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"I hate you! You're the worst older brother in the world!"

Lance made a pained face at the shrill words he could hear coming from the phone, even sitting across the table.

Chris pinched the bridge of his nose. "I'm sorry, Tay, really. I tried, I swear."

"Whatever, go be with your 'brothers,' you love them more than us anyway." There was an emphatic click and Chris pulled the phone away from his ear dejectedly. For a moment he looked at it as though he were considering throwing it across the room. Lance didn't say anything; Chris never wantonly destroyed material objects.

Chris went back to pretending to consider new FuMan sketches. Lance pretended he was reading resumes. "You're not, you know."

"Not what, Scoop?"

"The worst older brother in the world."

"No, probably not, I mean, I don't beat them or steal from them or anything."

"Chris."

"It's Tay's ninth birthday party and her best friend Missy's older brother got leave from the frickin' army to come to her party. But we're in California all that week, we have a show the same day her party is and there's just no way in hell. If I had known before we made the schedule, maybe, I could've probably worked something, but, fuck."

"She's nine Chris. She'll call back next week and pretend like nothing happened."

"Yeah, she will, but I'm thirty and I'll still know something happened."

"Oh, okay. You could've just said this was a mid-life crisis issue."

"Fuck you, I'm not in the middle of anything, let alone my life. I just get to wondering if my priorities are screwed."

Lance shook his head, bemused. "Remember when we were in Europe during Molly's 21st birthday?"

"Yeah, I remember."

"And you'd already had your phone call home for the week because your mom hadn’t been feeling well, but you called anyway even though you knew Lou was gonna have your hide for it? Then you sent her -- illegally, may I add -- a case of real Guinness when we were in the UK a month later, even though it was way more expensive than what we could afford at the time. Do you remember what you said to me when I told you that you were stupid?"

Chris nodded fractionally. "I told you that Moll had dreamed of coming to Ireland and having that beer when she was legal since the time she knew what Guinness was and that the case was the closest thing to a trip I could get for her."

"Close. You told me that Molly had mentioned wanting to drink a Guinness in Ireland when she was fourteen years old." Lance let the difference sink in for Chris. "Seven years before you sent that case back to the states."

"I have a good memory."

"For the things that are important. Your priorities, one might say."

*

Taylor didn't forget.

Chris swallowed his pride and called Nick Carter to see if he could take her out to dinner one night. Of late, in a mix of belligerence and girlishness, Taylor had struck out on the goal of being the biggest Backstreet fan west of the Mississippi. Nick had been surprisingly obliging about the request, not even bothering Chris for a transport fee. Kate had called after it had happened to report that he had brought Howie along with him and that Taylor hadn't been able to make any noise other than a squeal for several days afterwards.

On Taylor's part, Chris was getting sheer radio silence. Bev grounded her for being an "ungrateful little brat." Taylor patiently holed up in her room for two weeks.

Chris began keeping his cell phone on all day. JC downloaded an Enya song as the ringer, citing its restful qualities, but didn't complain about the constant -- and fruitless -- ringing. Justin answered every once in awhile with a hopeful, "Heya?" but the answer was never the one he wanted.

Chris performed like his life depended on it and gave up sleeping for Lent.

*

They pulled into Buffalo in the beginning of April to mounds of snow and a wind-chill that sounded more like the national deficit. Chris burrowed in his hotel room, spending a full hour and a half in the shower before realizing that he couldn't make a night out of the pursuit of better hygiene. The towels in the hotel were too small and Chris walked out of the bathroom feeling like an out-of-shape terrycloth clad Tarzan. He would have been less than pleased to notice Lance sitting on the bed, but Lance had seen him in far worse states.

Besides, Lance was looking less than GQ himself, attempting to sit up straight on the bed in a pair of motion-inhibiting snow pants. The realization gave Chris pause. "Um-"

"While you were busy changing your genus to that of a prune, JC convinced me to go shopping with him. I swear, you think he's so sweet and the next thing you know, you're in a Salvation Army shop signing everything in sight because he's too damn nice to beg off. He's just got our number is all. He's a mastermind of manipulation, I tell you."

Chris nodded sympathetically and took pity on Lance, not mentioning that he had evidently not refused to sign either. He was too interested in the snow pants to quibble right then.

"So, yeah. In order not to have the afternoon be a total waste, I bought myself a little something," Lance motioned grandly at the snow pants. He loved snow. It was foreign to him, even after all these years of touring in places where it fell, generously at times. "They had your size too, and really, now that JC's made my day a living hell for a few hours, I can only hope to pay it forward with you."

"Pay it forward with Joe, Bass. I'm not in your clique, remember?" Chris wished he had the energy to sound bitchy rather than drained.

"You evidently missed this somewhere along the way, but Joey's a bit bigger than you. I didn't buy him snow pants." Lance stood up, looking all flushed in the overheated room. He held out the second pair of snow pants to Chris. For a moment, Chris saw Lance the way he was in Europe, eager to please and dangerously sweet. Chris had thought he was a lot like Emily back then. They had both grown up somewhere along the way.

"C'mon, Chris."

Chris crossed the room and took the snow pants from Lance's hands. He suited up while absentmindedly asking Lance if he had remembered a hat. Lance laughed and Chris looked up sharply. "What?"

"I have Stace around to be an older sibling if I need one. Or JC, who does a good job in his own way. I don't need another one."

It was only later, when they were shoving each other into ten foot snowdrifts and throwing snowballs large enough to kill small children, that Chris realized Lance hadn't said what he did need.

*

The night before they got to Pittsburgh, Chris crumbled against his own resolutions and called over to Lance on the other bus. "Can another room be booked at the hotel?"

"Yeah, but it's not going to be."

"Some friend you are." Chris pouted in the vain hope that Lance would psychically be shamed into humoring him.

Lance was never shamed into much of anything, let alone by sheer force of wishing. "You need to go home."

"Easy for you to say, you who stays in a mansion separate from all parental and sibling units when in Mississippi." Chris sat down heavily on the couch. His eyes strayed to where JC was humming, having found the exact pitch of his sewing machine's buzz. The resultant harmony was somewhat unsettling.

"You want, um. You want me to come with you?" Lance's voice got as nonchalant as humanly possible. Too nonchalant. He only got that way when his stomach was auditioning for the Laker's cheerleading squad.

Chris considered the question. Lance could provide a buffer zone or he could be the Polish Invasion of the Kirkpatrick family's own World War II. Chris had never been one to play it safe. "Sure, yeah, that'd be nice."

"Okay. Your mom meeting us at the hotel?"

"Yup."

"See ya there."

"See ya." Chris had almost pressed the end button when he swiftly brought the phone back up against his ear. "Lance?"

"Mm?" The sound started from far away and got closer as Lance brought his own phone back up.

"Well, y'know. Thanks."

"Oh." Lance chuckled. The sound of it was warm in Chris's ear. "Sure. You're welcome. Anytime."

*

JC finished the project that he had been working on for nearly three weeks with a flourish of his hands and a grin that told Chris asking to be shown the finished product would probably save everyone a lot of time and heartache. "Whatcha got, C?"

JC stood up and held the dress up to his chest as though to model. The dress sported approximately fourteen shades of blue and was only slightly larger than JC's torso. He grinned proudly. "Tay's favorite color is blue, right?"

Chris had a bad feeling about the way the conversation was headed. "Yep."

JC meticulously folded the dress and handed it to Chris. It was still warm from the sewing machine. "I hope she hasn't grown much since you sent her the FuMan gift set. I took the measurements from that."

Chris sighed. "You think I should bring her something, too?"

JC smiled widely. "The dress is from you, Chris."

Chris shook his head and pulled JC close to him, hugging him until he felt the slighter man gasp for air. JC sat back. Chris noticed that his eyes didn't look all that different when he was oxygen deprived. "How did you get to be such a good older brother?"

JC's gaze wandered to the bunk area. "I've been dealing with Timberlake for even longer than you have."

Chris smiled slightly. JC screwed up his mouth, thinking. "Do you think Justin's a bad older brother? Or that Joey's a bad father?"

Chris shook his head, waiting for an explanation of the connections that JC had managed to form. JC continued. "You know about a year ago, when Justin wouldn't speak to any of us for like a day after every phone call with his family? It was because Jonathan was giving him shit for being away all the time. Joey stays up nights worrying that Brianna's gonna hate him for never being home. It's more of an age thing than anything else. Tyler did it for awhile with me."

Chris nodded. "I guess."

"But?"

"She said…" Chris knew what was really bothering him. "She said I loved you guys more."

JC's eyes darkened. "It's not the same thing."

"Isn't it? Don’t we tell everyone we're brothers?"

"We tell 'everyone' a lot of things. When did you start believing our own lies?"

"How does the phrasing make anything different? So you're my best friends. What if I still love you guys more than Taylor, what then?"

"You don't. It's not about more or less, it's about different. You love us differently."

Chris wished he understood the significance of that difference. He had a feeling it would make everything much simpler.

*

It was evident from their very arrival that Lance was to be given no more quarter than Chris by Taylor. Either by association or mere existence, he was equally as guilty as the offending party. The revelation was a relief to Lance, who had been having secret fears of being a nine-year old's unwitting pawn. Chris, on the other hand, had been hoping to have a man on the inside and was not taking this new type of pre-emptive defeat well.

Lance and Chris both came down after putting their bags upstairs to chat with Beverly. She brewed a pot of coffee and set a tray of Pillsbury cinnamon rolls to baking. Lance kissed her cheek and told her she was one of his favorite moms in the world. Chris, not to be outdone, kissed her other cheek and said she was his very favorite mom. Bev rolled her eyes and ushered them both into chairs.

Lance poured himself and Chris a cup of coffee, leaving both of them black. Chris reached over and shoveled three teaspoons of sugar in. Lance knew exactly what kind of soundcheck they would be having that afternoon. Bev came and sat down, patting Chris's hand wordlessly.

Chris took a sip. "JC sewed her a dress. He gave it to me to give to her, but I'm not gonna do it if she won't talk to me."

Lance noticed Bev getting up and motioned for her to sit, standing up to check the cinnamon rolls himself. They were done and he set them down on the table, throwing the hot pad that had been next to the oven underneath the tray. He picked one up gingerly, tossing it from hand to hand. Chris watched in amusement for a few seconds. "Want a napkin?" He didn't wait for the answer before getting up to grab three and distributing them among the table's occupants.

Lance set the roll down. "You need a plan of attack."

"I thought JC was the group master of manipulation."

"Who do you think I learned from?"

Chris smiled. "I hope it wasn't Jayce. Good lord."

Bev laughed softly. "Did you have a strategy in mind, Mr. Bass?"

Lance nibbled at his roll. "I thought this was a brainstorming session, why am I expected to come up with all the ideas?"

Chris put his elbows on the table and rested his chin atop his fists. "I never thought I'd say this. In fact, I think my principles actively go against me saying this, but if Nick Carter couldn't do the job, what hope do I have?"

"My principles actively go against me being in the same room as anyone saying that. None of that." Lance glared half-heartedly at Chris.

"Maybe I just have to wait out the phase, y'know?" Chris looked to Beverly. "I mean, she will grow out of this at some point, right?"

"Grow out of what, Chris? Missing her only brother?"

Lance's hand made its way to the small of Chris's back. "You wouldn't want that even if it were possible. Let's start from the beginning. What do you know about Taylor?"

Chris leaned back against the chair and further into Lance's touch. "I dunno. She likes the color blue and the Backstreet Boys. She wants a boa constrictor but mom's afraid she'll get herself strangled. She plays soccer on the boy's team because her school doesn’t have one for girls." Chris thought for a few minutes. He stood up abruptly. "I'll be back."

Lance took another cinnamon roll and looked across the table at Bev. She narrowed her eyes and smiled knowingly at him, not saying a word.

*

Chris let himself into Taylor's room, ignoring the aborted, "Hey! What are you-" when she realized who it was and that she wasn't talking to him.

He sat down on her bed and spoke to the top of her head as she pretended to read the book she had her face buried in. "I know them better than you. That's different than loving them more."

Taylor's head didn't move, so he continued. "You gotta admit, though, that's not all my fault. Who was too busy with her friend to come to the phone last Thanksgiving when I called?"

"Who should have been here instead of just calling?"

Chris knew better than to point out that she had actually spoken to him and held a crow of triumph safely inside. "I'm sorry that I can't make you more important than my job, Taylor. If you ever really needed me, if you were sick or hurt or in trouble, I would, I'd be here instantly, but I have a job that I love and that I don't have the luxury of neglecting, even for a little a bit."

The book was lying open in Taylor's lap. Her eyes were focused on Chris. She let go of the lower lip that she was biting in a desperate attempt not to cry. "I didn’t want Nick Carter."

"I'm sorry, I just thought…I would've gotten you whatever you asked for."

"I did ask, Chris. I wanted you." She gave up trying to act brave and the first tears ran down her cheek.

Chris crossed to where she was sitting and picked her up, sitting himself underneath her. "I'm sorry, Tay."

"So 'm I." She was clinging on to Chris, her voice unclear in between sobs. "Just wanna know my big brother."

Chris ran his hand through her hair, hugging her tightly to him with his other arm. "I wanna know you too. I wanna find out everything about Miss Taylor Kirkpatrick."

Later, he looked up to see Lance watching him in the doorway and wondered how he had missed the other man's arrival.

*

Taylor rounded up Missy and another close friend last minute without a problem and showed off her older brother and his friends starting with the soundcheck party all the way through the concert. She wore her new dress and Joey tossed her up in the air, noting how the whole thing caused JC to shine. Justin gave her a high-five when she told him that he was still cuter than Nick Carter.

Chris caught her and Lance talking quietly in a corner of the dressing area right before she went out to her seat. Lance felt Chris's eyes on him, so he looked up and smiled. Chris smiled back. He trusted Lance, even if he didn't always know what he was up to.

*

The light was on in the kitchen when Chris came down after showering later that night. Lance was at the kitchen table, also freshly showered, patiently navigating through his email. He looked up as Chris padded into the room.

"What were you and Tay conspiring about behind my back?" Chris grabbed the orange juice from the fridge and poured himself a glass before sitting down.

Lance took a sip of the orange juice. "I was trying to talk her into spending a month with us this summer, wherever we are."

"Think my mom'll go for it?"

"I talked to her before I talked to Tay, doofus. You think I'd get her all excited like that?"

Chris paused. "I don't think I know you very well."

Lance pushed his laptop to the side. "What does that mean?"

"I just. I've been thinking about things. JC said I loved you guys differently and this afternoon, when I realized that I don't know my sister much better than I do the average letter-writing fan, I thought maybe that was the difference. I know you guys." Chris slid his fingers along the table's edge. "But I'm not sure I know you very well at all."

"Chris, you know what I eat for breakfast when I'm nervous and what color pajamas help me to sleep best. You know that when I'm pissed off I like to listen to gangsta rap because I figure someone in the room oughtta be more angry than I am. I know because you've surprised me with the knowledge of each of these things at one point or another. You surprise me all the time."

"No, I know, I know the details about you, I'm just a little fuzzy on the grand picture."

"What does that mean?"

"Why are you here, Lance?"

Lance started to say something, sputtering a bit and coming up with, "Seemed like you might want back up."

"Yeah, but it's much more your style to say something to Joey and let him handle me. You're the organizer, the rest of us are your minions, remember?"

Lance smiled slightly, flicking one of Chris's hands. "Maybe I missed being part of everything."

"You feeling left out?"

"No, no. It’s not that." Lance got up and washed out Chris's glass.

"What is it then?"

Lance walked to the doorway shaking his head. "I'm going to bed."

Chris felt like Emma in a bad Jane Austen adaptation.

*

It wasn't that Chris had a hard time adapting to change. Of all of them, Chris was the most adaptable. Coming home from tours was hard though. It was hard not to be within touching distance of the guys after stumbling into one another for two months straight.

Chris's house always felt like a ghost town at first and Justin, who was normally just doors away and readily available to entertain Chris, had defected to LA to spend time with Britney. JC was also in LA, where he could safely flag down Justin if the desperate need to co-write a song came over him. Joey was taking Kelly on a well-deserved vacation, which left only one option. Chris showed up on Lance's doorstep empty-handed and ready for the down and dirty fight that might be necessary to separate Lance from his computer.

Lance actually answered the door with his computer in hand. "Oh, hey."

"You should get surgical implants, like that guy, Lando's assistant."

"Lobot?" Lance wandered back towards his office as Chris shut the door behind him.

"Yeah. It would be more convenient."

"And really sexy. I bet Johnny would just love that proposal. You wanna bring it up in the next meeting?" Lance settled himself back into his office chair, placing the computer on the desk.

"No." Chris straddled Lance, effectively cutting him off from the computer. "I'm bored and lonely Bass and you're my only hope, don't disappoint me here."

Lance had long ago learned the futility of trying to distract Chris while he was on a mission. "What do you want from me?"

"Take me somewhere."

"Where Chris?"

"I dunno, somewhere you like to go. Or want to see but never have. Just-"

"Okay, I get it. I'll make you a deal." Lance tended to get his way most of the time because he had learned that the trick to dealing with Chris was to promise rewards for good behavior. "You leave me alone for today so that I can get this done, and I'll take you somewhere tomorrow."

Chris grinned. "Knew I could count on you." He got up to go, understanding as well as Lance the beauty of compromise.

Lance called out to Chris right as he reached the hallway. "Pack an overnight, it takes a while to get there."

*

They ended up at Lance's third house. The house that none of them had seen until now. It was nice, in a harmless, cookie-cutter kind of way. Nothing like his other two. It fit right into the rest of the neighborhood so seamlessly that Chris wasn't even terribly sure where his house ended and the next one began.

The inside wasn't much more impressive than the outside. There was a nice size kitchen, two bedrooms, a living room, a dining room and a porch that covered most of what could be considered the back yard. It was more a tangle of native Florida vegetation in back of the house than anything else. It was just neat enough that Chris wondered if Lance paid a gardener to keep things looking unruly.

There were pictures all over the place: pictures of Stacy and Ford's wedding; Meredith's first awards show; the few people Lance had stayed close with from Mississippi; holiday gatherings and a ton of the band. Chris couldn't even remember taking a large number of the ones Lance had up.

Lance emerged from the kitchen where he was checking to see that the people who kept the house for him had stocked it correctly. "You like?"

Chris nodded. "It's nice. I thought it would be different."

Lance's look was decidedly enigmatic. "I have two flashy houses Chris. I bought this one because I like the name of the town and it's quiet here. I'm not the hometown boy or the local celebrity. I'm just a dues paying member of the rather negligent home owner's association."

"You brought me to your escape place?" Chris crinkled his eyes, happy and bemused all at once.

"My escape place and my…mental triage spot. There's two parts to this trip." Lance's eyes held unusual calm.

"Oh?" Chris quirked an eyebrow.

"You have to wait till tomorrow for the second one."

"Lance, since when am I patient?"

"Since when am I tractable?"

Chris could admit when he'd met his match.

*

Lance was already awake when Chris threw back the covers and chose to brave the world the next morning, but he wasn't on his computer. Instead, Chris found him sitting quietly on the back porch, small bowl of cereal being steadily drained. Lance looked up at the noise of the sliding door opening. "I've got Chex and Golden Grahams, you up to either?"

Chris nodded. He stepped back inside to find the cereal and poured his own bowl before going out to sit with Lance. "Hey."

"Hey. Weather's gonna be nice today. Not too hot."

"Mmm. How long you been up?"

"While."

"You know you need to sleep more, right? I mean, I'm just saying these words out loud for my own sake, yes?"

"Yeah, Chris. Yeah. I just…can't get my brain to stop. Not even out here, evidently." Lance scraped his spoon along the bottom of the bowl and drank the last of the milk, more sugar than liquid.

Chris tipped the bowl against his mouth and drained it. "You promised me a good time today, Bass."

"I did no such thing."

"Well, I can read between the lines."

"Like the time Justin told you he wanted to go in with you for JC's birthday present and you spent three weeks worrying that this meant he was interested in a threesome?"

Chris stood up. "You're just jealous of my many talents."

"That must be it."

*

Chris had been to a lot of hospitals since NSYNC's formation. He was used to the smell of industrial-strength Lysol and too much medication. Formaldehyde, though, that was new.

Lance smiled at the nurse at the front desk of the old age home. She grinned back, "Hey Lance, didn't know you were around."

"Yeah, not for long. Just today, actually. Where do you want me?"

"Unit 3's probably best. Plus, I know Rosa's one of your favorites."

"She's a sweetie. Thanks Haylee."

Haylee nodded, going back to what she had been doing when they walked in. Lance chose a hallway to walk down and Chris followed him, marveling at Lance's directional confidence. Chris himself was having bad "Labyrinth" flashbacks.

They reached a doorway and Lance knocked. A nurse opened the door from the other side. "Hey. Wow, you're like a G-dsend today. Kenny's out with the flu so it's just Jeri and me. You wouldn't mind a little impromptu concert, wouldja? We could sit them all in the common room and you could do whatever you wanted for however long they'll sit still."

Lance nodded. "Anne, this is Chris. Chris, Anne. He's gonna sing with me. You guys need any help getting'em situated?"

Anne was looking at them like they were divine creatures, which was not something foreign to Chris, he just hadn't had that look thrown his way for being anything else than a pop star in a long time. He grinned at her. "Lance and I could go get…Rosa?" He peered at Lance to make sure he'd remembered the name correctly.

Anne nodded even as she started to move away. "That would be fantastic, go to it."

*

Rosa, as it turned out, was 84 years old and more fun that Justin on a sugar high. It took them ten minutes to get from her room to the common area, half due to the maximum walking speed possible with a walker, half due to the fact that Chris and her couldn't stop making each other laugh for two seconds straight. Lance wasn't so straight-faced himself by the time they reached their destination.

It was obvious that Lance was one of Rosa's very favorite human beings on the entire planet. Lance seemed to share the affection and Chris made a mental note to find out how it was exactly that he or any of the others had never heard of this woman that Lance quite obviously kept in touch with on a fairly regular basis. In the meantime, he was just enjoying the way Lance was smiling. His face didn't look anything like it did in the photo shoot proofs they were always getting. When he smiled for real it was quiet, just a hint of teeth, a softening of every facial feature, a look that said "happy" in ways Chris couldn't begin to articulate.

Every person in the room who had a memory span longer than three minutes seemed to know Lance. He took his time, going around, saying hi to people; asking about certain family members; telling them how the tour had gone; introducing Chris. Chris, who had loved his grandparents and, as a result, felt no fear or discomfort around older people, was having the time of his life. It was nice to be in a room of people who were excited to see you because you were a person, any person, willing to sit in a room and talk with them. Sometimes he missed anonymity so much he was tempted to move to a village where the newest advance in technology was the ice box.

They finally got around to singing almost an hour after everyone had congregated. It was weird at first, for both of them. They weren't used to singing alone, without someone to buffer the total contrast of their vocal ranges. Chris let Lance pick the songs, some of them he knew better than others, but he had a feeling that Lance was picking ones he would be at least marginally familiar with. He forgot sometimes how warm Lance's voice was, the way it was the foundation of everything, the way a person could forget to breath while listening to it.

Later, on the way back to the car, when Lance shoved him lightly and said, "You forgot the words to 'That's the Way Love Goes?'" Chris figured that breathing wasn't the only thing that deserted him when dealing with up-close-and-personal Lance vibes.

Lamely, Chris came back with, "Dude, racy much? Old age home."

Lance snorted. "You should've seen'em the time I did Digital. If the teenies are old enough to handle it, I think they are, yeah?"

Chris shook his head. "You're cool Bass."

Lance looked at Chris suspiciously out of the corner of his eye. "Uh huh, Kirkpatrick. Right."

Chris let it go. Sarcasm was so much easier to deal with than truth.

*

Chris woke up at three that morning for no conceivable reason and knew, immediately that there would be no rolling over and going back to sleep. Chris got up with the farfetched hope that Lance kept nighttime tea in his vacation house's kitchen. He made it to the den, but no further. It was dark and the TV was playing softly on CMT. Lance's body was just barely illuminated by the flash of late-night country videos.

Chris sat down next to him. "Hey."

Lance tipped his head lazily, "Howdy, pardner."

"Exhausted, huh?"

"Exhausted was three weeks ago."

"Maybe you should be talking something. Have you talked to anyone?"

"I talked to our doctor. He told me to see a shrink. I got Jayce to recommend the one he went to after Nikki."

"And?"

"I've been going."

"Is it helping?"

Lance shook his hand back in forth in the universal sign for "kind of, not really."

Chris ran his fingers through Lance's hair and stood up. "Stay here." He disappeared into the kitchen for a few minutes and returned with cups of sleepy-time tea, which Lance had either requested in the dregs of desperation or with the awareness that it was what Chris used sometimes as a calming agent.

Lance took the cup from him. He blew across the surface, cooling it. Chris almost dropped his own cup watching the whole thing. Lance drained the cup methodically, as if it were an endurance test. Chris matched his tempo so that they would finish around the same time. When they were finished, Chris deposited both cups in the sink and came back out to the living room, holding out one hand to Lance. "Up. C'mon."

Lance blinked wearily at the hand, but took it with one of his own and followed Chris obediently. Chris took them back to Lance's room. He didn't bother to ask before climbing into bed with Lance and hugging himself tight to the younger man. Lance squirmed deeper into the hug.

"Do you think this'll help?"

Lance jumped at the sound of Chris's voice, loud so close to his ear. "Um. Might."

"Let it not be said that I left stones unturned."

"Okay."

*

"Why didn't you tell us?" Chris had been driving silently for quite some time, hoping that Lance would be lulled asleep.

"About the home?" Lance didn't look away from the window.

"Yeah. I mean, we wouldn't have told anyone. You know we all do stuff like that from time to time."

Lance turned at that, mildly hurt. "You think it was about trust?"

"It's not that. I don't understand, ok?" It wasn't all that unusual that Chris found himself wishing for the gift of tact.

"I'm not me in there. When they ask how the tour went, they only know I went on tour because I told them that. They probably think they're asking about some local college route tour, or something. I'm just some kid with a nice voice who's considerate enough to spend time with them. I like just being a 'good kid.' If I bring one of you in, I'm part of something again, and even if they don't know what that something is, I do."

"Why'd you bring me then? I mean, I didn't say you had to take me somewhere secret."

Lance went back to looking out the window. "I guess I like being part of something with you."

*

Justin came back from LA a few days after Chris and Lance returned. Chris rode over there on his bike at seven in the morning and woke Justin up with the word, "Ride?"

Justin looked ready to bitch him out for all of three seconds before something on Chris's face convinced him otherwise. He nodded and rolled out of bed. "I'll be there in a minute."

It was Sunday and the roads were fairly clear. They rode out to the furthest ocean site Chris could think of without having to take half the day to get there. He wanted some time just to enjoy leaning over his bike handles, destination clearly marked in his mind, before he had to talk with Justin.

They parked in the beach's parking lot. By nine the place would probably be packed, but for the moment it was relatively quiet, jogger's getting in early morning runs, couples who still subscribed to traditional ideas of romance and people who actually lived along the beach being the only people traversing the tide.

Justin took off his shoes before they reached the sand and let them dangle from his fingers. He dug his toes into sand that was cool in the morning air and grinned at Chris, happy to be where they were.

Chris reached up and ruffled Justin's curls. "Missed you."

Justin didn't roll his eyes or tell Chris that it had only been a few days. "Yeah, me too. I mean, it was good seeing Brit, really really good, but, I just wish we could be together here. Sometimes I wonder if being with me is fair to her."

Chris kicked a bit at the sand. "Brit loves you because you're part of four other guys, not in spite of it."

"I think it's more that she just understands." They had reached the water and Justin tentatively stepped out to where the tide would rush over his feet. He shrieked when it actually did, giggling at the cold.

Chris shivered a bit, but otherwise stood still. "Lance showed me his FlaBama house."

"Really, is it cool?" Justin was dancing around a bit, moving with the water.

"It's normal. I like it." Chris took a deep breath. "I like him."

"Yeah, well, good, because it'd kinda suck if we had to kick one you out after all this-" Justin stopped everything at once, his mouth and his body going dead still. "Oh."

"It was an accident."

"Kinda convenient. Risky, but convenient."

"It's a crush, not a foregone conclusion."

Justin scratched at the spot behind his ear. "I dunno man. I mean, Lance and I aren't much with the talking and all, but he acts pretty much the same way with you as he did with that costume designer he was crazy over."

It took Chris a moment, but the memory came. Lance had spent a lot of time trying to make the designer comfortable and serve as a go-between for the group and him. At the time, Chris had thought it was just Lance's way of making himself more comfortable at Jive, where he was still experiencing new-kid-in-town anxiety. Then JC had smiled after the two of them one day and said, "Lance is so cute when he's crushing."

Justin tapped on Chris's shoulder. "Um, it's getting kinda crowded."

Chris looked around. "Yeah. We should go."

When they had gotten their shoes on and were climbing onto their bikes, Justin peered over at Chris while pulling his helmet on. "You'd have to hide."

Chris nodded.

"Would you still be happy?"

Chris thought about Lance's notions of privacy; the way he found himself places to exist in his own skin. He nodded sharply. "He's worth a few lies on late night talk shows. More than that. A lot more."

Justin grinned and revved his engine.

*

JC arrived in Florida almost as soon as Justin. Joey and Kelly flew back in a day later. Joey called them all to suggest a boy's night out in the spirit of reunion and even though the selected club wasn't really Chris's idea of a good time, he agreed.

They were getting a driver for the evening, so Chris did a few vodka shots after dinner to take the edge off before all but sewing himself into the outfit he had decided on for the evening. The plan was to turn Lance on enough that they would end up buddy-fucking. Chris figured that if he could get that far, he could probably turn things to his advantage. Probably.

Everyone except Justin had been picked up when the car got to his place. Joey whistled sharply at him and slapped his ass as he climbed in. JC smiled sweetly, "Looking good, babe."

Lance just eyed him silently. Chris grinned at him tightly. Lance inclined his head, but didn't smile back.

*

It was only after Chris had done tequila shots with Joey, indulged in a Strawberry Alexander with JC and shared a few rum and coke toasts with Justin that Lance approached him. Lance ran a hand over a PVC clad thigh. "You goin' all sex, drugs and rock n' roll on us?" Lance had at least one whiskey sour ghosting on his breath.

Somewhere, in the back of all the incoherency that had flooded his brain, Chris was pretty sure he had a few witty answers stored up for any query that Lance could send his way. Unfortunately, all he really knew with any certainty at that point was that his plan for the evening had been to get laid by Lance Bass. So he skipped straight over the banter and leaned over to maneuver his tongue into Lance's mouth. After all, Lance had a hand on his thigh. Obviously, Chris was not the only one with a goal.

Lance was shocked for a minute by the lips on the side of his mouth, slightly misaimed. His small gasp allowed Chris to lick quickly at the inside of Lance's mouth before he pulled back at the same time that he held Chris a decent distance from him. "Okay. Um, and that would be our signal to leave."

Before he knew what was happening, Chris was moving across the club. He wasn't exactly certain how that was working, because he didn't seem to have legs anymore, but the motion was consistent, so he figured he wouldn’t worry about it. Eventually, he made it out the door. The difference in temperature disoriented him and he heard a small, deep. "Whoa, there. Just a little bit further."

Chris liked the voice, so it made sense to listen to it. When they reached the car, the voice told him he could close his eyes if he wanted, which sounded to be about as good an idea as anything else, so he did.

He woke up the next morning with eyes that had to be peeled open with actual assistance from his fingers and a head that was definitely threatening disownment. He moaned, attempting to do so quietly so as not to worsen the status quo of his brain. His recently opened eyes focused enough to recognize the man getting out of the bed as Lance. He was back in minutes with water and aspirin. He guided both to Chris's mouth, settling him back down after he had swallowed. Chris fell asleep again, aware of the fact that the only thing that didn't hurt was the hand stroking softly from his temple to the back of his head.

*

Several hours later, Chris stumbled down to the kitchen where Lance was whisking eggs. He looked up at Chris's intrusion, "Want some?"

"You putting milk in'em?"

"I can if you want."

"Yeah, they're too dry otherwise."

"Okay. Any other requests?"

Chris had crossed the kitchen and was busy pouring himself some water. He looked down at his still unclad body. "No, but, um, question."

"We didn't. I could barely get you in the house. Although, between the thong and the pants, I probably could've been convinced if you had been slightly more sober."

Chris colored at the mention of the thong. "Those pants dude, not a hell of a lot of choices, really."

"I liked it. I mean, they'd probably lose their novelty value if you started wearing'em to rehearsals and stuff, but, y'know, sexy."

"So, you mean that you would have considered, maybe, I dunno, doing something with me?"

"Well, yes, but this regression to a ten year girl isn't really getting me in the mood."

Chris frowned, but he saw Lance's point. "I might've been trying to seduce you last night."

"Even before all the mind-altering liquid filtered through?"

"What, you think I wore those pants for Joey's sake?"

"We were going clubbing Chris, it's not like you couldn't have been looking to pick up or something."

"I was looking to pick up."

"Yeah, well, you know what I mean."

Chris nodded and drank some of his water.

Lance stirred the milk into the eggs and poured them into the skillet. "So, what do you want here, Chris? Because I suck at the whole 'I'm gay, you're gay, neither of us is gonna tell, let's fuck' scenario."

"Huh?"

Lance sighed. "I only do casual sex with strangers, it's a rule I have. Or something, anyway."

Chris climbed up to sit on one of the stools behind the kitchen counter. "Oh. Um, then I guess we could try maybe not being casual."

"No, we can't." Lance's concentration was being devoted fiercely to the eggs.

"Oh." Chris took a sip. "Okay. Sorry."

"It's not your fault. I just, if it went wrong, well, I couldn't…things wouldn't be okay for me."

"You think they would for me?" Chris was starting to sense that there was a piece of the puzzle that both of them couldn't seem to find.

"I think we might have different amounts of emotion invested in this whole scene."

Things were silent for a few minutes before Chris started to laugh. Lance turned around, frowning. "What's so funny?"

"Just that Justin was right. Don't tell him I admitted that."

Lance spun around again, not mollified, and removed the eggs from the heat. "Justin was right about what?"

"You have a crush on me."

"Oh, don't get self-important or anything." Lance jumped as he felt Chris's arms coming around his midsection.

"No, no, it's a good thing. Because it would suck if I had a crush on you and it was all unrequited."

Lance was frozen in Chris's arms, replaying his words. They finally managed to arrange themselves in some semblance of sense inside Lance's brain. "Yeah, that would suck."

"Mm." Chris's lips were boring gently into the patch of skin right where Lance's left shoulder became his neck. "But I don't have to worry about it, right?"

"Um, no. No worries."

"Then I can go about seducing you while sober?" Chris bit gently into the spot he had been nuzzling moments before.

Lance was pretty sure that if he had still retained his powers of speech he would have told Chris that that was just fine by him.


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile