JC squinted against the glare of the late afternoon sun filtering through the bus window. His eyes scanned the horizon and then settled into a blind stare along rows of fields. Chris, Justin and Joey got impatient with these parts of the tours, when they were traveling through the Midwest. Lance didn't pay much attention to scenery regardless, so he could have cared less which areas they were driving through. JC's favorite part of touring was sitting next to a window and watching the landscape, he thought every place had its peculiar charm.
The tiny brown and gold ball didn't register immediately in his mind. It finally caught his attention as a speck at the corner of his eye, where nothing should have been different. He blinked his way out of the unfocused stare and narrowed his eyes, trying to determine what the ball was. It hit him as the bus was almost speeding by it.
JC ran to the front, "Um, can you stop the bus?"
The driver didn't look at him. "Got a reason for wanting to stop in the middle of BFE?"
"Yes, please, just stop now."
In the end, it was the guys who paid the bus drivers, so the driver radioed to the other bus that he was stopping and to tell them to keep on. The driver pulled the bus over onto the curve and JC bounded off the bus, jogging back to where his discovery was still curled into a protective ball. JC picked the kitten up with both hands and brought it close to his face, trying to figure out if it was even still alive. When it was almost directly in front of his eyes, JC heard a small mewling. He smiled and walked slowly back to the bus, not wanting to jostle the kitten.
JC climbed the stairs of the bus and headed directly for the kitchen, calling out a word of thanks to the driver. He set the kitten down in the middle of the table and rustled through the cabinets to find a shallow bowl. When he had, he filled it with water and placed it next to the kitten. He picked the kitten up and held its face near the water, trying to get it to drink. When that didn't work, he dipped his fingers in the water and held them near to the kitten's mouth. To his immense relief, a small tongue flickered out over the pad of his fingertip. JC giggled at the sensation and forced himself not to pull back.
Sensing someone watching him, JC looked up to see Justin and Chris in the doorway. Justin's eyes were wide. "Um, C, where did you find that?"
"He was curled up on the side of the road."
"What if he bites you? I mean, he could have something."
"Yeah." JC dipped his fingers in the water again and held them out. The kitten immediately began licking. "If I die in my attempt to rescue stray kittens, you have to admit, it'll be great press for the band."
Chris chuckled. "Does it have tags?"
JC shook his head.
"Well, seeing as how we're smack in the middle of nowhere, I'd say…" Chris entered the room and lifted the kitten gently even as it kept up its licking, "she's yours if you want her."
JC extended a finger from the hand that wasn't currently engaged to stroke lightly at the narrow expanse of fur on the top of her head between her ears. "Ohhh, I want her."
Justin had evidently decided that the kitten was not the bearer of doom for all sentient beings riding the bus and he approached. He reached out a hesitant hand. JC smiled, because for all Justin's bluster, he really was just about the most gentle human being on the planet. "You can pet her, J."
Justin touched the tips of three fingers to her fur. "She's so soft."
JC smiled fondly. He wasn't sure if the smile was for the kitten or for Justin.
Chris had the same smile on his face. It was for both of them and JC. "I swear, between you and Howie, C. What're you gonna name her?"
JC shrugged. "Dunno yet, she hasn't given me any clue as to what she wants to be called." He paused for a moment, concentrating on the task of getting her to drink. "What about Howie and me?"
"Howie has this thing for rescuing strays. He's even done it with things that just shouldn't be rescued, like squirrels and shit. Kevin finally made him confine it to birds, dogs and cats."
"At least now we know why they've all got separate buses." Justin was still entranced by the kitten. "I mean, it'd look kind of weird making Howie ride alone."
The kitten's tongue had stopped licking JC's fingers and didn't start again even after he rewet them. Concerned, JC scooped her up gently. When she was at his eye-level, he realized why she had stopped. His new acquisition had fallen asleep mid-drink.
"You don't happen to have Howie Dorough's number, do you?"
Lance's cheeks tinted with the barest hint of red. "Why?"
"I need kitten expertise and you always know random people's numbers."
Lance's expression made it clear that he was not picking up on the connection. JC clarified. "Chris says he has a stray-rescuing habit."
"Oh." Lance blinked. "I probably have it." He flipped open his palm pilot and tapped the pointer on the screen a few times. He stole the pen that JC had stuck over his ear while trying to get some writing done. "Gimme your hand."
JC obeyed. Lance scribbled the number across the top. JC turned his hand over and Lance gave the pen back. JC ruffled Lance's hair. "Thanks babe."
"Hey, it's me. If you know who me is, leave a message."
"Um, okay, if Lance is right, me is Howie. This is JC Chasez, and, well, the thing is, I saw this kitten on the side of the road the other day and I've never had a kitten and Chris said you do things like this all the time, and well, I'm desperate for some help. So, if you could call me, that would be just super of you." JC left his number and hung up. He watched the kitten drink voraciously. She'd gone through several bowls in just half a day. He hoped Howie called back soon.
"Hi. Is this JC?"
"Oh, hi, Howie?"
"Yeah, you need kitten assistance?"
"I've only had her for a day and I already suck at pet owning."
Howie laughed softly. "Nah, you should've seen me when I started, I sucked. I actually made one of my first puppies really sick."
"It gets easier?"
"Becomes second nature. So, what did you need help with?"
"Well, um, I don't really have anything to feed her…"
When JC finally looked up at the clock, he'd been on the phone with Howie for an hour. "Wow, you didn't have anywhere to be, did you?"
"Nah, I'm good. You?"
"On the bus."
"Mm, good times."
"You know it."
"So, you don't have to tell me, but what is Chris like on a bus?"
JC laughed so hard the kitten almost fell off of where it had perched itself on his stomach. He started to tell Howie. He had lost track of time again when Chris passed by the end of the couch, hitting JC's feet. "Who you talking to?"
JC mouthed the word "Howie." Chris raised his eyebrows. "Still?"
JC looked over at the clock. It had been another hour and a half. He nodded happily and turned his attention back to what Howie was saying.
JC had rustled through the hotel room first thing when they arrived at the next city and located a yellow pages. He put a call through to a vet in order to ask about kitten food and litter and anything else he might need. He explained his traveling situation and was able to make an emergency appointment for her shots.
The receptionist making the appointment asked for the name of the pet. JC cupped his hand where she was sprawled over his left shoulder. The song that had been running through his head when she had interrupted his thoughts came back to him. He meant it as a stalling tactic when he told the woman, "Iowa," certain he could find something more appropriate later.
JC felt the purr that began in Iowa's stomach and rumbled out of her throat through the material of his t-shirt. It was a surprisingly big sound. In the back of his mind, JC had expected her noises to stay as quiet as the mewling she had made when he first picked her up. He hung up with the receptionist, grinning at the sound. "You like that, huh?"
Iowa just kept on purring.
Justin stood behind JC as he continued in his endeavor to teach Iowa the usefulness of kitty litter. When she had caught on, at least for the moment, JC cooed at her about how good she was. It sounded like a song. Justin wondered what this would mean to JC's evolution as a songwriter.
Justin cleared his throat. "Um, these were on sale, and you said that you needed some…" He held the mass-produced baby quilts out at JC. The quilt patches blended into large colorful kittens. JC took them from Justin and hugged them to himself. "She's gonna love 'em."
JC set to fixing up her bed next to the litter box. Curious, she wandered over the side of the box to where the layers of blankets where being arranged. She was still extremely tiny and her legs got caught in the textured quilt, twisting her up until she was sprawled in a mass of cotton, blinking up at JC and Justin.
JC smiled and deftly untangled her, placing her in the middle of her new bed. He looked at her thoughtfully for a few minutes. Justin hooked an arm around JC's waist and rested his chin on the shorter man's shoulder. "Whatcha thinkin', C?"
"Oh, just, y'know, she's this clumsy adopted kid." JC's voice carried the same kind of love that it did when he was telling people about the latest song he was working on.
"She's got your hair too. Maybe you're long lost kin."
JC reached down, his hand completely covering her sleeping form. "That wouldn't be so bad."
Howie showed up at one of their soundcheck parties a week and six conversations after the first phone call. He showed JC the VIP pass Jive had supplied him with and said shyly, "Hope you don't mind me just showing up like this."
JC hugged him. "You guys still on break?"
"Yeah, and I love the Foundation and all, but I forget that working with my family while in the same state isn't quite the same as teleconferencing and then switching over to Nick's bus to bitch and eat pizza."
JC nodded and didn't comment on the reasons for Backstreet's break, or any of the other things being left deliberately unvoiced. "I'm glad you came here."
Howie held out a box. "Uh, you probably already have one by now, but I thought you'd like it, and all."
There was a card underneath, which JC went to first. On the front was a digital picture of Iowa that JC had emailed Howie three days before. JC grinned and flipped the card open. "'Where her antics played in the eye,/ of a thousand standers-by,/ clapping hands with shout and stare,/ what would little Tabby care!/ For the plaudits of the crowd?/ Over happy to be proud,/ over wealthy in the treasure/ of her exceeding pleasure!' -The Kitten and the Falling Leaves, William Wordsworth."
JC looked up. "Cool quote."
"It reminded me of you. Open the present."
JC ripped at the wrapping paper. "Not very patient are you?"
"Depends, not when it comes to gift giving, no."
JC slid the box out of the paper and lifted the top off. Inside was a simple brown collar that matched Iowa to a tee. In the middle of the collar was a tag. It was the shape of the NSYNC logo. The top line read Iowa with JC's cell number and home address right below. Howie tilted his head to see JC's face. "I know it's a little risky to have that info on her, but, y'know, if she gets lost, or something-"
"I can always move." JC ran his fingers over the surface of the tag, feeling the indent where the letters were.
Howie laughed a little. "If that happens, I'll take responsibility and put you and Iowa up in the interim."
"With an offer like that, who's to say I won't manufacture some rabid eleven year old with a penchant for finding lost kittens?"
None of the guys were all that surprised when JC begged off of going out with them after the concert. He wasn't much for clubbing to begin with and since finding Iowa, he was much more interested in playing with her for an hour or so before crashing than getting mildly drunk and grinding with whoever was available. Howie refused the offer too, fending off Chris's most aggressive persuasion techniques and Lance's smooth psychological maneuverings. He ended up back at the hotel, across the bed from a freshly washed JC. They both folded their legs up into pretzels and allowed Iowa to wander in and out of the makeshift jungle gym of limbs.
JC didn't take his eyes off her as he talked with Howie. "You didn’t have to come back with me. I mean, she'll still be here in the morning and I wouldn’t have minded."
Howie straightened his arm to make it easier for Iowa to climb. "I didn't- I haven’t been up to going out much lately."
JC nodded but didn't say anything. He very rarely found silence uncomfortable and believed over all that if people needed to talk, they would.
Howie evidently did. "It's, um. So, I don't mean to bother you with this, because I can't see why it would matter to you, but the clubs all smell like AJ, y'know? You walk in and there's a million different scents, but in the end they all correspond to some type of poison." Howie paused, watching Iowa's descent from his shoulder to his knee. "When we were kids, he was obsessed with CKOne -- he liked citrus smells and musks, because he thought musks were sexy. Plus, CKOne had that whole unisex thing going, which AJ was so into. He got into other stuff later, one of his friends gave him this bergomat derivative that he loved and he would even sleep in it, he loved the smell so much."
"I think that was why I didn't notice at first, y'know? Because he drank things with citrus scents to them, Orange Absolut, tequila with a follow up of lime, stuff like that. I can't stop thinking that I should have noticed when I couldn't smell the citrus anymore. The thing is, I can’t even remember when that changed. It feels like it should be such a big thing and I didn't even notice at the time."
Iowa was sleeping perched on Howie's knee. JC reached out to pet her, allowing his hand to settle on Howie's leg after one stroke. "You love AJ enough that you told the whole world about that love even though he messed up. You love him enough to know that his scent wasn't right when he was hurting. But you're not him, you weren't inside of him when all this was going on. And, unless you're even more special than I'm currently thinking you are, you only have five senses, ESP not being one of them. He may not have been able to fix things himself by the time you guys knew the extent of the problem, but he's not dead and Backstreet isn’t either. I'd say you noticed things just fine."
"He was…he'd always been my responsibility. Me and Kev, 'cuz we're the oldest, y'know? I can rescue dogs that have been left for dead in the middle of winter, but I couldn’t help they guy I consider to be closer than a brother. I don't want to know what that says about me."
"Yeah, see, I know a thing or two about being the oldest. I know that I couldn't stop Justin from getting his heart broken by the girl he dated for almost a year before Britney. I know that no matter how hard I try, I'm probably never going to convince Lance that he's as smart as all the business tycoons who got to go to college and have a pretty piece of paper to hang on their office walls. I know that I'm never going to be able to calm Joey's fears about the kind of life he's bringing Brianna into. I also know that all of that's okay, because Justin got over the hurt and found Britney and remembered how to fall in love. Lance still gets on his laptop every morning and answers all his business emails before even looking at the personal ones. Joey meets up with his daughter every chance he gets and only buys her presents on holidays, so that he won't start substituting stuff for love. I don't know AJ as well as I know my guys, but I'm pretty willing to bet that he's gonna come back to you guys, and find his own ways of being fixed."
Iowa tumbled off of Howie's knee, too boneless to maintain her perch. JC scooped her up and deposited her in the middle of her bed, right beside his. Howie watched the whole process, rapt up in the way JC held her securely in a cocoon of his hands, as if not wanting anything to get near her in her sleep. Howie found himself moving across the bed, hands reaching out to slide beneath JC's t-shirt and up the corded length of his back. JC started and Howie whipped his hands back, frantically pulling them out from underneath the cotton tee. "Fuck, I'm sorry JC, I didn't, oh, shit-" Howie was moving off the bed, clumsy in his haste. JC caught him as he nearly fell and stopped the apology with a quick kiss to the tip of Howie's nose. Howie stopped, frozen in JC's hands, playing deer caught in the headlights.
JC kissed him again, this time on the lips. It wasn't as quick, but equally as chaste. "You'll laugh, but I thought this beautiful man was apologizing for touching me." JC himself didn't laugh, but ducked his head down to plant another kiss on the tip of Howie's collarbone. He licked up the apex of Howie's throat and over his chin, taking advantage of Howie's gasp to slip his own tongue just barely past Howie's lips to meet another. Howie regained control over his own mouth and reciprocated, sucking down on JC's tongue, pressing his lips urgently against the man holding him still. Howie tugged a bit and they fell back onto the bed, kissing and petting each other.
Thirty minutes later, neither of them having even considered doing anything other than making out on top of the covers, JC rolled onto his back, away from Howie's mouth. He climbed up the bed and below the covers. He reached down and tugged gently at Howie's newly shortened hair. "Coming?"
Howie didn't make him wait, curling up almost on top of him, pulling the covers up their chins. JC let go of a contented sigh. "You're almost as good a snuggler as Iowa."
Howie was too tired to be indignant. "You're not bad yourself."
Howie had long ago gotten over waking up disoriented. It wasn't that he always knew where he was in the morning, it just didn't really bother him to be unsure until he came to enough to figure it out.
Waking up unsure of whose mouth was on his cock, that was a completely different situation. Howie's upper body shot up, the lower half being anchored by whoever was servicing him, before he remembered where he was. The information came at the same time as the awareness that he was really, really enjoying this, and he laid back down.
JC smiled around his cock and hummed a little. His hands, no longer worried about holding onto Howie, roamed upwards, sweeping over the defined chest at his disposal. Howie caught JC's hands with his own and held them down, one directly over his heart. JC hummed some more and swallowed.
He pulled back with a half-smile. "Um, I hope…I wasn't trying to scare you or upset you, or anything."
Howie pulled him up, kissing him. "You'll laugh, but I thought I heard this beautiful man apologizing for giving me great head."
Howie rode the bus with them for another couple of days. He took a roll of film that was purely Iowa and JC playing around, the other guys sneaking into the pictures every once in awhile. Him and JC had sex, that, though quiet, left Justin smiling knowingly in the morning. Chris gave them both noogies and asked if they needed any supplies. Howie blushed and JC flicked some of the water from the dishes he was washing onto Chris.
Howie got off in Southern California. JC told him to stay but Howie said that he might as well fly out to Arizona and see AJ while it wasn't a cross-country flight. JC wasn't going to argue with that, so he kissed Howie and reminded him firmly call when he got in, promising that the Wrath of Iowa would be rained down upon him if he forgot. Howie looked to JC's shoulder where Iowa stood as tall as she could. It wasn't very intimidating.
He promised to call.
Four days later, Chris switched buses with Joey so that he could utilize Lance's business smarts. JC wasted no time in draping himself over Joey, leaving enough surface area that Iowa could climb around as much as she wished. Before JC had even started talking, she managed to tumble over both of them, falling off the couch. Joey's hand caught her mid-flight and restored her to the steady landing of his own chest.
"I think Howie's ignoring me." JC was trying his best to sound unaffected, because Joey knew him well enough to know that he wanted to cry.
"It's only been four days sweetie."
"Well, yeah, but he didn't call when he got into Arizona, which I know he did, because if he had died on the way somebody would have mentioned it by now. Then, I sent him an email asking how things were going and he hasn't replied."
"Maybe he doesn't have web access."
"He has it on his palm. I watched him email Kevin the second day he was with us."
"Maybe he's a jerk." Joey kept his voice even. It told JC he was pissed off.
"I want there to be something I'm missing here. It’s not very flattering thinking someone had sex with you because you have a cute kitten."
"If that's what's going on, it isn't you who's missing something, trust me."
JC cornered Nick Carter at the after party for the Teen Choice Awards. Nick had looked lonely all night and JC had every intention of asking him to join him at his table, but not until he got the information he wanted. "Why's Howie ignoring me?"
Nick eyed JC as if he might be rabid and backed away a little bit. "Who says he is?"
JC rolled his eyes. "I know when I'm being ignored."
"Why are you asking me?"
"Because you're in a band with him, you go by the name of the Backstreet Boys and sing songs with five part harmony in them. Any of this ringing a bell?"
Nick stared at JC for a few minutes, clearly unsure of how to respond to his particular type of insanity. "What makes you think I'd tell you why, even if he was?"
JC sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "Look, I just wanna know if I did something wrong. I'd like to apologize. Howie's a fantastic guy and it's upsetting me that we're not talking."
Nick considered this and ducked his head in a conspiratorial manner. "He thinks the whole thing was a pity fuck, you trying to make him feel better. So, um, if it was, there really isn't anything you can do to apologize and I'd prefer if you just stayed the fuck away. He doesn't usually do that stuff."
JC put his hands on his hips in his best imitation of Justin in offended diva mode. "I don't ever do that stuff."
"Oh. Um, then what-"
"What do you mean, what? You've never noticed the edibility factor?"
"He, uh, I'm kind of into girls."
"Yeah, tell me about it. Are you going to ask me to join you or am I banished to the kids table?" Nick's head inclined toward where Aaron and 'Lil Bowwow were holding court.
JC blanched. "I think you'd better come with me."
A few days later, in the two day down time between concerts, JC flew on the red-eye to Atlanta, where Nick had told him Howie was holing up. He gave Brian's address to the driver hired to take care of him while he was in town and arrived at the Litrell's doorstep at one o'clock in the morning. Feeling sorry, but not sorry enough not to carry out his plan, he rang the doorbell and waited patiently. A female voice came over the intercom. She sounded sleepy, "Who is it?"
"JC Chasez, ma'am. I'm sorry to wake you up, but I need to talk to Howie."
There was noise on the other side of the door, the beeping of an alarm system being disarmed, locks turning and finally, it opened, a very confused housekeeper standing on the inside. JC picked up the kitty-carrying case he had set down next to him and stepped inside.
Brian and Leighanne were both at the foot of the stairs, staring at him in mild suspicion. JC held out the flowers he had ordered the driver to show up with to Leighanne. "Sorry to disturb you in the middle of the night. I'm not here for very long and I couldn't really wait."
Leighanne took the flowers uncertainly. Brian looked JC up and down. "He's upstairs. Third door on your left."
JC nodded and stepped past where they were on the stairs. Brian called out from behind him. "Don't you dare hurt him in my house, I will skin you alive."
JC had heard that Brian never made idle threats. His grip on the kennel tightened.
Howie answered the door after one knock, which told JC that either he'd been woken by the bell, or he had never been asleep. He blinked a few times, unsure of what he was seeing. JC didn't wait to be invited in, just swept past Howie and set the kennel down on the floor. He bent down to open it and lift Iowa out. "I brought her, because I thought if she was the only reason you came to see me the first time, one of us might as well get something out of this visit."
Howie closed the door. "What're you doing here JC?"
"Setting the record straight. I don't pity fuck anyone."
"No, you're not, but you should be. It's not very nice not to answer somebody's emails, especially when that person thought that maybe you were dating or something."
"You thought we were dating?"
JC frowned. "Well, not in the actually-having-gone-out-on-dates sense, but that would have come. And yes, because I don't sleep with people I don't plan on dating, I haven't since Europe."
"Not exactly the reaction Iowa and I were hoping for."
"Well, it's just that, you know, you let me kiss you after I was all mopey about AJ and when you emailed me it was all casual, so I thought-"
"That what we had was casual?"
"That you have your own ways of making people feel better."
"I do, but not that." JC gave Iowa to Howie, who looked unsure of what to do with her for a few seconds before lifting her up to kiss her. "Why did you go for it? Nick says that's not your style."
"Nick." Howie shook his head. "I should've known."
"Don't get mad, you guys abandoned him at the TCAs. You should be proud of him for not killing anyone to have people to sit with."
"Yeah, poor kid, but we told him not to go."
"Howie," it was one thirty in the morning and JC was feeling insistent. "Why?"
"Because you don't look a gift horse in the mouth, y'know?"
"I'm a horse?"
"A gift horse," Howie clarified.
"Um, yeah, okay, but- Oh."
Howie nodded. "Indeed."
JC grinned and jumped up, hugging Howie and nearly crushing Iowa in between them. "You liked me."
Howie transported Iowa to the safety of the reading table beside him. "Don't get all excited there, you must've kinda liked me. I mean, you're in Atlanta in the middle of the night." Howie pulled in closer to JC, resting his head directly under his chin.
"My cat wanted to see you." JC kissed the top of Howie's head.
"You're quite the pet owner." Howie nipped at the skin of JC's neck, following it with a quick swipe of his tongue.
JC pulled back and dipped his head down, lips against Howie's ear. "I had a good teacher."