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"I have spawned Satan's own true heir," Bev told her son.

"Aw, mom, I'm not that bad," Chris protested. "Nice to hear from you."

"Not you, Christopher. You're not around enough for me to notice your plans to bring the world to darkness."

Chris cocked an eyebrow, even though his co-conversant couldn't see. "Taylor driving you crazy?"

"Suspended," Bev confirmed. "Again."

"What was the reason this time?" Chris wasn't going to admit it to his mother, but he had actually thought that her three day suspension for wearing a customized t-shirt that read 'Boybands Suck My Cock' had been mildly amusing. The week-long suspension for nearly sterilizing one of the boys in her class had been less so, but at least Chris knew that she could take care of herself.

"Smoking up in the parking lot instead of going to her geometry class." Bev sounded exhausted.

Chris frowned. It wasn't that he disapproved of the use of marijuana in the general sense, or even of Taylor using it every once in awhile, socially. Smoking up in parking lots was something potheads did, though, and he would not have his sister following the path directly to nowhere that the potheads he had known throughout his life -- some with great affection -- had ridden all the way. Besides, he hated to hear his mom sounding like she could use about a week's worth of sleep and an even longer vacation. "What'd she have to say for herself?"

"She yelled a lot about being her own person and having her own life and really, most of it didn't make much sense except in the vaguest, angsty teenagerish way." Bev sighed. "We don't talk anymore. We yell. Everything I say is wrong. Four kids before her and I can't figure out a single right response. I don't know what to do, Chris."

It made Chris proud at the same time that it freaked him out, being the one his mom came to when things got rough. It was obvious to him though, that in this situation his mom needed far more than a sympathetic ear. Chris did some quick calculating. "School's out in another month, right?"

"Less than that, three weeks, but that doesn't mean she can just keep pulling this shit. I had to practically donate my spleen to the school to keep her from getting put in juvie overnight. As it is there's a fine and community service and I'm gonna have to figure out some way for her to pay it, since nobody hires fourteen year olds around here-"

Chris cut in. "I think I have an idea."

"I'm all ears."

"Pay the fine and make sure she shows up to her community service so that she can get out of there come summer. We'll pay her fifteen dollars an hour to work with the road crew. I'll talk with them about not seeming to give any special treatment while making sure that she doesn't get hurt. It's hard work and the roadies won't put up with any shit from her. Hopefully lessons will be learned, the fine will definitely be paid back, and I'll get to spend some time with her while taking her off your hands. Good deal for all involved, maybe even Tay." Chris hoped he sounded a hell of a lot more confident that his idea would actually work than he felt about the whole thing.

There was a bit of silence before Bev ventured, "You really feel up to taking her all summer? I mean, you know more than anyone how she's been this whole year."

"Hellion or not, she's my baby sister, mom. Besides, Lance has been lobbying for Taylor to come visit us since the dawn of time. He swears she's the reason we're together."

"Okay," Bev relented with a laugh. "It'll be good to have some time to myself. And I'm sure by the time you drop her back home I'll be missing her like a limb."

Chris hoped so.

*

The tour only had twenty-six stops, but the guys were taking nearly a full three months for it anyway, starting in early June and ending in mid-August. Almost all the dancing had been taken out, as Chris's body threatened grand mutiny at the mere thought of that kind of strain. Chris wasn't positive, but he was pretty sure he had seen relief in JC and Joey's eyes when he had put his foot down on that issue. Lance had never liked the dancing all that much to begin with.

JC had been the one to request taking the tour slowly. He had asked Chris, before he had said anything to the group, "What's the point of me being rich and famous if I can't take a little time to live my life?"

While JC had been looking at life as some sort of Zen equation to be solved for quite some time, Chris suspected that JC's renewed desire to take things slowly came from the fact that two years before, Kelly had finally told Joey that he either needed to marry her or let her get on with her life. Joey had taken the second route with apologies to Briahna, who had nodded her four year old head and grinned at him. Joey suspected they would have to have the conversation again later, when she was old enough to understand. Not three months later, Joey had decided that it was high time he got his head out of his ass and figured out what was holding him back from having the kind of relationship that could end in marriage with anyone. It turned out the reason was JC, which thrilled JC to no end.

Chris knew that Joey had speculated to Lance on the fact that it was weird, four out of the five of them being together. Lance hadn’t been as worried by it, "How else was it gonna work out, Joe? I mean, who else knows us the way we know each other?"

Joey had nodded. "What's Justin gonna do?"

It had been the question on everyone's mind until Britney entered the picture again, four years older than the last time, considerably less famous and substantially more stable. Chris had threatened her with everything under the sun when it became apparent that Justin was falling back in love, maybe even more so this time. She had nodded calmly and responded, "I'd let you do all that, if I hurt him. I learn from my mistakes, Chris."

There had been a shadowy, almost forlorn look in her eyes that made Chris believe her.

Britney was joining them on the tour, on yet another hiatus. Justin was supposedly writing songs with her for a next album, but as far as any of them could tell, she couldn't care less about going back into the studio. For the time being, it seemed all she really wanted to do was hang out with Justin and sleep a lot. Chris could sympathize on both accounts.

Briahna was going to come for a month of the tour. She was six and had just finished a year of kindergarten. Chris was glad for her presence, both because he loved her as much as he loved his nieces and nephews by blood, and because he thought it would be good for Taylor to spend time with someone younger than her, someone she had responsibilities toward. Besides which, Britney and Briahna were among the few women who would be coming with them from city to city and Chris wanted Taylor to have some females around.

Chris was looking forward to the tour. They hadn't done one in over two years and this one was low-key, very much about them communicating with each other and with the audience. He liked the music off their latest album, even if it fell a little too heavy on the R&B side of things some of the time. The harmonies were strong and Lance had some fantastic parts, parts that Chris had had to learn not to let himself get distracted by and forget to sing. Lance had been thrilled when Chris had told him about Taylor, his face stretching into the kind of grin that begins to hurt after only a few seconds due to its intensity. Chris was getting pretty excited about seeing her, too.

The night before he had to pick her up at the airport, Chris wrapped himself around Lance and whispered, "You're gonna help me make this better, right? Like you did before?"

Lance rolled over and kissed him. "You did it yourself before. I just stood in the background and looked pretty."

"Mm. Well, then, will you stand in the background and liven up the scenery?"

"For you?" Lance lowered his head until his lips were touching Chris's. "Always."

*

Taylor had dyed her hair an electric shade of blue and wore a barbell in the new septum piercing that Bev had relented to in order to avoid Taylor doing something stupid, like trying to do it herself. Chris thought she looked pretty in spite of herself, but he knew it would upset her if he said that, so instead he asked, "Is the oxen look back in fashion?"

She rolled her eyes at him, "Good to see you too, asshole."

"I know you weren't raised by wild animals, little girl." Chris hoped she wasn't talking to their mother like that. He thought she probably was. He was glad she had been too young to remember most of the crappy times, but that innocence didn't give her any right to be disrespectful. "Listen carefully, Tay. Anthony and our crew have the right to do with you as they so please, especially in the case of you being a total fuck. And they're not gonna be impressed that you're my sister, so I'd suggest you lose the attitude."

Something flashed quickly in Taylor's eyes at Chris's words. He didn't catch exactly what it was, but it didn't look dangerous, so he let it go. She shrugged. "Fine. Whatever."

Chris told her softly, "I'm really glad you're here, kid. I've missed you."

Taylor shifted her backpack slightly. "Yeah, I'm sure."

Chris could find a way to cheer Molly up within seconds no matter what the problem was, Katie was so very hard to make upset in the first place, and Emily was always willing to let Chris make her smile, even when nobody else could. Taylor was the sister he knew the least well, though, and the one most resistant to what Chris considered his somewhat limited charms. "Did I mess up your summer plans?"

"If you consider sitting around and smoking cheap weed for three months a plan, then yeah, you smashed 'em to bits." Taylor huffed dramatically.

"Is that why you're so pissed off at me?" Chris doubted it, but he didn't have much to work with. At fourteen, he would've maimed, stolen and killed all at once to have been offered a chance to see the US and make money while he was doing.

"Maybe I just don't like you."

Chris fought the need to shiver at the frozen quality of Taylor's voice. "Well, good thing there are lots of other people for you to hang with this summer."

"Fuck you, fuck your friends, and fuck your posse, Chris. I have friends at home."

Chris knew a lie when he heard one. "They'll still be there at the end of the summer. And maybe, if you thaw from frigid bitch to just plain bitch, you'll go home with a few more."

Taylor turned her head sharply to glare at Chris. "Like I said. Whatever."

*

Lance didn't have much better luck. Taylor refused to tell him what she wanted for dinner until Lance, in one of his pettier moments, ordered Greek because he knew she didn’t like it.

He called back less than a minute later and cancelled the order. He got them a pizza with every type of meat available from the local pizza place and two orders of cheesy breadsticks. Taylor ate her body weight in food and Chris and Lance both politely tried not to stare, wondering where it all went. Taylor was almost as tiny as Chris had been at that age. A little taller, the product of better nutrition, but still skinny, nearly awkward. Somehow it looked good on her.

Lance had changed the sheets on the bed in the guest room and Chris had opened windows and sprayed Lysol in random directions, but she fell asleep on the couch watching Skinemax. Chris thought about changing the channel when he walked past her at nearly midnight, but she looked so bored that he felt the show itself was punishment enough for the petty rebellion.

Chris took Lance to bed and attempted for all of five minutes not to freak out when Lance put the book he was reading down and reached over, holding the back of Chris's neck with his hand. "She's something else."

Chris looked at Lance as though seeking to reassure himself that his lover had not, in fact, lost his mind. "She's a terror. I would call her worse things if she were anyone other than my baby sister."

"She's hurt."

"Thank you, Dr. Phil."

Lance glared the glare-of-death-by-slow-and-painful-torture. "Seriously, Chris. She reminds me of Justin, the way he's a total fuck when anybody actually gets far enough in to do damage."

There was no debating this fact because of the many things that Britney and Justin were still dealing with, one was the utter waste laid to her reputation at his hands post break-up. Justin had a mean streak that never showed itself until he was wounded enough to bleed it out.

"You calling my sister a diva?"

"Oh, c'mon," Lance practically snorted. "First off, she's related to you, what the hell else was gonna happen? And secondly, who fucking dyes their hair blue without wanting people to look? I mean, really, braids boy. You taught me diva lessons 101, 201, and 301."

"Who taught you 401?"

"Just-" Lance broke off to smack Chris.

"Ouch."

"Wuss."

"This isn’t because of me, right?" Lance's forehead crinkled in confusion and Chris fought to explain himself, "I mean, I don't think her world revolves around me, but it seems that she gets pissed off a lot due to my existence."

"I don’t know what it's about, babe."

"How can I fix it if I don’t know what it's about?" Helplessness made Chris panicky.

"She's only been here less than a day. We'll figure it out. I promise. The two of us are gonna take over the world. Figuring out one teenage girl shouldn’t be so hard."

"Right." Chris tried to sound sure.

Lance laughed softly. "Well, I have faith."

"Good thing one of us does."

"That's why we work." Lance set to demonstrating one of the other reasons they worked.

*

Chris had talked with Anthony about Taylor and what she was there for, made him promise not to go easy on her. Anthony had looked at him. "She strong?"

Chris had shrugged, "For a fourteen year old girl, I suppose."

"Jesus, Chris."

"Look, I'll apologize, but it’s not gonna change anything, she's still coming, and you still work for me."

The, "fair enough," had been disgruntled, but it was a good-natured disgruntlement. Anthony respected Chris.

Taylor wasn't the most willing worker in the world until she realized that Anthony actually didn't give a crap who her brother was, he needed stuff to get done. After that, she was more than eager to do anything that needed doing. She changed gels and helped haul scaffolding, made sure costumes got to the correct place and helped put props where they were the most easily accessible. She was quiet toward the other crew members, but not mean, and so they took her in, cooperated with her, made sure things were going well for her. Mostly, they didn't treat her like a child and they didn't act like she was fragile and Chris noticed that is seemed to make her feel she wasn't either thing.

She was still sullen when in a room with any of the members of NSYNC. She spit words at Britney that caused Chris to have to hold Justin off of her until he had calmed down some. She insulted JC's latest song-writing effort and referred to his past efforts as, "The product of someone who has the gall to imagine themselves with talent."

Luckily, they were traveling with three buses at this point, one for Britney and Justin to be together on, one for Joey and JC and a final one for Lance and Chris. Taylor was traveling with her brother and so kept away from the others for the most part. In response to her attitude when with the others, Chris threatened to lock her on the bus whenever she wasn't working.

Taylor told him, "Gee, that would be really unfortunate, not getting to spend more time with you and your suck-ass friends," but shut up when she was around them. Chris recognized a compromise when he saw one.

Lance suggested that they all get drunk together, which Chris balked at until Lance reminded him that he'd been getting Justin drunk at that age. Chris thought his sister should be different somehow, but she wasn't really, other than the fact of her being a girl.

Joey, JC, Justin and Britney all agreed to the plan. Taylor looked kind of doubtful when Chris held out a drink to her, as though there must be some sort of trick to the whole thing. In the end, though, she held out her hand and pounded back the hard lemonade that Chris had chosen as a starter for her. He wasn't sure how much she had drunk in the past or what she liked.

When she was finished she said, "Have anything less girly?"

Chris handed her a tequila shot, lime and all. She grinned at him for the first time since getting off the plane. "That's more like it."

For a tiny person, she could hold her liquor surprisingly well, which meant that the guys had time to get pleasantly buzzed by the time Taylor was ready to do things like sing the 'bottles of beer' song twelve times. Loudly.

Chris had actually been expecting something of that ilk, since it was what he and Bev and Molly would have done. He wasn't sure about Emily and Kate, but he was willing to bet they were like that too. Unfortunately, Taylor was evidently a mean drunk. She began ripping into Joey about weight until Britney, who was still relatively sober and thinking the most clearly out of all of them, said something to distract her.

Which only lead Taylor off on a rant about Britney's failing career. By the time Taylor got around to the comments about her, "being too much of a slut for anyone to take seriously except someone who had known her since slightly before she had begun taking her pants off for everyone who might be tempted to look," Britney interrupted with, "Just because you don’t take your pants off while sucking off members of the crew doesn't make you less of a slut, Taylor Eustace."

It was hard to tell who went whiter. Britney bit her lip and squeaked out, "I'm sorry. I didn't…"

"Didn't what?" Taylor sneered, but her heart just wasn’t in it. She turned to Chris, who was looking between the two of them, unsure of how to proceed. "It was just two guys. The twins." Two of the crew members were a husband and wife team who often brought their kids along to help out. The youngest were a pair of sixteen year old fraternal twin boys. "They're nice, they don’t treat me like I'm a kid or stupid, or here just because I've got connections."

Chris let his gaze flicker past Taylor to Britney, who looked like she was in imminent danger of throwing the single drink she'd had right back up. He snapped his concentration back to his sister, "Did it ever once occur to you that they would be your friends without you performing sexual favors for them?"

"Look," Taylor pouted, "it’s not like I minded, it's not like they forced me down to the ground, or some shit like that. Scott's even a really good kisser. It was just some fun, okay? You don’t need to be getting all psycho over it."

"So tell me, Tay? What should I be getting psycho about? The fact that you've evidently become a walking energy field of mean comments and rude behavior? The fact that you've made a decision on the career path of a pothead? Perhaps the fact that you seem to have substituted sexual favors for physical affection of any kind? I dunno, Tay, you tell me, because I'm starting to think you're every which way of fucked up, quite honestly."

There were tears running down her face, but Taylor didn't seem to be aware of this, instead yelling back, "Why the fuck do you give a shit, Mr. I'm-in-NSYNC-who-the-hell-needs-family?"

"Taylor-"

"You show up when it's convenient for you, you spend your time gallivanting around and you used to send money, like that was somehow a substitute, but now you just send gifts, fancy and fun and not-at-all my brother, which is really all I fucking want if I'm gonna go through my life being known as Chris Kirkpatrick of NSYNC's little sister. Do you have any idea how many people try and latch on to me just so they can meet you? At least I know Scott and Bryn aren't using me for that. I'd rather be used for something I'm good at."

It took Chris a few moments to move his mind past the block of sheer hurt to where he could speak, but by that time, Taylor was already moving, pushing past all of them to the bunks. "I'm gonna get some sleep." She paused in the small hallway separating the two areas of the bus, her back still to the rest of them. "I'm sorry for what I said to you, Britney."

*

Chris woke up to the sound of someone throwing up violently. He felt for Lance in the bed next to him and when he found what he was looking for, grimaced. He got up and padded to the kitchen, grabbed a bottle of water, and headed to the bathroom.

He was surprised to find Britney there, rubbing Taylor's back silently. He did his best to smile at her as she reached up for the water. She mouthed, "Thanks."

Chris stood slightly outside the door to the tiny bathroom, as it was crowded with just the two girls, small though they might have been. Taylor finally stopped throwing up and Britney tilted the opened water bottle to her mouth, warning, "Don't drink, just rinse and spit."

Taylor followed her instructions without a word and Britney had her repeat the action several times before telling her to take a tiny sip. When it hadn't come back up in a full minute, Britney gave her the bottle to hold and told her to finish it slowly. She whispered the whole time.

While Taylor was paying attention to the bottle, Britney looked up at Chris, "Tylenol?"

Chris nodded and went to find the drawer where Lance had organized all the drugs in alphabetical order. He skimmed to the T's and plucked out the bottle Britney had asked for. When he came back, Taylor wasn't much further into the bottle than when he had left.

He handed the Tylenol to Britney who in turn coaxed Taylor to take them. Britney got Taylor up off the floor and wet a washcloth with lukewarm water, using it to wipe Taylor's face and neck. She walked Taylor to the couch and set her down there, laying across it with her head in Britney's lap and her feet in Chris's. Chris pulled the blanket they kept on the couch securely over her feet and Britney tucked it tightly under Taylor's chin.

Chris looked at Britney. "You sleep here? Or you change buses this morning before any of us were conscious enough to know it?"

"Slept here. Jup and I were both worried, but he wasn't in as good of shape as I to be taking care of anyone."

"He didn't want to kill me?" Taylor's voice floated up weakly.

Britney looked down. "Not once I got him calmed down, no."

"I didn't mean those things I said. I just…Look, it’s really obvious that he loves you for who you are and that you love him, so my opinion shouldn't matter anyway."

Britney combed her hand through Taylor's hair gently. "I would like to be your friend, in which case, your opinion matters greatly. But no, in general, you're correct, Justin and I have each other to know the truth with, and that's pretty much all that matters." Britney paused, "For good faith, though, I will tell you this. I lost my virginity to him when I was nineteen, almost twenty. It was when I came back from my abbreviated Australia trip. I had been in the air on September 11th and I had left him in New York the last time I had seen him, days before, and the two of us…it was just time. More than our marriage or any other event could have made it so. You understand?"

"No," Taylor answered honestly. "But then, nobody looks at me the way he looks at you." There was a tinge of bitterness in Taylor's voice, but also a note of release. "Thanks for telling me that, though. I won't tell. I'm gonna go back to sleep now."

Britney and Chris smiled over Taylor at each other. Within seconds, she made good on her prediction.

*

Chris crawled back into bed after Britney switched back onto her bus. Lance murmured, "Welcome back," still mostly asleep. Chris joined him there shortly. When he awoke again, Lance wasn't in bed any longer.

Chris glanced at the clock on Lance's side of the bed. "Damn." He got up and went to find Lance.

Given that they were on the bus, it wasn't that hard. He passed by Taylor, still passed out on the couch, and into the kitchen. Lance was boiling water. "Spaghetti sound good to you? It sounds good to me." Which meant that Lance was mostly just asking to be polite.

"Yum." Chris disappeared for a few seconds to brush his teeth and throw on some new clothes.

Lance kept his face to the stove when Chris got back. "Look," he stirred the softening vermicelli somewhat frantically, "I'm sorry about last night. It was a bad idea on my part."

Chris came up behind Lance and forcibly slowed his arm into a calm, rhythmic stirring. "I think it may have worked."

Lance spun around, accidentally hitting Chris in the upper arm with the wooden spoon and causing him to hiss. Lance reached to where the freezer was and pulled out three ice cubes. He wrapped them in the towel lying on the counter and pressed it to where the spoon had made contact. "Sorry about that, too."

Chris smiled tightly.

"I didn't think you were that drunk last night, but. Um. Do you remember anything that happened?"

"My sister said some things that probably made me at my worst look like a truly nice person."

Lance narrowed his eyes, "Well, I don't know if I'd go that far-"

"You're in enough trouble as it is," Chris reminded him. "Britney stayed last night.
She was here this morning the first time I woke up, when Taylor was sick."

"They talked?" Lance guessed.

"Yeah. Taylor apologized, and was human, so I think there may be hope." Chris sounded desperate, but better than he had since the beginning of the tour. "We need to spend some time with her, during this tour, and after it. I have to stop putting off spending time with her and mom for all that other shit I think is more important sometimes."

Lance nodded. "She needs to make some better friends."

Chris ran the hand that was attached to his non-injured arm through his hair. "Obviously, but I don’t think that's something I can change. I just have to make being my sister worth the hassle it evidently is."

"Chris," Lance set aside the ice and grasped Chris's face with his hands.

Chris gasped at the cold. "Lance."

Lance laughed a little. He kissed Chris until the boiling water threw a tiny speck his way and shocked him into remembering lunch.

*

They made it into Cleveland at nearly five, but the show wasn't scheduled until the next day, so that was fine for everyone. Chris and Lance were still setting their bags down when there was a knock on the door. Taylor came to the door that separated her room from Chris and Lance's, but refused to step an inch further.

Lance opened the door. "Hey Jace."

JC looked like he had just woken up. All things considered, it wasn't that far outside the realm of possibility. "Hey." He turned his head to look to where Taylor was standing, seemingly sewn into the patch of carpeting. "Feeling okay?"

Taylor shrugged, her eyes wide and unsure. "Better."

"The three of you feel up to going out? Joey's all about this Italian place his momma told him about. If I don't take him he's gonna whine for the rest of the tour." Joey would too, mostly because he had figured out that JC thought it was kind of cute that he was the only person to whom Joey ever really whined. JC's smile was not all that put upon.

"I'm up for it," Lance told him. "Chris?"

Chris looked at his sister, "Whatcha say, Tay?"

Taylor was still watching JC, as though he might suddenly pounce. "Um. I dunno. Joey probably-"

"Joey's gonna drag you there, excuses or no, so you might as well relent with grace," JC informed her sagely.

"You're…he's…um. You're not mad? Either of you?" Taylor's mouth curved suspiciously. "I haven't even apologized."

"Would that make you feel more at ease?" JC asked.

Taylor thumbed the septum piercing. "I shouldn’t have said the things I did. I love dancing to your music. When people play it at parties- Well, it’s one of those times when knowing you doesn't just make me feel bitter inside."

Chris watched as JC computed the depth of that comment. JC, never one to contain himself, walked over and snatched Taylor off the ground into a hug. JC was surprisingly strong and she was tiny. He held her for several seconds. "I'll go tell Joey it's gonna be all of us. I'll meet you guys down by the car, yeah?" He didn't wait for an answer before bouncing out of the room.

Taylor blinked several times. Chris whispered, "That was a nice thing to say."

She turned away, back into her room. Chris hoped he imagined the shaking of her shoulders.

*

In the middle of dinner, Britney reached across the table and pulled at a strand of Taylor's hair. "You do this yourself?"

"The directions on the back of the package are pretty easy," Taylor admitted.

"How long does it last?"

"A month, at the most. More like three weeks, and even by that time, it gets pretty light." Taylor sounded regretful.

"Think you could do it to me?"

Taylor scrunched up her nose in doubt. "You want me to dye your hair blue?"

Justin looked at Britney but didn't say anything. Britney considered the question. "No, not blue. Red, I think. A deep shade, not like, fire engine but like… I dunno, brick or magenta, or something."

Lance grinned. "I could go for some blue. Maybe darker than yours, but that basic color."

JC squeaked. "I want a color! What color?" He turned to Joey, expectantly.

Joey took a strand of JC's hair into his hand like Britney had done with Taylor. "How about if we all did blue? Different types, of course, but all of us, just for the three or so weeks. Worse thing that happens is people throw rotten food at us, but I like to kid myself sometimes that people come for more than just our looks these days."

Britney nudged Justin, "What do you think?"

Justin nodded. "I'm in. But I get Taylor's blue. It's cool."

Taylor refused to look at him, but her lips compressed tightly as though holding back some exclamation of happiness. Chris spoke up, "I get purply blue."

"Purply?" Lance inquired dryly.

"Look it up, Bass." Chris snapped.

"Oh, I will, Kirkpatrick."

"What are you gonna do, Joey?" Taylor's question was quiet, hesitant. Chris could remember a time when Joey had been her favorite person on earth, able to throw her at least three feet into the air and catch her without strain. Still, everyone at the table knew that Joey's anger toward people who hurt his family was sharp and long-lasting. She dug her nails into her palm and waited to see if he would answer, if she was sufficiently forgiven for that.

He ruffled her much-talked about hair. "Neon, babe. What else?"

Taylor ducked away from his hand, impish smile creeping over her face. "What else indeed."

*

Chris made each of the twins take Taylor out to dinner, one at a time. It embarrassed her, and she put salt in Chris's hot chocolate the morning after the first date, but he and Lance were the first people she told when Bryn, the younger of the twins by the monumental amount of four minutes, asked her on a second date.

"Gonna go?" Chris inquired mildly. He wasn't going to let Taylor know that her answer decided the fate of whether he and Lance would have to tie Bryn up by his ankles in a dark ally and have 'the talk' with him or not.

Taylor bounced on the balls of her feet. "I think so. I mean, it'd be kinda weird not to with the tour and all. And he showed me how the gels work, which is really neat. He's nice."

Bryn and Scott's mother was one of the tour's foremost lighting technicians. Chris thought about mentioning the fact that Taylor was quite obviously dating a geek if that was the best date activity he could come up with, but she looked like she had been honestly interested, and Chris, practically married to a man with ten separate e-mail addresses, knew he didn't have much room to talk.

"Yeah, he showed you how they replace'em and everything?" Lance wanted to know. "That's pretty cool, Tay. He definitely deserves a second date."

"He said sorry for the whole taking advantage of me thing," Taylor told them. "I said he wasn't really and that he didn't have to apologize, but he said it should have at least been a two way street. He didn't tell me to tell you guys this, so that's how I pretty much know he meant it. Which is a first, really. No offense, but guys are kind of assholes."

Lance snorted. Chris raised an eyebrow at him. Lance rolled his eyes. Chris shoved him off the chair he was perched on. Lance looked up at Taylor, "See my point?"

Chris ignored him. "You have to find the right one, is all."

Taylor laughed. "You guys are dorks."

Lance pulled himself off the floor and attached himself onto Chris's back, arching so that his feet barely touched the ground. "And proud of it, babe."

Taylor started toward the front of the bus.

Chris yelled, "Hey, where are you going?"

Taylor brought up her wrist so that the face of her huge, men's sport watch was facing Chris. "JC and I have a date."

Chris glanced at the clock on the VCR, which was closer. "Oh, right." Taylor and JC made the buses stop at six twenty every weeknight so that they could watch Jeopardy together. "Did you just call us geeks? Am I remembering that correctly?"

Taylor shrugged. "You've all infected me. Can't be helped." She twirled and went up to request a bus change.

Chris strained his neck around to see Lance, who was still hanging from his back. "I wish I knew what was under the surface."

Lance buried his face in Chris's neck and planted a kiss there before sliding off of him and straightening up. "In what sense?"

"All that anger from before didn't just go away."

"Healing is never a quick process," Lance reminded him.

Chris caught one of Lance's hands. "It seems too easy." Life had seemed too easy since Lance had come around and stayed, but Chris wasn't sure exactly how to tell him that. He was much better with actions.

"Maybe you deserve a little bit of easy, baby."

Chris was silent, hopeful. He rested his cheek against the hand he was still holding. "Jeopardy's thirty minutes, right?"

"Plus the ten it'll take her to get the buses to stop and transfer back." Lance tugged with his captive hand. "C'mon. That's all the time in the world."

*

Bryn bought Taylor a lilac in Mississippi and Lance told her, "That's Southern speak for, 'I wanna have your babies.'"

Taylor looked uncertainly at Lance. "You're lying."

"Well," Lance relented, "probably about the babies part, basic human anatomy being what it is."

"Lance." Taylor sounded so much like Chris at times that it took Lance a moment to remember who he was actually speaking to.

"No, I'm serious. He really likes you."

Taylor put the flower in a cup of water. "It's pretty." She left to go get ready for dinner.

Mama Bass took all of them out to dinner, Briahna included, since they were in town. Even now, when they could afford to pay for good food themselves and didn’t have to wait for a parental visit, Chris thought the food always tasted better when one of their mom's or dad's was paying. Lance agreed, "It's a mental thing," he assured Chris.

Chris figured most things with him were probably mental. It was nice when Lance was along for the ride.

Diane complimented them all on their hair, and particularly Taylor for being the one to start and take charge of the trend. Taylor blushed and paid attention to which fork she was using. There were three at each place setting.

Briahna sat still for nearly all of dinner before giving into the urge to climb her father. JC made a bridge of himself and called her a flying squirrel. He thought they were cuter than monkeys. "Monkeys have weird…um," he eyed Briahna, "backsides."

"I think you're thinking of orangutans." Joey had read Briahna a lot of basic nature books before she had started reading on her own. Now she read them to him.

"I still like squirrels better," JC declared, never one to give up on his ideas without a fight. Joey took it in stride and tried to extract Briahna's somewhat sticky fingers from his already-gelled hair. There was a lot of wincing and held back curses involved.

Justin ordered three desserts and got Britney to eat one of them. He worried that she didn't eat enough. As far as Chris could tell, Britney ate like a normal human being, but that probably seemed miniscule to Justin, who could eat his body weight at lunch and be hungry again before dinner. Britney had been planning on his not-so-sneak attack and had refrained from ordering herself any dessert. She stole the one Justin wanted the most out of his three choices as revenge, but ended up sharing it.

Diane diplomatically herded Taylor into the car with JC, Joey and Briahna so that she could have Chris and Lance to herself for the car ride back to their hotel. She ordered Chris to ride shotgun, and reached over to squeeze his hand at the first red light. "Your sister's quite the young lady, Christopher."

Hearing that name from anyone else always felt condescending. With her it was just comforting. "Impressive, yeah?" Chris was proud of her. He wasn't gonna let a little thing like unconventional piercings get in the way of that.

"Bev asked me to check up on the two of you."

Lance laughed softly from the back. Diane gave him a Look in the rearview mirror. He hid his laughter behind one of his hands. Chris threw a quick smile Lance's way. "I talk to her every week."

"You're quite the little liar when you feel the need, dear," Diane pointed out, not entirely unfairly.

"No arguments, but in this case, Taylor's doing better. Hopefully she'll be to where going back isn't the end of the world when we have to send her home." Chris knew he sounded worried. He couldn't help it. Diane wasn't the type to take advantage of weakness anyway; not in those she made it her business to protect.

"She's lucky to have you as a brother and the rest of the boys as friends."

Chris started to say something, Diane pinched him. "Ow."

"She's lucky, Chris."

"In the others." Chris contended.

"You're her brother. She can be as lucky as she wants with the others and it doesn't make an iota of difference. She's lucky in you. She loves you."

"Not as much as I love her," Chris voiced the fear.

Diane shook her head. "You're more than half-way through your thirties, Chris. You have to give her time to grow into loving like that."

Lance reached over the seat and draped his hand, warm and familiar, over Chris's shoulder. Lance was nearly thirty himself.

*

"Briahna is deceptively cute," Taylor decided, after an evening in which Joey had paid her and Bryn to babysit. "And Joey is just pure evil in the disguise of a boyband member. The critics have been right all of this time."

Justin forfeited the video game he was playing against Chris by looking up. "He told you she was a piece of cake, didn't he?"

Taylor nodded. "I should have known better too, because I've seen the way she acts, I just thought maybe she was one of those kids who was angelic for everyone but her parents. Or, y'know, reams of pseudo-uncles."

Chris turned the game off, as his opponent obviously was no longer in the spirit. "I tried to keep you safe. I told him you would give her ideas."

Taylor flipped him off. Chris approached and casually threw her over his shoulder. "How'd Bryn handle it, hellion?"

"Put me down and I'll tell you." Taylor's head swung from side to side, hitting against Chris's leg.

"Bargaining rather than threatening." Chris set her down, "I've taught you well."

"More like mom did." Chris's role as a brother to her was still something of a touchy subject.

"Fair enough. Bryn," he prompted.

"Bryn says he has about a million little cousins that he's always baby-sitting for, and I believe him because he's way way better with kids than me. He actually managed to get her to sit down and play three games of 'Shutes and Ladders' in a row at one point. She hadn't even stood still once until then. I thought he might've drugged the cranapple juice he had given her, but it took too long to get her to sleep for that to be a plausible explanation."

Lance and Britney had torn themselves away from their favorite shared past time of mocking this week's tabloids, and joined the conversation. Lance informed Taylor, "Don't you worry, we have scientists working on a way to siphon off some of that energy and use it for the greater good even as we speak."

Taylor laughed. "No kidding. She has more energy in her little toe than I have in my whole body. I feel old."

Britney put her chin down on Taylor's shoulder. "And what does that make the rest of us?"

"You're stars, you people don't get old," Taylor did her best impression of a six year old. She had been studying all evening long.

Britney pecked Taylor's cheek. "Keep telling me that, babe."

Chris knew Taylor wasn't oblivious, even if she sometimes pretended to be. She heard what the media said about Britney when it deigned to say anything at all that didn't have to do with her dating Justin again. Britney was old, outdated, passť, last season's fad. Taylor pulled Britney's arm around her own waist. "You're timeless."

Chris's eyes raked over the two girls twined together. He knew how Britney felt, if not to the extreme that she did. He was lucky, both in his sex and in having the other guys. For a second he wanted to snatch Taylor away from her, keep Taylor unaware of what being a woman had the opportunity to mean and so often did.

Britney extended one of her arms to Justin, and he came around behind her, forming a Britney-sandwich. Taylor giggled as Justin worked his arms around Britney's torso, brushing the skin on Taylor's back where her shirt didn't quite meet with her shorts. Britney buried her face in Taylor's hair, her own cascading down so that red and blue tangled.

Taylor shivered at the sensation of Britney's breath along her neck. She met Chris's gaze, eyes more innocent than he could remember them being in quite some time. He smiled and didn't pull her away.

*

Chris figured he should have known something was up when Taylor had taken Lance up on his offer to accompany them to the tour doctor. It was a weekly thing, Chris's check up to make sure that he still had all the necessary ligaments and joints in his knees. Lance always came with and made bad jokes about Chris's age. The routine of it was reassuring to Chris.

Taylor hadn't come with once since the tour had begun although Lance had mentioned that she was welcome at least once every couple of weeks. As it was, Chris hated himself for wishing she hadn't, but she couldn't sit still for two seconds, and when she managed to sit at all, her legs and arms went everywhere in random rhythm patterns that boggled Chris. It made him nervous.

"Tay," Lance walked to her and put his hands on her shoulders. He smiled past her head at Chris and mouthed, "sorry."

Chris was just glad his boyfriend knew him so well.

"What?" Taylor asked shortly. "What am I doing wrong now?"

"Hey." Lance frowned down at her. "Why do you think you're doing something wrong?"

She rolled her eyes. "Maybe because I'm always doing something wrong. Or maybe because you've got your hands holding me down like I'm some kind of frisky dog."

Lance ruffled her hair. "Easy mistake to make, doncha think?"

"Fuck off, Bass." Taylor slid out from underneath his hands and resumed an erratic style of pacing.

"You gonna tell us what you think you did wrong?" Chris didn't get up from his chair or raise his voice.

Taylor spun around to face him, nervous energy exuding off of her. "Nothing, I didn't do anything, and I'm gonna get fucked over anyway, like always. Is that good enough?"

"Not really." Chris and Lance exchanged glances, not terribly surprised to hear the echo of the other's identical response. Lance picked up, "That's not very specific, Tay."

"Well, it pertains to a lot." She flexed her jaw.

"We've got time." Chris pointed to the timer that told him how much longer to keep the heat packs he was using as one form of treatment on his knees. The doctor would be back with the buzz of the timer. There was fifteen minutes remaining.

Taylor glared, but opened her mouth. "It's just… Bryn."

Lance's eyes flashed for all of a second. "What did Bryn do?"

Chris shivered. Lance could be a scary motherfucker. Taylor moved noisily to a chair and sat down with all the grace of a newborn elephant. "He didn't do anything. That's…well. That's kind of the problem. Or maybe not. I don't know. I'm the problem. I must be."

Chris checked to see that Lance was as confused as he was. "Taylor. Can you maybe tell us what happened?"

"The tour ends in a month." She said this as if it were supposed to be news. "And I go home."

"I take it that isn't good." Lance wasn't opposed to stating the obvious when he thought it would get him somewhere.

"I'm gonna have to break up with him. I mean, even if I were like, I dunno, Britney, or something, I still couldn't ask him to have a girlfriend that he never sees."

Lance squinted. "What does Britney have to do with anything?"

Taylor let out a short sigh of exasperation. "I realize you don't exactly swing in any direction but my brother's, but for fuck's sake, Lance, have you ever looked at Britney? And Justin and her couldn't even stay together with the distance thing."

Chris held up a finger. "Okay. Stop. First of all, you're gorgeous. I'm sorry you don’t see it, but Bryn obviously does so you need to stop comparing yourself to someone who was groomed to be the dream of every person interested in a pair of tits from the time she was fourteen. Secondly, Brit and Justin couldn't make it because neither of them knew enough about each other or themselves to know themselves if they ran into him or her on the street. It had very little to do with distance and a lot to do with the way those two were raised."

Lance walked over and sat next to Chris. "There are better examples you know. I mean, I can think of a lot of celebrities who stayed with people they were never around for extended periods of time. That's not really the point though. I'm not gonna say you should stay with Bryn, but I don't think you should rule the possibility out. At the very least I think you should give it the month to assess how you feel and maybe find out how he feels."

Taylor ground the heels of her hands into her eyes. She pulled her hands away. "The two of you make it sound so easy. You sit there with each other, the perfect fucking couple and tell me to think things through. And all I can do is…feel."

Chris grimaced. "Then allow yourself that, Tay. What you see in us is the product of work. It's not perfect, and it always surprises me when people think that. They don’t see everything that goes on behind the scenes."

Lance smiled a little at that. Whatever he was going to say, though, was lost in the beeping of the timer.

*

Chris took three bites of dinner and pushed it away from himself. Lance looked up. "For fuck's sake, I said we could do Mexican if you wanted to."

"Doesn't matter." Chris's mouth twisted. "Not hungry."

"That was your excuse at breakfast and lunch today." Lance pushed his fork forcefully into his pasta, scraping along the plate underneath.

"Do you want me to eat? Would that make you feel better?" Chris's teeth were bared. It was obvious he was spoiling for a fight.

Normally, Lance was all for giving him one so that they could make up, have sex, move on. He stared at Chris as though considering it and then blinked eyes that were nearly obscured with faint bruising when the concealer wasn't there to cover it. "Yeah. It would make me feel better. That and us not doing this here. I'm fucking tired Chris. It's stupid, I know it, we’ve done much more strenuous tours than this, but I guess I'm getting old."

Chris, more than any other guy in the band, knew how to listen to someone. Whether other people knew it or not, he was always listening, even when anger burned behind his ears or happiness bubbled up his throat. He listened to Lance more than he listened to anyone. "We're all getting old," Chris admitted. "Even Timberlake. He's gonna propose, you know. He was telling me his ideas for exactly how he wants to do it."

Lance chuckled. "Lemme guess…he's gonna have the host of the Grammy's this year mention it in his opening segment."

"Yeah, see, that's the thing." Chris looked at Lance intently.

Lance frowned. "Nothing flashy? Not even one announcement on the scoreboard of the NBA playoffs or anything?"

"Overdone and romantically fucking mushy, yes, but publicly ostentatious, no." Chris shook his head. "I told him to take her out to dinner and then get her home and ask on bended knee. I reminded him that mostly what Britney wants anymore is normalcy. Or at least, as much of the version she knows of it. He said something about roses and music and shit, but I think he agreed."

"Thank you." Lance reached a hand underneath the table and briefly squeezed Chris's.

Chris squeezed back before letting go. "For not having a tantrum?" It wasn't like Lance to reward the absence of bad behavior.

"For making me feel better about being crochety."

"Oh." Chris laughed a little. "I worry about Taylor."

"I know."

Chris knew that Lance knew, but he'd felt the need to mention it anyway. "I wish I could send Bryn home with her. She needs someone like him."

"There are other someones like him, Chris. Maybe not exactly like, but…Taylor needs to know her own worth, not have someone there to assure her of it."

Chris ran a hand through his hair. "How am I suppose to teach her that when it took me so long to understand it myself?"

Lance winced. "That's the hard part, babe. You're not. You can't. All you can do is tell her and try your best to make her see and hope that she does. The rest is up to her."

"This sucks," Chris complained.

Lance nodded. "But you're handling it just fine."

Chris snorted. He reached for his plate. "I'll stop being a baby now."

"Don’t go making promises you can't keep, mister." Lance picked up his fork. He initiated a game of footsies. Chris participated dutifully and ate everything on his plate.

*

Chris, Lance and JC staged a very loud fight about who got to ask Taylor to be his date to the Teen Choice Awards. It ended, predictably, with Chris as the winner and JC and Lance rolling around on the floor, each trying to get a headlock on the other.

Taylor, who had come in right on time after the first few minutes of preliminary yelling, was watching the floor show with wide eyes. Chris turned to her, puffed up his chest and ever-so-gallantly requested, "Would you, Miss Eustace, consent to being my date for a rather long, horrendously boring evening of watching a whole bunch of upstarts pat themselves on the back?"

Taylor refocused her attention on him. "Wow, when you put it like that…how could I possibly refuse?"

Chris snickered for a second before getting serious. "Would you rather one of those two goofs took you," he motioned to the floor where JC was foolishly refusing to cry uncle, "because, I mean, you saw, I won you fair and square, but…I'd understand if it would be cooler not to go with your brother. And, uh. I think JC's considered the hot one, or something." Chris looked dubiously at JC, sprawled on the floor, pinned under Lance, his blue hair flying in about eight directions and his face red with laughter.

Taylor giggled. "Yeah, but you’re the funny one, and that'll get you farther in almost every situation."

"It got me Lance," Chris whispered to her.

She considered this, watching Lance slump over onto JC, laughing so hard he could barely breath. "You guys…it’s not that I don't appreciate the gesture, but um. You didn't have to go all mroaw on me. I mean, I'm sure Lance and JC can get and would prefer not-fourteen-year-old dates."

"Lance would really like to be able to escort both present members of the Eustace line on either arm, and JC wants to be carried down the red carpet by Joey. Neither of them can have what they want, though, and if you haven’t noticed, both of them are pretty fucking entranced by you. So maybe we were getting a bit into our own melodrama. We do that sometimes. But…we all wanted you, Tay. That part was real."

Before Chris even knew what had happened, Taylor had thrown her arms around his shoulders in a lightning-quick hug and then disengaged, heading for her own room. "I'm glad you won."

When she had shut the door behind her, Lance rolled off of JC and the two of them stared up at Chris, panting. Finally, Lance asked, "You think I want you for your sense of humor?"

*

Taylor did a touch up on everyone's hair right before the awards show. The day of, she and Britney holed up for hours "beautifying" each other. The TCA's weren't a formal event, so they had gone shopping at the mall in the previous city and picked out outfits. Neither of them would show any of the guys what the final choices had been.

Lance took advantage of the hours that Britney had stolen Taylor. The awards were being held at a resort off the coast of South Carolina. Lance rented himself and Chris a couple of jet-ski's and coaxed Chris into a game of water tag without much difficulty. Afterward, Lance bought them both Icees of indeterminate flavors but biting cold sweetness nonetheless, and they laid out on the beach. Chris was sometimes glad that Lance had taught him to appreciate stillness.

Chris murmured to Lance, "Think we can hide Tay somewhere, keep her with us?"

Lance rolled over to face him. "You'd do that to your mom and sisters?"

Chris deflated. "Well, no. I just…she seems happy here. She's made friends with Britney and even Jamie-Lynn, when she came to visit, and there's Bryn and the five of us, and Anthony worships her, you know this."

"And you don’t want to let her go," Lance added without pausing.

"If I let her go now-"

"You won’t lose all the ground you've gained." Lance sounded sure of this.

Chris ran a hand through his rapidly-drying hair. "Don't get me wrong, it's really nice having a boyfriend who has more faith in you than you have in yourself, but sometimes I think you're a bit too optimistic about…well, my ability for improvement."

"You haven't yet disappointed in twelve years. I think I'll take my chances and assume that I'm right about this along with everything else in life." Lance flashed Chris the smile that had originally earned him the nickname "Hollywood" among the guys.

"Egotistic bitch." Chris wasn't impressed.

"I've been talking to the guys about recording at home, so you could be around her some more." Lance's hands flexed, the way they did when he wanted to touch Chris and knew better than to take the chance.

"What…" Chris took a breath. "What have they been saying?"

"Justin's been a little pissy, but Brit loves the idea, so I have a feeling he's gonna go for it in the end." Lance made a tiny whipping sound. "Jace and Joey love it. I think Joey was actually waiting for the right time to bring it up. I mean, Briahna's definitely at the point where she notices when he's not around."

Chris closed his eyes against the glare of the late day sun. "You didn’t have to do that…run interference for me."

"Then that would probably be like the time you didn’t need to run interference for me three years ago." Lance punctuated the sentiment with a snort. Chris had stopped a tour so that Lance could go home to be with Stacey while she was doing her first round of chemo for breast cancer.

"That was different." Chris opened his eyes to give Lance a Look. "Stace was sick."

"My sister needed me," Lance simplified things. "Now your sister needs you. After five years I'd think you'd have figured out that this is what we do, we see what each other needs and make sure it happens for them."

"Serves you right for always taking on the hard cases," Chris told him matter-of-factly.

"Yeah, well, no more," Lance declared with a practiced measure of sulkiness. Chris smacked him with a towel.

*

Taylor emerged from her bathroom only a few minutes after Chris would have technically preferred she be ready, with Britney ushering her out. Chris tugged at Britney's arm and kissed her on the cheek. "You're a princess."

Britney flashed a smile, "Go look at the queen." She hurried off to pry Justin out of his preparations.

Chris turned to where his sister was standing, trying to look like she wasn't desperately awaiting a verdict on her appearance for the evening. The dress she had chosen was a fun red color that wasn't so bright as to be tacky nor so deep as to imply evening wear. The cut was of a backless sundress, held up by two straps that tied at the nape of Taylor's neck. It cut off just a little below mid-thigh. Taylor's sandals had a tiny bit of a platform and were held on by way of a ribbon that laced its way up Taylor's lower legs.

Britney had pulled a strand of hair back from each side of Taylor's face and pinned them in place with what looked like magic and a camellia, leaving the rest of her hair down. The makeup on her face was mostly muted, made to look like Taylor did every day with just a little accentuation. A finely drawn camellia bloomed out of her right eye, though, taking over her temple and allowing her a slight hint of exoticism.

Chris stared for so long that Taylor finally offered up, "Brit says my legs and my back are one hundred percent perfect and that I should take advantage of that."

Chris blinked. "Brit tends to know her stuff. I'm trying to decide whether I can let you out in that."

Taylor twirled in excitement for a second. "I'm a very loyal girlfriend," she told him when she was facing him again.

"Oh, I trust you, it's everyone else I'm worried about."

Taylor rolled her eyes. "Yeah, yeah. Come oh delusional one, Lance'll be pissed if we make everyone late." She brushed past him on her way to the door.

He stopped her by placing his hands gently on her bare shoulders. "I've never had, and I'm never gonna have a date that looks as good as you do right now."

Taylor shivered a little under his hands. "You dated Dani for two years, Chris. I saw her, you know, I wasn't blind."

"I stand by my statement, kid. You've become one of the most astounding women I've ever had the pleasure of meeting and I would do just about anything to have been there watching you turn into her. I've loved you from the moment you were born, screaming like a banshee and red as a fire engine, and in all the moments that I've gotten to steal in between now and then, but I hate that there weren't more. I hate that I can't say it was every moment. There are very very few things in life that can make me reconsider the choices I've made, particularly when you factor in Lance as an end result, but seeing you tonight and spending this summer with you has been one of those things."

Taylor slowly pivoted on her feet so that she could look at him. "You make me cry and fuck up all this face paint… I can't guarantee you I'll get to you before Britney does."

Chris laughed uncertainly.

Taylor put her hands over his, driving them further into her skin. "I'm glad I came this summer. I really…I wanted my big brother back. The person that I remembered adoring. And I got him." With that she slipped out from underneath the hands that were anchoring her, and strode toward the door. "Now seriously, I fear the wrath of an un-punctual Lance."

Chris did too.

*

Bev flew in for the last concert in the tour. The show itself was completely off-the-wall with JC and Joey just barely keeping themselves from coming out to several hundred audience members, Justin announcing that Britney had said she would marry him -- slaking off any need for exhibitionism that his quiet proposal to her two evenings before had built up -- and Lance dragging Taylor out and dedicating their ever-larger a cappella set to her, mostly due to it containing "God Must Have Spent". Chris danced with her a bit, dipping her as Justin riffed the hell out of the ending.

Afterward they were all wired and enjoying it, not ready to be at the point where they had to realize the tour was over and deal with post-touring melancholia. They hit a Denny's because it was the only place that was open that wasn't a bar. Taylor, Bryn, Scott and a rather sleepy-but-happy-to-be-included Briahna were all part of the party, so anywhere that didn't admit minors was out of the question.

Bryn didn't seem to want to let go of Taylor's hand, not even when she insisted that she needed it to eat. She eventually enlisted the help of Scott who tackled his brother into letting go. Bev kicked Chris's foot under the table and laughed in the direction of her food. Chris kicked back. "Can I keep her?"

"Give her back to me for a few months and I'm sure my answer'll be yes," Bev answered without a trace of seriousness.

"Please, Mama Bev," this from Lance, who wasn't particularly good at pleading, but made up for it in this case with utter sincerity.

Bev put her foot down, "Sorry, kiddo."

Lance stabbed a french fry into some ketchup. "Fine."

Britney sat on top of Justin's lap, so as to be next to Bev. "Anyone up for some gossip?"

"Can't get to my fooooood," Justin whined.

Britney ignored him as Bev, Lance and Chris all nodded their heads. "Bryn asked Taylor if she was up for staying together. He says there isn't anyone worth giving her up for."

"Romantic little shit, ain't he?" Bev sounded pleased in spite of her words. Lance squeezed Chris's knee under the table.

Chris's body went tight with his desire to lean over and kiss Lance by way of response. "Yeah," Chris agreed. "I think it's good for her."

Having delivered her message, Britney reclaimed her own seat and fed Justin a fry in apology. Justin bit her fingers.

Briahna, who had finished her hot chocolate "with extra whippy cream, please ma'am," was falling asleep across the table from Bev. Joey picked her up and held her, her head pillowed on his shoulder. She gave JC a sleepy smile before closing her eyes completely. JC felt for the pen he thought he had tucked over his ear. Joey unclipped it from the collar of JC's shirt and handed it to him. JC scribbled something down on the closest unused napkin and stuffed it into the back pocket of his jeans. Joey watched, obviously intent on rescuing whatever had been recorded before it had a run-in with the washing machine.

Taylor, who had finished eating and reclaimed Bryn's hand, took one look at Briahna and declared, "I'm kinda feeling that way myself." Her smile wasn't as unclouded as it had been the moment before.

"This is the hardest part," Lance told her, understanding. "Even for us. Every time."

Taylor affected a laugh. At what, none of them were sure. "It's stupid, I'm gonna see you all again. Pretty soon, if you're gonna be recording at home. And I'll see you," Taylor pecked Bryn's cheek, "in October, for homecoming."

Joey shrugged. "An ending is an ending, babe. No matter what else that ending brings, a little sadness is usually inevitable."

"I can’t believe I'm gonna miss you people," Taylor rolled her eyes, the perfect picture of teenage exasperation.

Chris deadpanned a reply: "The feeling's mutual." Behind him, Lance gave a wonderfully petulant, "Yeah. So there."

Chris was kind of surprised that Denny's management didn't ask them to leave over the -- rather loud -- war of insults that followed, not sparring anybody who was at their table and awake.


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile