what you do in public is business."

"I know, Mom," Justin said. "I wouldn't do anything to hurt the group."

So he let Rosie O'Donnell think he had a girlfriend, and Rosie ate it up. Chris got away with just saying "taken". Justin, with the red light of a camera still glowing in the corner of his eye, strained his face away from a frown.

"I'm sorry people keep bringing up Britney," he told Chris in the car afterwards.

"Me too," Chris said, "it's so embarrassing when I can never remember where I'm supposed to know her from."

"No, I mean seriously. It's just, my mom kinda said, the situation is touchy enough right now. And even if it weren't, she thinks it's smarter not to, um, make waves." Justin glanced over swiftly when he finished saying this. But Chris was only shaking his head with a faint grin.

"Seriously," Chris said, "it's okay. I get photographed with Dani all the time too, you know. Does this confuse you? 'Cause I'm not confused."

"No," Justin said. "I love you."

"Oh, Justin," Chris said. He leaned over and kissed Justin very quickly. "I know."

The settlement came through right before Christmas. Justin's mom and JC looked fiercely triumphant after Adam told them about it; Lance looked rather smug. Joey just looked happy.

Chris's face was strangely grim. "Chris?" Justin said quietly. "You okay, man?"

"Keen like a peach," Chris snapped.

"You've looked keener."

"I've looked like a goat wearing a tweed cap in a coalmine. It doesn't make Bob my uncle."

"Okay," Justin said. "I think we -" he got to his feet and grabbed a handful of Chris's sweatshirt - "need to go celebrate."

"We're celebratin' right here!" Joey called over. Justin flipped him off and pulled Chris out the door.

In Chris's room, Justin pushed Chris to sit on the edge of the bed and then knelt down on the speckled gray carpet. Chris stayed quiet, but eventually one of his hands came down to settle in Justin's hair.

When Chris was done, Justin swiped the back of his hand across his mouth and looked up. "Now do you believe it?" he said.

Chris laughed. "I believe you're one ruthless motherfucker," he said. But the laugh had come out easily. Justin grinned, satisfied.

Being free to work again was a terrific feeling. Actually working again was slightly less exhilarating, and more plain exhausting. Suddenly the album had to be finished, the first video shot, and hours and hours of promo done, all as fast as possible. And they still didn't have any money. JC and Joey started taking catnaps again whenever they were being driven somewhere. Chris never did, though, so Justin didn't either.

Wayne made Chris and Joey run along the top of a train for the video. Chris did it just fine, but he bitched about it every minute the cameras weren't on, and he was still a little wobbly when they got back to the hotel. Justin pushed Chris down flat onto the mattress and knelt over him, straddling Chris's hips. Then he got himself lined up and settled down onto Chris's cock.

"How do your knees feel now?" Justin asked afterwards.

"Just as Jello-ey as the rest of me," Chris said.

The craft services table at Blue Peter had a huge bowl of blueberries. Justin took a big handful and then sat down on a surprisingly comfortable metal chair to pick off the stems.

He was nearly through when Chris came running in with his hair and makeup done. "You're up," Chris said as soon as he was through the door. Then he came over and stood watching Justin.

"What?" Justin said, rubbing the last of the stems onto a paper napkin.

Chris shook his head. "You," he said. "Get outta here."

Justin crammed the berries into his mouth and went.

Chris's porn was all vignettes, one sex scene after another. He hated waiting for things. Justin brought over a movie Lance had given him the name of, one with something that faintly resembled a plot and several scenes with no sex at all, and Chris just laughed all the way through it. That was all right, though, because it really was pretty funny - the poor guy always insisting he was only doing men for the money, but somehow never managing to get paid.

Chris got quiet when the star and his best friend finally started kissing, up in their attic room. Justin looked at Chris's face, which was tensed in a slight frown. He reached down and rubbed his palm slowly over Chris's thigh.

Chris turned to him and grinned deliberately, sliding a hand around the back of Justin's neck to bring Justin's head down to his lap. "C'mon, mischief," he said, and he was beautifully hard. Justin smiled. Chris hated waiting, but he would do it for Justin. Justin licked Chris's stomach once and then got going.

They needn't have worried. The album sold well.

The only bad part was that several days went by before Chris and Justin got enough time alone together to celebrate. But they made up for it eventually.

"No, he didn't, Mom," Chris said, grinning. "Nope. No way... Because, Busta's my dog, and I know he'd never eat anything as disgusting as a Barbie doll. And you can tell Taylor I said so." He looked up. "Yeah, sure. He's right here." Chris passed Justin the phone.

"Hi, Bev," Justin said. He harbored some resentment against Chris's mom in theory, for sticking Chris with way more trouble than a little kid should have had to deal with. But whenever he actually talked to her, he couldn't help loving her. She was such a sweet lady.

"How are you, Justin?" she asked.

"I'm fine. Great, actually. How about you?"

"Oh, I'm fine, too. So tell me, when are you coming back here for a visit?"

Justin smiled. "Soon as this tour is over," he promised. "The minute they let us off the bus, I'll jump on a plane to Pennsylvania."

"Make sure you do," she said, laughing. "Give me Chris back for a minute, will you? and then I'll let you guys go."

"Sure," Justin said. "Nice talking to you." He handed the phone back to Chris.

Chris had agreed to do an interview by himself and had to go in for it early in the morning. Justin took the opportunity to sleep in late that day, stretching every time he opened his eyes and then turning over and closing them again. When he finally did get out of bed, he took a forty-five minute shower.

Downstairs, he cranked up the stereo before going into the kitchen, singing along at the top of his lungs. He peered into the fridge for a while and finally decided to make himself a sandwich, leaving the crusts on even though Chris wasn't there to make fun of him for throwing them out. Then he took the sandwich into the living room and sat down in front of the TV.

He was still there when Chris came in. "You lazy bitch," Chris said. "I bet your ass hasn't moved from that spot all day."

Justin grinned and shimmied in place on the couch. "Yes, it has," he said. "Miss me?"

"That's what you'd like to think," Chris said. He came over and Justin leaned his head back so they could kiss. "Who's winning?"

"Carolina," Justin said happily. Chris stayed standing behind him for a while to watch the progress of the game, one hand rubbing the back of Justin's neck.

They went out riding together, sometimes on both bikes, darting across the lanes after each other, and sometimes just on one. Justin locked his arms around Chris's waist and leaned forward till his helmet bumped Chris's. The air rushed past, gusting by his neck, and the road rose up ahead of them.

Lance sent them a Christmas card together, not by mail, of course, but by his assistant, who smiled brightly when Justin answered the door. Justin and Chris, the envelope said, in Lance's neat printing. Justin took it in his hand and smiled back, said yes, merry Christmas; no, they weren't likely to see any snow; and closed the door. He put the card on the kitchen table for Chris to find, and then put his shoes on and went back to his own house.

It was, for once, still light when they left the studio. Justin stood next to the car looking at the sky until Chris unlocked the doors. Then he got in and put on his seatbelt. The streaky orange clouds near the horizon gave way to pale yellow overhead and deeper blue-black beyond that.

"You're awfully quiet," Chris said.

"Just tired," Justin said, eyes still turned upwards.

When the car stopped, he realized they were at Chris's house. "Oh, listen," he said, "I need to go to my place tonight, actually."

"What for?"

"I need the, the sheets, for the other songs. You know, the ones with the band parts. I left them there."

Chris ran his hand down Justin's arm. "Can't we just go over and get them in the morning?"

"Oh -" Justin said. Chris's fingers were warm on his wrist. "- Sure, I guess so."

Chris smiled. Justin followed him inside.

"Coke -" Chris said.

"Pepsi," Justin said.

"- okay, Pepsi, Mr. Loyal, and Oreos, and - do we need bread?"

Justin opened the fridge. "We've -" He stopped, cleared his throat. "- There's, uh, half a loaf."

"Bread," Chris said, writing it down. Justin let the fridge door fall shut.

Chris appeared in front of the couch suddenly and sat down in Justin's lap. "Chris!" Justin said, grabbing onto Chris's shoulders for balance. Chris had blocked his view of the free throw, but the roar of the crowd told him it had missed.

"Hm?" Chris said. He leaned in and attached his mouth to the side of Justin's neck.

"Chris, careful," Justin said, squirming a little. "No marks."

Chris grinned. "Kiss me right, then."

They were only a few minutes into the third quarter. If he worked it right, he could have Chris happy and quiet in time to watch the fourth. Justin grinned back and slid sideways along the couch, pulling Chris down on top of him.

While Justin was filling his gas tank, he realized the person at the next pump was looking at him. He glanced over, wondering if he should have gotten Lonnie to come with him, and it was a guy about Justin's own age, in a tight white T-shirt and baggy jeans. His gaze traveled up Justin's body till their eyes met, and then he smiled. Justin looked away immediately.

The guy went inside to pay. Justin hung up the nozzle quickly and got in his car. He was late for the studio already, and the others would probably be pissed at him when he got there. Still, he turned up the radio and hummed along with it as he drove.

Justin had punched in three digits already, the six-pack propped against his hip, before he realized that he'd fucked up. "Shit," he said, hitting the cancel sequence fast.

"What's the matter?" Joey said.

"I was - I started to put in Chris's code, instead."

Joey laughed. "You guys should just make yours the same," he said, while Justin pushed the buttons again. "Then you'd never have to worry."

Justin shifted the cans to his other hand and went in to the kitchen ahead of Joey without answering.

Joey had everyone over for a barbecue, and Chris and Justin drove over together. After finishing his hamburger Justin went into the sunroom to talk to Kelly, who was bouncing Briahna on her knee to burp her.

"Wanna hold her?" Kelly said. "Then maybe I can get some dinner too."

"Sure," Justin said.

He swung Briahna up to the ceiling, laughing, and she gurgled down at him open-mouthed. He made fish faces at her, rounding his mouth into an O before flattening it into a wide line, and then the O again. She crowed happily.

Finally he bent his arms to bring her back in to his chest and glanced up past her. Across the room, Chris was watching them speculatively.

Justin swallowed, the baby suddenly heavy in his arms. He started looking around for Joey to give her back.

"Bobbie -" JC said into his phone, "Bobbie - no, listen - that is not true! Bobbie, listen to me! That is so unfair, I never -"

Justin tried to slump down into the other couch as much as he could without spilling his coffee.

"Fuck you!" JC yelled suddenly. "Maybe I will then! No, FUCK YOU!"

After another minute he lowered the hand holding the phone to his lap and breathed out a heavy sigh. "Sorry, Justin," he said. "I didn't mean to make you listen to all that."

"I wish you didn't have to listen to it either," Justin said.

JC bowed his head. "When we first got together," he said, "she was so amazing. I was so sure we'd be good together."

Justin hmm'ed sympathetically.

"If it wasn't for you and Chris," JC went on, "I think I'd be about ready to give up on relationships. At least when I look at you guys, I know somebody's been able to make it work."

"Yeah," Justin said. He swallowed the rest of his coffee and then stood up quickly and walked away to refill his cup.

"Take care, then," Bev said. "And listen, make sure Chris eats enough, all right?"

"Chris eats plenty," Justin said. He gripped the phone tighter.

"Well," she said. "All right. Take care, anyway."

"Yeah," Justin said. Then he felt bad and said, "You, too." But he wasn't sure she heard it before she hung up.

Justin stumbled into the living room of the rehearsal house, and Chris handed him a bowl of cereal with sliced-up bananas and not too much milk. "I love you," Justin said, sinking onto the couch.

"I know," Chris said. He glanced at Lance, smirking, and Lance laughed.

Justin scowled. But he was really hungry. He went back into the kitchen and sat down there to eat.

Justin's phone rang. He saw that it was Chris calling and pressed his lips together, but made himself pick up.

"Hey, mischief," Chris said.

"What?" Justin snapped.

"The hell is up with you?"

"Nothing," Justin said. "Nothing, just - I'm sorry. What's, um, how are you?"

Chris took a deep breath, tightening his fingers on Justin's hip as he pulled nearly all the way out, and Justin knew he was about to start pounding. He did. It felt good, like always. Justin opened his mouth and breathed out a sigh.

"There you are, darling," Chris said when Justin showed up late to rehearsal. He draped an arm around Justin. "We missed you!"

"Get off me," Justin said, twitching his shoulders.

Chris took his arm away. "Oooo-kay," he said slowly, "what crawled up your ass and died?"

"Not much," Justin said. He let his eyes drift downward.

Chris paused. "Maybe you need some time before we start," he said. Justin shrank back.

"No, I - oh, fuck, Chris, I'm sorry! I'm sorry. I'm fucked up today, I don't know what's wrong with me, I'm just - fuck, I'm really sorry. Just ignore me today, okay?"

"You really are fucked up," Chris said, but his voice was gentler. "We've all been cooped up in here too long."

"Yeah," Justin said gratefully.

"One more week, and we'll be on the road."

"Yeah," Justin said. "That'll be good."

When they were on the bus again, though, he started having trouble sleeping. He lay awake in his bunk, nights.

He was twenty years old, and he'd never been with anyone but Chris.

Maybe I should - he thought.

He tried to picture telling the others that they'd broken up, and he saw JC turning away with downcast eyes, Joey sitting silently on the couch in bewilderment, Lance pursing his lips and trying to make sure he spent equal amounts of time with both of them. Justin shuddered faintly. He would never be able to do it. So that was that.

Justin was panting, twisting on Chris's fingers, and he couldn't for the life of him figure out why Chris didn't just fucking get to it already. Chris just went on with his steady, unhurried strokes, looking like he had all the time in the world and not much else to do. "Fuck!" Justin burst out, and Chris glanced down at him inquiringly. Oh, Justin thought, and really, he would have gotten it sooner, except that Chris had never wanted to hear him beg before. Fine, he thought, fine, and maybe he had that coming to him, so he opened his mouth and said, "Please, Chris, fuck me, I want you, I want you to fuck me," and thrust his hips up. Chris's gaze turned faintly skeptical, and Justin wondered if he'd overdone it, but then Chris pushed Justin's thighs back and Justin thought, finally, you fucker. "Fuck me, oh, please," he hissed, watching Chris's eyelids flutter down, and he would have rolled his eyes if Chris hadn't started hitting the sweet angle right then.

Justin went out clubbing with Trace one weekend when he was home, and it was something of a relief just to dance for a while, not for anyone or with anyone but just by himself. He hooked onto the beat and let himself go in it for song after song, just moving and moving and moving.

When he finally went back to the table for some water, he felt loose-limbed and peaceful. The guy standing in front of him turned around and said, "Hey," with a smile. Justin grinned and said hey back and picked up his bottle.

"You havin' a good time?" the guy said.

"Sure thing," Justin said.

The guy smiled even more broadly and took a sip of his own drink. Then he set it down, laid his hand lightly over Justin's arm for a second, and tilted his head towards the hallway. "C'mon," he said.

Justin felt a flicker low down in his stomach. He swallowed the last of his water, dropped the bottle on a table, and followed the guy through the doorway.

At first he wasn't sure where they were heading, but then the guy turned into a bathroom and went straight into a stall. Justin had to squeeze in sideways with his shoulders against the partition so that the door would shut. The guy leaned in and said, "fuck, you're hot," low in his ear before licking at the side of Justin's neck.

"Uh," Justin said, "thanks." But by then there was already a hand skimming down his chest and another one dipping into the back of his waistband, so he just shut up.

Almost before he knew it, his pants were open and his cock was sliding in between the guy's waiting lips. And the weird thing was how normal it felt - just a blowjob, not terribly different from any other he'd had. The guy never really used his fingers, but he did cup Justin's ass in his palms, and the way he moved the flat of his tongue made Justin's head slam back against the metal partition.

It wasn't long then till Justin threw his head back one more time and came. When he opened his eyes he saw the guy was jerking off right there, still kneeling on the floor. Justin wasn't sure if he should do something else, but the guy didn't seem to be waiting. He came on a gasped breath, luckily aiming away from Justin, breathed hard for several more seconds, and then got to his feet.

"Well," he said after resettling his clothes. "That was fun." He leaned in once more, smiling, and kissed Justin on the cheek. "See you around."

After a minute Justin realized that he was staring at the blank green stall door. He gave himself a shake and stood up straighter. He needed to clean up.

"Where'd you go, man? I been looking for you," Trace said.

"Just to the bathroom," Justin said. Trace raised an eyebrow but didn't say anything else.

In the car on the way back, Justin smoothed his cuffs repeatedly down over his wrists. The neon signs of the stores rolled by in bright colors outside the windows.

Justin let himself into Chris's house, and the dogs came running, jumping around his legs. "Hey, babies," he said, crouching down. "I missed you!" He scratched the tops of their heads and behind their ears, while they tried to rub against his hands. "Oh, I missed you so much."

Finally he stood up again. "Chris?" he called. There was no answer. "Chris, you home?"

All the blinds were up, but the day was overcast, so the light wasn't very strong. Justin went through the empty house to the kitchen, with Busta and Kariya bounding after him. He looked into their dishes and decided to give them fresh water and feed them, sitting down on the floor to watch them eat. Kariya climbed into his lap when she was done, and he petted her back in long strokes. "Good girl," he told her, smiling down at her. "You're such a good girl." He really loved the dogs.

Justin didn't catch up with Chris again till they were all back on the buses. He got caught by the first spatter of raindrops as he scurried up the steps and had to wipe his face with his T-shirt as he went on into the living area.

Chris was sitting on the floor, playing solitaire on JC's laptop. "Hey, you," he said.

"Hey," Justin said.

Chris tilted his face up, and Justin leaned down a little awkwardly to kiss him.

"How was your visit?" Chris said "Grandparents doing okay?"

"Oh, yeah," Justin said. "Everybody's fine. Thanks."

He put his bag down and settled onto the couch behind Chris. Chris turned back to his game, and Justin watched the screen idly over Chris's shoulder. There was a black seven on one pile that could go on a red eight a few columns over. Chris noticed it just as Justin was going to point it out, though, so he didn't say anything after all.

The road was wet enough now for the wheels to make long swishing sounds on the pavement, and the rain kept up a steady patter on the windows. Chris won the game, let the cards jump across the screen, and started another.

The hotel bedspread was rough under Justin's shoulders as Chris pushed him back and licked a path down his stomach. A flutter of queasiness caught Justin and he tensed to sit back up. "Wait -" he said, and Chris paused, head tilted to one side.

"Um, let me," Justin said. He twisted around till he could kneel over Chris and lean down to slide his tongue over Chris's cock. Chris braced himself on his elbows and threw his head back, closing his eyes.

A little later Chris flipped them over again, and Justin raised his hips back to Chris's hands. He took a deep breath and tried to focus as Chris slid into him. Chris's grasp was warm and heavy on his skin.

At lunchtime on the bus, Chris spread mayonnaise and mustard on six pieces of bread, and Justin stacked on slices of cheese, turkey, and pickle. Chris got out paper napkins, and Justin put ice in the glasses. Chris looked at everything on the counter and nodded.

"C!" Justin called to the back. "Lunch is ready! Come eat!"

JC came ambling into the kitchen and picked up a sandwich. "Thanks, guys," he said. Justin smiled at him. Chris flipped on the TV, and they ate to the sound of some local news show. Justin leaned back against the cabinets and closed his eyes, still chewing his sandwich.

In the last few moments backstage, Justin could already hear the noise of the crowd rising. When the fans saw them, the sound became overwhelming and Justin's blood pumped like crazy. He glanced around at Chris, JC, Lance, and Joey surrounding him and thought he wouldn't give that up for anything.

Justin woke up when gray daylight was just starting to filter through the hotel curtains. Chris was still sleeping, his face turned towards Justin on his pillow, though they weren't touching anywhere. Justin looked over at Chris's closed eyes, the soft, relaxed lines of Chris's mouth, and he leaned up on one elbow so he could bend down and touch his lips to Chris's cheek. Chris's next breath came out in a huffing sigh, but he didn't stir. Justin smiled and lay back down again.

The next time he woke up, Chris was pacing up and down from the bed to the window and bitching into his phone. There was a cup of coffee on the nightstand next to Justin, but when he picked it up and took a sip, he found it had already gone cold. He got out of bed, shuffled in his suitcase for his shower bag, and went into the bathroom. Chris never looked around.

Justin was taking a break from the dance floor when Chris leaned over his shoulder. "C and Lance and I are wiped," Chris said. "We're gonna head back to the hotel."

"Oh," Justin said. "Okay."

Chris didn't touch him, there in the middle of the club, but looked at him steadily for a moment. Justin smiled uncertainly.

"You okay?" he said.

"Yeah, just tired," Chris said. "Lonnie and Tiny'll stay with you and Joey till you're ready to go. Have a good time."

"Thanks," Justin said. "See you then."

When he went back out to dance, a hot hand fell on his back. A little later he stood with his shoulder blades pressed back against a thin wood partition and his hands hovering over a headful of glossy brown curls. Streaks of heat shot through his dick, and he wasn't thinking of anything at all.

Once, right the middle of "Celebrity," he thought, I've never - and, I wonder if - and, maybe, Britney? Then he forgot about it, but he remembered again when he saw her the next time and she came running in and kissed him hello. He took her face between his hands and kissed her again, with more intent, and her lips were soft, a little waxy with lipstick, but nice. Her grip on his shoulders tightened, though, and her arms stiffened, and she pulled back. "Justin?" she said, her eyes slightly narrowed.

He could see then that it wasn't going to work, and he pulled out his sunniest affectionate grin and said, "You're the best, Pinky, you know that? I missed you!"

She relaxed, giving him a little smack on the shoulder, and said, "Aw, Justin, you're such a doll!" and hugged him again, with a lot of arm and hardly any chest. "Come look at these outfit sketches, okay, so you can tell me what you think."

So that was pretty much that, because he couldn't really think of any other woman he'd want to try it with, and it was all the same as before, except that Britney didn't kiss him as much anymore when they got together. He guessed he deserved that.

Justin looked at Chris in the car all the way to the venue. He remembered Chris being so hot he couldn't tear his gaze away, remembered staring at the lines of Chris's mouth and nose, his cheekbones, as if Justin could soak up the gorgeousness through his eyes. Now Chris's face was so familiar that Justin couldn't tell anymore if Chris was good-looking or not. He just looked like Chris.

Chris glanced over and raised his eyebrows. Justin, caught off guard, could only shrug. Chris gave him a half-smile and looked away out the window.

Chris went to New Orleans for the Superbowl with Lance and Joey, while Justin went to New York with Britney. Justin caught a tall, dark-haired guy's eye on the way out of the afterparty and let him come up to the hotel.

"Man," the guy said when Lonnie had shown him in and shut the door. "This is some swanky room."

Justin followed his gaze around the suite, from the plush sofa in the living room to the thick towels on the floor of the bathroom to the room service cart pulled up in front of the bed. "It's fine," he said.

The guy laughed. "You're living the good life, huh? Must be great to be famous."

"Yeah," Justin said. His head ached, and he felt tired suddenly; it was probably a mistake to bring someone anywhere quiet. He kind of wished he'd just left the guy at the party. "Look -" he started, but the guy came closer and went to his knees in front of Justin.

"I can't believe I get to do this," he said. Justin stared at him, but he was looking down at Justin's zipper and didn't notice.

It was better when he finally started sucking and shut up. Justin still felt miles away, though, and it took him a long time to come.

The blond guy next to Justin at the bar looked him up and down and smiled. Justin glanced at him; he was fairly hot, in an athletic muscle kind of way. The guy slid his hand into his pocket and pulled it slowly back out again, uncurling his fingers at hip level, out of the bartender's view.

Justin was half-expecting to see the square of a condom, but in the cupped palm lay two round white pills. Justin's stomach turned over, twisting sickly, and his ears pounded with the noise. He shook his head and turned away.

Britney laid her palm on his knee and squeezed, rocking her hand gently back and forth. "Justin," she said, "what I wanted to talk to you about, is. Well. It's - I want to break up."

"You what?" he said.

She sighed. "Honey, I love you, right? And I know you love me. And this, telling people we're dating, it's been good protection for both of us for a long time."

"Yeah," he said slowly.

"Yeah," she repeated. "But, you know, I want - I think I'm old enough now to get out there and, and start looking for someone. What I mean is, I can take care of myself now, and I just - I want a chance to have something real."

"Sure," Justin said. "Yeah, no, I get that. You totally deserve that."

"See, I knew you'd understand," she said, sounding relieved. "And you know, you don't even really need me - you could set up the same thing with somebody else, if you still want to, uh, cover. I bet you could find someone to help you out pretty fast."

"Sure, yeah," he said. Britney pursed her mouth into a pout and flung both arms around him.

"I'm gonna miss you!" she said.

Justin kissed her hair. "Aw, Pinky," he said, and she let him squeeze her close for a minute. Then she sat back and gave him a slightly watery smile.

All the lights in the living room of the suite were blazing against the rain-dark windows, and the noise was insane. Chris was tickling JC, Lonnie was trying to get Chris to stop, Tiny was egging him on, Joey was yelling fake Russian-sounding sentences at Lance, somebody's phone kept ringing, and MTV was blaring over the top of it all. Justin went over to the balcony door and tried to look through the wet glass into the clouds beyond. His fingers dropped to the door handle, the metal cool and soothing against his skin, and he went on standing there till word came that the buses were ready.

Chris let the hand holding his phone drop into his lap and turned his face towards the quiet room wall.

"Chris?" Lance said.

Chris shook his head.

"Chris, hey," JC said.

"Busta's dead," Chris said shortly.

"Oh," JC said. "Oh, man, I'm sorry."

Justin went over to the couch and sat down next to Chris, laying his arm around Chris's shoulders. He tugged until Chris leaned into him, and then wrapped the other arm around Chris too.

Chris lay quiet against Justin's chest. Justin stroked his hair a little and then stopped and just held him. Nobody said anything else, and a little while later JC and Lance left the room and didn't come back.

A few minutes before Justin would have had to rouse him for costumes, Chris stirred and opened his eyes. Justin loosened his arms, and Chris sat up. He rested his face on his hands and his elbows on his knees for another minute, and then he got up, glanced back at Justin, and went out of the room. Justin went and poured himself a glass of water and stood next to the table while he drank it. Then he followed Chris to wardrobe.

Chris was doing the shows with his usual amount of energy still, but he was sloppy and listless afterwards, wiping off his makeup without looking in a mirror and rolling into his bunk without taking a shower. It drove Justin a little nuts seeing the smudges left on Chris's face, but he didn't bring it up.

Even the time Chris did sit down with JC and Justin to watch a movie, he got up halfway through, pressed his palm to the top of Justin's head, and moved off towards the back without saying anything. JC paused the movie. "Uh, you wanna...?" he said, jerking his head in the direction Chris had gone.

Justin shook his head and pulled a fat, cushy throw pillow into his lap. "Just let him sleep," he said. JC's mouth was drawn tight, but he nodded and pushed play.

"Hey, Timberlake," someone said behind him. Justin sat up from his slouch against the chair's cushions to look over his shoulder.

"Hey, Dorough," he said, relieved. VIP wasn't always a guarantee against people demanding autographs or handing him demo tracks, but Justin surely wouldn't have to worry about that kind of thing with Howie. "How's it going?"

"Not bad," Howie said, smiling. "How about you?"

He sat down in the chair opposite Justin's and listened while Justin told him about the last few shows they'd done. Then Howie started telling him about a stupid prank Nick and Brian had pulled before their own last show, and Justin found himself laughing out loud. He answered in turn with a story about Joey and Lance. Howie shook his head at the end of it, chuckling.

"Oh, come on, like I'm gonna believe that. You're pulling my leg."

"No, that is absolutely what he said. I swear," Justin assured Howie, grinning himself. He swallowed the last of his drink and set the glass down.

"Buy you another?" Howie said.

Justin looked up at him. There was a curve to Howie's smile and a focus in his dark eyes that took Justin by surprise. "Um," Justin said.

Howie leaned forward and laid his hand on Justin's knee. "Or," he said, "come back to my place and I'll make you one there."

Justin's dick twitched. "Okay," he said.

Howie fucked him with a gentleness so easygoing that Justin almost wasn't sure he could come from it, until he took a breath and found himself shooting into Howie's hand. "Holy shit," he said when he could speak.

Howie grinned and kissed him before pulling out, still hard. "Suck me?" Howie said, already stroking himself.

"Yeah," Justin said, and pushed Howie's hand away to replace it with his own. Howie's palm came to rest on Justin's hair instead. A little later Justin curled the fingers of his other hand around Howie's balls, twisting just slightly in time with his tongue. Howie groaned and flooded Justin's mouth.

Justin let go, and Howie pulled him up to kiss him again, lying facing each other on their sides. "Wow," Howie said, trailing his fingers down Justin's shoulder. "D'ye learn that from Chris?"

"What?" Justin said.

Howie smiled. "Come on," he said, "it may have been a long time ago for me, but I still know a Kirkpatrick move when I see one. How long were you with him?"

Justin stared at Howie's face. "Uh, three years," he said after a moment. "Give or take."

Howie's eyebrows lifted slightly, but his smile never faltered, and his hand didn't stop moving on Justin's arm. "Well, how about that drink now? We can toast the exes that brought us here today."

Justin's neck and his arm and his belly felt damp and cold. "You know," he said, "as fun as that sounds, I have some interviews and shit at, like, ass o'clock tomorrow morning. Today, really. I probably actually oughta start heading home."

"Oh man, those things are deadly if you haven't slept," Howie said. "Believe me, I know."

"Yeah, I guess you would," Justin said. He sat up and reached for his boxers lying crumpled at the foot of the bed.

When Justin was tying his sneakers, Howie moved over to him, spread a hand out against the side of Justin's neck and jaw, and pressed a languorous kiss to his mouth. "So, when can I see you again?" Howie asked.

Justin looked at Howie's sleepy grin. "Things are so crazy right now," he said slowly. "I probably shouldn't make you any promises."

"Sure, I understand," Howie said. He tilted his head, and his smile was even sweeter and lazier than before. "He's a hard guy to get over, isn't he."

Justin bit his lip and looked away. "You could say that," he said.

He couldn't face the thought of calling Lonnie or Eric to pick him up from Howie's place, so he just called a regular cab. He pulled his hood up and didn't say much, and the driver didn't say much to him.

Chris and Justin hadn't fucked in weeks, so Justin was a little startled, though not unwilling, when Chris came back from brushing his teeth, put his hands on Justin's shoulders, and pressed him down onto the bed. Chris's kisses were heated and insistent, wet over Justin's face, his throat, and Justin found himself thrusting up against Chris, moaning without meaning to. He was so fucking hard.

Chris pushed Justin's thighs apart to kneel between them, and Justin twisted his fingers into Chris's hair, ready to urge that hot mouth closer. Then a thread of fear struck him, and he froze. But that was stupid. Everybody, but everybody, did that; surely Chris himself had done that with Justin before.

Chris had paused, glancing up at Justin's face. Justin tightened his grip and pressed his hips forward, and Chris bent down again.

Later Chris sat up and turned Justin over. Justin let Chris's thrusts rock him forward and back, and he came, harder than he had in months, just exactly when he knew he would.

Chris came downstairs in his suit, his beard neatly trimmed and his hair slicked back. His tie was crooked, though.

"You ready?" he asked, not looking at Justin.

"Yeah," Justin said. "C'mere a minute." He stood up, and Chris came over to stand in front of him. Justin loosened the knot and began tugging the tie into place. "There," he said finally, patting the cloth down against Chris's chest.

"Thanks," Chris said after a moment. Then his phone buzzed, and they went out to the car.

When Justin got to the compound, Chris was playing solitaire on the floor of Johnny's office, not on a laptop but with actual cards. Joey was sitting on the couch behind Chris looking over his shoulder.

Justin went over and sat down next to Joey. "Hey," he said.

"Hey," Chris said. He laid three more cards from the deck onto the stack in front of the columns.

"Hi, J," Joey said, smiling at Justin before turning back. "Look - there! There's the eight of clubs, right under the four there. Just put that on the nine and you'll be good to go."

"You can't do that!" Justin said. "It's not the top card. That'd be cheating."

"Yeah," Chris said, "it would be."

Chris was turned away from Justin, still looking down at the game, so all Justin could see was the hunched set of his shoulders and the curl of his fingers on the cards still left in his hand. Justin took a slow breath to try to calm his suddenly racing pulse.

"Well, fine," Joey said. "What are you gonna do, then?"

Chris shook his head vaguely and put the next three cards down on the stack. Justin leaned against the back of the couch, pulled his knees up close to his chest, and wrapped his arms around them. He barely heard anything anyone said during the whole meeting.

"You sure you don't want to come to the Derby with us?" JC said afterwards. "Your boy Diddy is gonna be there and everything."

"I can't," Justin said. "I mean, it'd be great, but I really gotta get ready to meet Chad and Pharrell."

"Oh, c'mon," Joey said. "You're plenty ready. You've got songs coming out your ears, I can see 'em from here."

"Chris!" JC said while Justin was ducking his head away from Joey's hands. "Tell your boyfriend he's coming to Kentucky!"

"What is this Kentucky you speak of?" Chris said. "And for that matter, who are you? And who am I? Have you kidnapped me and wiped my memory for dastardly purposes known only to your twisted, evil minds?"

Joey abandoned his attempts on Justin and went to thwap Chris's head instead.

"Well, fine," JC said. "You're gonna be missing a hot time, though, Justin."

"I'll be thinking of you every minute," Justin promised. Joey snorted. Chris pushed open the door to the parking lot.

Chris was packing methodically, shorts and jeans, T-shirts and hoodies, piling them all up in his suitcases. "You're not gonna need all that," Justin said, sitting cross-legged on the bed. "The way the temperatures are over there, you won't wear a single long sleeve the whole weekend."

"You never know," Chris said, and shoved another handful of socks into a corner.

"Do you have your Dramamine for the flight?" Justin said after a minute.

"Yup," Chris said.

Justin lay back on the pillows, crossed his arms behind his neck, and leaned against them to watch Chris moving from the closet to the dresser to the suitcases and back again.

Chris had just fetched his razor and shaving cream from the bathroom when his phone made a strange birdlike chirp in his pocket. "Yeah," he said into it. "Just finishing up, be right there."

He pushed the gear into a side pocket and zipped up both suitcases. Then he looked over at the bed and met Justin's eyes.

"Have a safe trip," Justin said. "And don't let JC bet too much on one horse."

A strained grin flickered briefly over Chris's face. He came over and sat on the edge of the bed, laid a hand against Justin's chest, and leaned down to kiss him. Justin tried to press up into Chris's mouth, but Chris's hand kept him flat on his back. He let his eyes fall closed and parted his lips for Chris's tongue.

"See you soon," Justin said when Chris pulled back and stood up.

"See you," Chris said.

In Virginia Beach, Justin threw himself into recording, determined to make the most of his few days with Chad and Pharrell. They spent crazy long hours in the studio, and the music just kept on rolling out of them. Despite all that, though, Justin had trouble sleeping when he finally sank into bed. The first night he turned the TV on and dozed haphazardly through its noise. The second night he laid some pillows on the empty side of the bed and curled up with his spine against them, and that helped, a little.

He went out with Pharrell to grab some dinner and found himself wolfing down his burgers, startled by his own hunger. "Man," he said finally, wiping his mouth with a napkin, "I needed that."

Pharrell chuckled. "I know it," he said. "'S why I brought you here."

Justin grinned.

"I know what you be needin'," Pharrell said. His knee bumped Justin's under the table.

Justin glanced over, covering his mouth with the napkin again. "Sleep's gotta be next," he said after a moment. "Five - no, six hours of sleep. Can you imagine?"

"You can sleep when your album's out," Pharrell said, his broad smile shining steadily. His knee was gone again.

When they'd both finished their fries, they went back to the studio and did a dozen more takes of the song they'd been working on. One of those might be good enough for the album, Justin thought. He'd have to see.

He kept getting Chris's voicemail when he tried to call him. When Justin got messages from Chris, they always seemed to come during a work session when he couldn't pick up.

After the Neptunes he had some whirlwind sessions with Diddy, and then he went up to Philadelphia to work with Andre and Vidal. He called JC from the hotel, and JC told him that Chris and his friend Ron had just pulled into Virginia Beach.

"You know, on their cross-country RV road trip thing," JC said.

"Right," Justin said. "It sounds like a blast."

"So what about you?" JC said. "Are you enjoying yourself?"

"Yeah," Justin said, and it was true. Being in the studio on his own felt more exhilarating than anything else. JC only laughed, however, when Justin tried to describe it to him.

"I know, man," he said. "I know exactly what you mean."

Justin wasn't quite sure JC did. He let it go though and asked instead if JC had heard any news from Joey.

He kept moving the pillows down on the mattress for a while, and then one night he got tired of them being out of order and shoved them back into their proper places at the head of the bed. He poured himself some coffee and took it over to the window, looking out at the bits of the skyline that were still lit up. His breath made a little patch of fog on the glass. Behind him the TV droned softly on, but he wasn't really listening.

The thing was, groupies didn't seem worth the risk anymore, and the thought of starting over from the beginning with someone else just made him feel tired. Nobody he was going to find was really going to be better than what he had with Chris. He thought he wouldn't give that up for anything.

He went on to LA next to do some work with Brian McKnight, and then Timbaland after that. He kept working and working and working, writing and singing and mixing, and the songs were the best he'd ever done.

He didn't get back to Orlando until CFTC. When they got there, Eric rode to Justin's house with him and then left to go home himself. Justin took his bags upstairs to his bedroom, left them on the floor there and took a shower. Then he went over to Chris's.

He let himself in and punched in the security code. The hallway was dark, but he could hear the faint sound of the TV from the den.

Chris was sitting on the couch watching a baseball game. He looked up when Justin came in. Justin met his eyes.

"You back?" Chris said.

"For a while, yeah," Justin said.

Chris's lip twitched. He glanced back at the TV.

Justin crossed the room and sat down next to Chris. After a minute, Chris put an arm around him. Justin laid his head on Chris's shoulder and turned his eyes to the screen.