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Brian wrapped the fingers of his left hand around the neck of the guitar, in an F chord formation. He strummed a little bit, trying to concentrate, but his mind was screaming Baylee, Baylee, Baylee and was unlikely to stop anytime soon. In the year since Leighanne had left him, he'd seen his son three times, and every time had been prefaced by an excitement so pure it caused him to shake. He was pretty much useless to everyone -- including himself -- on the day of Baylee's arrival.

It was worse this time. Baylee was coming to stay for the whole of the summer and it was all Brian could do not to break out into dance. Instead, he put aside his guitar and walked out of the studio with a hand signal to the techs to take ten minute break. Once in the hall, he dug his phone out of his pocket and powered it up. He scrolled the menu and found who he wanted to call.

"'Lo?" There was the sound of lapping water in the background.

"Frack," Brian greeted Nick.

"Hey you, we were just talking about you! Okay, so maybe we were making fun of your cowpoke tunes, but there was talking involved."

"Tell your good-for-nothing boyfriend that anyone who wants to record an album of Spanish love songs without pronouns is totally without a leg to stand on in this instance." Brian listened as Nick relayed the message.

Brian didn't, for the most part, regret the group's break up, a little over a year before. The group had done it on their own terms, releasing a final album from their own label and going out with a nice, cozy States-only tour. Howie and Nick had moved in with each other the day after the press conference was held and hadn't since been seen in public without the other. Kevin and Kristen had relocated to New York where she could do television and he could do Broadway. AJ had finally done the solo thing, just to make sure that he could. Brian didn't regret their happiness for a second. He missed them, though. Missed having them in the same room, or at least the same state, so that when he was ready to climb the walls, Nick could climb with him and Kevin could pull them both down. Days like this, he would give up his multi-platinum post-Backstreet country career in a second just to be near them.

There were the sounds of a struggle over the line and when somebody next spoke, it wasn't Nick. "What time is Baylee due in?"

"Hi, D." Brian looked at his watch. "Two hours, thirty three minutes and seventeen seconds. Approximately."

"But who's counting?" Howie laughed. "Are you still at the studio?"

"Yeah, but it's me and a skeleton crew, and we're really just futzing. I don't even start recording until next week. This is just mostly the get-to-know-what's-going-on session, but I mean, they're the same guys I worked with on the last album."

There was no answer from Howie and Brian heard a "what?" that he knew wasn't directed at him. "I say to go home, Nicky says he's got gossip for you."

Brian waited to be passed back, laughing at the half-hearted "don't call me Nicky, Sweet." "Bri?"

"Yeah."

"Okay, so here's the deal. AJ ran into Chasez and Bass in a club some time last week. According to him, they're recording a new album-"

"Him and the rest of the world, Nick. They announced it a month ago. I thought Howie kept you posted on current events."

"Shut up, this is the gossipy part. They're not recording in LA."

Brian squinted and tried to figure out why this might be important news. "Going back to their roots? You and D trying to get a threeway with Kirkpatrick going? I hear he's the only one left, I have it on pretty good authority that Timberlake and Fatone are a thing."

"You have it on my authority, dipshit. I told you that like three months ago. You get all your gossip from me."

"Well, you get all your gossip from AJ," Brian retorted. It was true.

"Besides the point."

"What is the point?" Brian had no clue anymore.

"The point is that they're not coming to Florida to record. They're going to Nashville. To be recording in no other studio than the one you're standing in right at this very moment," Nick finished with a flourish.

Brian nearly dropped the phone. "That doesn't make any sense. Why?"

"A compromise. Timberlake wanted to spend some time with his brother while he's still at home. He wanted to record in Memphis, but the studios in Nashville are much nicer and JC insisted. AJ personally thinks that really, Lance just wanted to be around all those country stars and JC played prima donna on his behalf, but whatever, that's the scoop."

The only thing that came to Brian's mind was, "Huh."

"I hear Joey usually gets his kid over the summer. She's only like a year and a half older than Bay. They could hang together."

Brian had a sudden flash of Great Epic Love growing between the children of two boybanders. He snickered. "Maybe."

"Maybe you should bag Kirkpatrick."

"Nick."

"Seriously, Bri. I know you think that if you never look at a guy again she'll come back, but she won't. She left because you're always gonna be looking, even if you're not admitting that you're looking and honestly, you're both better for it." Nick's tone held an odd mixture of sympathy and frustration.

"I still miss her," Brian told him.

"You still have to live your life."

"We don't even know that Kirkpatrick's gay," Brian pointed out.

There was a moment of silence and Brian knew Nick was gloating. "He slept with AJ."

"Shit, Nick, I'm not sleeping with someone who slept with AJ."

"Dude, it was almost three years ago. AJ was rebounding."

Brian whistled. "No wonder they don't talk."

"AJ kinda feels bad about that," Nick admitted.

"No kidding."

"Seriously, though, he's a catch."

Brian shook his head. "Whatever, Nick. Baylee's gonna be here for three months and I have a record to put out. I don't have time for this."

There was a bit of noise. Howie said, "Brian. It doesn't take you that long."

Nick laughed in the background. Brian hung up and went back to his guitar. At least it didn't make quips about his sexual stamina.

*

Brian was just beginning to relax into the belief that Nick's information had been false when he walked into the studio one morning, Baylee's hand in his, kid-supplies bag hung over one shoulder and guitar hung over the other, to see a roughly four year old female standing in the middle of the hall. She was clutching a stuffed snuffleuffagus that was roughly the size of her torso and looking about with mild panic in her eyes.

Baylee shrieked and let go of Brian's hand, running toward the only other person near to his size he had seen in the week since arriving. "Hi," as with most things Baylee said, the greeting was louder than strictly necessary.

The girl blinked. "I'm lost."

The words had barely left her mouth when a blurred object -- Brian suspected it was human -- careened around the corner and swept her up. "Found you!" Chris Kirkpatrick crowed, kissing the little girl's cheek. "Bri, when we play hide and go seek, you have to pick someplace easy. I thought your daddy was gonna eat me for dinner when I realized I couldn't find you. Where'd you go?"

With one hand, the girl -- who Brian assumed was Briahna Fatone -- clung for dear life to the loose, gregariously ugly Hawaiian t-shirt Chris was sporting. "I hid behind the tree. But you didn't come."

"The courtyard," Chris's tone made it evident that he considered himself the worst kind of idiot. "Next time, we discuss off-limit and on-limit places before we play, yes?" Chris kissed the top of her head and then looked up, seemingly just becoming aware that there were other people in the hall. "Oh. Hi." He stepped a bit closer to Brian. "I'd shake your hand, but um-" He had a death grip on Briahna.

"It's okay," Brian reassured him.

Chris looked down, "You must be Baylee."

"Baylee Thomas Litrell," Baylee replied solemnly.

Chris grinned. "Are you here to help your daddy?"

Baylee nodded. "What's your name?"

"Oh, right. I'm Chris. Chris Kirkpatrick. Your daddy and I have known each other a long time."

Baylee looked suspicious of this information. "I never see you. I see daddy's other friends."

Chris glanced back up at Brian. "Well, maybe you'll start seeing me more often."

Brian didn't respond, just inclined his head to where Briahna was now sleeping against Chris's chest, exhausted from the day's adventure. "You think Joey would mind if we started some kind of two kid daycare?"

"Are you kidding? He'd love it, man. He feels totally guilty that she's cooped up here all day long, but since he only gets to see her summer and certain holidays he can't bear to send her to day camp."

Brian understood. "Great." He glanced at his watch, "Listen, my team's probably waiting for me, but I'm gonna break for lunch at around one, if you wanna send a representative to meet up with me, talk logistics."

"A representative?" Chris arched his eyebrow.

"I just meant it didn't have to be Joey. Not that I would mind if it was," Brian added hastily.

"One o'clock, man." Chris turned, quieting Briahna as she started at the motion. "I gotta go, there's a possibility they might actually need the high end of a line of harmony or two."

Brian laughed. He squatted down next to Baylee. "He's weird."

Baylee nodded vigorously.

*

Brian couldn't resist squeezing Baylee's hand just a bit tighter than he had been when he arrived to find all five members of The World's Most Unwilling to Give Up Ex-Boyband. He asked, "Whatcha want to eat, Bay?"

"Peanabutteranjelly!" Baylee had a tendency to slur words when excited. It drove the actress in Leighanne crazy. Brian had already had to talk her out of getting Baylee a speech therapist twice. He was pretty sure the kid would grow out of it.

"PB&J it is." Brian got himself a turkey club and went to go face the hordes.

"Hey Litrell," Justin held out a hand and Brian came in to slap/shake it in a combination that made him wonder when he'd been deposited back in high school.

"Timberlake." Brian set Baylee up on the booster chair that one of the other guys had grabbed when he had walked in. "Everyone, this is Baylee."

Joey smiled at Baylee. "Baylee, have you met my daughter?" He ran a hand over Briahna's forehead, pushing back her bangs. She looked like she had just woken up from her nap. "This is Briahna."

Baylee smiled his not-yet-toothy smile and set about the business of eating his lunch. Briahna looked down at her macaroni and cheese like it was foreign. Joey whispered, "Not quite awake yet."

Brian took a bite of his sandwich, chewed and swallowed before telling Joey, "There's a day care center here during the school year, but this isn't a big summer recording spot." Which was why Brian generally chose summer to record. It was quiet. "Most people just send their kids to camp, or something. Anyway, I talked with the gal who generally runs it and she says I'm more than welcome to use the rooms so long as nothing gets broken. I was thinking I would hire someone to stay in that area with him while I'm actually in studio. If you wanna go in on that, I'd love for him to have someone to play with."

"Who were you gonna hire?" Lance wanted to know.

Brian wasn't surprised that it was Lance who asked that question. Lance and Kevin couldn't be left alone in a room for more than three seconds without mortal peril being involved. They were simply too alike. "Girl from my neighborhood, Erin. She's a middle school teacher during the year and when I talked to her she sounded thrilled to be picking up some extra cash."

"She has credentials, right? Other parents who will vouch for her?"

Brian wanted to tell Lance that operation or no operation, he should go easy on his heart. "She grew up in the neighborhood, there isn't a family for miles who didn't use her at one point or another." Brian wondered if Lance thought he was some kind of incompetent father.

JC put a hand over Lance's, "She sounds great. What do you think, Joey?"

Joey turned ever so slightly to Justin. Something that Brian missed passed between them and Joey shrugged, "Sounds great. Just tell me how much my half is, okay?"

"Um, sure," Brian answered, busy wondering when exactly Chris had come to sit beside Baylee and how it was that the man had managed to spur Baylee's mess-making propensity to even greater heights. Chris must have felt the scrutiny because he caught Brian's eyes, crinkling his own sheepishly. Baylee squealed with joy and Brian let go of any fledgling anger that had been building inside him.

*

It took Brian less than a week to notice that Briahna had obviously become the coolest thing in Baylee's two-and-a-half year old world. The first time Leighanne had called after the two began sharing daycare, Baylee had informed her, "Bwee!! Bwee!!"

Confused, Leighanne had gone with it until she could ask Brian, "Why was our son making car noises at me when I asked if he was having a good time?"

It took Brian a minute, but he managed to detect the problem and clarify.

The morning after that conversation, Chris was still in the daycare room when Brian arrived to drop off Baylee. Brian chatted with Erin for a few minutes, making sure everything was going well for her and that she didn't need anything. When he got to the door, Chris was still there. So Brian ventured, "'Morning."

Chris walked with Brian into the hall as he agreed conditionally, "It still has the potential to be so. Listen, I have a favor to ask."

"Ask away," Brian carefully did not promise he could help.

"I'm not sure what you're up on and what you're not as far as us five go, but Joey and Justin drive down to Memphis every weekend to spend time at La Homestead Timberlake." He pronounced it Teeemberlake.

Brian nodded, "I caught that."

"They usually take Briahna, but Justin's having his quarterly freak out over life and Joey asked if JC and Lance could take her for the weekend so that they can spend a little bit of quality time alone when they're not hanging with Jonathon. Thing is, C and Lance have had plans to drive down to the Bass Plantation this weekend for well over a month, and, understandably, don't want a four year old in the car with them."

"Yeah, no kidding," Brian shivered at the thought. "So I guess that leaves you."

"That's exactly who it leaves, and I mean, don't get me wrong, I took care of my sisters from the time I was a kid, so I'm totally competent and all, regardless of what you're probably thinking from the times you've seen me around Bay and Bri, but I was thinking, if you're up to it, that maybe we could do something this weekend, just for adult company while taking care of the wee ones." Chris stopped outside the door to his studio. "They like each other, so they'd probably be thrilled, I bet."

Brian couldn't fault that logic. "Did you have something in mind?"

"There's a park by the place I'm renting. I was thinking take-out picnic."

"Healthy take-out," Brian stressed, "I don't care what you put in yours but mine's gonna grow up with healthy bones and teeth that won't fall out." And a heart that ticks.

"You can be in charge of food then, I'll pay you back."

Brian waved the offer aside, "Just bring blankets. Mine are all packed away until wintertime."

"Between the five of us, I'll bet I can find a few. Lance and JC are always cold. If this group functioned with any kind of logic, each of them would have chosen one of the warm-blooded members, such as Joey, Justin or myself to pair off with, but there you have it."

Brian surveyed Chris. His hair needed cutting and his t-shirt had moth holes around the hem. He was Brian's size and his eyes reminded Brian of laughter. "I don’t think logic tends to enter into these kinds of things."

"No," Chris shook his head. "More's the pity." He turned and cracked the door to the studio so that JC and Justin's warm up scales floated through. "Saturday at say, noon? I'll leave written directions with Erin to give to you when you get Bay this evening."

Brian was going to say, "I wouldn't have expected you to be this much of a planner," but Chris slipped in the door before Brian's mouth caught up to his brain.

*

Chris was already at the park when Brian arrived, cautiously escorting Briahna along her trip across the monkey bars. When she made it, he threw her in the air and shouted, "You strong, girl!"

She caught sight of Baylee and squirmed out of Chris's hold. She hit the ground at a run and didn't stop until she was nearly on top of Baylee. Brian had to keep himself from flinching -- Baylee was small to begin with, and at a year and half older than him, Briahna towered over the kid. Baylee seemed unharmed by her hug of greeting, however, and followed her placidly, trusting her older-kid coolness to get them somewhere worthwhile.

"So," Chris rubbed his hands together, "what'd you bring us? Our stomachs are making odd and curious noises."

"You sure that's not your mouth?" Brian worked to keep a straight face.

"Oh, right." Chris shoved Brian hard enough to make him stumble. "I keep mixing those two up."

Brian chuckled. "Where are the blankets?"

Chris led him to a patch of ground underneath a few trees. It was close to the creek that flowed around the border of the park. Chris explained, "Bri likes the bridge. She thinks it's cool that the water goes under her."

Brian made a mental note to see what Baylee thought of it. He glanced back to where the kids were, a few feet away. There was a wheel-like apparatus coming off one side of the jungle gym that Briahna was "driving". Brian could hear Baylee's "vroom" noises grow louder and then sputter as he ran out of breath. He looked away to unpack the food, unworried. Chris hadn't taken his eyes off of them yet.

"He looks just like you," Chris commented.

"You're not playing fair," Brian told him, trying to ignore the soft band of warmth that had stolen around his chest at Chris's words.

"Oh?" Chris plucked up a Tupperware. "Grapes, yummy."

"Save some for the kids," Brian scolded. And then, "You can't use my kid to get me in bed."

"On the contrary, it's a time-tested, kid-approved, experts-recommended way of going about it."

Brian fought not to be grateful that Chris wasn't going to dance around the subject. "No, Chris. I don't do casual. Leighanne was supposed to be casual. Everyone I ever slept with was supposed to be. They never are." Brian set the potato salad down forcefully.

"Are you over her? I mean…I don’t really know much about what happened. You guys were pretty good about staying quiet and I told J and Lance that was industry shit I didn't wanna hear, but you probably know, uh. Me and AJ. That's something I don't do. Not after that."

Brian made a note to self to hit AJ the next time they were within hitting distance. "My wife left because me because I was fantasizing about men in order to sleep with her. She doesn't know that I always did it and I hope she never finds out. I hurt her enough by pretending to be something I wasn't and the last thing I want is to hurt her -- or anybody else -- more. But I miss her. Every time I sing one of my sad songs, the one's Nick always puts extra twang into whenever he's making fun of me, all of those are about her. Because I loved her. Maybe love her, I dunno, I try not to think about it."

"Well, at least there's that. AJ was still in his hating Sarah phase. And really, sometime when you talk to him, could you tell him I'm over the bitterness and that he should call me? It was probably as much my fault as his anyway. It takes two stupid people to do anything that phenomenally…um, stupid." Chris glanced down to see that all the food was unpacked. "You wanna get the kids?"

Brian nodded. He understood an implicit, "I need to think about this," when he heard one. He headed to where Briahna was waiting for Baylee at the end of the small slide.

*

Brian called AJ after he put a completely exhausted Baylee down for a nap.

"Bri?" AJ was a serious devotee of caller ID.

"How you doing, Aje?"

"I hear you're back in Pop City Central. Through no fault of your own, mind you."

Brian flopped down on his bed. AJ was even more upfront than Chris. Brian realized it was probably best for the world's overall safety that the timing hadn't worked out correctly for them. "Chris Kirkpatrick says to tell you that he's over you and that you should call him."

"Nobody ever gets over me, baby."

"Mm." Brian had. Not that AJ would ever find out there had been something to get over in the first place. "Seriously, Aje, you should call him."

"Why? I was, quite possibly, the biggest dick ever to him. If I were him, I wouldn't want me calling."

"You're not him," Brian felt the need to point out. "And I don't want you fighting with someone I'm thinking about dating."

AJ made a noise that sounded incredibly squeak-like. "Really? Brian Thomas Litrell is thinking about getting back on the horse? This is historic. Wait, have you told Nick or Kevin? Because I'm probably not the first person who should know about this, I'll tell, you totally know I'll tell-"

"Aje, slow down."

"Slow down? This is the first time you've looked at a guy since you met Leighanne and you want me to slow down?"

"Yes." Brian considered telling AJ he'd never stopped looking. He didn't. AJ's point in its purest form still stood. "I said I was thinking about it. Emphasis on the thinking."

"Leaps and bounds from where you've been since the divorce, Bri."

Brian rubbed his forehead. "Could you maybe use this exuberance of yours to call Chris and say hi with? Please?"

"For you, I'll think about it," AJ offered, with a sense of his own magnanimity in his tone.

"I'm touched," Brian said dryly.

"Where?" AJ asked.

*

"Basketball," was the proposal, Justin picking Briahna up and throwing her into the air. "What say you, Litrell?"

Brian looked down to where his own kid was staring expectantly up at him, arms high in the air. Brian tossed Baylee above his head, catching him easily. "When and where?"

"The court at my athletic club. I paid a year's fee to have access to it, might as well use it." Justin hoisted Briahna over his head again, burying his face into her stomach and blowing raspberries.

"Who’s gonna watch the kids?" Brian tickled absently behind Baylee's ear, adjusting so that he wouldn't drop Baylee as he squirmed.

"Joe and Lance. They only come to watch C and I sweat, anyway. They ought to be contributing something to the cause."

"Oh. JC's gonna play?"

Justin bent down fluidly to pick up Briahna's toy-and-snack bag. "Yeah, him and Chris. Thought we'd get a little two-on-two going. Don't worry, we're pairing it short guy with tall guy."

Brian arranged his face into the smoothest screw you he knew how to convey nonverbally. "Don’t do me any favors. Chris and I could take your scrawny A-S-S every day of the week and twice on Sundays."

Justin smiled in a way that made Brian think twice about what he had just said. "Good, you and Chris can play as a team, then."

Brian didn't have to think three times. "Fine, then."

Briahna tugged at Justin's neckline. "Uncle Justin!"

Justin looked at her, "Yes, missy?"

"I wanna go see daddy."

Justin tucked a curl that had fallen out of her pony-tail behind her ear. "Me too, sugar. Lemme just finish up with Baylee's daddy, 'kay?"

Briahna sighed the sigh of the severely put-upon and laid her head on Justin's shoulder. "O-kaaay."

"So tomorrow then, after recording? Maybe four? One of us'll bring dinner. Kid-friendly, I promise. We'll make Lance in charge of it."

"You're on," Brian promised.

*

Brian was distracted by the sight of Briahna teaching Baylee the rules of basketball using Lance as a basket up until Justin made the first goal. That was the last easy goal either team made.

Justin and JC had height on their side, but Chris was wily and, like Brian, played with an excess of determination. By the time JC sat down in the middle of the court and refused to play anymore, the game had been tied for twenty minutes. Having handed the kids over to Joey, Lance made his way cautiously into the middle -- Chris, Brian and Justin were playing around JC -- collected his boyfriend, and whistled sharply.

Justin fell out of the air halfway to the basket. He glared at Lance, "Yo, I thought we agreed, none of that dog-whistling sh..tuff."

"The agreement was forfeit the minute you started trampling around with Jace under foot."

JC sighed and fluttered his eyelashes, "My hero."

Lance frowned, "Oh sure. Thank you, Lance, I really appreciate your efforts to keep me from having designer tread marks all over my previously unblemished skin. No, really, whatever can I do to make it up-"

JC started making it up to him in the middle of the court. Chris shook his head and pulled Brian past the two of them. Justin joined up, attempting to knock Lance and JC over as he walked by. He nearly skipped up to Joey, "I was gonna win."

"Mm," Joey agreed without hesitation, "I could really tell that by the gridlock you had going. Take Bri to the bathroom, wouldja, she's fidgety."

"Tell me you love me first," Justin demanded, quite obviously feeling a bit unappreciated.

Joey's smile was small, more just a crinkling of his face, but he looked at Justin while breaking into it. Justin smiled back, "Good enough." He held out his hand, "Hey Bri, I need to go potty, wanna come with?"

Briahna hopped out of her seat and latched onto Justin faster than Brian had technically thought possible. He looked down to where Chris was already socializing with Baylee. "How's the lunch, man?"

Baylee held up a sippy cup, "Kool-aid!"

"Yeah? What kind?"

"Puple!" Baylee's "r" sounds still weren't entirely clear, but it was obvious what he was saying.

"Oh," Chris nodded seriously, "my favorite flavor."

Brian noticed the empty plate in front of his son and crouched on the side of him that Chris wasn't occupying. "You eat everything on your plate, big guy?"

"Yes." Baylee smiled widely.

"Good boy. You and me'll share an ice cream when the truck comes around this evening, okay?"

Baylee's eyes went wide. He liked to sing along with the ice cream truck and his favorite ice creams were anything that had more than one color in it. "We going home?"

"Soon," Brian told him. "Daddy needs to shower."

Chris laughed, catching Brian's eyes. "Seriously Bay, your daddy stinks. You better get him home and under some water."

Baylee took Chris very seriously. "I need to say bye to Bwee."

Chris turned to see Justin and the girl in question heading back in their direction. He pulled Baylee out of the chair and set him on his feet, "You go do that."

As soon as Baylee was off, running toward Briahna, Chris turned his attention to Brian. "Jace and Lance owe me a favor for last weekend. Have dinner with me, they'll keep Bay."

Brian bit his lower lip, considering the man in front of him. A man who played basketball with much the same lack of finesse, overabundance of joy that he did. A man who had purple kool-aid smeared on his cheek from when one of Baylee's hands had accidentally collided with it while being pulled out of the chair. "You like shrimp?"

Chris's face took to looking amazingly like Baylee's when Brian had mentioned the ice cream man.

*

The Shrimp Shack was one of Brian's few true indulgences. Despite the casual name, it was housed in an old mansion, converted to hold nearly one hundred fish tanks that colored the place one shade of blue or another, depending on the time of day. The mansion was on the outskirts of town and the menu was pricey, but both hassles were worth the food. Brian was of the opinion that a trip to hell and back might be worth the Shack's signature dishes.

To make things easier, Brian had picked Chris up at Lance and JC's place, dropping Baylee off as he did so. Baylee screamed a bit but then calmed down when JC suggested they go have some macaroni and cheese. JC had stage whispered, "The macaroni looks like Mickey Mouse."

Chris was as decked out as Brian had yet seen him since that first day at the studio, in black cargo pants and a button down shirt. He had looked nervously at Brian, in his trousers and sports jacket, "Uh, was I supposed to dress?"

Brian shook his head. "I'm old-fashioned."

When they got to the restaurant and were seated, Chris waited all of ten seconds before admitting, "I have to go explore, I'll be totally distracted all evening if I don't."

Brian waved him away, understanding. "I walked around so many times my first time here that the wait-staff laughed at me. Discreetly."

Chris bounded back to the table after several minutes, "There's a shark in one of those tanks. A baby one."

"I know, Nick made me request the table by that tank last time he was in town." Brian still felt Nick's absence every time he thought of him. He distracted himself by asking, "How's the album going?"

Chris twiddled with his fork. "Slowly. Justin and JC love each other, but in the studio, man…sometimes I wish I could put a metal detector on the door, just for the safety of everyone involved."

"Kevin and Nick. I hear that." Brian twisted his mouth wistfully. "You look tired."

Chris leaned back in his chair. "I'm getting too old for it, maybe. Most of the time I want to leave, come back when they're done screaming at each other over this thing or that thing."

"You want to quit?" Brian frowned. It was hard to imagine, even having wanted it at some point himself. "You guys seem so-"

"Codependent?" Chris offered.

Brian considered the word. "No. I mean, yes, of course, you've practically borrowed each other's skin since you were kids, so that pretty much goes without saying. It's more that…look, Kevin's my cousin, and I think of all the guys as brothers. But we're good at going our own ways. We tend to need space. It doesn't mean we don't need each other, we just know that sometimes it's necessary for a person to be a phone call away. You guys aren't like that. It's not just that you function better as a group than as one, it's that it's not always apparent where one of you ends and another begins."

"That's what happens when four of the five are sleeping together. It gets confusing for me too," Chris admitted gravely.

Brian wondered if he would have been that at ease if everyone in Backstreet had paired off without him. It only strengthened his earlier impression of NSYNC. He decided to push the issue. "Does it make you feel left out?"

"No. I've never, well, okay, I maybe had a teensy crush on Joe when we started, but not since then and none of the others, so no. I went through this thing -- right when they had all finally just sucked it up and admitted what was happening -- where I thought I wanted them, but it was mostly just displaced emotion. I was jealous of what they had, not who they had."

Brian appreciated the way Chris didn't weight his words with more significance than their surface worth.

"What about you? I mean, Howie and Nick."

Brian crinkled his nose. "Brothers. Honestly, I'm not even sure how they manage it. I miss my wife. People have this conception that marriage has to be perfect for it to work, but I loved her, female and all."

"Look, if this is too personal, you don’t have to answer, but how did she-"

"Find out?" Brian looked away. "I told her. I uh, I made a mistake, on our last tour. One of Nick and Howie's mutual friends was on the tour with them and y'know, it'd been a long time since I'd, well, and so I did. I couldn't not tell her about it."

"Why not?" Chris's words held something more than curiosity or incredulity, but Brian couldn't pin down what it was.

The best answer Brian could manage was, "She was my wife. Baylee's mother." They were silent for a bit before Brian added, "She left me so I could be happy. She was angry at first, so angry, but in the end, she just wanted me to be happy."

Chris ventured, "Are you?"

Brian's eyes followed the path of a yellow-finned fish, swimming in fast circles around itself. "I'm not unhappy."

Chris breathing was sharp. "Would I have a chance of making you happy?"

Brian snapped his gaze back to Chris, whose eyes were impenetrable in the growing darkness of the restaurant. Brian thought he probably knew what lay behind them. He sat forward a bit, bumping his knees against Chris's. "There's always a chance."

*

Baylee was already sleeping when Brian got back to Lance and JC's to pick him up. He felt warm against Brian's chest when JC handed him over. Brian kissed Baylee's forehead. "They play hard?"

"Wore me and Lance out," JC told him.

Baylee was a deep sleeper so it didn't surprise Brian that he never woke up on the way home, or even when Brian carried him inside and put him to bed. He was glad Lance and JC had made Baylee change into the pajamas Brian had provided before falling asleep. Brian tucked Baylee in securely, ruffled his hair and wished him a "'night, bay-bay."

Baylee murmured something nonsensical and turned over. Brian walked down the hall to his room, slipped out of his clothes, brushed his teeth and nearly fell into bed, exhausted.

It felt like three minutes had passed when he woke to the sounds of hysterical sobs coming through the monitor on his nightstand. He was out of bed before his eyes were open, down the hall and in Baylee's room practically without being aware he was moving. The smell of vomit was strong, reaching down the hall. Brian reached over the pool of it on the floor beside the bed and pulled Baylee to him. He jogged to the phone, Baylee screaming in his ear, smelling sour and emanating far too much heat.

There was a magnet with the children's emergency hotline number on it that Brian kept over the ice maker on the freezer, so that he never had to look in a situation like this. He dialed with one hand, holding Baylee tightly with the other one. He tried to soothe Baylee. "Shh, sweetie, daddy's gonna make it better. Shhh."

The phone rang twice before a woman answered, "Children's emergency hotline, how can I assist?"

"My son is running a fever and vomiting." Brian kept his words clipped and separate, trying not to panic. Baylee's screams settled to whimpers.

"Okay sir, how old is your son?"

"Two and a half."

"Is there a pediatrician who he goes to regularly? I can help you," she assured him, "but someone who's familiar with your son is best."

"He lives with his mom in Atlanta during the year."

"Okay. First of all, stay calm. Getting upset isn't going to help him. Now, do you have a thermometer in the house?"

Brian moved, one hand holding the phone to his ear, the other still grasping Baylee, to the bathroom, where he opened the medicine cabinet and found what he was seeking. "Yeah, I've got it."

"Okay, take his temperature and tell me what it is."

"I'm gonna put the phone down for a second," Brian warned.

"I'll be waiting."

Brian laid the phone on the sink ledge and settled Baylee onto the toilet seat. He pushed the button on the end of the thermometer to turn it on and settled it, plastic covering the tip, into Baylee's ear. Baylee made a short sound of protest. Brian murmured, "Shh, I know."

The thermometer beeped and Brian picked the phone up. "One hundred and one."

"Good, not ridiculously high. It sounds like your son has a bit of the flu. You need to see if he can take water. If he can, get as much as you can in him and try and get him back to sleep. If he can't, take him to the emergency room. Do you know where your nearest hospital is?"

"Yes." Brian had a map of every location that might be important for Baylee's sake and a route of how to get there pinned up on the wall of his living room.

"He's gonna be fine, sir. I'm sure when you were a kid you got flues all the time. We all do, it's part of not having a fully developed immune system."

Brian cringed, trying not to relive what being sick had meant for him as a little kid. He thanked the woman and hung up. He hoisted Baylee onto his hip and walked to the living room, propping him against the couch cushions. "Daddy'll be right back, he's just gonna get some water."

Brian got water and a bowl along with a change of pajamas. He pulled the old pair off of Baylee and swathed him in the news ones. He had Baylee spit some of the water into the bowl before allowing him to swallow a sip. Brian waited a full minute, timed by the ticking of the grandfather clock in the hall, in between allowing Baylee each sip. When Baylee had made it through the entire cup and not thrown up, he offered, "You wanna sleep in daddy's bed tonight?"

Baylee nodded, his eyes drooping.

"C'mon." Brian picked him up again, carrying him to his room and settling him safely in the middle of the bed. He waited until Baylee's breath evened out to go get cleaning supplies from the hallway closet and attack the rug in Baylee's room. He called Leighanne as he was scrubbing.

Someone male and groggy picked up the phone. "Hello?"

Brian remembered Leighanne emailing him something about a guy, but he had ignored the details and responded with vaguely happy comments. "Is Leighanne there?"

"It's two in the morning, who is this?"

"This is Brian, it's about Baylee."

"Oh," there was a bit of rustling and some whispering, "of course, here she is."

"Brian? What is it? What's wrong?" Leighanne's voice croaked.

"Sorry, I probably should've waited until morning. Baylee's got the flu. He's running a fever and he puked all over. I called an emergency hotline and did what they told me to do. He's keeping water down so far but I'm shaking like a leaf and am worried that I maybe suck at this parenting thing so I thought I'd wake you up at two in the am just to reassure myself." Brian scrubbed vigorously at a patch of carpeting.

"Okay hon, calm down. You said he took water?" More rustling followed.

"Yeah, a whole cup. And he hasn't thrown it up yet."

"How long has it been?"

Brian looked at the face of Baylee's circus-themed clock, lit just enough by the nightlight to determine the actual time. "Little over a half an hour, I'd say."

"Is he sleeping?"

"Yeah, I put him in my bed."

"Did you take his temperature before he fell asleep?"

Brian's heart hitched. "Was I supposed to?"

"It's not necessary, I just wanted to know if the water had cooled him down any. What was he when you first took it?"

"Hundred and one."

"Well, not great, but he spiked at one-oh-three last winter when he got that infection. Just take his temp again when he wakes up, then call and tell me what's going on, all right?"

Brian sprayed some more carpet cleaner onto the now-sopped surface and watched it foam. "Yeah. All right." He was about to say goodnight when something made him say, "Leigh?"

"Bri?"

"I went out on a date with Chris Kirkpatrick tonight."

To his surprise, she giggled. "I'm sleeping with my director."

Brian smirked. "So much for conflicts of interest."

"Chris…really?" Her voice squeaked in a way that reminded Brian how much fun it was to gossip with her.

"Really."

"Did you have a good time?" The question suggested she wanted details, but wasn't going to ask.

"He's funny." That was Brian's highest compliment.

"Oh, man. Watch out world."

Brian smiled and got back to scrubbing. "I just wanted you to know."

"I'm glad you told me. Other than this little speed bump, our guy's doing okay, yeah?"

"Yeah, he's in love with Briahna."

"Just like his daddy with those older women."

Brian said quietly, "I miss you."

"Me too, babe. More than I think you know. But I'm exhausted and my boss is keeping the bed warm for me, so I'm gonna hang up and expect you to call me in the morning," she ordered casually.

"I'm gonna let him sleep, I'll call you when he wakes up."

"Works for me. Night, love." There was a click at the other end of the line and Brian pressed the off button before the dial tone could start up.

*

In the late morning, after Baylee had woken up, taken some water in, submitted to having the thermometer in his ear, and fallen back asleep, Brian called Leighanne to tell her that his temperature had dropped by a degree. She advised him to keep checking every few hours along with pouring liquid into Baylee when he could and to call her again in the evening.

Moments after he had hung up, the phone rang, and Brian hastened to pick it up. "'Lo?"

"Brian?"

"Hey Chris."

"Is Baylee all right? Erin said you called and told her to tell Joey that Bay had come down with something and we might wanna be on the look out with Bri."

"Just a little flu," Brian reassured him. "Briahna's okay?"

"So far as we can tell, but Joey kept his cell with the techs in case Erin needs to get a hold of him."

"Probably a good idea." Brian sat down on the couch and closed his eyes. If he rounded up he could say he'd gotten three hours of sleep.

"How are you? It's kinda weird without you here. It's like the pop invasion has come to Nashville and the last barrier has been overtaken."

Brian snickered. "Worry not. Me and my twang will return before you can say dirty pop. Right after I get some sleep and my kid stops acting as a naturally-fueled heater."

"You sound exhausted."

"I didn't get much sleep in before Bay got sick and then I was too freaked to sleep," Brian admitted.

"First time he's been sick around you?" Chris guessed.

"Well, not exactly, but the first time was when I was still with Leigh and she held my hand as much as she did Baylee's through the whole thing."

There was a small hitch in Chris's breath. "Would you…I could come over. After taping today. Maybe bring you some dinner, so you don't have to worry about it. Watch Baylee so you can get a little sleep. Cuddle."

All three parts of the offer made it attractive, but Brian knew it was the last that made him answer, "That sounds really nice."

Chris blurted out, "It does?"

Brian nodded his head, unseen. "Yeah. Could you maybe bring cherry Popsicles? I'll reimburse you."

"I think I can take the hit. Comfort food?"

"When I was living with Howie and Kevin, before all of this, we used to buy kool-aid in bulk when it would go on sale and use it for just about everything. Howie always froze the cherry-flavored kind in a Popsicle mold so that we could eat 'em after we'd been in the warehouse all day."

"Cherry Popsicles it is then. Anything else?"

"Well, something else. That's not really a nutritious dinner."

Chris snorted, "Yeah, yeah."

"I'll trust you."

"Dangerous," Chris warned.

"I live for danger."

*

In spite of the warning, Chris showed up with a completely balanced meal, three jugs of Gatorade -- on the chance that Baylee was feeling well enough to drink some -- and the promised cherry Popsicles.

Brian hugged him.

Chris asked, "Can I see the patient?"

Brian took him into his room, where Baylee was still sprawled out safely in the middle of the bed. His eyes opened sleepily at the sound of the door opening. "Daddy."

Brian sat on the edge of the bed and pulled Baylee into his lap. He kissed his forehead. It was cooler than earlier. "Chris came to see us."

Baylee was already sleeping again. Chris laughed softly and ran a hand over the top of Baylee's head. "Poor kid. C'mon, let's get you something to eat."

Brian got Baylee resettled and closed the door behind them as they left. Chris was already in the kitchen by the time Brian made it down the hall, having gone while Brian was still futzing with the covers. Chris looked up as Brian came in, "Hope you like the basics. Roast chicken, mashed taters, salad."

"As long as it was made by someone that wasn't you or someone you know."

"That might be a problem." Chris spooned some of the potatoes onto a plate. "I've made friends with the people at the grocery store."

"I suppose the statement could be modified slightly," Brian wasn't in the mood to quibble.

Chris handed him a plate and a fork. "Dig in. No cherry goodness until you eat your dinner."

Brian ate slowly, too hungry for any good to come out of shoveling things down. Chris finished long before him, but to Brian's amazement, stayed still, waiting for Brian to catch up. When Brian finished, Chris stole his plate before Brian could get to his feet and rinsed both plates, sticking them in the dishwasher.

Chris grabbed a Popsicle from the freezer. "Mind sharing?"

Brian was full enough to shake his head, "No."

Chris unwrapped the frozen treat and took a quick swipe at the tip of it with his tongue before handing it to Brian. Brian contemplated whether he could go to hell for thinking about sex while his son was suffering from influenza. He decided it was a moot point and stuck as much of the Popsicle as he could get into his mouth.

Before long, Chris motioned for Brian to hand it back. Brian waited for a few seconds but conceded. Chris bit some of the top off and handed it back to Brian. Brian told him, "You're a surprisingly neat eater."

"You expected something else?"

Brian had expected a lot of something elses when it came to Chris, but that information was still classified so far as he was concerned. "Maybe, yeah."

Chris explained, "Messy eating is fun for the like, twelve minutes that you're doing it for, but then you've gotta clean everything up. Very counterproductive."

"I can see your point." Brian spent more time than he would have technically desired cleaning up after Baylee. Carefully, he took a large chunk of red ice off the wooden stick with his teeth. He handed the stick back to Chris.

Chris took a smaller piece and waited for Brian to finish swallowing before handing the Popsicle back. Brian opened his eyes at Chris in the international expression of "mind if I finish this?" Chris dipped his head slightly in assent. Brian took the last part of the Popsicle in his mouth. He had just barely swallowed when he felt Chris's tongue swipe gently at the corner of his mouth.

Chris backed up almost immediately. "Oh, um, there was… Was that too much?"

Brian leaned in and sucked softly at the red tinting of Chris's lower lip.

"Not too much, then," Chris gleaned.

"Not too much," Brian repeated. He tossed the stick into the sink. "I'll deal with that later. You offered to cuddle."

"I did," Chris said, as though he was surprised anyone paid enough attention to remember the things he said.

"I have a really soft couch in the other room," Brian advertised.

"Yay for soft couches."

*

Chris stayed over, sleeping on one side of Baylee with Brian on the other. Both men woke at the slightest sound from Baylee, continually taking his temperature and tempting him with Gatorade.

When Brian finally willed himself to get up, sunlight was fighting to stream through the closed curtains. Baylee was still asleep, drenched in sweat but cool to the touch. Brian was pretty sure that was a good sign. He got up to use the restroom and get himself a glass of milk. There was a note on the table, "I had to get to the studio. I thought I'd bring dinner again tonight, so if your door isn't locked against me, I'll see you then."

Brian considered getting up to lock the door but instead swiped his cell phone from the charger on the counter and dialed memory one. A woman's voice answered, "Kevin's phone, I'm just the unpaid help."

"He still not pitching in for the room and board?" Brian asked his cousin-in-law.

"I tell you, Bri. I don't know why I keep him around."

"Perhaps it's for the sex," Brian suggested.

"He is pretty good at that," she admitted.

"TMI, Kris."

"You started it."

Brian sighed.

"You wanna talk to him?"

"Please." Brian heard the phone being handed over.

"Hey cous." Kevin's voice had become even more mellow in the year since the group had broken it off. The Southerner in him practically bled from each syllable.

Brian fought the urge to close his eyes again. "I'm going to have a homosexual relationship with Christopher Kirkpatrick."

There was a pause. "Have you told your momma?"

"You were first on the memory dial. She's fourth."

"How many people you gonna call?" Kevin sounded caught between amusement and alarm.

"I thought I'd stop with mom."

"Do you feel better, having said it?"

Brian wasn't sure, so instead he answered, "He helped me take care of a sick Baylee." He followed it more quietly with, "He took care of me."

"Nick and Howie started a pool, y'know."

Brian had long ago learned that getting mad over things like that would only encourage them. "Who won?"

"I think AJ was closest. Bastard probably had the inside track. Him and JC talk all the time."

"JC talks to everyone, Kev."

"But he says things to AJ."

Brian couldn't dispute that. He'd never met anyone who had the art of talking without actually giving anything away down better than JC. Even when he seemed like he was telling secrets, he almost never was. "So you're good with this?"

"I say this with the utmost fondness, Brian. You're a dipshit. The things I'm not okay with… I wasn't okay when your wife left you and you spent a month writing bad country songs and not showering. I wasn't okay when you got sick and we weren't sure we could fix you. Those are the things I'm not okay with. You trying to be happy I'm always gonna be just fine with. Catch my drift?"

Brian was generally pretty happy with his corner of the world. His guitar and the songs that he pulled out of it, his perfect little son and his best friends and the person he had learned to be over the years. Every once in a while, though, it was nice to hear that other people were happy with him as well. "You're cool with me having a boyfriend. Even if he's a member of Nstinky."

"Even if," Kevin summed up.

Brian considered locking the door after Chris had come inside.

*

Chris came bearing gifts. He shuffled in the house, dumping food along with a multitude of stuffed toys and games down on the kitchen table. Gesturing at the non-food items he explained, "My boys are worried about Baylee. They're get-well gifts."

"He has the flu." While Brian was willing to admit that the first few hours had been pretty scary, all things considered, it took a lot more than some vomiting and a raised temperature to get him worked up.

Chris shrugged. "Justin bought Lance a Harley the last time he had to go in for surgery. It's just a thing."

Brian was momentarily distracted from the main point, "Does Lance even like bikes?"

"Not really, Justin sucks at giving gifts. He assumes everyone wants the things he does. It's mostly the thought that counts with him."

"AJ to a tee, man," Brian sympathized.

"Why do you think I slept with him?" Chris's eyes went wide. "Maybe I shouldn't have said that."

Brian tried to think past the rushing in his ears. "Was it like that the whole time? Was he just a substitute for you?"

Chris blinked. "I meant the first time. The first time I slept with him, it was because he reminded me of Justin. J and Joey had just gotten together and I was fifth wheel like never before and he could've reminded me of any of the guys and I would have taken him up on his offer to go back to his room, okay? I'm not saying what I did was right, but I didn't mean any harm. And when I went back for a second and a third and a fourth it was him I was going back for. By the time…when he broke it off, there wasn't anyone in the world I could substitute in for him. Joke was on me, in a way."

Brian put a hand on Chris's shoulder. "I'm sorry. I just…I was worried that-"

"I might be putting you in for Joey," Chris guessed, "or Lance?"

"It's not that big a stretch," Brian defended himself.

"Maybe not on the surface," Chris conceded, pulling Brian's free hand to the center of his chest, "but I think we've scratched a bit below that."

Brian, feeling bold, rewarded that thought with a kiss.

*

By the time morning rolled around, Baylee had been fever free for nearly twenty-four hours, sleeping for an equal amount of time and was positively bouncing off the walls. Brian and Chris managed, as a team, to get him sitting long enough to eat a bowl of oatmeal with cut up bananas.

Chris started toward the bathroom, "I'm gonna go pack up my stuff."

Brian caught his wrist with the hand that wasn't wiping Baylee's face. "You could leave it. If you wanted."

"Then I'll just go brush my teeth. How much longer you think before you can be out the door?" Chris didn't sound rushed, just curious.

Baylee's face was clean, so Brian estimated, "Twenty minutes. I'm ready, I just gotta get him in the game."

"Wanna carpool? I'll even offer up my chariot's services."

Brian laughed. He had seen what Chris had parked in his drive way. It was by no means a clunker, but it was at least six years old, with four doors and had the look of a car that Chris used when he thought nobody was paying attention. "I'll take tomorrow then. That way we're splitting gas expenses."

"Way to make my offer of tentative cozy domesticity feel like ten years of marriage is already a thing of the past."

"Anytime." Brian pulled Baylee from the high chair and set him on the floor. "Go get your clothes, big guy."

Baylee ran off enthusiastically, tripping over his own feet and getting up without being phased twice before he even made it down the hall. Brian made himself stay where he was, remembering the first time Baylee had ever fallen, when Leighanne had made herself wait until he started crying to comfort him, even then reassuring him firmly that he was all right. She had commented, "I have four drama queens as pseudo-brother-in-laws, I don't need my child to be one."

Chris murmured the word, "Brave," when Baylee had disappeared into his room.

Brian took a shaky breath, "It never feels that way."

"Doesn't change the fact that it is. I'm gonna go brush my teeth so that I can kiss you without feeling like a…heel," Chris finished as Baylee returned, pants streaming out of one hand, shirt and underwear out of the other.

Brian pried the clothes loose from Baylee's fist, smiling up at Chris, "Do that. I'll even think about kissing back."

That was evidently all the incentive Chris needed to hustle the rest of the way to the bathroom.

*

JC had been watching his recording session for nearly half an hour when Brian finally put down his guitar and called for a ten minute break. He could have done it when he'd first seen JC swilling orange juice and watching the techs in rapt fascination, but he knew what JC was here for and felt that it was only fair he be left to sweat a bit. After all, Brian didn't have anyone around to do his vetting for him.

In light of all that, it was somewhat frustrating that JC evidently didn't sweat. "That's a gorgeous song. You write it?"

"I, uh. Consulted on it," Brian hedged.

JC nodded, "Sometimes that's fun, too."

"You pick the short straw?" Brian motioned for JC to follow him down the hall. The orange juice looked good. "I'll buy you another bottle." JC's was almost empty.

"Oh, thanks. And no, I volunteered. Lance is scary when he's being protective and I didn't think that was a good idea in this instance. And Joey and Justin…um." JC flushed.

"Still pissed at Aje?" Brian guessed. He stuck a couple of coins in the machine and punched the button for the Minute Maid.

"Homicidally so." JC took the bottle handed to him. "Well, maybe not so much that anymore, but, not so good, either."

Brian thought about the last time Kevin had run into Mandy. "I get it. He's sorry, not that it changes anything. Still, you're okay, I don’t mind them sending you."

JC took a couple of sips. "Thanks." He looked restlessly around the small vending-machine alcove for a second, seemingly unsure of how to start. "They're worried that you'll decide you're straight, or go back to your wife, or maybe both."

Brian deconstructed the statement. "They are?"

JC shrugged. "From where I'm standing, you look to have your head screwed on. I'm hardly the one to judge how long it took you to get it that way."

Brian laughed a little. "I told Leighanne about him. She's with someone else now. Has been for uh…maybe a couple of months, I think."

"Why'd you tell her?"

Brian took a long drink of the orange juice. "Because she was my best friend for a very long time and I've gotten in the habit of telling her things. And because our son lives with her for a very large part of the year and she should know about the things that might concern him. I told the guys, too. It felt kind of similar. If I hadn't known it was over before then, I would've upon realizing that."

"I'm contractually obligated to warn you that if you hurt him we'll extract your vocal chords in the night and sell them on eBay."

Brian allowed a look of dawning comprehension to spread over his face. "So that's what happened to AJ."

JC spit orange juice out of his nose.

*

Baylee was unusually easy to get into bed that evening, the full brunt of the flu having passed but its aftershocks and a day of playing hard with Erin and Briahna weighing in. Chris told him a story about a family of snakes in the desert and Baylee fell asleep almost immediately to the lull of the sibilant sound effects.

Brian whispered, "Impressive."

Chris tiptoed out of the room behind Brian and shut the door softly. "My mom told that to all five of us when we were kids. Never failed."

"You'll have to teach it to me sometime."

Chris looked as though he were considering it. "And if I don't?"

Brian threatened, "I would have to keep you."

Chris tilted his head. "Would you feed me?"

Brian swallowed. "Maybe."

"I would go further, but I'm afraid of sounding like a bad porn movie."

"Yeah," Brian agreed, "that's pretty much the only place to go from here."

"We could mute the dialogue and just act out the scene."

Brian walked into his bedroom, waiting for Chris to follow. Brian shut the door behind them. "Scene one, Brian of the Backstreet, and his captive nanny, Chris."

"No, no, no. You need something catchy and horrific for the title. The kind of pun that gets told by eighty year olds at dinner parties and you're forced to laugh even though you want to pop your eardrums to distract yourself from the pain."

"Chris?"

"Yeah."

"Not sexy," Brian pointed out. "With the eighty year olds and the bursting ear drums and the talking when you should be kissing me in general."

"Right." Chris folded his hand firmly over the back of Brian's neck. "Muting now."

*

Brian woke up to the sound of Chris sneaking back into the room, a glass of water in one hand. He glanced at the clock. Not even seven. Chris looked sheepishly at the glass. "I got thirsty. Want some?"

Brian pulled himself into a sitting position and took Chris up on the offer. Chris got back into bed while Brian was drinking, maneuvering himself so that his chest supported Brian's back. He rested his chin on Brian's shoulder. "Morning."

Brian swallowed. "A good one, even."

"You wanted me to stay, right?"

Brian set the glass on the nightstand. "Um. Yes?"

"Just checking. You usually go in at around nine, yeah?"

"Mm, but you guys are always already there, you need to get a move on."

Chris pressed himself closer to Brian. "I can be late. Jace and Lance get to be late all the time on the flimsy excuse that JC was primping, which is lame because the only reason Lance would ever allow himself to be late to anything is if he and JC were screwing like monkeys in heat."

"I'm too old to imitate monkeys."

"Younger than I am," Chris reminded him.

"We're not exactly being energetic, either one of us," Brian noted.

Chris mumbled some kind of agreement.

"I like this," Brian shut his eyes.

"I can be late if I wanna sit here and hold you," Chris asserted.

"I think you're gonna be late a lot."

Chris ran a hand through Brian's sleep-mussed hair. "Sounds like a nice change."


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile