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It started with Joey, because Joey thought it was kind of cool that him and Nick shared a birthday, that Nick was two years younger than him to the day. Also because Joey liked giving other people presents and because Nick had looked skinny and miserable at the time, but if asked, Joey just told people it was because of the shared birthday novelty factor.

NSYNC had been in the same place as Backstreet not so much as a month before Nick's sixteenth birthday and Joey had taken one look at the bags under Nick's eyes, his forced smiles, the way he clung to the other Boys as though they might get snatched away from him if he wasn't careful, and decided that if anyone was in need of some random gift-receiving, it was Nick Carter.

Joey sent some fudge to encourage the gaining of pounds and a small stuffed shark because Nick had mentioned liking sharks in some interview that JC had gotten his hands on when Joey had been pondering what to send. JC said stuffed animals were good company no matter what age a person was and Joey was in the habit of believing pretty much everything that came out of JC's mouth by that time. Chris called Joey pussy-whipped and Joey thought the fact that he felt no desire to argue with Chris was as good an indication as any that he actually was. He did allow himself the pleasure of taking Chris down when the smaller man made whipping motions accompanied by sound effects, but that was more for the sheer enjoyment of it than any true offence taken on Joey's part.

Joey sent another present the next year because once a person was on Joey's birthday list it took either divine intervention or that person murdering one of Joey's family members to get him off the list. Seeing as how the Lord had not stooped down and swept away the postal service and the only contact Joey had really had with Nick over the year was a few polite small talks and a short but sweet thank you letter written on Sierra Club stationary, Nick was still on the list when January 28th rolled around.

Joey sent Nick a box of sugar cookies that JC had made, because the kid could have still stood to be at least ten pounds heavier in Joey's opinion. He stuck a mad libs in with the gift as an afterthought, because they were JC's favorite bus game so Joey kept ten of them on his person at any given time and he had them to spare.

It surprised Joey, when his birthday mail finally caught up to him about three days after the fact, that there was a package from somewhere that he couldn't identify. Nick had sent him a Superman lunch box that was obviously from Germany, as the moniker about speeding bullets and such was printed in German on the tin. There was a note inside, 'Hope you don't have this one. Happy Birthday, Nick.'

Joey hadn't had it. He had showed it off to everyone for days until even JC laughed at him and asked, "Should I be jealous? Does he woo better than me?" when Joey tried to bring up the subject again. Joey kissed the thought from JC's head and they forgot about the whole thing until they received Nick's thank you note, which was on hotel stationary and was accompanied by a single filled out mad lib that had all five NSYNCers laughing for days on end.

It was an unspoken agreement from that year on that they would exchange gifts on their birthdays, always something small, even after they could both afford something much more impressive. It had been five years without Nick missing a birthday when Joey checked his mailbox for two weeks, not giving up until February tenth came still bringing no return gift.

By February twentieth, no thank you card had come and that was when JC spoke up. "I think something is wrong."

Joey had a deep desire to believe the best of everyone and really didn't want to consider the fact that Nick had suddenly turned into a complete dick, so he considered this instead, "You think?"

JC nodded enthusiastically, the way he did when he was thinking and not paying any attention to his fine motor control. "He had his manners pounded into him by Kevin and Brian and Howie, he's even more refined than Lance in some ways, and Lance had to answer to Diane for any and all missteps. The missing present I might have given him, but no thank you card?" JC changed the direction of his head motion and shook it, "This is a desperate cry for help." He smiled at his own melodrama but stilled his head, waiting for what Joey thought.

Joey didn't speak for a bit, absently listening to the music JC had left playing in one of the other rooms. "Should we call him?"

JC shrugged. "He lives like all of twenty minutes away from here. I was thinking a friendly neighborly visit, probably with food at hand."

Joey was still in the habit of trusting JC beyond any shadow of a doubt, but the fact that neither of them really knew Nick beyond the whole gift exchange thing caused him to ask, "You really think it's a good idea to go barging in on his life?" Even Joey, who loved having people around him day and night, had learned to cherish his privacy, to protect fiercely the moments when him and JC could lie on the floor of Joey's living room, staring up at the ceiling and being in love without anybody watching. He didn't want to intrude on Nick's personal patch of privacy.

JC kissed the side of Joey's mouth. "I think he wants us to, or I wouldn’t have suggested it." JC guarded his privacy even more avidly than Joey.

"Right," Joey remembered that he should have known all this and trusted JC in the first place. JC was the one famous for being seemingly able to read everyone else in the group's mind though, not Joey. "So what are we bringing to eat?"

*

JC bribed Lance into doing a little scout work with tickets to a Tim McGraw concert. Lance probably could have easily called and gotten his own, but he knew when to accept a bribe gracefully. Lance's email told JC that it had taken him longer than he would have expected to find out the information because he wasn't sure any of the other Boys were exactly talking to Nick at the moment. As far as Lance could tell though, Nick was either at his house or on his boat these days, and it was anyone's guess as to when he was at one or the other.

JC was in the middle of figuring out how to get the people at the Marina where Nick kept his boat to tell him whether the boat was docked or not when divine intervention occurred and Joey woke up to a sky filled with a wall of clouds so dark Joey had to look the clock to make sure it was morning. He grinned and rolled back over, on top of JC. "Jace."

"I hate you," JC muttered.

Joey knew the consequences of waking JC up, so he wasn't bothered by the statement. "Yeah, I know, but you have to look outside."

"No I don't," JC insisted.

"Roll over and look or I'm gonna tickle you," Joey warned. JC rolled.

He scowled at Joey. "And? You woke me up for that? It sucks outside, we're gonna be stuck in here all day." JC rolled back over to do what he did best when stuck inside.

"And if we're stuck inside then certain other people that we want to visit in town will probably be as well, wouldn't you agree?" Joey leaned over JC to watch for reaction.

JC opened one eye. "Oh."

"Uh huh," Joey agreed.

"You still could've let me sleep another hour."

Joey looked down at the way the singular eye JC had open was drooping. He lowered himself so that he was laying scooped up behind JC and threw an arm over the smaller man, tucking JC in closer to Joey's body. "I'll let you sleep another couple of hours. The storm will still be here when you wake up."

*

Joey rang the doorbell ten times before attempting to play 'Quit Playing Games,' which was the first Backstreet song that came to him, with the chime. Nick finally threw the door open with a rather inhospitable, "What the fuck?" and then stalled in his tirade, unsure of exactly why there were two extremely wet and rather bedraggled NSYNC members on his doorstep. "Oh, um. You weren't who I thought you were."

"Does that mean we can come in?" JC asked, shivering and huddling as close to Joey as possible.

Nick's eyes widened and he leaped out of the way as though the patch of ground he was standing on had burnt his feet. "Sorry. I didn't mean to leave you out there. I'll, uh…I'll go get some towels."

Nick returned with four plush shower towels. Joey rubbed one over JC and then wrapped him in a second, dry one, before taking care of himself. JC watched Nick watching them, waiting for him to say something. Instead Nick asked, "Not to be any ruder than I've already been, but it's kind of a stay-at-home day, rather than, y'know, a visit-your-rival-boybander's-house day. So I'm sorta wondering what you're doing here."

Joey ran his hands through his towel-dried hair, trying to get it to lay back down. "You didn't send a thank-you note."

"Shit, did I forget you too? Ginge had a fit about not getting hers. You coulda just called, though, I would've gotten one out."

Joey, who had never really paid Backstreet that much attention, was surprised to notice that much like himself, Nick couldn't lie worth crap. JC had evidently either known this for awhile or had similarly seen it in Nick's body language, but he didn't call him on it, just said, "We're not really worried about the thank you card." Then, in a classic JC maneuver, he switched subjects before his co-conversant had time to be taken off guard. Joey wasn't even sure that JC knew he did it, that in fact he was probably just following the oftentimes tangential thread of his thoughts, but it worked almost every time. "Who did you think we were?"

"Bri-" Nick caught himself but also knew he had already said too much. "Brian. Or maybe AJ. We're kind of…mad with each other right now."

JC winced at the numb quality of Nick's tone when he said the words. Joey was tempted to give Nick a hug, like he was still seventeen and too skinny, with bags under his eyes. Joey knew what it felt like to fight with even one of the four people who had come to be your world, instead of just inhabiting it. Two had to be ten times worse, especially if industry rumor was correct in this case and Nick didn't have anyone to go to at a time like this. Joey asked, hoping he wasn't putting his foot in his mouth, "What if it was Kevin or Howie?"

Nick shook his head. "They won’t interfere. Even if they did, I doubt it would be for me." He didn't sound bitter, just resigned. "I'm gonna do a solo album."

It would have been a non-sequitur if Justin hadn't spent so much time in JC and Joey's space during the last tour, wanting them to talk him out of his fears about taking on the world alone. As it was, JC's offer of "Congratulations" was tentative. If Backstreet was fighting about it, the situation was obviously different from that of theirs, wherein they all felt that it was probably best to let Justin free of them for a bit, find out if what he needed wasn't to be surrounded by four other guys, best friends or no.

"Thanks," Nick responded, and this time the tone was bitter. "I stayed with The Firm. And Jive is pushing for my album over the one we said we would put out this year."

"Are you- Did you ask the others about breaking up? Is that what this is about?" Joey couldn’t really conceive of Justin doing such a thing, but he supposed every situation was different.

There was a flash of horror in Nick's eyes that he tamped down on immediately. "No. Hell no. It's just…things are uncertain with us, like, numbers-wise, compared to what you're dealing with. And Brian thinks I should put our interests ahead of my own. AJ…I think AJ's just jealous, mostly."

Joey and JC nodded together and waited to see if Nick would say more.

"I'll apologize to Brian in a few days, when I get over being pissed about the things he said." Nick sighed. "It's- He'll get over it, support me."

Nick didn't mention AJ again and Joey and JC knew when to leave well enough alone.

Nick tilted his head. "Why are you here again?"

Joey looked at his watch and announced, "To buy you lunch. Have a yellow pages anywhere?"

*

It occurred to Nick, right around ten o'clock, after they had ordered 'midnight snack' pizza and were in the middle of a fight over whether they were going to watch 'The Godfather' or 'Singing in the Rain,' that, "It's long past lunchtime."

JC looked at Nick like he might be having some kind of momentary brain trauma. "Yes, yes it is."

Nick mirrored JC's look for a second before thinking better of it, realizing that he wasn't actually all that upset over the fact that the two of them were still in his space. "Just saying."

Joey took the chance while JC and Nick were engaged in paying attention to each other to pop 'Singing in the Rain' in the DVD player. Nick scowled, but Joey just grinned, "You own it Carter, you must like it at least a little."

Nick looked like he wanted to refute this statement but saw the wisdom in it, and didn't, instead settling into the couch. JC turned his head, bouncing up on his toes and whispered to Joey, "Um, um, um, he looks cuddleable."

It wasn't unusual for JC to feel the desire to crawl on top of someone other than Joey, to hold them or be held by them. He did it with Lance and Justin and Chris and his brother, when Tyler would allow it. Roy was often the victim of JC's touchy-feely tendencies as were Karen and Heather. It didn't generally happen with people that JC wasn't close to like he was close to them, though. People like Nick Carter, who, for all the things they probably had in common with him, they barely knew.

Joey's eyes flickered to the man sprawled on the couch, obviously doing his best not to look their way. There was no subtext here. Joey knew JC wanted Nick, had known that ever since Nick had shown up at some function filled out and well past legal and JC had nearly swallowed his tongue. The sex between them had been really, really good that night -- JC had a thing for big guys, guys who could stand in front of him and hide him from the world. Joey had asked him later who JC had been having sex with and JC hadn't answered, his hurt look being reproach enough. That was when Joey had remembered how much he trusted JC.

Joey thought he should probably feel jealous that JC wanted to touch Nick, even be near him, but Joey really wanted to press his thumbs into the line of muscle that was standing out, nearly a ridge leading from the kid's neck to his back. Joey, who usually found big men to be mundane and felt narcissistic even considering a night with them was looking, and looking hard.

Nick finally glanced back, "You two coming? This was your choice, y'know."

Joey went over and positioned himself so that it would be easy for JC to arrange himself comfortably atop the both of them.

*

A week and a half later Nick hadn't answered a single phone call or email when he showed up on their doorstep at three in the afternoon looking like he hadn't slept since the night they had hung out. Joey stood back to let him inside and Nick came in, apologizing, "I'm sorry. Howie's out of town on DLF business and Kevin's somewhere, maybe with Kris, I dunno, Brian told me and I didn't listen, but I didn't know where else to go."

JC, who was standing at the end of the hallway, walked toward the two of them. His face was hard, and Joey wondered if Nick knew that one of the very few things a person could do to utterly and completely piss JC off was to make him worry about that person. "Where have you been, Nick?"

If Nick hadn’t known, he was catching on quick. "Oh. Oh. Yeah, sorry. I went to Atlanta, like, the day after you left. You guys coming over…I missed Brian, so I went to go fix things."

"And?" JC prompted.

"We’re fixed. He even listened to some of my ideas for the album, gave me his opinions. He's really the best friend in the entire world, and I shouldn't have told him -- any of them, to be honest -- the way I did. I said sorry, though and he said he was sorry and we're fine."

JC didn't ask why Nick hadn't returned their phone calls or emails because he knew what that was like. Anytime he had to do some serious making up with one of the other guys, he pretty much ignored that there was a world outside the two of them as well. He did ask, "So why do you look like something the cat dragged through at least four city blocks?"

Joey had mostly just wanted to know why Nick was there, why Nick needed anyone right now if things were as fine as he was making them out to be, but he figured JC's way of going about things would get them the same information, so he stayed quiet and waited.

Nick shrugged the bag he was carrying on his shoulder to the ground. "I left Atlanta about three days ago, went out to LA."

When it was clear that was all Nick was going to say without one of them forcing something else, Joey picked up the discarded bag and walked with it to one of the guest rooms. He heard footsteps behind him and turned his head so that he wasn't quite facing Nick, "There's a bathroom to your right. If you need towels, there's a linen closet in the hall."

Nick touched Joey's shoulder. "It’s more complicated between me and AJ than me and Brian. More painful. I'm not as sure of us."

JC laughed sardonically from underneath the doorframe. "It's always more something with AJ McLean. I have yet to meet anyone who wouldn't vouch for that."

"I think maybe it’s more something because it's the two of us. I'm not exactly sure that it's really just his fault. I doubt it." Nick's fingers were tightening painfully around Joey's shoulder.

Joey stood there. "You want to fix it though."

Nick frowned. "Of course." His voice indicated that no other consideration had even crossed his mind at any time.

"Do you think that's what he wants?"

There was no more doubt than before in Nick's, "Yeah. It's just…we can't just- Shit. There's just more to the story, okay?"

"Okay." Joey carefully removed Nick's hand but turned around to engulf him in a hug so that he wouldn't feel physically cut off. "Sure."

*

Between the two of them, Joey and JC had managed to keep Nick otherwise occupied until six o'clock in the evening, when they fed him and sent him off to bed for the evening. Nick had looked at the clock by the side of the bed and commented listlessly, "It's early," as JC had pulled the comforter up to Nick's chin, but other than that hadn't put up a fight.

JC had gone out to where Joey was stacking plates in the dishwasher and sat down at the kitchen table. "How much do you know?"

Joey shook his head, "I learn all my gossip from you. And Lance, sometimes, but he's been preoccupied of late." Which hurt, but Joey had been phenomenal about not mentioning it.

JC smiled at Joey, the way he did when he wanted to say something that would make Joey feel better about something but knew there was nothing to be said. "This isn't recent. And the only reason I know is because AJ called to apologize for that whole thing two summers ago after he got out of rehab and we ended up talking for hours."

"You didn't tell me this." Joey sounded more surprised than hurt, because there wasn't much that JC didn't tell him.

"I didn't really feel it was my thing to tell. Besides which, I would have had to bring up the thing he was apologizing for, and, let's face it, you're still not incredibly happy with him over that."

"He nearly dislocated your shoulder," Joey growled.

"And you weren't there to stop him," JC observed sympathetically, not accusingly.

Joey shoved the last dish in the washer. "Don't. This isn't about us or him or even the two of you. It's about whatever's going on between him and Nick."

JC thought about arguing for all of a second. "They were in love."

Joey came to sit down across from JC. "I had pieced that together, thanks."

"For a long time," JC elaborated. "They were to Backstreet what we are to NSYNC."

"What happened?"

"AJ became an alcoholic," JC stated.

"Nick left AJ because of the alcoholism?" Something about the statement didn’t ring true for Joey. He'd seen the way Nick's eyes altered when he talked about AJ, angry or not, Nick's love and loyalty ran deep.

"According to AJ," JC stressed AJ's name, "Nick left because he was tired of getting into fights over the myriad of people who were not Nick that AJ felt the need to sleep with. He alluded to the fact that he hit Nick a couple of times when they were fighting, so that probably had something to do with it all, but I haven't asked Nick what his take on the situation is."

Joey laid his head down on the kitchen table. "Why couldn’t a healthy Backstreet Boy have dropped onto our doorstep this afternoon?"

"Um…" JC took a gander, "They're both straight? They don't exist? Healthy generally doesn't include going to stay with people you barely know? All of the above?"

Joey laughed and acknowledged the truth of the sentiment by raising his eyes to JC's. "So, does this mean we're responsible for him?"

JC gave the question careful consideration. "This is our house. I'm not making any decisions about our joint responsibilities without your input."

"It's not that I mind him staying." Joey noticed the questioning look on JC's face and added, "Really," as a reassurance. "I just kind of wonder what's going on in your head about all of this."

JC got out of his chair and walked to where Joey was, lifting Joey's chin off the table so that JC could slide into Joey's lap. "Right now I'm trying not to think past the fact that he obviously needs friends."

"We're just trying to be his friends then."

"At least for tomorrow. Ask me again tomorrow evening, I'll tell you if things have changed."

Joey kissed JC's shoulder, "You're lucky I'm so damned laid back."

The corner of JC's mouth quirked. "I'm just generally lucky."

*

Nick woke up long after Joey but before JC the next morning. Joey was watering JC's ivy plant, the only one of several types of flora in the house that he would get anywhere near to. The ivy had shown amazing fortitude, surviving Joey's attention in addition to JC's for nearly two years so far. Joey had almost grown fond of the little green guy.

Nick came up behind Joey and peered down. "I can't keep anything alive. Fish, cactus, chia pet, doesn't matter, they all die."

"You killed a chia pet?" Joey suspected he might have met his match as the bringer of death to all things that breathed carbon dioxide. The thought made him grin. "They're mostly JC's. His favorite is the burgeonia," Joey pointed at a tall plant outside on the deck. "The bloom only lasts for a day, but it's awesome for that one day."

"I'll remember to stay as far away from it as humanly possible."

Joey put the water bottle down next to a fern. "You want breakfast?"

"Got anything good?"

Joey wondered into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door. He surveyed the contents. "Almost a full carton of eggs, leftovers from at least the last three places we ate out, those freaky baby oranges that are called something else, and…cranberry juice."

"Impressive selection," Nick didn’t sound like he was being facetious.

"We try." Joey took the carton of eggs and the cranberry juice out, shutting the refrigerator door.

"What are you having?"

"Eggs, sunny-side up. Don’t tell Jace, he freaks out that I'm gonna give myself salmonella." Joey walked over to rummage through a cabinet. "I could have sworn we bought bread at some point…" He looked in a few more places, crowing triumphantly at the full loaf he found in the freezer.

"Do you have any idea how long you've had that?" Nick asked with a kind of idle curiosity.

"Three weeks?" Joey sounded relatively sure. "I don't see mold, it's getting toasted. You want some?"

Nick nodded. It wasn't as if he'd never forgotten about food in his own kitchen.

"Eggs too?"

"Yes please."

"Sunny-side up?"

Nick scrunched up his nose. "I think I agree with JC. Can you do fried?"

"Fried it is. Pour me some juice, wouldja? You can get yourself some too."

"Glasses?"

Joey pointed in the direction of the cabinet and Nick found them after a couple of tries. Joey finished up with Nick's eggs first, right as the toaster was dinging. He slid them onto a plate and threw the toast on top of them. "There you go."

Nick took the plate and waited, cautious. Joey looked back. "Something wrong?"

Nick tilted his head. "Um, just. Waiting. For you."

"Don't, yours'll get cold."

Nick dug deeply into the layered eggs and toast with his fork and brought the pieces he caught on the flat surface up to his mouth. When he was done chewing he said, "This is delicious. Thanks."

Joey kept his back to Nick and hoped that his amusement wasn't apparent in his voice when he said, "Glad you like it." Nick being the perfect houseguest was kind of endearing.

*

Nick sang in the shower. Loudly. Loud enough that JC giggled from underneath the covers and Joey saw his chance to pounce. "Morning."

"Morning. He is in the guest room, right?" JC confirmed. "Four doors down?"

"One of those doors is a linen closet, give the kid some slack."

JC pulled the covers down just enough for both his eyes to peer over them. "You guys spend some time together this morning?"

"That's what friends do," Joey told him solemnly.

"You make him breakfast?" JC asked, because he knew all about Joey's patterns of relating to other people.

Joey nodded. "He's a good eater."

JC's grin crawled into his eyes, where Joey could see it.

"What?"

"Just you."

"What about me?" Joey wanted to know.

"You and the place in your heart for people who can match you with a fork and a spoon."

"I do not-"

"You so do," JC countered, coming out from underneath the covers with the force of his conviction. "Joe. You once told me the way you knew Lance and you were destined to be each other's best friends was when we took his, and I quote, 'skinny white-boy ass' out to eat and he nearly matched you course for course. And you had inches on him."

"That was special," Joey tried, but knew it was a lost cause.

JC let it go though, "Yeah, well, Lance is."

Joey waited a bit. "Maybe Nick is too."

Nick's voice, unstopped by water or walls, floated through Joey's words.

*

AJ called Nick two days after he had come to Joey and JC and not left. It was raining again and the three of them were stuck inside, playing Scrabble at JC's insistence. Nick was busy arguing about yet another word that both Joey and JC were pretty sure he had made up and so he didn't check the caller ID on his phone, just picked it up and stopped the electronic strains of "Satisfaction" with a "'Lo?"

Whatever got said in response made Nick frown. "How exactly is it Aje that I'm the immature one here?"

AJ's voice was a harsh angry murmur from where both JC and Joey sat, concerned. Nick took a deep breath, not looking at either one of them. "I'm sorry that it's me and not you, is that what you want to hear?"

Evidently it wasn't, because the response didn't sound a bit calmer. "Look, why don’t you put something together?"

Nick waited through the next rant. "Kev's pushing to leave Zomba anyway. He's pissed about the royalties issue. Tell him you want to go somewhere where they'll put a contract in for you. It's not like you don’t have connections."

JC and Joey couldn't hear anything as AJ responded, which they took as a sign of him calming down. Nick sighed. "This isn't about you and me. Or you and Sarah, for that matter. It's about me, Aje. There was a time when that would have been enough for you."

Nick blinked, evidently surprised by whatever AJ had thought of that. He was silent for a second before asking, "Aje? Aje?" He pressed the 'end' button. "Fuck." When he looked up from the unlighted screen of his phone, back at his audience, he hunched his shoulders up apologetically. "Um. We. Well, it wasn't the best break up ever. Not the worst one, either, but…we were both pretty soaked in narcotic substances, and AJ came out the worst for it, as usual. They take a lot of shit to keep me safe, all of them. Half of this is just them being worried about what will happen when they're not there. I wish…I wish they understood that I have to know if I can keep myself safe without them."

Joey walked behind Nick and firmly massaged at the juncture between his neck and shoulders. "It’s hard to let someone do that when you're relatively sure you might be as at fault for all their issues as for the safety they've been afforded most of their teenage and adult life."

Nick stopped breathing beneath Joey's hands momentarily. "Justin?"

JC concurred. "Mm. After this next tour. We're gonna break, take some time off."

"You guys?" Nick's eyes were wide. "You're…uh, isn't it conventional wisdom to strike while the iron is hot? Or sword? Something. I know there's a saying like that."

"Iron," JC reaffirmed. "And we're not so much for following the rules, regardless of how it looks."

"Oh. I should wish him good luck. I should tell AJ. When he decides he's talking to me again," Nick amended. "If there's room for Justin Timberlake and Nick Carter, I think we can probably find a corner or three for AJ McLean. I can, at least. I've done it all my life."

Joey ran his hand up from Nick's neck to the crown of his head, tousling unbrushed hair. The strands were warm and stubbornly untidy, rubbing haphazardly against the soft skin of Joey's palm.

*

Kevin called to see what Nick's side of the story was within a day. Nick's body language suggested that he had expected the call but was still taken by surprise at its actually happening. Kevin didn’t let Nick get a word in edgewise for the first three minutes. Nick ran a hand over his eyes and listened carefully. When Kevin was finished, all he said was, "I know all that."

Kevin's reply was short. Nick transferred himself off the floor where he had been sprawled, kicking Joey's ass at Playstation, when his phone had rang. He sat nearly on top of Joey, ignoring the rest of the couch. Nick hadn't shied away from any of the physical affection that either Joey or JC had shown him while he was here, but he hadn't initiated anything until this point either. Joey didn't move, allowing Nick to get comfortable. Nick did, and picked up the thread of conversation. "There never is a good time for shit like this, Kev. The company's gonna fuck us whether I do or don't do this and I want to. Really want to. I figure I outta at least get something I want out of the deal."

Kevin's answer was so quiet that Joey couldn't even hear the rumble, only knew he was talking because Nick's breathing changed when he was considering what someone else was saying. Joey wasn't sure how he knew that, it felt like the things he knew about JC and Chris and Lance and Justin. Things that were just there, always had been, or at least, that's how it seemed.

"We can’t talk, Kev. He calls, he lets me talk, he doesn’t pay one fucking bit of attention, and then he stops talking to me again."

Nick stiffened at Kevin's next words and Joey was irrationally afraid that the man in his arms would break apart if he moved just the tiniest bit. Nick let out a breath and dispelled Joey's fear, "Y'know, I expect this from the media, and from the fans and from my mother, who has no clue who her son is. I expected more from you though. You and him, for that matter. I haven't stuck around this long to leave now. This is…all this is fucking after the fact. The market is shit for me right now, everybody's saying it. I can't even imagine why Zomba's pushing for the release, all I know is that they are and they may never again and I want to try. There was a time for you when all you wanted was to try something and we ended up working out for you. This isn't really as urgent, but it maybe kind of is, because, may I remind you, before all of this, I wasn't the one everybody was worried about leaving the group, Mr. All-I-Need-Now-Is-A-Baby-Kev, Mr. I'm-Getting-Too-Old-For-This-Shit. Forgive me for wanting somewhere to go when the rest of y'all decide to give up on me, okay?"

Joey heard the murmured, "Nicky," and for a nickname that Nick proclaimed to hate so much, it went a long way toward calming him down. Nick slumped back against Joey and closed his eyes. "I'm sorry. I just need you guys to be happy for me, all of you. I can’t do things without your approval anymore, and it's not fair that you guys are holding it back because you're worried or jealous or just plain-out scared. I've given my approval to each and every one of you in situations that I thought were much much worse, and I'm sorry that all of you evidently feel like I ask for a lot, but I have to ask for this because it means too much to me not to." He opened his eyes hesitantly, almost as though he were anxious that Kevin would be in front of him, in the flesh.

Whatever Kevin said made Nick smile in a way that Joey had only ever seen him smile for the other Boys. "Don’t say it if you don't mean it."

Nick's smile stayed through Kevin's next words, all the way through to the end of the conversation when he bid Kevin goodbye with, "Thanks, I appreciate it. I'm glad we talked. Yeah, yeah, I love you, right."

*

Joey wasn't entirely sure when Nick had managed to slip out of the house, but when JC came home from vinyl-shopping with Chris later that afternoon he asked, "What's Nick up to?"

Joey searched to find the answer to the question, but Nick was nowhere to be found. JC -- who Joey had long ago learned was a good person to have around in an emergency, as he very rarely freaked out too much to think -- called Nick's cell. Nick picked up and had a four minute conversation with JC, in which time JC discerned that Nick had gone sailing and would be back either late in the evening or some time the next morning.

JC hung up, looking quizzically at Joey. Joey shrugged. "Kevin called. They talked and Nick said he needed some time alone so I let him do what he needed to do, and he's generally pretty quiet, so I didn't notice he had left."

"Did he and Kevin fight?" JC frowned at the thought.

"No, well, maybe a little, but I think Kevin gave him his blessing before they hung up."

"That's good," JC decided slowly. "It must have been hard, having you overhear that. I'm not sure I would have been able to do the same thing, had the situation been reversed."

"He…" Joey searched for the right term, "he cuddled with me while he was on the phone. Not before and not after, just during."

"You think it means something?"

"Fuck if I know, Jace. I cuddle with all my friends, but not just during times of extreme emotional stress. I have no clue what to make of him, honestly." Joey let his exasperation at the entirety of Nick's cohabitation and his undetermined status in Joey and JC's lives pour out.

"I'm not sure what to make of anything right now," JC admitted. Joey remembered when admissions like that on JC's part had made him feel helpless. Now they just made him feel safe, like if they were both lost, at least they would have each other while trying to hit upon the right direction.

It was such a powerful feeling of safety that Joey didn’t even stumble while pointing out to JC, "You want him, though. You know that. You talk about being his friend but you look at him like he's a well-aged wine the second he turns his back."

The statement wasn't accusatory, so JC didn't get defensive. "We're monogamous, Joe, not neutered. You generally don't even notice when I look anymore, we both know it's just window shopping. Not even window shopping at somewhere I would ever cough up the cash to actually buy something at either, for that matter."

Joey stopped him before the metaphor could get out of hand, "I've been looking too."

"So what?" JC spread his hands and laughed for a second, amused by the whole thing until he saw Joey's face. "What, Joe? I don’t understand."

"Neither do I. I just know that the way you look at him made me notice, when -- you're right -- I haven't noticed you doing that in years. I haven't cared. I know you're mine and that if you wanted out, you would tell me, you wouldn't leave for someone else and wait for me to realize it. With him, though, I saw it, and it made me see him. I want to ignore all of this, because what we have is perfect even at all the times it's anything but and I know better than to fix something that isn’t broken. It keeps coming back, though."

"What keeps coming back?" JC's voice was soft, and more than a little scared.

"The idea that maybe we aren't broken, but there's a possibility we're missing a piece."

*

JC had left the dishes in the sink after dinner and laid claim to Joey, biting at the skin of his hip hard enough to leave two perfect ridges of teeth marks before taking Joey's cock into his mouth, holding it hostage until Joey had come. Taking JC into himself after that was almost too intense, but the look in JC's eyes stopped any protest Joey could have made. When JC was done, panting in Joey's arms, JC's fingers still pressed firmly wherever they met Joey's skin.

Hesitantly, Joey inquired, "Was that enough?"

"Enough?" JC was still breathless and his voice sounded unused.

"Was it what you needed?"

"I needed… I needed to see if you were enough." JC decided.

"And?"

"You were." If there had been any question, it was obviously gone now, JC's answer coming without a moment's thought.

"What does that mean?"

"I don't know." JC released the pressure of his fingers and watched the temporary marks fade swiftly. "I thought it would mean that I didn't want anything more and everything we've been thinking would have been…something we could laugh at later. I thought it would mean I could push aside the suggestion that falling in love with Nick might make things that much more…enough."

"I take it that's not what you're thinking," Joey interrupted the chain of thoughts.

"No. I still wonder if it could work, how good it would be if it did. But I also have to wonder if it's fair to him."

"Oh?"

JC folded his arms on Joey's chest, propping his chin up on them. "The two of us, we're…we're whatever forever is. I don't know if he could ever be that much a part of things."

"Jace." Joey looked into the eyes of the man he had considered an extension of himself for so long that it was hard to remember a time before that. He made himself remember. "When we first got together, I mean, don't get me wrong, I thought you were fantastic and beautiful and the best thing that had ever happened to me, but only in a vague, teenager-ish way. Not like this. Not in the serious commitment sense. That just kind of happened when neither of us was paying attention, y'know? But we gave us a shot and something I don’t think anybody would have predicted came out of it."

JC sighed. "I was always the forever type, though. I just didn't tell you, I thought it would freak you out. It would have."

"It would have," Joey agreed. "Nick can be the forever type this time."

"That's what I'm scared of. That he will be and we won't be and I may not love him just yet but I hardly want to break him."

"You would deny yourself the possibility that you already sense between the two of you -- the three of us -- at the hint of possible disaster? You didn't used to be this much of a pessimist."

"Everything seems more precarious."

"Things only seem more precarious when you feel you have more to lose," Joey pointed out.

"And I suppose you can only have more to lose when you stand to gain more than ever before?" JC asked, already knowing the answer.

Joey smiled down at him. "Then you'll try?"

"We'll try. None of this you/me shit."

Joey knew JC didn’t need him to agree.

*

Nick showed up with sand sticking to his cheeks and the webbing between his fingers. He popped his head in the kitchen long enough to say, "I'm gonna take a shower before I cause untold damage."

JC shouted after him, "If you take requests, I could handle hearing a little Frank Sinatra this morning."

A noise that sounded suspiciously close to a snort carried back to them. Joey waggled his eyebrows. "It'd probably be too abrupt for us to go hop in the shower with him, huh?"

JC made a show of giving the question some thought. "Probably. Just a little." He put his thumb and his pointer finger scant inches from each other and squinted through the space.

Nick came back no more than fifteen minutes later smelling of the Lever 2000 that JC had stocked up on when the local drug store had put it on sale at a four pack for a dollar. He shook his still damp hair slightly and pronounced himself, "All clean."

"Breakfast?" Joey inquired. JC had gotten in on the breakfast making action this morning, so there was a fruit salad to go along with Joey's buttermilk pancakes.

"One of everything, please," Nick requested.

Joey ignored him completely and piled three of the oversized pancakes on Nick's plate. JC slapped roughly a cup of the fruit salad down next to the pancakes and handed it to Nick, who didn't see the need to complain at having been given extras.

Frozen strawberries in syrup had been warmed and were on the table in place of the more traditional maple; Nick poured them liberally over his pancakes. Joey and JC joined him at the table, each with three pancakes and some fruit salad of their own. Joey grinned at Nick for smiling at how Joey allowed JC to go first with the strawberries. JC never took the last of anything when he knew Joey was waiting.

"How was the water?" JC asked, his mouth full.

Nick finished chewing. "Calm. Really beautiful. I'll take you next time."

JC's eyes lit up. Nick asked, "You like sailing?"

"Love it. I like being on things that move." JC shrugged, "I think I may have lived on a bus for too long."

Joey reached out and tucked an errant curl behind JC's ear. "Can I come too?"

Nick looked surprised, as if it hadn't occurred to him that he could extend an invitation to JC and not have it pertain to Joey. "Yeah, 'course."

There was silence for awhile as the three of them ate. Nick was the one to interrupt. "I'm gonna go out of town for a few days, try AJ again. We need to talk in a way that he can't hang up on me during. Would you… Do you mind if I come back here after?"

Joey wasn't expecting JC to offer, "Do you want us to go with you?" Once the offer was made, though, Joey just waited calmly to see if it would be accepted.

"Nah, I'm hoping to get AJ to let me stay with him, and that might be harder with the two of you there. I appreciate it, but, I'd just like to know that I don’t have to go home to an empty house if I don't want to afterwards."

"You're welcome here, Nick. Anytime." Joey reassured him.

"Thanks," Nick replied, diving back into the pancakes that he had been ignoring for a time. "Thank you."

*

Joey couldn’t have said whether he or Nick was more surprised by the fact that JC got up to see Nick off, even though his flight was taking off well before the butt-crack of dawn. JC sauntered downstairs, the cotton pajama pants with little music notes that Lance had gotten him for Christmas years before hanging low on his hips.

He poured himself a cup of coffee and curled up in Joey's lap, content to sniff at the roasted Kenyan blend and listen to Joey and Nick talk. He had just gotten started on drinking his coffee, which had cooled enough to be safe for ingestion when Nick stood up. "I gotta head out."

Joey carefully made sure that JC's coffee was somewhere where it wouldn’t spill when he set the smaller man on his feet. "I'm driving him, Jace."

"Oh, okay," JC agreed. "Are you awake enough?"

"I'm fine. Besides, I like the whole crawling-back-in-bed with you part of this deal."

JC hummed happily, "I'll keep it warm." He turned to Nick, stating matter-of-factly, "Joey sometimes forgets to remind people that there are reasons to come back. I don’t need to be reminded, and maybe after awhile you won’t either, but for now-" JC went onto his tiptoes and gently pressed his lips against Nick's, "that's my reminder to you. We want you to come back."

Nick pressed the pads of three fingers to his lips as a million emotions flashed through his eyes. Finally he looked over at Joey, who had put his hand in the small of JC's back but had his eyes on Nick, waiting. Nick mumbled through his fingers, "I'll remember that."

*

JC and Joey were beginning to suspect that Nick, despite his words, had forgotten. Two weeks passed and, after the first phone call, wherein Nick had left a message saying that he had arrived safely, neither JC nor Joey had heard word one from him. They were out at a new club Lance had asked them to try out with him when Joey's cell phone buzzed hard against his waist.

He snatched it off the belt loop it had been hanging from and quickly checked the caller id before immediately pressing 'talk.' "Nick?" he yelled over the insistent dance music.

Nick said something back and Joey covered his other ear to try and hear, but it was no use. He shook his head, "You'll have to speak louder."

Nick did, "I asked where the hell you were?"

"Oh, club…um," Joey looked on the table for a napkin or a matchbox that would betray their location, "Cobra. Where are you? Are you still in LA?"

"No, I'm back. Standing on your front porch. I probably should've called," Nick admitted.

Joey reassured Nick that it was all right and gave him the code to get into the house through the garage and another code to disarm the alarm once he actually made it inside. "We're gonna stay for awhile. Jace likes the music." Joey liked being out with Lance.

"That's cool, I'll see you when you get home." Nick hung up.

Lance looked up from the conversation him and JC were having when Joey shifted slightly to reattach the phone to his belt loop. "Who was that?"

"Nick," Joey told him.

Lance had heard the whole story less than a day after Nick had left for LA when he had called Joey because they hadn't spoken in a whole week, and Lance missed him. "Oh? How are things going with him?"

JC leaned in closer to make sure he could hear what was going on. Joey grabbed his hand under the table. "He didn't say, he's back, I told him how to get into the house."

Lance's glance flickered to JC for a second before coming back to Joey, "You guys wanna go?"

Joey spoke before JC could. "I told him we were staying for a while. He said he'd see us when we got home."

"Oh, okay," Lance's tone was blank, the way it was whenever something made him happy but he didn't want to admit it. He turned away, watching the multi-layered dance floor for some time. When he turned back, Joey and JC were arguing half-heartedly about the most recent West Wing episode. He interrupted. "You guys know what the fuck you're doing, right?"

Joey easily remembered a time when Lance had worn his proverbial heart on his equally proverbial sleeve. It had been a long time ago, and now everything with Lance was always just a level below, hiding under the cotton blend of his sleeve. Lance's fear, his fierce protectiveness, were close to the surface at this point, though, and Joey didn't think that he had seen that type of apparent emotion from Lance even when Joey had been lying on a stage and thinking he was bleeding to death.

JC knew better than to answer, edging close to Joey so that their knees were pressing with the bones colliding almost harshly. Joey met Lance's eyes. "He can't tear us apart, Lance. Nobody can do that but us anymore."

"It seems to me that the two of you are giving it a damn good go," Lance snapped.

"Lance." It was all JC said, but it was enough. Lance and Joey were best friends because they both knew how to laugh at life, how to take what it gave them and make it their own. JC and Lance were friends because they both thought things through with a deliberation that would have impressed most military tacticians. Lance could trust JC not to rush into anything, ever. It was why, in the end, JC and Joey had gotten Lance's blessing. They balanced each other out.

Lance gave in. "All right. It's your decision, I know that. But if he hurts either one of you, I'll have his balls sucked out of his body with a coffee-stirring spoon before I get down to the business of torturing him to death."

JC swallowed. "You're gonna have to deliver that threat personally. I don’t think you could pay me enough to say those words. Even if it's just repeating them."

Joey's mouth was puckered in a moue of distaste that relayed his agreement. Lance heaved a long-suffering sigh, "Why do I always have to take care of everything on my own?"

*

They got home to find that Nick had fallen asleep on the couch with just about every light in the house still on and 'They Might Be Giants' playing at a considerable decibel level. JC giggled and went to go turn the stereo system off. Joey asked, "Think we should just let him stay here?"

JC came over to the couch and brushed his fingers across Nick's forehead. Nick started. JC apologized, "Hey, sorry. You were sleeping through a concert, I thought it was safe to touch you."

"Noise doesn't phase me," Nick told him in a slightly groggy voice. "AJ taught me to wake up at a touch, though. Said it was a good survival instinct."

Joey sat down on the couch and pulled Nick's feet into his lap. "Are you and AJ okay?"

Nick let his head loll to the side. "As close as we're gonna get to it right at the moment. He told me he wished I weren't doing the album, that he was jealous and sometimes he hated that I always got to be the golden boy, when really, we aren't that much different. I told him that I was jealous of that fact that Denise loved him and not some person she had created in her head and then spent 18 years forcing into existence. He told me that he was in love with Sarah now but that he was never completely gonna get over me and that for that reason alone he'll stand behind my decisions. I told him that I had finally reached the point where I thought I might be able to love someone other than him and I told him about you guys and he sent me back here." Nick brought his head back up to where he could see JC. "He…deep down he's still the same person who taught me how to wake up at a touch so that I would be safe. And I'm still the boy who listened and learned and pretty much believed his every word. So I'm here."

JC leaned over the back of the couch, down so that he could kiss Nick. He lifted up for a second, "We'll do our best to prove him right."

Joey ran his hands up the length of Nick's calves to grasp firmly at the backs of his knees. Nick arched his neck against the armrest, moaning. "Please."

*

Nick woke up in between JC and Joey, who were whispering over his head. Nick grunted, "Morning."

JC looked down at him. "Look who decided to join us."

Nick opened his eyes. The curtains were drawn shut, leaving the room lit but not brightly. "Time izzit?"

Joey glanced at the bedside clock. "Almost noon, sleepyhead."

Nick shrugged as much as he could laying on one side, "I fly across the country yesterday, only to come home to two very demanding men who keep me up half the night and expect me to wake up first thing in the morning? Tell me how this is fair."

JC dropped his head and kissed the ink of the musical note on Nick's arm. "I'll let it pass that you seem to think we were the ones doing most of the demanding."

Nick buried his face in the pillow and Joey watched, in fascination, as the entirety of Nick's torso turned a faint pink. "Aw," he said, meaning it to come out in a sweetly mocking tone and achieving nothing more than slight awe, "you made him blush."

JC laid himself flat over Nick's back and licked at the skin behind his right ear, "Gorgeous."

Joey watched them, JC's long frame draped over Nick's solid one, his curly brown hair tangling with Nick's mop of blond, and agreed. Except for one thing. He moved slightly to where his lips were almost touching the smooth skin of Nick's cheek. He threw an arm over JC's back, amazed as always by the hidden strength that lay quiet under his arm. JC turned his head enough so that his eyes were on Joey's but not enough that his words, spoken nearly without sound, would be heard by Nick. "And complete."


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile