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Prologue - 1992
*

Chris made it to choir early enough to pick any seat he wanted. He had read somewhere that changing one's daily routine was a way to possibly prevent Alzheimer's, so he chose the seat in the tenor section furthest from the one he had sat in the day before. He chatted with various people as they filed in, surreptitiously waiting for a particular familiar face.

Chris hid his frown when Howie hurried into the classroom, late. It wasn't like Howie to be late. In fact, the other kid was almost obnoxiously punctual. Chris knew; he kept track of all his crushes' habits. Howie slid into the only seat left open in the tenor section, the one directly in front of Chris.

Chris tugged at one of the gelled curls to get Howie's attention. When Howie turned around, Chris grinned and whispered, "Hi."

Howie looked at Chris like he had grown three heads. "Uh, hi." He turned back around.

Had they not been in class, Chris would have congratulated himself on his smoothness by smacking himself on the forehead a few times. He wasn't surprised Howie had been taken off-guard, it wasn't like they spoke on a regular basis, and Chris would have a reason for needing to talk in the middle of class just to greet Howie. If anything, the truth of their 'relationship' bordered more on Howie being the shy, quiet guy that everybody liked and respected, and Chris being the classroom's fun, but destructive, force. People liked Chris too, but the two students ran in vastly different crowds. Chris knew Howie was out of his league, but the mere fact of something being beyond his reach had never stopped him from attempting to grasp it anyway. Still, Howie was a stickler for paying attention to the teacher, so Chris didn't think he was going to win himself any points by trying to distract the other student right at that moment.

Chris could bide his time. He waited until class let out and then rushed to catch up with Howie, who had practically run out of the classroom. He managed to reach Howie, sprinting. "In a hurry?"

Howie looked to see who was talking to him, still walking at the speed of light. "Oh, um, Chris, how are you?"

Chris grinned. Manners turned him on. "I'm fine, you didn't answer my question."

"Question? Oh, right. I have to fill in for a co-worker today, so I need to be at work approximately now."

Howie reached his car, a used Dodge with more paint chipping off than staying on. "So, yeah, I gotta go. Um, nice seeing you." Howie sounded a little unsure about the last part, but he gave a little wave as he drove off.

Chris was satisfied.

*
2001
*

Chris's attention wavered between JC and Lance as Lance explained to the guys what the doctor had said about his heart. JC's hands were fumbling with the belt loop on Lance's jeans, his face trained into a completely unnatural calm. Lance kept taking deep breaths and saying things like, "infective endocarditis" and "massive course of antibiotics" and "postpone the tour." At some point, Chris was pretty sure it had been after the part about the lining of Lance's heart valves going all traitorous on him, Joey had swallowed Lance up in his arms, not letting go until Justin and JC carefully unpeeled him.

Chris got up and bounced around the room a bit in the silence that followed Lance's diatribe. He was careful not to look at any of the other guys. They could all read him far too well. His body language was probably giving away more than he wanted to as it was. His mind was running around a directionless path that consisted mostly of "Lance is sick," "Lance's heart is no good," "Lance-"

His thoughts cut off for a short second before rerouting themselves into one concentrated idea: "Brian." Chris stopped bouncing long enough to look at Lance and hold out his hand, "Can I borrow your phone?"

Wordlessly, Lance handed Chris his phone. Chris stared in concentration at the number pad for a couple of seconds before dialing a number. It wasn't one he called on a regular basis. Chris had a good memory for numbers though. Dates, ages, weight, those things stuck in his head. He hoped the person he was calling hadn’t had to change numbers since he'd last contacted him. After a couple of rings there was a click and then an actual voice answered, "Hello?"

Chris was taken aback for a second, he hadn't been expecting a real live person to pick up. He was much more used to dealing with intermediary machines. "Oh. Hi. I was kind of expecting voicemail. How are you? It's Chris. Kirkpatrick."

"Chris. Hey. It's, um…been awhile. I'm fine, good, actually."

Chris smiled at Howie's unfailing tendency toward being polite, even when he wasn't really sure what to do with the person he was being polite to. "Good to hear it. Listen, I'd like to tell you I just called to catch up, but I've got a favor to ask. Was Brian receiving treatments for his heart thing before the surgery?"

"Yeah, just for a little while, they had to make sure he was eating right, stuff like that."

"Wouldja mind telling me where he was going? Lance's heart is evidently in need of some serious happy pills and we're all for trying to keep it pretty quiet."

"Oh. I see." Howie was quiet for a second. "You have something to write this down on?"

Chris scanned the room, twisting to each side a bit. His eyes came back to rest on Lance holding out his palm pilot. Chris took it out of his hand. "Yeah, okay, I'm ready." Chris scribbled down the information, hoping that Lance hadn't programmed any special shorthand into his palm, as the foiled techno-nerd in him was wont to do. "Thanks, D, I 'preciate it. Owe you one."

"Don't think I'm not gonna take you up on that. I definitely think my being willing to talk with you deserves a coffee, or something." Howie's tone was gentle, almost unsure, and Chris ruthlessly tamped down on his urge to offer sex as payment for Howie's indulgent behavior.

"Yeah? Next time we’re both in town, or, y'know in the same place, at least."

"I'd like that. Maybe we could even find it in our schedules to go all out and do lunch or something."

"Sounds great. Tell the guys hi."

"I will, you too. Bye." There was a click and then the odd synthetic silence
of a cell phone connection having been cut off. Chris handed the phone back to Lance and hoisted the palm pilot in the air, as triumphantly as if it had been a Grammy.

*

"Chris?"

"Howie?"

"Yeah, hey, I got your message. You okay?"

Chris put his hand over the phone and swore softly. "Sorry, I probably freaked you out a little bit."

"You sounded pretty frantic." Howie's tone was concerned. Chris pinched himself as punishment for thinking impure thoughts about someone so abundantly nice.

"There's an explanation for that. You see, sometimes JC has this tendency to freak out. He doesn't do it terribly often, but when he does, he spares us no histrionics and, well, it's pretty contagious. You kinda got me in the aftermath of that."

"What was JC freaking out about?"

"The antibiotics are being pretty harsh on Lance. He's been vomiting a lot. It doesn’t really help that Jayce is afraid of the IVs, which, y'know, they're keeping in him pretty constantly."

"They put JC on an IV? Did they have to sedate him or something?"

"What? Oh, sorry, pronoun thing. No, the IVs that Lance has in him."

"Can't somebody else stay with Lance?"

"JC's the closest to him. And he's hella stubborn. You wouldn't think it to look at him, but trust me on this one." Chris hoped he knew how to lie as well as he thought he did. If anybody was going to figure out his untruths, it would undoubtedly be someone who knew intimately how those untruths were formulated. Not that he thought Howie would do anything with the real information.

"Right. So you were freaking out because JC was freaking out about a butterfly needle?"

"Well, that and the whole, Lance-looking-like-a-bucket-of-white-paint-under-a-halogen-lamp thing. It's disconcerting. He's done this before, y'know. It was different then, when he just fell down in the middle of a step and Joey was trying to hold him up and we were fucking scared. It's different because we knew about this before it got like that and it's getting taken care of but-"

"But it's still scary as hell anyway, because it's your brother and someone you'd do anything to protect and there's not a damn thing you can do?"

"Your powers of eloquence and ESP boggle even the great Kirkpatrick mind."

"I've been there."

"I know. Which is why I called you. At least, I'm pretty sure it is, because I don’t really make it a habit to freak out to near strangers."

"I didn't imagine you did."

"That's very polite of you to say."

"My mom raised me well."

"She did indeed."

"So you're okay?"

"Yeah, I'm good."

"I'll talk to you later then."

"Later, and, um, Howie?"

"Uh huh?"

"Thanks for calling back."

"Thanks for calling me."

*

"Hey Chris, this is Howie. Just thought I'd check up on you and Lance and I should probably ask about JC, since, y'know, he was the one who freaked out, and um, while I'm at it, I'll just be generous and throw Justin and Joey in there. So, yeah. Um, call me. Tell me how things are. If you want to. Right. Um, have a good day."

*

Chris made Justin listen to the message. Justin was less than duly impressed, so Chris tried Joey. Joey patted him on the head and sent him off. Chris couldn't turn the phone on in the clinic or it would mess with the machinery. He had to settle for explaining to Lance and JC, "Howie likes me."

Lance took this news in stride. "Good, because I'd hate to find out now that he really despised you and that he had given you the name of not, in fact, a heart clinic, but a medical research facility wherein some shadow government was replacing my body parts with bionic implants completely unbeknownst to me."

To which there was nothing really to say except, "Snarky bitch. JC's happy for me."

JC was far more happy that Lance had been able to say that much in one go, but he nodded to mollify Chris. After Lance's comeback, Chris was willing to take what he could get.

Chris stayed for a bit longer to make sure that Lance and JC had everything they needed and reassure himself that he wasn't a bad friend before walking out to the parking lot, where he could turn his phone on. He had checked the tour schedule for the Boys, and if their traveling worked anything like NSYNC's did, which Chris was willing to bet on, Howie would most likely be on the road and able to pick up.

Chris thanked his stalker-like behavior at the, "Chris?" he was treated to after the second ring. Then he did a small dance celebrating the fact that Howie had obviously programmed Chris's number into his phone. A woman getting out of her car looked at him oddly. Chris grinned back at her. She had no choice but to smile back and walk hurriedly toward the clinic, pretending not to be frightened. Chris admired her technique.

"Hey, I got your message. Justin's a little pip squeak who doesn't respect his elders as he should, Joey's got the cutest daughter in the world and none of us wants to have to explain what happened to her father if we disposed of him, so we let him stay around, Lance is a complete tool, but you can't have a boyband without somebody who has a defective heart and JC's…JC exists beyond the boundaries of verbal description."

Howie's voice was amused, "And you?"

"I was out saving the world, which is why I wasn't there to receive your phone call, I hope you can forgive me. I need a second to catch my breath, but then I'll be just fine."

"What were you saving the world from?"

"O-Town," Chris replied, not missing a beat. "You had to ask?"

"Don't get all smart with me, it could've been B2K."

"I leave them to my underlings."

"Right, my mistake."

"Don’t you forget it. How're you and yours?"

"Brian's being a royal pain in the ass over the fact that Leigh's filming on location somewhere that's not on his bus, Kevin's stressed about ticket sales, which Jive keeps getting on our ass about, Nick needs to get laid and AJ needs…"

"Howie?"

"AJ needs a lot of things, and you didn’t hear anything I just told you."

"No, we had a really bad connection there for a bit, all kinds of interference."

"You guys head out pretty soon?"

"Lance is done with the meds. He's usually the guy who tells me where to go and when, but I think Justin said something about a week from now."

"Ready?"

"In the ready-for-things-not-to-be-unusual-and-scary sense."

"I hear that."

*

"Chris?" Howie's voice was groggy and more than a little worried.

"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I know it's late and you guys have a show tomorrow and I really wouldn't be calling at buttfuck in the morning, but I can't get to sleep and everyone here is so exhausted, I can't wake one of them up, and really, you probably are too-"

"It's okay, it's fine, what's wrong?"

"Lance. He. It's not going well for him. He's exhausted and when he gets done with the show his breathing sounds like some kind of warped Darth Vader effect and he's so freaked out, even JC can't really get him to calm down, and JC can always calm Lance down. JC can get Lance to do things Diane can't." Chris didn't care what Howie read into things anymore, after all, Howie had given him more than enough ammunition to fling back if a mud-slinging war should break out. Chris didn't think it would.

"Yeah, okay, you have to…Brian was a lot like that, a bit worse. Some nights he would actually pass out on the way to the bus. Or spend the night throwing up water and whatever else was in him because his body was just too screwed up for anything to work properly. It gets better, I swear."

"Did you… How did you guys handle that?"

"Well, for one thing, we made sure someone was always by him, so that if anything happened we'd know immediately. We kept him super-hydrated, made him sleep as much as humanly possible, and, um. Look, am I reading this right when I'm thinking that JC and Lance are together?"

Chris didn't answer.

"I'm gay, if that helps you open up about this."

Chris had of course known this. Howie had inadvertently broken his heart by dating the quiet guy with red hair who sang baritone back at Valencia. "It's a secret."

"Obviously. I just wondered because we had Leighanne tour with us. She mostly drove alongside, since we were all on the same bus and one extra person would have been way too much, but at the hotels, it helped Brian, to, y'know."

"Lance needs some nookie."

"You could put it like that."

"I'm sorry I was an asshole about the Lance/JC thing."

"No, I understand, not your secret to tell."

"This is though: me too."

"Huh?"

"With the gayness, me too."

"Oh, I didn't know."

"Now that all of my deepest skeletons have been let out of the closet, I'm gonna go to bed. I am sorry that I woke you up. It was nice of you to answer."

"Anytime, really. Don't worry about it."

Chris hung up. He stood up to walk back to the bunks and came face to face with an obviously just-woken-up Joey. Chris whispered, "Did I wake you?"

"No, nightmare." They'd all been having them in some form or another for the past couple of weeks. "Who were you talking to?"

"Howie."

"You sounded really…happy, in a things-are-going-to-shit kind of way." Joey walked past Chris on his way to the kitchen, ruffling Chris's hair.

*

"There was a review of your show online the other day. Lance seems to be putting on a pretty good face." It had taken three days of phone tag for Howie to finally get live Chris rather than recorded Chris.

"He's a tough kid."

"Evidently. Is he relaxing any?"

"A little, your suggestion about taking an hour out of the day to do something he wants, that's helping." Chris had taken to writing down all of Howie's suggestions, since he left at least one with each message.

"I might've gone a little overboard with the helpfulness."

Chris laughed. "I have been known, at times, to go overboard myself. And rarely in such a nice way."

"I can't imagine," Howie deadpanned.

"Hey-"

"You left yourself open."

"Well, yeah, but only because I thought you wouldn't take advantage."

"I'm nice Kirkpatrick, not a loser."

"I dunn-"

"Don't." The order was stern, but the voice issuing it was amused.

"I'll let you off this once, but mostly because I gotta go in a couple of seconds and there's something I wanna discuss."

"Generous of you."

"That's my middle name. Listen, remember how I owe you lunch for all this?"

"You don't, but yes?"

"You guys are in Alabama next week, right? And then you have a couple of traveling days before your next show?"

"Um…" There was a pause as Howie verified that information. "Yeah."

"We're in Atlanta the next day, so I was thinking, if you were willing to fly out and then onto your next spot, we could hook up for that lunch. Admittedly, my plan sucks in that you would be paying way more than I would, what with the plane tickets and all, but-"

"I could work that."

"Really?"

"It makes more sense for me to come to you anyway, your schedule is tighter."

"We had a little bit of a scheduling fiasco. Fucking Bass."

"So, Atlanta."

"Atlanta it is." Chris hung up and congratulated himself since nobody was around to do it for him.

*

Chris was late for lunch. He would have been later if not for Justin's insistent, "Stop being a fucking girl, you look fine. Get the fuck outta here."

Howie was waiting up front when Chris arrived. Chris walked straight to him, "Hey, sorry I'm late."

"No big deal, they haven't called my name yet anyway."

"What's your name today?"

Howie blushed. "Uh, Worthing."

"I take it the name is significant?"

"Nick got me hooked on comic books, it's the first part of Worthington, as in-"

"Warren Worthington III, a.k.a. Angel of the X-Men."

"I take it you read them."

"It's worrying to me that Nick had to get you started -- what kind of a kid were you?"

"According to Nick, a very boring one."

"I'm not sure I'm willing to just up and trust Carter's judgment on this."

"You wouldn't really have to, would you? I mean, you knew me way back when."

"In the, I-saw-the-back-of-your-head-for-an-hour-every-day sense."

"You were always trying to get me to talk, and I was always blowing you off."

"I got that a lot. Comes with the territory of being considered something of a freak."

Howie tilted his head a bit. "My reasoning was more along the lines of abject terror that talking to you would mean drawing attention to myself. I was a bit with the painful shyness at that point. Can still be, sometimes."

"Oh." Chris blinked. "I wish I had known, I wouldn't have… Well, I would've but in a different way."

"Sorry?"

"I was," Chris shoved his hands behind his back so that Howie couldn't see them fidgeting, "I was trying to ask you out."

"You were what?" Howie saw Chris open his mouth and held up a hand. "It was rhetorical."

"Right, got it, but um, I just thought I'd point out that I'm still kind of trying and since it has been nine years, if I haven't got a prayer, maybe you could just shoot me down now?"

"You're telling me that you were trying to get with me and I dated Phil Direnz instead?" Howie put his hands on his hips. "He catalogued his socks by the date he purchased them on."

"I refuse to take the blame for that."

"I was hoping this was you asking me out."

"You were?" Chris was not entirely sure he had heard that correctly, with the subject switch and all.

"That wasn't clear?"

"I think both of us may have to work on our approach to communication."

*

"Hey D, thought I'd call and see what's up with you, mention that I missed you and was thinking about kissing you as this message was recorded. I really hope you don't have anyone bugging your phone or some shit like that. Call me."

*

"I checked my messages right before a soundcheck, jerk." Howie's voice wasn't as angry as his words.

"Bet all the girls thought you were pretty into them, huh?" Chris bit his cheek to stifle a laugh.

"Don't fuck with me, Kirkpatrick, I took lessons from AJ on how to seduce someone with just a change of breathing pattern. I will have you running from your messages like JC from needles."

"He's not actually afraid of them. He does have a serious mouse problem, though."

"Don’t evade the topic," Howie growled in a voice approximately two octaves lower than his normal one.

Chris sensed the danger he might be in. "I'm sorry, sir, I didn't mean to."

"Freak."

"Midget."

"You're one to talk."

"You’re shorter, that gives me the right."

"Oh it does, does it?" Howie's voice was silken, smooth as Swiss chocolate.

Chris swallowed harshly. "Are you gonna do that every time we get in an argument? Because if so, I'm gonna give up now, tell the guys I'm retiring and come live as your love slave to do with as you will."

"I like a man who can admit defeat."

"Not defeat," Chris clarified, "willful submission."

"Ah, yes."

"There's a difference."

"I didn't say there wasn't."

"You were thinking it."

"If you have ESP, the playing field might have just leveled out."

"I'm omniscient."

"What am I wearing right now?"

"Um, nothing?" Chris's voice rose hopefully.

"Some deity you’d make."

"What are you wearing?"

Howie laughed, but he told Chris, slowly, in a voice that had Chris unable to understand a word being said.

*

Chris opened the door to the dressing room, thoroughly expecting someone whom he was going to have to yell at to go away on the other side. He came up short when the person who greeted him was Howie.

"Surprise."

"I'll say." Chris grabbed Howie's shirt and dragged him into the dressing room. "Get in here."

Howie followed orders, kissing Chris as soon as he heard the door shut.

"You're on the wrong coast." Chris didn't sound like he was complaining much.

Howie shrugged, "It's a break, I can be on whatever coast I want. I choose this one."

"I'm hardly one to stunt your free will." Chris re-initiated the kiss.

Joey was the one eventually nominated to tear Chris away, wrapping an arm around the smaller man's waist and tugging until Chris and Howie had been separated. Chris pouted, but said to Howie, "I have, um, this thing, to do."

"Right. I'm just gonna go watch you, do your thing."

"Then we can-" Chris made nonsensical hand motions between him and Howie.

Howie evidently understood, "Then we can do our thing."

*

Chris crawled onto the bed, still wet from his shower. "Would I be overstepping something if I asked what you're doing here?"

Howie turned away from the window. "You wondering how the fuck I can be here when AJ's there?"

"Look, it's not a judgment call."

"No, I didn't mean to snipe." Howie walked to the bed and sat down. "He won't see me yet. I waited and waited, but then I thought, okay, maybe if I go away…"

Chris flipped himself over so that his chin was resting on top of Howie's hand.

Howie brought his other hand over to ruffle through Chris's wet hair. "So, y'know, you were gonna be here, and it's pretty close, close enough for me to get back if something goes wrong and I love the Bay Area, and, well, seemed like a good idea at the time."

Chris rolled over, pulling Howie down on top of him. "I think it was a good idea."

"You're biased."

"Of course I am. But, honestly, babe, I mean, you're giving him time, is all. Time that you both evidently need."

"What if he wants to see me and I'm not there and then he gets upset all over again-"

"Whoa." Chris placed his hand gently over Howie's mouth. "AJ loves you, right?"

Howie nodded from behind Chris's hand. "But-"

"Uh uh. He does. He's an alcoholic. I know a thing or two about those, my mom knew how to find 'em. The shit they say…it's not the real story. He loves you. He's not gonna stop because you went to recoup for a few days. You know this, you're just freaking out a bit, which is fine, freak out all you want, so long as you recognize that things are going to work out."

"If I wanted to go to sleep and freak out in the morning, would that be alright?" Howie's voice sounded half asleep already.

"Sounds like a plan to me."

*

Chris grinned at the number that flashed on the screen of his phone before hitting the 'talk' button, "Hey, you."

The voice that answered back was too low and too Southern to be the person Chris had been expecting. "Hey me? Oh, I think I picked up the wrong phone."

"Kevin?" Chris thought that if he had guessed right, Kevin had probably dialed memory six on Howie's phone, not realizing it wasn't his own.

"Yeah, this is -- I'm talking to Chris, right?"

"Who's memory six on your phone?"

"Not really any of your-" Kevin paused, "Oh, I see. No, I meant to call you. Just not on Howie's phone."

"Is Howie okay?" Chris didn't appreciate the way his heart seemed to be digging a hole out of his chest.

"Actually, that's kind of what I wanted to talk about. Because he's really really good. Even with all the shit that's going on, has been since you two met up in Atlanta, so we all pretty much figured things out for ourselves."

Chris held the phone away from him in order to look at it suspiciously. He brought it back to his ear. "But?"

"Look, we all know how the whole long-distance thing is, I mean, Kris and I had, um, ways of working around it for years, but Howie's not really like that. He doesn't…he's a total one guy kinda person. He probably hasn't said anything because he's not big on forcing expectations onto others, and he won't get mad if you're all casual, but the others and me, we'd have to watch him smile like he's happy even though he's not, which is the worst."

Chris couldn't help laughing. "You wanna know what my intentions are?"

"Oh, fuck off, you'd do the same with JC."

Chris actually had. "I dunno what to tell you. I mean, I'm happy with him. Haven't looked at anyone else since we got together. Can I guarantee that we'll settle down with a white picket fence and 2.65437 children after retirement? Not at this moment. If you call me in about three years, I might have something more definitive."

"I mostly just want to know that there isn't a very one-sided arrangement happening here. He deserves better."

"I agree."

"Treat him well."

"Or you'll beat me up?"

"I could take you." Kevin's response was almost too quick.

"Let's hope we don't have to find out."

*

Chris waited backstage with the Boys before their first show after the break. He rubbed lightly at Howie's shoulders while watching Nick and Brian try to help AJ channel his nerves into energy. Howie pulled Chris's hands off his shoulders and around his waist. Chris leaned forward, "You get any tighter, I'm not taking responsibility for breakage."

"Sympathy nerves."

"He's gonna be great. You all are. I heard you at soundcheck, I have the right to say this."

"I'm glad you're here. Kris and Leigh were sure bets, but I didn't wanna assume-"

"It would've been alright. You can maybe be a little more presumptuous with me than you're being."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Someone told me that you might not be expecting very much from me."

"You have to ignore Kevin, he's jonesing to have real children."

"He cares about you. I was glad he said something, because I'm oblivious when it comes to this stuff."

"I don't think it's really fair to ask people who live the lives we do for physical monogamy. Emotional, yes, you start getting involved for more than a night with someone else, that's an issue, but just because I'm all Puritan, that doesn't mean-"

"It kinda does. Do you not think me capable of monogamy?"

"Don't do that. It's not like that."

"I'm just putting out there that maybe you're all I want. And if that's the case, then it's not such a big deal for you to ask me for monogamy, of all types."

"Maybe." Howie looked at the clock. "Can we talk about this at a time that's not right now?"

*

JC threaded a finger carefully through one of his corkscrew curls. "I don't know if you should be with someone who isn't even trying to trust you."

Chris rested his chin on his arms. "On the other hand, we can't all be you and Lance. Only one perfect relationship per group, and all that."

"We're not perfect, we're just suited to each other."

"C, I know you're not as spacey as you let on, okay? I need some advice here."

"You're not listening to my advice."

"I can't break up with him."

JC pulled his finger away from his hair. A curl tightened around his finger and he winced. "It's only been a few months."

"Technically, yeah, I guess."

"Technically?" JC said the word like it might grow claws and dismember him.

"Well, c'mon, C, it wasn't like you just up and wanted to jump Lance one day, you'd had your eye on him since he stumbled into that audition room and smiled like a mouse trying to seduce a cat."

"Please don’t ever, ever try and explain that simile to me."

"Except not a mouse, because then you would've jumped on a chair, or Justin or the closest large object, and screamed like a girl-"

"I think that you were trying to say that you've liked Howie for awhile now."

"Originally, yes."

"You've told him that, right?"

"It's come up."

"Then you're pretty much just gonna have to find out what his issue is and make sure that he sees it's not the same with you."

Chris straightened up. "That's all you've got for me?"

JC scooted to where he could wrap himself around Chris. "What were you expecting?"

Chris allowed himself to be consumed by JC's limbs. "The guide to having the perfect relationship, a.k.a., 101 ways to be JC and Lance."

"I told you, we're not perfect-"

"Just suit-"

"Just in love."

*

Chris knew he could be cunning when the situation called for it, but he didn't often list subtlety among his best qualities. He sent Howie a box of Ghiradelli chocolates with a note. "Who fucked you up and can I please kill them?"

Howie sent a thank you card with his initials embossed at the top. "I hate to refuse anyone who uses the magic word, but no. Thank you for the offer. And the chocolates. I even managed to hide them from the others for a whole day."

*

"Was it that Phil kid? Because if the guy you dated in place of me screwed with your head, I'm gonna have to see a shrink about my burgeoning guilt complex."

"Hi, Chris. Nice to hear from you, how're you doing?"

"I'm suffering from a horrible disease commonly known as my-boyfriend-has-a-secret-and-he-won't-tell-me."

"Wow, they couldn't think up a shorter layman's version of that?"

"I'll tell you all of my secrets."

"It's not a secret, it's just…not that important."

"This is where you and I split, because I think that something that makes you unable to trust me is hugely important. Central, one might say."

"Whoa. Wait. I never said I didn't trust you."

"You said I could sleep around on you so long as I didn't get emotionally involved with somebody else. What does that sound like to you?"

"Okay, I understand the misinterpretation, but-"

"Howie." Chris waited patiently after that.

Howie's voice, when he finally chose to speak, was almost too level. "It wasn't one guy, one time, one relationship. Guys don't wait around for me, and I reached a point long ago where I realized that it wasn't really fair to ask them to."

"That's bullshit, you were asking it of yourself."

"They were…it must have been harder on their end."

"Or maybe you've just dated a squadron of assholes."

"You wouldn't be the first one to hold that opinion."

"Then we're safe. You can trust me. I'm not an asshole. Scout's honor."

"They don’t let gays into the Boy Scouts."

*

"Howie suspects that, deep-down, I am actually an asshole." Chris didn't have the energy to convey the words melodramatically.

Lance took pity on Chris and looked up from the quarter reports he was reviewing. "You're taking it too personally."

"He's my boyfriend, I don't think a line gets drawn where something can be taken too personally."

Lance got distracted for a moment, circling a number and scribbling a small question mark next to it. "No, because it's not you, Chris, his current boyfriend, that he thinks might be an asshole."

"Beg to differ, he gave me license to sleep around so I wouldn't leave him."

"I know. Howie is obviously working on a world-view wherein all men are assholes, but honestly, it's not personal."

"I kind of came to you so that you could tell me that I'm not an asshole and I'm going to sweep him off his feet and make him aware of this any day now."

"No you didn't."

"Yes I-"

"Chris, you've known me for over six years, no you didn't. If you'd wanted that, you'd have gone to Joey."

Chris scowled.

"Does it ruin things for you, that he's offered to let your end of the relationship be open?"

"It doesn't exactly ruin it, but it's something that hovers at the back of my mind."

"But you still enjoy being with him."

"Of course."

Lance nodded. He went back to doodling equations in the margins of the report.

"That's it?" Chris sometimes hated to admit that he understood someone else's point. "I hate being patient."

"You?" Lance glanced up for a second, all wide-eyed shock. "No!"

*

For their one year anniversary, Chris got the two of them tickets to a taping of Iron Chef. Howie cooed a little bit and returned the favor with his gift, a toy Doberman. Howie was the only person who knew that Chris had been ready to try getting a dog again so long as it wasn't a pug. The dog nearly fit completely in Chris's palm, had a voice that matched the pitch of his owner's and was fiercely loyal within a day of having been gifted. Chris ran a hand over the length of its body. "He has your eyes."

Howie shoved Chris lightly. "Jerk."

"I didn't mean it like that," Chris replied, amused.

"I guess he is kind of ours."

"I let you name him, didn't I?" Chris flicked at the identification tag dangling from the collar that read 'Mini-Me.'

"Only because you liked my suggestion."

"But that means I was willing to admit that I liked someone's ideas outside of mine."

"Yes, that was, indeed, ever so generous of you."

Chris laughed. His face straightened out and he said, "You have a lot of good ideas."

Howie picked Mini-Me up. "Oh?"

"In case you weren't aware that I thought that."

"That you like my ideas?"

"That I like…your ideas."

"I see."

*

"I realize that asking you this will mean that I suck as a boyfriend, and I have considered all the possible ramifications of that in my mind, but here it is; see, the thing is, C's losing it out there on his boat. And, I know, I know, we're all wondering how he could've thought it was a bright idea to cut himself off from everyone while his boyfriend's half way across the globe, but he did and we love C, even with all his dumbass ideas. Unfortunately, Justin's in LA getting his solo groove on and Joey took Kelly on a seriously needed vacation, so I'm the only one who can take care of the C situation, as it were. He's refusing to admit defeat though, saying that he's loving the solitude and all that shit, but I might've maybe told him that you really wanted to go boating for your birthday and that, being as how neither of us knows the first thing about boats-"

"I was in my high school's sailing club."

"I lied about you wanting to go boating on your birthday instead of the three days in Puerta we had planned and that's what you're concerned about?"

"It's fine, I wouldn't wanna leave C out there by himself if I were you either."

"So you don't mind that I just totally screwed up your birthday plans?"

"Is C gonna get all uptight about us being together on his boat?"

"He'll probably think it's cute, or something scary like that."

"Okay, well then, once we're safely away from shore, I can prove my boating prowess to JC and we can have some hot dingo lovin' and all will be well. I'm turning 29, I'm well past needing excitement every time a year rolls around again. And, trust me, this does not mean you suck as a boyfriend."

"No?"

"You might even be a pretty good boyfriend." Howie admitted, reluctantly. "Maybe."

*

JC was gracious about allowing them a considerable amount of time alone, especially considering that he was obviously starved for company. He clung to Howie almost as persistently as he did Chris whenever either was in grabbing distance. By the time Howie took the wheel and steered them safely out into the calm blue, JC didn't even bother to pretend he was mad. He just smiled at the water's surface and said, "Lance is in Russia."

Neither Chris nor Howie made fun of him for stating the obvious, which made JC cry. Howie positioned JC at the wheel in front of him, and squeezed from behind until his tears dried up.

JC's hands were tight around the smooth wooden knobs of the wheel. The boat sailed on, only slightly off-course.

*

Chris sprung the question on Howie while they were sunning on the boat's deck, knowingly catching his lover off-guard. "I want you to come home with me for Thanksgiving. I'll apologize to your family personally for stealing you, but really, I think it's about time my mom met you. For that matter, my sisters are about three seconds away from hunting you down in your natural habitat and keeping you there for a six day interrogation session. I'd really like to avoid that, I'm worried it'll scare you off."

Howie's face was pressed up against the towel he had lain over the brown wood surface of the deck. "Hunh. Try belonging to a half Irish, half Puerto Rican family, Kirkpatrick. Ain't nothing family related that can scare me."

"So you'll come?"

"That wasn't exactly what I said."

"You're gonna make my mom cry."

"I've listened to your stories, it would take a hell of a lot more than me to make Beverly Eustace shed a tear."

"Well then, Kate."

"I repeat my previous defense."

"Why don't you wanna come home with me?" Chris's voice was unusually tight.

Howie propped himself up on his elbows. "Because if I do that, I have to admit to myself that you're the best thing that's ever happened to me and that I trust you not to hurt me and for this to be real, and I'm not ready to do any of that just yet."

"Christmas, then?" Chris's ears practically perked up.

Howie rolled over to sun his other side.

*

Bev put Chris in charge of chopping vegetables, since he was being insistent about helping make Thanksgiving dinner and she trusted him not to chop off his fingers. Chris could make anything that took less than twenty-minutes with great skill, but was at a loss when it came to actual cooking.

Emily was saying something about her sorority's formal and the guy she was taking. Chris fought the urge to find out when the formal was, fly down and scope the guy out. Emily could take care of herself. He repeated the words to himself silently over and over again.

Molly made a comment that Chris missed as his inner mantra got louder. She turned to him expectantly. He pretended to chop diligently. Molly had a look that meant he didn't want to have heard whatever it was she had said.

"Was I right?"

Chris mumbled, "I didn't hear you."

"I said that I think you're making it up. Telling us all you've been dating Howie just so we don't think you're a loser who's been pining for nearly a decade with no results." Molly was closest to Chris and therefore felt she had more right to say insulting things to him.

"It's not pining if you date other people in the interim."

"Semantics." Molly stole a carrot from Chris. Seeing her get away with it, Emily followed. Chris gave into peer pressure and ate one too.

Bev turned from the stove and shook her head reproachfully at the munching sounds. "You did tell him I was offended at his obvious insult to my culinary skills?"

"I told him he was going to make you cry," Chris offered up meekly.

"Christopher Alan, spreading lies about your own mother. I raised you better."

"He called me on it. From the stories I had told him."

"I suppose that partly makes up for it."

"Explain to me again," Emily started in the tone of voice that warned the listener she understood everything without it having to be explained to her, "why he didn't want to come home with you?"

"He's…skittish."

"A whole year and a half of skittish," Emily replied, obviously doubtful.

"Look, it's not as simple as you're making it-" Chris nearly threw the knife in surprise as the doorbell rang. "Are we expecting someone?"

Bev was already on her way to answer the door, "Not that I know of." Chris, Emily and Molly followed her from the kitchen. Which was how, when the door opened, Howie found himself facing down four members of Chris's family, rather than one.

Howie held out a small bowl filled with fall-tinted blossoms. "Good afternoon, I, um, brought a centerpiece. I'm sorry I didn't call, this was kind of last minute. I'm Howie Dorough. Chris invited me."

Molly snapped out of the shocked silence first, "It was nice that you could make it, come in."

Howie stepped inside and Bev shut the door. "It's nice to meet you. I know we've probably run into each other over the years, but I don't think we've ever been formally introduced." She took the flower bowl from him, "These are lovely."

Emily and Molly shook Howie's hand and the three women disappeared back into the kitchen.

Howie looked at Chris for the first time since showing up. "Your sisters are beautiful. I mean, I knew, the pictures and all, but it's better, really-"

"Last minute." Chris kissed Howie.

Howie kissed him back. "It took me until that minute to pull my head out of my ass."

"Complicated procedure," Chris hummed sympathetically, dragging Howie into the kitchen.

*

Chris blew Howie in the shower before bed, hoping that the running water would drown out any sounds they might make. Howie put both hands over his mouth as a double precaution.

Howie returned the favor when they were in bed, damp and too full, rolling onto Chris and jerking him off while they kissed, effectively gagging each other's noises. Chris cleaned them off with tissues from the side of his bed before snuggling into Howie's side. "I'm glad you showed. My mom approves."

"Kevin kind of told me I was being an idiot."

"Really? Kevin? Tall, dark-haired, seems to think he sings bass?"

"Oh, just because you have a mutant on your team-"

"Kevin?" Chris was determined to hold on to his incredulity.

"His precise words were more like, 'you're being a damned retard, D. He loves you, ya dumbshit. Carpe fucking Diem.'"

"Kevin swears?"

"He didn't used to, but Kristen was a Navy brat and you know what they say about little pitchers. She taught him everything he knows, and -- let me tell you -- his knowledge is extensive."

"Learn something new every day. Kevin came to my rescue. And he swears. I can't handle any more surprises this evening, just so you're aware."

"Should I wait until tomorrow to tell you that I love you and that I'll kill you if you cheat on me, but I know you're not going to, because you're not an asshole?"

Chris's face slowly formed into a grin. "Yeah, tell me that tomorrow. And every day after that."

Howie closed his eyes, "Tomorrow then. G'night."


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile