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Chris was happy for JC, with the whole practically-being-married-to-Nick-Carter-thing, of course he was, but the whole situation was definitely throwing him for a loop. It was no good talking to any of the guys when he felt this stupid and a second NSYNC party was involved, so Chris worked through a list of people that he could call. Howie was always the first person that came to mind, but Howie had been a little distant ever since he'd begun dating some talent agent he'd met at an affair two months before, and Chris needed someone who was going to do more than make vague noises at him.

He ended up calling Dani, because despite the fact that they had and still occasionally did say things to each other that should never leave a human being's mouth, she knew him pretty well, and he needed someone with that insight.

He caught her in a good mood, because she answered her phone on the second ring and said, "Hey you, it's been awhile," like it hadn't been so long because the last time they'd spoken she'd called him a fat self-serving asshole and he'd come right back with the wittier (if he did say so himself) soul-sucking siren-wannabe slut.

Deep down inside, where the voice of Chris's mother still rang out strong every time he did something wrong, Chris heard a mutinous muttering, so he quickly said, "Uh, just so you know, what I said last time-"

"Don’t bring it up if you want me to stay on the phone with you." Despite the warning, she didn’t sound mad, just serious.

"Right. Look, I know this is shocking, but I called because I need some help." Even when they'd been dating, Chris was more likely to call because there was something that actually needed saying rather than just to say hello. He didn’t think he would ever get used to the idea of unlimited minutes and the fact that he could actually afford such a thing.

"Is this about some new business venture? Because if it is, I gotta be honest-"

"No, it's- I was supposed to end up with JC, right?"

There was a long silence from Dani's end of the line. Finally she said, "What gave you that idea?"

Chris knew he should have prepared an answer to that question before calling her, but he was used to only thinking ahead when the situation was life or death. Doing it at other times tended to just be a waste. "Well, I mean, when we first started-"

"I know your history, but you guys broke up. Shit, you broke up before us."

"Right, but I always thought. I mean, you said you left because of them, and I figured-"

"You figured wrong, babe. I mean, I did leave because of them, but not because of that. Not because I thought you and JC had some grand destiny and I was interfering. If you had destiny with anyone it was Howie. Even when the two of you weren't doing the sleeping together thing it was like…well, like you were."

Chris frowned. "I didn’t cheat on you."

"Not physically, no. I just never really competed emotionally on any level with the other guys. They were more than your family and Howie was more than your friend and I was your girlfriend and somehow that term never put me anywhere near the league that the others were in."

Chris rubbed at the spot between his eyes. "Why am I only just now finding this out?"

"Because you called and asked and you're finally listening. You're not real good with that when you don't want to hear what the other person is saying."

Chris knew that. It was a survival instinct. "Howie? Really?"

Dani laughed. "Absolutely really."

Chris sighed and thanked her and said goodbye. He hated exchanging one problem for another.

*

Chris made a trip out to LA, ostensibly to see JC, which, admittedly, was a perk. Truthfully, though, the person he needed was hiding out in JC's studio, working on a solo album. Chris carefully didn't think about who else was working on a solo album currently. As much as he logically knew that the step was the right one for Justin, there were some things it took the emotional part of him time to accept. This was one of them.

JC picked him up at the airport. He talked about the song that he was possibly going to do for a soundtrack and asked about Chris's life and waited until Chris genuinely felt like JC was glad to see him to ask, "Look, I mean, I'm really glad you're out here, but uh-"

"I need some advice from your boyfriend."

JC continued to stare at the road and look vaguely worried. "Chris, you know it took everyone working together and holding hands to get us anywhere near dating. Much as I love him, I don't think he's the guy to go asking this stuff."

"I don't need tips, I need insider info."

It took JC a few seconds, but he caught on. "Howie's with someone, Chris." He said it softly, as though he was as sad about it as Chris.

"I noticed that, C. I think it may have to change, though."

"That's my little Chris. All growed up and home wrecking. What the fuck are you thinking?"

"Dani said I'm supposed to be with him."

"Everybody knows you're supposed to be with him, but couldn't you have found this out at some other time? I've met his girlfriend, Chris. She's really nice. And he's all happy being able to take her home and everything."

"Is he happy because of her, or because his parents are happy?" Chris asked the question without any inflection.

JC sighed. "That's not fair. You know how long it took me to come out."

Chris knew intimately, it was one of the reasons they'd fallen apart. Chris didn't need anyone else telling him he wasn't good enough to take home to the folks, he had enough of that stored up inside himself. "Doesn’t change the fact that you did. Would you be happy with some girl when you could have Nick? Even the girls you dated that you really liked, would you?"

"Howie is out, so it's not like he couldn't take a guy home if he wanted to, he's just ultra-sensitive to his parents wishes. And I'm kind of in love with Nick right now, that's not really a balanced question."

Kind of was the understatement of the century, but Chris let it go. "I've kind of been in love with Howie for a decade."

"Yeah, but you didn’t know it. You can't expect him to pay for your obliviousness."

Chris gave up. Sometimes, when JC was fighting for the good of others, particularly others he knew and loved, he was completely implacable. "What would you have me do?"

JC considered the question. "You just need a plan is all."

"I wasn't going to go in without a plan."

"All right," JC said without fighting, which was as sure an indication as any that he in no way, shape or form believed Chris.

"Asshole."

JC on a general basis was hard to provoke. A well-laid, happy JC was a creature of near Bhudda proportions. He smiled. "Mm hm."

*

Chris found out, months (okay, years) later, that after Nick and he had talked and Nick had told him in no uncertain terms, "Your timing sucks," Nick had made some phone calls. Three, to be exact. One to Brian, one to Kevin and one to AJ, all in that order. The content of each phone call had been pretty similar. Nick was putting together a dream team of people to instill doubt in Howie about whether Kristine was really working out.

(Chris found out even later that venture was probably easier than any of them had expected, since Howie was already having doubts.)

Kevin was put in charge of suggesting that he and Howie get together for a weekend or so, since Kristine's major downfall, according to Nick, was possessiveness.

If Kevin's scheme failed to shine any light on this problem, AJ was to call Howie actually needing to get together. AJ evidently was not real enthusiastic about that idea, since his relationship with Howie was still in the rebuilding stages right then, and faking an attack of neediness didn't seem like the thing to help with the mending, but Nick had been able to convince him of the overarching Good in this plan, with a Happier, Healthier Howie being the end goal.

Brian, being considerably busy with his pregnant wife, was the pinch hitter, because Kristine didn't like Brian. Nobody was entirely sure why. On paper, they made great friends, but something about Brian rubbed Kristine the wrong way. Howie had so far done an admirable job of ignoring this slight (enormous) issue, and Kristine helped out by being civil to Brian. Brian helped out by pretending that civility was the same as happiness, since Brian was overwhelmingly pretty loath to rain on anybody's parade, let alone Howie's. If it needed calling attention to for the purposes of a Higher Cause, though, Brian was all for stepping into the fray. He just preferred that to be a last resort.

In the end, it turned out that only the first two were needed. Kristine's hesitation at sending him off to go take care of AJ pushed all the wrong buttons in Howie and they were finished within twelve hours of her first and most telling reaction to that situation. Later, when Howie told him that part of the story, Chris felt almost bad for her. It wasn't easy for outsiders to understand what being brothers with someone who didn't share his blood was like. Significant others tended to think it made them less important. It didn't, at least not in the way they understood it to. It was what made people like Kristin and Leighanne and Kelly so valuable. They knew, and whether they understood or not, they let it go.

So it was that roughly three months after the time Dani threw a bit of metaphorically cold water over Chris's head and Chris went to a rival boybander for advice about seducing said boybander's best friend, Howie was back on the market again. Chris was generally opposed to the smarminess of supporting someone through a breakup only to get with him, but in this case, he deemed it not only appropriate, but obviously very necessary. Chris called Howie and left him a message, "Hey, I hear things are kind of sucking down on your end, gimme a call."

Howie did.

*

Meeting up was pretty easy with both of them being on hiatus. Chris went the extra mile, though, and met Howie out in Orlando instead of having him come to Chris since Howie was the one who was mourning his recent relationship while actually trying to coordinate things for the DLF, whereas Chris was pretty much trying to figure out what his next move was. Figuring that despite the three months he'd had to get used to the idea of pursuing Howie, he needed a little bit of time to formulate a plan, Chris rented a Winnebago and drove his way across the country, making a few small stops.

He showed up at Howie's door deeply in need of a shower and a good lay, both of which Howie seemed willing to provide. It struck Chris later that perhaps rebound sex wasn't the best note for a future lifelong relationship to start on, but it also seemed foolhardy to mess with a pattern that had long worked for them, and rebound sex was one of their specialties.

This time didn't seem to be any different. They did it once in the afternoon and then again before bed and one more time upon waking up and then Howie said, "I think I might have some breakfast somewhere," and Chris said, "Can I borrow your toothpaste? I ran out," and things were as they always were.

Chris stayed around for a few days in which he mostly let Howie bitch about some new intern at DLF who wasn't worth the dirt she displaced while walking and oh, his ex-girlfriend, who kept calling despite him having pointed out that he really didn't want to hear from her again. Howie had a strict policy of not talking with his exes. It meant he didn't have to be mean to them. Howie didn't really enjoy being mean.

At the end of the few days, Chris said, "I think I'm gonna go check my house out. I haven't seen it in a bit. You wanna come over some time? I'll make ice cream. That Ben & Jerry's kind that you like."

Howie brightened. "We could dip pretzels in it." It was slightly discouraging that after three days of intermittent sex, this was the first thing he'd seen Howie truly excited over, but Chris would take what he could get. Particularly if it involved age-old rituals between the two of them.

"Yup. And I've got some new 33s that I want your opinion on."

"Where from? Nothing around here's had anything lately. And I do mean anything."

When Howie said that there was nothing, it meant that he was looking for something in particular, probably something obscure, and that nobody was supplying it. "What are you in the market for?"

"Some Elias Ochoa stuff. Not really your thing."

It wasn't, but Chris could understand the appeal, all the same. "You want me to keep an eye out?"

"Not really, it's sorta one of those things I have to do on my own."

Howie did this when he felt like life was spiraling out from his control, he picked something that he in no way had any jurisprudence over and made it his goal to have it happen. Chris nodded. "You'll find it. You just have to stop looking."

Howie looked at Chris. "Isn't that always the way of it?"

*

Chris made a bucket o' margaritas for Cinco de Mayo, hauled it over to Howie's place and said, "C'mon, we're gonna appropriate Mexican heritage."

"I have margarita glasses above the sink."

Chris walked past Howie, toward the kitchen. "You find your LPs yet? We need some mood music."

"Not yet," Howie yelled from the den, from where the sound system that reached through the house originated. "A mariachi band work for you?"

"You're the expert." Chris ladeled a serious portion of tequila wrapped in lime and crushed ice into each of the glasses and headed out to hand one to Howie.

Howie took a sip. "Mm. Pre-made, or you finally learn how to mix the devil's drink?"

"Justin took me under his wing."

Howie raised an eyebrow. "He still seriously in to that whole memorizing Mr. Boston manuals thing that we thought was just a phase?"

"Nope, it was just a phase, but the damage done during said phase seems to have been permanent. We have a walking, talking bartending course on team."

"Well," Howie raised his glass, "To Timberlake's late-coming teenage psychoses."

Chris toasted and drank to that. He'd had to live through enough of them that he thought he deserved at least three or four drinks to that.

Howie asked, "So, we're gonna get drunk and sleep with each other, right?"

"Who are we to screw around with tradition?" Chris sensibly pointed out.

"I was thinking about having the sex before the getting drunk part. If you're good with that."

It wasn't like they never had sex sober, they did it all the time and had for years. Chris said, "Either way."

"Because I just think if you're going to be trying to get me into bed for good that starting it off with taking advantage of me is kind of lacking in class."

Nobody had ever accused Howie of being stupid, not even the media for the most part, which was pretty impressive, all things considered. "This isn't exactly the starting part. That was two weeks ago, when I came here to see you."

"Or maybe eleven or so years ago."

"Maybe then." Probably. Then, "So you up for this, I take it?"

Howie went in for another toast. Chris was right there, libation and all.

*

Howie made them "breakfast" at three in the afternoon, frying up some frozen hashed browns with an added dash of cumin and paprika, and scrambling eggs with a healthy dose of pepperjack cheese. Chris set the table and poured them both the largest glasses of water he could find in Howie's cabinets.

Howie dished out some of the eggs and some of the potatoes onto each of their plates and sat down. Chris followed his example. As he was busy mixing his potatoes into his eggs, Howie asked, "So when did you figure it out?"

Chris considered stalling for time by asking for an explanation of "it." Instead he said, "Dani told me."

Howie coughed out the sip of water he had taken. "Only you, Kirkpatrick."

"You hadn't been talking to me, and I thought I was supposed to be dating JC, only he's in love with Nick, and I had to call somebody, so…"

"So your ex-girlfriend was obviously the only choice," but Howie said it like he actually understood, regardless of the fact that he still marveled over the situation.

"Not only," Chris said by way of defense, "just best. And hey, if you're asking why it took me so long to figure it out, why didn't you just say something before, asshole?"

Howie didn't even blink. "Because you're the type who has to make the first move."

Chris had been pursued before, he knew the truth of this statement. "How long?"

Howie calculated. "Three, four years."

Chris laid his head down on the table. "That sucks."

"We're here now, aren't we?"

It was a good point. Howie was decked out in only boxers and the only person who was getting to watch how incredibly hot that was was Chris, who was concurrently enjoying Howie's kick ass spicy eggs and reveling in memories of last night's sex, which had been much better for the lack of alcohol. "I'm lucky you're patient."

"I'm lucky you have insightful exes."

Chris grinned. "I should send her a thank you card."

"I have some in the office, I'll get one after we clean up." Howie was the type of guy who had an emergency back stock of cards for every occasion. To his complete shame, Chris was suddenly finding that to be sexy.

Chris cleaned the dishes while Howie went to go search for the card. When Chris wiped his hands and sat down to write something, he noticed that Howie had already put a note in for himself. It read, "Dear Dani, Thanks for the boy. He's just what I've always wanted."


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile