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Kevin read the email that had been waiting with the concierge when the Boys had arrived at their latest hotel six times before looking up at the other guys, each quietly getting settled or reading whatever had been sent to them. "Um. We need to talk."

Kevin wasn't one to cry wolf, so the tone of his voice got the attention of everyone in the room almost immediately. Kevin turned the email around so that it was facing away from him. "This," he pointed to it, just in case anyone was unsure of what exactly he was referring to, "is a press release. From Transcon. About a new group of five guys. A male vocal group, to be precise."

Everybody held their breath, whatever the press release said, Kevin was obviously pissed.

"The new group's name is NSYNC."

That got a reaction. From everyone at once. Kevin waited until the confused, incoherent questioning had died down to actually listen. AJ was the first to get something in that was both audible and made sense, "Are you saying that we just got sold down the river by our own management?"

Nick, who had grabbed the press release and now had all his attention focused on it, piped up with, "They're gonna be over here. They're…they're doing what we did. It's like if you rewound our lives and gave us different names."

Howie leaned over Nick's shoulder to read. "Oh."

"Oh, what?" Nick scrunched up his face.

"Chris Kirkpatrick. I know him. Kinda. He was in a class with me at Valencia. And JC and Justin, they were 'Teers."

"JC Chasez?" AJ inquired.

"Yeah."

"I met him at one of my auditions for the Club."

Nick scratched his head. "I probably did too. These are like, people our age, and everything."

"Chris was nice," Howie stated quietly. "Insane, but nice."

Brian, who had been fiddling with his shoelaces rather than joining in the conversation up to this point, argued, "He must've known about us. These guys had to have known. And they're doing this anyway."

AJ sighed and shared a look with Howie. "And if you got a chance, you'd say no, just because there were five other guys that you had no loyalty to that you might be screwing?"

Brian frowned. "I don't know."

Howie, who probably wouldn't take an opportunity if it meant hurting someone else, stepped to their defense anyway, "Look, I'm not saying what they did was right. I'm just…I think maybe we should focus our anger on the fact that our management went behind our backs and funded a facsimile group without telling us."

There was a small murmur of agreement from the other guys in the room. Kevin stayed silent.

*

The two groups didn't run into each other for quite some time, whether that was by accident or just good planning on Transcon's part, nobody was quite sure. Eventually, though, they all ended up at the same hotel on the same night, checking in at the same time.

Since neither group was well off enough to merit hiring much more than a bus driver, a few bodyguards and a small stage crew, Kevin and JC generally ended up with the responsibility of checking into the hotel. JC had come down with some kind of horrid stomach flu, though, and was busy being drugged to the gills and mothered by Lance and Joey on this particular stop. Chris volunteered to check everyone in. Lance warned him not to lose the room keys before he got back to them and let Chris walk across the lobby. Chris rolled his eyes and in the moment of disorientation resultant of having his vision thrown all over the place, bumped into a large object. Upon regaining perspective, Chris noticed that the large object was a man. "Oh, sorry."

The man glowered down at Chris before continuing on his way to the check-in counter. Chris frowned. He would have taken it up -- he hated rudeness -- but JC was sick and all Chris wanted was to get him up to his room, where he could be sick in private, or at least, with only the four of them around.

When he got up to the counter, the man had just begun to check in. Chris walked up to stand next to him, on the off chance that there was more than one clerk behind the desk. Which was when Chris actually got a chance to look at the other man. "Oh, that's why you were being such a shit."

Kevin turned his head to Chris. "Excuse me?"

"Well, I thought you were just rude, but no, I think it's more a case of just pissy."

"I take it everyone else you meet likes being plowed into?"

"No," Chris explained patiently, "but they do accept my apology and move on. Of course, most of the time, they aren't already holding a grudge."

"What are you talking about, Kirkpatrick?"

Chris laid his hand flat atop the counter. "Word gets 'round, Richardson, and I'm relatively sure Lou thinks it's good publicity for us to be all riled up against each other. We're not the same, no matter what you think or what he's said, but he thinks we are and that means that there has to be something to differentiate us. A teeny war will do just as well as anything else, I suppose."

"We're not the same because you're not as good. You're the kid brother who's always grabbing on to his older sibling's shirt sleeves."

"And you're an asshole with a stick up his ass that needs retrieving badly, but I'm gonna forgive you for it, because JC, who's a hell of a lot nicer than I am, thinks it's pretty shitty that Lou went behind your backs with us, even if it wasn't our fault. We didn't know that until long after, and only found out because Justin eavesdrops like he was a fly on the wall in his past life."

"I don't need your forgiveness."

"I know, but trust me, it's a nice thing to have."

Kevin swiped the three keys the clerk had returned with from off the counter and stalked away to hand them out. Chris considered the way Kevin's strides were evidently long and measured even when pissed off, or possibly more so because of that, heard the deep Southern steel-edged voice echo in his brain, and tried not to swallow his tongue.

*

"I need help from the two of you. Nobody else can know."

JC looked concerned. Joey looked suspicious. "Why the two of us? And why can't Lance and Justin know?"

"Because Lance has a memory better than most super-computers and if I fail, which -- small though the possibility may be -- is within the foreseeable parameters of this experiment, he will taunt me until one of us drops dead. Justin, on the other hand, has a big mouth and wants Nick Carter to like him, even if he acts like he doesn't."

Joey appeared slightly mollified. "What does Nick Carter have to do with anything?"

"I want Kevin Richardson."

"Oh." JC nodded his head intuitively for a few seconds before stopping mid-nod. "Um. Why?"

"Because he's sexy."

"So you want to sleep with him," Joey clarified.

"Nope. I want him. Whole package. I only do one night stands with people whose paths shall never ever cross mine again, and he doesn't fit into that category."

"But," JC reached out and placed a hand comfortingly on Chris's knee, "he's rude, Chris."

"Well, yes, but he makes up for it by being sexy."

"No. He. He really doesn't." JC shook his head sadly.

Chris went on as if JC hadn't said anything and Joey weren't visually measuring Chris for a straightjacket, "And by being all concerned about his guys. I mean, okay, he's kind of a piss-ant for acting the way he does to us about it, but you have to admit, the way he just really wants what's best for the other Boys, it's sweet. Which leads me to believe, obviously, that if he was all into me, he would be really sweet to me too." Chris's expression dared either of them to defy this assumption.

Joey, who was often pleasantly surprised by the way Chris maintained his faith in life without being naïve, said, "You're gonna have your work cut out for you."

Chris grinned, "Why do you think I came to the best of the best?"

*

In Brussels, there was a package waiting for Kevin that wasn't from Kentucky. Kevin left it for last, because anything that had European postage on it was generally business, and at the end of the day, he generally had to psyche himself up for dealing with that stuff. When he'd read the letter from one of his brothers and gone through all the items in his mom's latest care package, Kevin ripped along the top of the brown envelope and put his hand down to retrieve whatever was inside. Frowning, he pulled out a small box and an accompanying note. Transcon didn't usually send anything beyond letters and, every once in an extremely rare while, checks.

Examining the box further, he discovered that it was a set of European style baseball cards. Kevin opened it up and flipped through the cards, huffing slightly in amusement and interest. He collected American baseball cards, had seriously since he was a teenager. He hadn't even thought to look at the European ones, they didn't have much value, but he had to admit, having them in his collection would be kind of a novelty.

Kevin brought the note up to where he could read it, wondering which one of the Boys had thought to send him the cards, since they were the only people he knew in Europe.

"Heard you liked this game. Kirkpatrick."

Kevin put the cards on the bed and stared at them a bit, as though they might attack. He had a long memory for faces and had remembered Chris the minute he'd seen the picture on the first press release. There hadn't been that many other waiters at the Outback Steakhouse back in Orlando that Kevin had wanted to have his wild way with on one of the tables.

Kevin frowned at the cards. Howie had greeted Chris the first time he had ended up as their server and the two had chatted for a few seconds before Chris took their order and left to go help other customers. Later, Kevin had asked Howie what he knew about Chris, telling himself it was sheer curiosity, since Kevin had still been in the habit of ignoring his immense desire for other men at that time. Howie hadn't known much except that Chris had finished his AA at Valencia and was now working two jobs, which he only knew because Chris's other job was at Universal, and audition circuit news like that got out.

Kevin had recognized the look in Chris's eyes, though, the chosen affect of loose clothes to cover his body. Rural Kentucky was no stranger to poverty and neither was Kevin. He knew exactly how to read the signs.

Logically, then, if NSYNC was making the same amount Backstreet had been when starting out in Europe, Chris didn't have the cash to be randomly sending presents to people who were jerks to him on principle.

Kevin closed his eyes briefly. When he opened them, he tucked the cards safely into a pocket of his carryon bag and resolved not to think on the issue. At all, if possible.

*

In Luxembourg, Kevin opened up a grossly obscene greeting card that had him laughing until he couldn't breathe. It wasn't signed on the front or where it opened up to the punchline, so Kevin finally wiped his eyes clear enough that he could see and flipped it over to the back.

"Thought you might need a laugh. Was worried you wouldn't give in if you knew who this was from. Kirkpatrick."

Kevin forced a few more chuckles, just to prove his absent beneficiary wrong.

*

When the marzipan variation Ritter bar showed up with the rest of his mail in Geneva, Kevin got a little suspicious. He cornered Howie in the dressing room before a show while Brian, AJ and Nick warmed up.

"Kev?" Howie looked concerned for Kevin, defeating the whole point of Kevin's pointed glowering.

"Who's the snitch?"

"We have a snitch?"

"The total amount of people who know my favorite candy bar in the whole world comes to eight, if you assume that all of my brothers know it, which I'm not sure I would."

"Ritter. Marzipan. That's not top-secret info."

"No, it’s not. But it's not something just everyone knows, either."

"I'm not really following this conversation."

"Chris Kirkpatrick sent me one."

"Oh." Howie bit his lip. "I see." He was obviously trying not to smile.

"Do you?"

"I didn't tell him, if that's what you're asking."

"Then who did?"

"When you figure it out, I don’t think you should blame them. JC seems sweet, but he's a sneaky little shit."

"What does JC have to do with any of this?"

"He's definitely working for Chris."

"They're in the same band, D."

"Yep, but Justin definitely doesn't know. Or at least, he probably didn't until Nick said something about the presents last time we saw them."

Kevin's eyes widened. "We have got to teach him the art of shutting up."

"Don't you dare, not around people like Justin. I know you don't like them, because you're worried about crowded markets and other shit that we leave worrying about up to you, but Justin's a good kid and Nick could use someone who doesn't think he's some kind of singing freak and isn't weirded out by his never being around, and I won't have Nick closing up around the people who could be his friends because you have issues."

Kevin nodded his head, regretfully. "I know, I know. Just, Nick told Justin about my Ritter thing?"

"No. Nick thinks you're not interested and he likes Chris, and doesn't want him to get hurt, so he's not encouraging Chris in any way."

"Then who was it?"

"Someone who knows you well enough to know that Chris might be exactly what you want."

"This person must not know me very well."

Howie laughed. "I'm gonna go get ready to sing. Join us when you're ready."

*

"I don't think my campaign-of-wooing-by-small-but-thoughtful-mail-parcels is working," Chris lamented.

"Still not talking to you?" JC rubbed Chris's back sympathetically.

Chris shook his head mournfully.

"On the upside, at least you know it's not personal." Justin was getting his ass kicked by Lance at checkers for the third time in a row and was ready for anything that presented diversion. "He doesn’t speak to any of us."

Lance killed one of Justin's players. "Do you really want someone who can hold grudges like that?" Lance was the only person Chris had ever met who had the art of being a rather disaffected mother hen down flat.

"Unfortunately, my young protégé, his persistence only drives my desire to greater heights."

Lance was unimpressed by Chris's glorious prose. "You're so gone."

JC curled up, his head resting on Chris's shoulder, and yawned. "I'll see what else I can find out."

Chris grabbed the nearest blanket and wrapped JC up in it entirely without jostling him. "Whoever this man on the inside that you've got is, don't get him in trouble, okay? I need him."

JC smiled, his eyes closed. "Mm, me too."

*

"What have you got for me, Chasez?" The two bands were in the same hotel after three months of being nowhere near each other and Chris was hanging from the ceiling fixtures. Literally and figuratively. Joey gently pried him off and set him down.

JC smiled dreamily, and not for the first time, Chris wondered where exactly JC was getting his information from. If he had to kick somebody's ass in the long run, he would need to know whose ass to look for. "There's a piano in the so-called lounge downstairs."

"If you could call that thing a piano," Joey chimed in, doubtfully. The up-right had been in pitifully poor shape.

"He gets permission to play if it won't wake guests up. Goes down late at night, after the rest of the guys are asleep."

Chris ruffled JC's hair affectionately. "I think you missed your calling. You're all over this espionage gig."

*

Chris had had a plan, or something resembling a plan, anyway. It was simple. Go down, slide up next to Kevin, offer himself, and hope that the gifts had done what they were supposed to do. Chris figured that if he could win Kevin's interest in bed, love and devotion could be worked on at a later date. And Chris wasn't worried about the former; he was skilled.

The Plan stalled early on, though, when Chris heard the strains of something light, maybe Chopin, being dragged out of the rather badly out-of-tune piano. He stopped, hidden in the dark of the hotel's efforts to save electricity by turning off all extraneous lights over night. Kevin was bent over the piano, rocking slightly back and forth, more to give his arms a range of motion than in time with the music, grimacing when a chord came out wrong, which was often. After a few minutes, he stopped in the middle of a horribly screechy chord and lightly set his head down on the keys, creating a discordance that wasn't completely off from some of the chords he had been so carefully putting together. "Fuck," tumbled softly from his lips.

Chris dug what was left of his bitten off fingernails into his palm and tried to decide whether to approach Kevin at that point. On the one hand, the guy obviously was in need of cheering up. On the other, Chris kind of doubted seeing him would do it for Kevin.

Kevin raised his head and tried playing "Frere Jacques" completely without chords, giving up half-way through. Which somehow gave Chris the impetus he needed to move across the room and say, rather smoothly, all things considered, "You were um, well, I mean, the piano and all, but, what was that, before, that you were-"

Kevin's eyes glowed oddly in the dim lighting as he snapped, "What the fuck are you doing here, Kirkpatrick?"

Chris was willing to admit that this might not have been the smartest decision of his life. "I was. I heard the piano, and I wondered-"

"You were just wondering around? After a full day of driving and a show?"

"You're down here, I seriously doubt your day was any less busy."

"I'm down here," Kevin snarled, "because this is the one part of my day, the one thing in the world, that I have to myself. Get it?"

Chris nodded. He did.

"Who the fuck do you think you are?" Kevin stood up from the piano and stalked to where Chris was standing. "I don’t need your presents, y'know. From the look of you, I'd say you could stand to keep the money yourself."

Chris let anger boil up into his chest before remembering that he was good at dealing with people who used rudeness as a defense mechanism. "I don't need the money half as much as you need to smile."

"Funny, I smiled plenty before you and your gang of freaks came over to fuck with my chances."

"Insult my friends again, Kevin." Chris's voice was oddly low, considering its pitch.

"I told my cousin, when we were freezing in a hotel room without heat in the middle of a German winter that there would come a time when he'd never have to be so much as uncomfortable. I told Nick, when we got to an arena and Transcon hadn't put out enough to feed us before the show, that one day we were all gonna get obese. I told all of them that things would be fine and then you had to show up, you with your fucking beautiful infant and the other freak's voice of pure gold and now I don't know what to tell them. Europe may be willing to support as many pretty faces as America can throw at it, but America won't and I told them we wouldn't be over here forever. I told AJ that, when his mom called, practically crying because she misses him so much and really can't afford to be flying over here, even as much as she does."

Chris waited for Kevin to catch his breath. "You should talk to Nick, instead of talking at him. He would tell you that Justin is just a goofy kid with a somewhat nasal voice that will probably clear up as he gets older. Justin worries about that, though. The same way Nick worries about his acne, but Justin has a bit of hero worship going, with Nick being older and all, and tells Nick that nobody can tell. Which, really, we can't. Both kids are gonna be lookers, given time. But honestly, I don't think the looks department is something you guys are really gonna have to stress about. At the very least, there's you and Brian, and AJ's got enough mojo to make anything work for him, even if he needs to grow into it a little bit. On our side, we're just hoping like hell that JC, Lance and I all…morph into something a little easier on the eyes before we hit the states. I generally think that's why Lou sent all of us over here, he's just waiting. Your harmonies don't sound anything like ours, mostly because your range is so completely different it's laughable. I understand your worry, trust me, I have to bring Lance out of sheer panic over this topic at least once a month, but stop letting the worry blind you into being a complete and utter asshole, which by the way, you are being, and to me, which is doubly bad, because I'm trying to get you into bed and you're fucking with my image of myself as a sexual icon."

Kevin pursed his lips tightly so as not to allow his jaw to drop.

"Oh, c'mon, you had to have known that. One of the reasons I picked you was because you seemed so on top of everything."

Kevin scrubbed a hand over his eyes. "I was expecting you to be slightly more subtle."

Chris cleared his throat, "I uh, I locked myself out of my room, you see, and-"

Kevin laughed softly. "Who does JC have spying on me?"

"I dunno, but if whoever it is hurts JC, I'm going to be forced to kill him."

"Give me one good reason to sleep with you when I don't even know if I'm done being pissed off at you yet."

"Because I'm very good in bed."

"That could easily be a lie."

"It could, I lie a lot, but in this case, I started very early, and have spent a long time perfecting my technique."

"Fine, I'll take you up on your offer, but-" Kevin held his palm up to forestall a whoop of joy, "just to see if you're telling the truth."

Chris grinned. "I'll take what I can get."

*

It had become apparent, relatively early into the proceedings, that Chris was telling the truth. It wasn't until everything was over, though, and Chris had gently wiped both of them down with a wet washcloth before stealing a chaste kiss and whispering, "See ya wherever we both land next," that an entirely boneless Kevin realized Chris was a mischievous little fuck as well.

"Wha?" was the only word Kevin had managed to form by the time Chris slipped out into the hallway, dim light pouring through the doorway for a minute before he shut it after himself.

Kevin blinked slowly, attempting to clear his brain. When it didn't work, he rolled over and promised himself he'd think about everything after he had gotten some sleep.

*

Joey tilted his head. "Is this a joke, Kirkpatrick?"

Chris shook his head, guilelessly.

"So you…made the beast with two backs. With Richardson. Kevin Richardson. For real."

"For real."

"Was it good?" Justin climbed over the couch from where he had been hiding, behind it.

Chris smacked him upside the head, "You are too young to be sullied by such conversations, grasshopper. Back to your bunk."

Justin stood his ground. "Good?"

"The man could have been comatose and it would have been good, and before you open that dirty mouth of yours, Fatone, that is not one of my kinks."

Justin nodded, knowingly, "So I'll take it that it was then. I could find out if he returns the sentiment."

"Not bloody likely. While I may take a certain obscene pleasure in robbing you of your innocence daily, Kevin is actually deserving of the trust of the parents who handed their children over to him."

JC wandered in, not even trying to pretend he hadn't been eavesdropping. "True, but I can find out."

"You're still not telling us who this is, huh?" Chris was man enough to admit that he was going insane with curiosity. Maybe not out loud, but at least to himself.

JC dropped a kiss on Chris's forehead, "You may need the help of four other guys to make someone see the wonder that is you, but I'm pretty sure I'm managing just fine on my own, thanks."

*

Brian padded out to the bus couch one night well after two in the morning and sat down next to Kevin. "I need to talk to you."

Kevin turned his head, "Everything all right?"

"I know. I know that you slept with Chris. I know because I'm the snitch and I'm the snitch because me and JC are dating. I'm sorry."

Kevin stared at Brian for so long that Brian had opened his mouth to speak again when Kevin cut him off with, "For what part?"

"Huh?"

"What part of all that are you sorry for?"

"Going behind your back. Liking someone you hate."

"I don't hate JC."

"You act like you hate all of them. Chris just gets the worst of it. I thought maybe that was because you actually liked him and that was just your way of dealing with the frustration of liking someone you wanted to hate."

"No. I did it because I thought I hated him." Kevin went back to staring out at the window. "It's easy to hate someone who's that much like yourself."

"Why do you always need to fight everything that's inside you?"

"Hm?"

"Like when I was in high school and I came out to you and you couldn't say 'me too' for almost another four years. And when you did, your mom just hugged you and told you she had the other three for breeding purposes. It was never about whether the people who mattered were gonna be okay with it, you knew we were. It was about how long it took you for you to be okay with it. You always rail against the parts of you that you most need to accept."

Kevin pressed his forehead to the window. "I think he got what he wanted anyway. He snuck out, before he thought I was awake."

"He snuck out to give you the chance not to tell anyone. He didn't get what he wanted, not at all. Chris plays for keeps, Kev."

"JC told you that?"

Brian was silent.

"And JC's good to you?"

"The best."

"And Nick really likes Justin?"

"They have a lot in common. Beyond the obvious."

"So I'm mostly just being a dick here?"

"I'm just saying that I think you should give Chris a chance. Or half a one. Something."

Kevin nodded once. "Something."

*

Kevin wouldn’t say he had a thing for men in uniform, exactly, but Chris in basketball shorts and a jersey, that was something else entirely. He made this clear by saying, "Hey," which caused Chris to turn in his direction slowly and respond, "Hey?"

"It's an American greeting, Kirkpatrick, commonly used by younger folk while their elders stare on and mumble about horses."

"You greeted me." Chris grinned and informed Kevin again, "You. Greeted. Me."

"I'm throwing you a bone here, so far your retrieval is less than impressive."

"Come off it, Richardson, you're just addicted to my ass and too much of a pussy to admit it."

Kevin smirked, "Your ass does have its moments."

Chris rolled his eyes and flounced off, careful to display the part of his physique in question to the fullest extent.

*

Now that he knew where to look, Chris had no problem finding Kevin later that night. The piano this time was still a stand-up, the wood cracked in several places and retaining very little of its varnish, but someone obviously cared enough to pay attention to the important things, and Kevin's souped up ragtime song was bursting out of the piano, light and rich all at once.

Chris waited until Kevin was done to ask, "Joplin?"

Kevin didn't turn around. "Nah. Anonymous, or at least, nobody knows the writer's name anymore. Had a piano teacher in high school who was crazy 'bout ragtime, honky tonk, that kinda stuff. His enthusiasm was pretty infectious."

"You're good."

"Been playing since I was nine. We couldn't afford a piano when I was growing up, so I always got in good with the music teacher at the schools, they let me stay after and play, sometimes for hours."

"I wasn't patient enough."

Kevin jolted in a movement that could have been caused by laughter. Chris wasn't sure. "What?"

"Among other things."

"Sorry?"

"We may not have been able to afford the piano, but we could afford for me to go to Sally Enright's every Tuesday and take an hour lesson with her. Hell, I had the hour to waste. I didn’t hold a job until I was thirteen, and even then it was part time, and so that I could have my own spending money."

Chris stiffened. Kevin sensed the action and turned around. "I'm just saying, maybe you would have had the patience. I mean, you developed your voice. It's an instrument."

Chris came over to sit next to Kevin on the piano bench. "I was giving you a compliment."

Kevin covered the piano keys. "I know. I was trying, somewhat clumsily, to return the favor. You admire my patience, I admire…"

"My continued existence?"

"Something like that."

Chris laughed. "It's a step in the right direction."

Kevin found himself agreeing.

*

Chris returned to the room JC and him were sharing in the early morning, after kissing Kevin on the cheek, "Morning breath. This was great. We're gonna do it again," and slipping out before Kevin could answer in the negative.

For a second, Chris thought that JC had been horribly deformed sometime during the night, since the shape under the covers of his bed was definitively not human. Then a blond head stirred. Brian's eyes opened and focused on the room's newest occupant. "Oh. We were thinking you'd stay longer. Oops."

Chris sat down on the edge of the empty bed. "I thought…"

"Mm?" Brian's thumb was circling one of the vertebrae in JC's neck gently.

"I thought JC had found himself a nice Backstreet roadie."

"Sorry to disappoint," Brian smirked.

Chris affected a shocked gasp. "You've been selling information about your own cousin to my male bandmate for sex! That's not pure! That's not even all-American. I mean, kind of, in a capitalist sense, but no! You're Brian Littrell! Clean cut model for the youth of America!"

Brian seemed to be unsure whether he should laugh or kill Chris quickly and be done with it. "First off, nowhere in this equation was anything being sold for sex. JC and I hit it off when we were all in Vienna, he's quirky but not snobby, it's a fun combination. Secondly, I was handing over info about Kevin, but only because I think you could be good for him. It was a twisted stamp of approval, I recognize this, but there you have it."

JC, who had most likely woken up while Chris had been shouting, mumbled, "You know my secret now."

"Why's it a secret?"

"Because Brian wasn't ready to have Kevin find out until he told him on his own and if anybody but us knew, everyone was gonna know."

"So…" Chris eyed both Brian and JC, "it's not a secret anymore?"

"Well," Brian amended, "no rooftop shouting."

"Or banner waving," JC clarified. "But basically, yeah. The ten of us can know. Plus a few assorted parental units."

Chris sing-songed, "I know a secret, I know a secret."

JC pulled the covers over his and Brian's head.

*

Chris knew they were at the awards show to mingle. There was no other reason, seeing as how they weren't actually up for anything. Backstreet was, though, and Chris could not have cared less that he was supposed to be mingling with people who might actually do something for his career. He trusted Lance and Justin to take care of that, at least for a bit.

Chris caught up to Kevin at the bar, "Up for three, my man."

Kevin's expression stalled somewhere between a grimace and a grin. "Up for is probably as far as it'll go."

"Yeah, well, we're foreign devils out here, you can’t expect much better."

Kevin took the plunge and grinned, even allowing himself a bit of a chuckle. "I think it’s more of a newcomer versus old favorite kind of thing, but thanks for the encouragement."

"Any time." Chris saw Joey giving him the 'SOS' look. "Just ask. I gotta go rescue Joey. You guys in for the night?"

"Hotel Elizabeth. Sounds nicer than it is." Kevin's look of distaste told Chris everything he needed to know.

"Probably a step up from ours, though. I'll find you there."

Kevin headed in the opposite direction of where Chris bounded off to.

*

Kevin answered the knock at his door and Chris walked in, skipping the normal formalities for, "I was right about this place being nicer. Ours has a roach problem. Joey screams like a girl."

"Too bad he doesn't have a Backstreet Boy readily available," Kevin replied, blasé.

"Ain't that the truth?" Chris pulled his shirt off over his head.

"Woah." Kevin took a few steps to where Chris was standing, and peeled Chris's hands away from the zipper on his jeans. Still holding Chris's hands, Kevin asked, "How was your night?"

"Um." Chris looked at their hands. "Boring as all fuck. But at least we didn't have to lose on top of being bored."

"Thanks for bringing that up."

"Sorry, I was trying to be sympathetic."

Kevin chuckled. "You suck at it."

Chris pulled his hands back. "Did you… Was I not good last time?"

Kevin frowned. "What?"

"I guess I don't get. Look, here was the way I figured this all out: I get you into bed, you think I'm good, so you keep me around, in the we-see-each-other-every-few-months-or-so-and-you-enjoy-my-carnal-talents way. Then, eventually you notice that I'm pretty worthwhile and you might not mind me being something other than a fuck buddy. Y'know, when you get over the whole betrayal complex you have. And then, one day, when you're ready to hear it, I tell you about how I always wanted just what we have because despite appearances and rumors to the contrary, you're not an asshole, in fact, you're really kind of fantastic." Chris caught his breath, careful not to take his eyes from Kevin's, even knowing he had said more than he had been planning on.

Kevin's fingers skimmed beneath the waistband of Chris's jeans, dragging warmth from Chris's navel to his backbone. "I suppose I'm trying to speed up 'eventually.'"

"You don't like me," Chris pointed out as firmly as he could with Kevin leaning over him, nipping gently at the tip of Chris's right ear.

"I don't know you," Kevin's voice sounded much louder, so close to Chris's ear.

"It might be…a little more complicated. Than I made it sound before," Chris admitted, between gasps.

Kevin finished the job Chris had started on his own jeans. "I don't think it's complicated at all."

"You might," Chris's head lolled back, "you might not like me."

"Like I said," Kevin held tightly onto Chris as he slid down the smaller man's body, "easy from here on out."

*

Chris's voice sometimes became screechy when he was flipping out. He felt sorry for everyone who had paid to see him the night after his rendezvous with Kevin. He felt more sorry for the guys, who were doing their best not to wince copiously, or glare at him.

He should have known there was something up when the bus lounge emptied very quickly, Joey, Justin and Lance all ever-so-casually slipping off to their bunks. He thought he may have given them all headaches. He figured the scheme out when JC sat across from him at the table, face scrubbed clean and eyes earnest, "What was that all about?"

Chris debated how far he would get it if he stringently denied anything was wrong. JC was smiling slightly. Not very far. "Things with Kevin are not going according to plan."

JC's mouth instantly slumped downward. "But Brian said that Kevin seems to really like you."

Chris tapped a finger insistently against the table, "Therein lies the problem, young Joshua."

JC rolled his eyes. "You're gonna wig out about getting what you wanted?"

Chris shook his head violently enough for his neck to pop and then stopped for a minute, rubbing at the sore spot. "But see, I'm not getting what I wanted. What I wanted was a nice, long, if somewhat backwards, courtship. Wherein I could slowly convince him of my, let's face it, sometimes hard to understand charms."

"Chris-"

"He's fucking it up, though. He wants to do all of that getting to know me stuff now, before he's really addicted to having me around and just has to figure out why. And if we do that now, he's gonna wake up and be like, 'um, being good in bed does not balance out the fact that you are a short freak.' I know, this has happened to me. Many a time. A long wooing process is my only hope here." Chris had slowly risen up and was now leaning nearly all the way across the table, his face close to JC's.

JC placed a hand on Chris's shoulder and gently pushed him back down. "Chris. Calm the fuck down, okay?"

Chris took several deep breaths before giving JC a silent, plaintive look.

"Babe, if Kevin's not gonna recognize how amazing you are without given years to do it, you deserve better-"

Chris interrupted without compunction, "That is the catch-phrase for people who are too big of losers to get themselves a significant other."

"No," JC responded firmly, "it's not. Look, Chris, I admit, our bizarre factor shows itself in different ways, but trust me, I've had my fair share of people who couldn't appreciate me."

Chris's expression made it clear that he was willing to reluctantly accept that this was probably true. JC was sweet, but a complete and utter weirdo, all the same.

"They're not worth it, babe. They're just not." JC leaned over the table to kiss Chris on the cheek. "But I think that Kevin might be. So try not to freak out so much that you don't allow him the chance to prove himself, okay?"

Chris leaned his forehead against JC's. "Okay."

*

After Backstreet left for Canada, with no plans that anyone knew of to come back across the Ocean, Chris was torn between being happy for them, jealous of them, and upset that all his freaking out had been for nothing. He was still trying to puzzle out his responses when an envelope came for him with Canadian postage on it. Inside the envelope were two things, a napkin bearing some scribbling on it, and a sheet of ruled notebook paper. Chris set the napkin aside momentarily.

"Hey, I miss running into your psychotic ass on a regular basis. Things over here are kind of…boring and the same, but at least most of the people speak English. And it doesn't cost as much to call home, which is nice. We did, however, get to go to a hockey game the other night, something about All-American (which is ironic, because really, I always think of Canada when I think of ice-hockey. Or other ridiculously fucking cold places) visibility and all of that. I'm not really into the game and I know you are. We got to meet some of the players afterwards, get signatures. Nick, who knows the game much better than I, said that you would appreciate this one. It's yours, courtesy me. I miss you. I may have already said that. Kevin."

Chris smoothed the napkin out. Now that he knew what he was looking at, the name of the Maple Leaf's goalie was perfectly clear, even with the ink of the pen having slightly run into the grooves of the napkin. He folded it up carefully, along with the letter, and placed them both back inside the envelope. Then he went off to brag to Justin about the autograph and to everyone else about Kevin Richardson missing him.

*

It was months of expensive postage before they met up again, unexpectedly, at a second-rate charity benefit in the States. Chris blinked when he saw the Boys walk into the backstage area and grabbed on to the nearest nailed-down structure so as not to fling himself at Kevin and initiate a session of wild-dingo lovin' on the concrete floor. Instead he waited for Kevin to cross the room, carefully modulated smile on his face and say, "We didn't hear you guys were scheduled to be here," in a voice so controlled that anyone else would have assumed he was holding back the urge to beat Chris to death on the spot.

"Surprise," Chris spouted, not letting go of the structure keeping him rooted where he was.

Kevin eyed the white-knuckled grip. "I guess I'll be seeing you around then."

"Yup," Chris agreed, his whole body swaying.

Kevin smirked and left to go find where the Boys had wandered off to.

*

Kevin answered the door to his room and had a handful and a half of Chris Kirkpatrick on top of him before he knew what had happened. Chris kissed him for several moments before breaking off to inform him, "Three seconds more, Richardson, I mean it, three, and we would have been showing everyone in that room just how well a boybander can dance when he puts his mind to it."

"Good thing I left off when I did, huh?" Kevin was unimpressed.

Chris slipped his hand into Kevin's pants and cupped the other man's ass. "Yeah. Though, probably unfortunate for the people who would've gotten to watch."

"Mmm," Kevin undid the buttons on Chris's shirt methodically, pushing the both of them back toward the wall. When he was finished, Kevin slipped Chris's shirt off, running his hands up the length of Chris's torso, hooking them under Chris's armpits so as to hoist Chris up.

Chris wrapped his legs around Kevin's hips, letting himself be pushed into the wall. He moaned a bit when Kevin pressed his lips, slightly parted, against Chris's neck, just breathing, not even a real kiss. Kevin wetly placed the words, "I missed that sound," at the base of Chris's Adam's Apple. Chris groaned, "I missed you," in retribution.

Kevin murmured, "Yeah, mostly that," and ground himself hard against Chris, the wall being the only part of the equation not giving.

*

Kevin shelled out the cash for a phone call two days before Thanksgiving, because NSYNC was going to be on a cross-Atlantic flight during the holiday, and there were very few added insults to injuries like that. He calculated the time in the UK carefully, plus the fact that NSYNC had performed that night and weren't getting on the road until the next morning. Then Kevin thanked everything not sitting still that early on, JC had convinced Lance, Kevin's information deity, that Kevin was one of the good guys. Kevin knew he probably hadn’t yet deserved it.

After being connected by the main desk and chatting with Joey, who was rooming with Chris for the night, for a few minutes, Chris was put on the phone and answered with a very tired sounding, "'Lo?"

"Hey, you sound exhausted."

"Oh," some of his normal energy flooded back into Chris's voice, "hey. Wow, this is an honor. To what do I owe a horrifically expensive phone call?"

"Your Thanksgiving-eve red-eye. I'm feeling sorry for you."

"Ah," Chris sighed. "I should have known, all you feel for me is pity."

"Yeah," Kevin replied cheerfully, "but it's gotten us pretty far, wouldn't you say?"

Chris didn't say, 'not far enough,' even though that was the only answer that came to his mind. He grunted. "So where are you, Richardson?"

"The States, where you're gonna be shortly."

"Plans for the holidays?"

"We're touring straight through Thanksgiving, but I'm going home for Christmas. Home, home." Kevin sounded like he could be bouncing on the other end of the line. Chris tried to picture it, and when he failed, figured it was probably just his overtired mind hearing things.

"Yeah, I'm gonna be in Florida. Justin's mom said she'd save a seat for me at the table." Which was sweet of her, and Chris appreciated it, but he wished like hell he could afford a ticket back to Pittsburgh, wondered where exactly the money they were supposedly making in Europe was going.

Kevin was silent for a few minutes, possibly weighing what to say in response to Chris's obviously dulled excitement. "Well, I hate to do this, babe, but this is about all I can afford."

Chris smiled, "I can't believe you called in the first place."

"I miss you. A lot."

"Yeah, I. Yup."

"See ya when I see ya."

"See ya then." Chris had a hard time hanging up, even after the dial tone lapsed and a woman with a British accent spoke at him briskly.

*

Then turned out to be a company sponsored New Year's party.

Chris saw Kevin a couple of feet away first, ever so blithely wriggling his way out of the group of people he was doing his best to mingle with and making his way into the one that Kevin was busy entertaining.

Kevin looked him up and down, greeting him with an incredibly cool, "Kirkpatrick."

Chris remembered that they weren't supposed to be fucking each other, "Richardson."

They chatted about industry things for the benefit of those around them until people got bored and started to politely head off in other directions. When they were finally a small talk party of two, Kevin lowered his voice slightly, low enough so that they wouldn't be heard over the din of casual party conversation, "I didn't know you were still in town."

"I didn't know you had gotten in town. How was your Christmas?"

Kevin grinned, "It was great. I hadn't seen my family in forever. You?"

Chris rocked a little bit on the balls of his feet. "Lynn knitted me a scarf. Well, all of us really, but mine's got weirder colors than anybody else's, so you can tell it's mine. My mom sent me a chocolate Santa. I managed to hide it from both Justin and Jonathan, so all in all, things went well."

Kevin looked down at the ground, peering up at Chris through his eyelashes. "I got you something."

"Yeah," Chris admitted, "me too."

"I, uh. I share a place with Howie and Brian."

"I live with Justin, JC and Lance, the last of whom I room with."

"My place it is."

"Post-party?" Chris inquired.

"Meet me in the coat room, two o'clockish."

Chris nodded, and went to go rescue Justin, who had managed to get himself stuck in the middle of three PR reps.

*

Chris had gotten Kevin blue eyeliner and three bluegrass LPs. Kevin perused the LPs, humming delightedly over them, patently ignoring the other half of his gift. "How'd you know I liked bluegrass?"

Chris opened his mouth before Kevin held up a hand, "Nevermind, Brian, JC, I remember."

"Actually," Chris's words were precise, but not unamused, "I found out the old-fashioned way."

"Having your bandmate seduce, betray and report back isn't old-fashioned?"

"I went through your CD collection the last time we slept together."

"Oh," Kevin grinned and went back to looking at the song lists, "crafty."

"And I think you would look dead sexy in the eyeliner, if you decide to get over whatever societally-induced gender panic you're having over there."

"No panic, you're pretty predictable, I figured if I waited you out, I'd get an explanation without having to ask." Kevin picked up the eyeliner and read the color out loud, "Midnight screw."

"That might have been part of the inspiration as well," Chris admitted, reluctantly.

"Maybe, huh?" Kevin countered.

"Maybe." Chris held out his hands. "My turn."

Kevin sighed. "Greedy bitch."

Chris didn’t budge. "Look who's talking, Mr. Me First."

"That's Mr. First to you." Kevin dug the package out of his bag and dropped it into Chris's open palms.

Chris ripped open the paper without hesitation. Inside was a wooden box with the words "Kentucky Boy" carved into the surface. Chris looked up at Kevin, hoping his curiosity was evident.

"My dad made it for me. Before I left for Orlando the first time, to remind me of where I came from. He was good with his hands." Kevin had his hands spread out in front of him, palms up, as though comparing.

Chris slid his hands over Kevin's. "So are you." There was no question of the double entendre intended, but Chris's voice was low, serious. "You can't give me this."

"It's mine to do with as I wish." Kevin said, nearly petulant.

"But my gift will suck in comparison."

Kevin laughed and pulled his hands back. "That's great Kirkpatrick. Just great."

"Kevin, you…what if we break up and I get bitchy and won't give it back to you and then this asshole is out there with this great box that your father made you and-"

"I'd hire someone to kill you and take the box back."

"Oh." Chris paused. "I hadn’t thought of that solution."

"No, I can see why not. Chris, we're not gonna break up and you're not gonna be an asshole."

Chris looked doubtful.

"Well, maybe one or the other, but not both."

Chris raised his hand and Kevin ducked to avoid the swipe. He came back up, smiling goofily. "The box is meant to carry meaning from the person who gave it to the person who currently holds it in his possession. I want you to have it. I want it to mean something to you. I want to mean something to you."

"Kevin, look, not to state the obvious, or anything, but you meant something to me back when you were a being a bitchy crackwhore over the existence of my group, you don’t have to give me family heirlooms to win me over at this point. I'm won, a done deal, a sure thing-"

Kevin put his hand over Chris's mouth. "Me too." He removed his hand.

"You think you are, right now, but we haven't really spent a lot of time together and letters aren't the same-"

"Chris, stop. Stop it. You think AJ is the most normal human being ever to walk the planet? Or that Nick doesn't get on my second set of last nerves every week or so? Think again. I'm not gonna get fed up, I don't work like that."

"And I'm telling you, they all say that." Chris's glare lacked the heat he wished it possessed.

"But they don’t all give you boxes carved by their father's."

Chris screwed up his face. That had never entered into the equation before. "Well, no, not usually."

"I'm very loyal, Chris," Kevin's voice was firm, unyielding.

"I know, it's one of the things that got me in the first place."

"I know."

"You know?" Chris was thrown.

"This whole JC and Brian thing? Turns out it works both ways."

"Really?" Chris's eyes went wide.

"Really," Kevin nodded.

"Huh. Who woulda thunk?"

"Stop avoiding the subject, Chris." Kevin ruffled his hair.

"Subject, what subject?"

Kevin gave him a look.

"I'll keep your box. I love it."

"I'll wear your eyeliner. Know why?"

Chris shook his head.

"Because I love you."

Chris bit his lip before smiling cautiously. "I love you too."

"As much as my box?" Kevin tilted his head, angling in for a kiss.

"Maybe a little bit more."

"A little bit?" Kevin inquired, looking for a way to understand the size of this difference.

Chris held up his fingers, the thumb and the pointer finger scant inches from each other.

*

"Wow. That's…huh. That's hot." Justin sounded surprised by his own observation.

Chris peered over Justin's shoulder to see what all the fuss was about. It was a picture of Backstreet, a candid from somewhere. They were on a carpet, so Chris guessed it was probably the VMA's, or something else NSYNC hadn't yet been invited to. "Finally deciding to give in to your true feelings about Nick?"

"What?" Justin asked. "Nick? I was talking about your boy."

Chris frowned, "Get your own, Timberlake. I thought you were straight," he thought to remind Justin.

"Mostly. But Kevin's wearing eyeliner."

Chris looked closer. It was true, Kevin's eyelids were carefully painted, smudged slightly for effect. He grinned. "That he is."

"Making a statement, I suppose." Justin flipped to the next page, giving the issue no more thought.

Chris's cheeks began to hurt from the sheer force of his smile. "You have no idea."


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile