Second Toughest in the Infants

By Kai Wailbone

Author's note: because I have no doubt there are people reading this who have no desire to speak to me, but want to know what's going on with the progression of chapters, I have set up a web-site. It will feature previews of the next chapter, updates as to when the chapter will be coming out, and background information on the characters and inspiration for the story. The address is:

For David, who knows first hand the pain of falling in love with a straight boy


This isn't real. Leave if you're underage. I can't make it any simpler.

Incidentally -- I am introducing a few more characters, some of whom I am portraying as gay. They may be celebrities, you may recognize names... this does not mean I know anything about them in real life. Remember -- this is FICTION. Much like professional wrestling, Canadian politics, and the state of Vermont.

Also - in this section, I have paraphrased, lifted, or otherwise used excerpts from the graphic novel "The Compleat Moonshadow" (no, that's not misspelled) by John Marc DeMatteis and Jon J. Muth, copyright 1998 owned by DC Comics. Most of it has been changed to imply it had been written for the screen. I made up the whole making-a-movie thing... I figured I made up enough stuff, might as well take a break.

The title is from the Underworld album "Second Toughest in the Infants." The chapter headings are from lyrics or song titles. (Don't you know that by now?)

p.s. -- i like e-mail and encouragement.

Second Toughest in the Infants

Chapter Six -- Walking in the wind

"I could just pretend that you love me

The night would lose all sense of fear

But why do I need you to love me

When you can't hold what I hold dear"

"Moon... I'm frightened."

"There's nothing to be frightened of, Mother. You're going to be fine."

"No lies, my little miracle. It's time to say good-bye..."

"No! Not good-bye! You're going to..."

"Wait... Who's `Moon' again?"

"The guy."

"Oh... and that's his mother?"


"There's something I want you to have... before I... leave..."

"Mother, please, don't talk this way! I..."

"Hush. Take it. It's belonged to you... in spirit... for a long time now..."

"What's that?"

"A flute."

"Why's she giving it to him?"

Trevor sighed and shifted slightly. He didn't know if it was the folding chair he was sitting in, the sight of so many cameras not focused on him, or Ashley's constant pestering questions to Jeremy, but he felt out of place and more than a little uncomfortable. For some reason he'd thought witnessing a movie scene being filmed would be a bit more exciting, like watching a movie without a screen. But it wasn't. It was very stark, dry, and fake. He even felt a little embarrassed, as if he was some voyeur peeking in a window on someone's private moment.

Standing up, he leaned over to Jeremy. "Hey, G, I'm going to the bathroom, cool?"

Jeremy nodded and waved his hand. Leaning down to Ashley, he whispered, "You'll need to read the book."

Ashley nodded and continued to stare at the young man on the set playing the character of "Moon." He was a little shorter than Ashley, with light brown hair that fell down past his ears in an almost childish fashion. He had a lot of pale makeup on, but Ashley still thought he looked really... well... cute.

"And who's that guy again?"

"That's Moonshadow."

"No, his real name."

"Oh." Jeremy's eyes never left the scene in front of them. "Nick."

"And what was he in again?"

"He was in Disturbing Behavior."

"Right." Ashley watched Nick lean over the actress playing his mother and tremble as if crying. "He's good."

"Yeah, he is," Jeremy said with a grin. "He's my favorite actor of all time."

"Really? So I should rent this Distressing Behavior?"

"Disturbing. And no, it's his worst work." Jeremy stood up as the director called the scene to an end. "Well... that was intense."

Ashley nodded, even though he hadn't paid much attention to what had been happening. "Yeah... yeah, it was."

Jeremy stretched and smiled. "So what do you think? Still think you want to be an actor?"

Ashley shrugged as he looked around. "Lots of cameras... makeup... people yelling at me all the time... how different is it from what I'm doing now?"

"How indeed," Jeremy said with a low chuckle.

Ashley hesitated. "So... do I get to meet this Nick guy?"

"Oh, sure." Jeremy waved as Trevor came back over to join them. "We can hang out for a bit in the back room, grab some doughnuts and stuff before we go back."

"What?" Trevor asked.

"Us. Hang out. For a bit. What do you think?"

Trevor sighed and looked at his watch. "It's almost eleven, Jeremy."

"Yeah..." Jeremy frowned and glanced at Ashley. "It is getting kinda late. You sure you want to meet them?"

"What?" Trevor asked.

Jeremy motioned to Ashley. "He wants to meet the actors."

Trevor grinned as well. "Do I get to meet the mother?"

"Lisa? Sure." Jeremy raised his eyebrows. "Why, you're a `Friends' fan?"

Trevor shrugged. "Not really... but it would be cool to see someone I saw on TV in real life."

"Sure, add it to your `Celebrities I've Met' diary." Jeremy winked. "C'mon, we'll chill for a few moments. It'll take Nick and Lisa a while to get the makeup washed off, but I can introduce you to the other folks. They're mostly harmless."


Without much effort Nick managed to cry into the stained bed sheets, great screams of pain rising from his throat.

"And... CUT!" Ron, the director, walked around. "And from here we have the camera panning out, with old-Moonshadow's voice-over, rising emotional music..."

Lisa sat up from where she'd "died," wiping the dried fake blood off of her lips. Kissing Nick quickly on his forehead, she said, "That was so good."

Nick smiled and wiped his tears away. Lisa always had a knack for snapping right out of character -- and breaking the mood. "Thanks," he said.

She swung to the side of the bed. "So, what did you think about that time?"

Nick shrugged. "Breakups."

"Bad ones?"

"Is there any other kind?"

"I guess not." Lisa stood up. Looking over to the side she smiled. "Jeremy made it tonight, I see."


"And he's got some friends."

"Yeah, I noticed."

"Oh... you noticed, did you?" Lisa looked at him meaningfully. "Did you notice-notice, or just... you know, notice?"

Nick shrugged as he walked off the set to his assistant's station. "I dunno... the blond guy's cute."

"Cute? He's gorgeous!" Lisa turned back to look again. "I mean, if I were gay, I'd think so."

Nick shrugged. "He's not quite my type."

"Right, you like the stray puppy dog look, don't you?" Lisa unabashedly stared at the young men standing with Jeremy at the edge of the set. "Well, if we dump him in a pool and give him less fancy clothes... but how about the other guy?"

"Lisa!" Nick smirked as he sat down at his assistant's station. "You could be a bit more subtle about trying to set me up on a date -- with someone you don't even know, by the way."

"Well, Jeremy knows him. And you know Jeremy. Of course, so do I, so I could conceivably set you up."

Nick laughed. "Okay, okay..."

Lisa came over and sat down beside him. "So?"

"So what?"

"What do you think of the other guy?"

Nick laughed again. "You don't give up, do you?"

"No. No, I don't."

"Okay, if you must know... the blond guy is closer to my type."

"See? Was that so hard?" Lisa stood up. "If they stick around, you are so meeting him."

"Oh... okay, Lisa." Nick smiled up at her. "Whatever."

"You watch, you two will start going out, and you'll have me to thank."

"Or blame," Nick said.

"Yeah, or blame. But I think you'll thank me."


"Hey, Jer, what's up?"

Jeremy turned, smiling at the familiar voice. "Will! What's up, old son?"

"Not much, not much... how're you?"

"Can't complain." Jeremy took out his cigarettes and offered one to Will, who gratefully accepted. "So how was the movie?"

"Sucked," Will said with a shrug.

"Like I said it would?" Jeremy took out his lighter.

"Yeah, like you said it would," Will said, grinning as he held his cigarette over the lighter.

"That's why you should listen to me more often. The Jeremy is good, the Jeremy is wise, the Jeremy has nothing better to do with his time than see movies with his boyfriend..." Jeremy turned. "The Jeremy has people staring at him who want to be introduced."

Will blew smoke from his nose and laughed as he looked over Jeremy's shoulder. "Right, so you do. Well, shall we grace them with our presence?"

"Oh, let's!" Jeremy pulled Trevor closer beside him. "Trevor?" Looking around, he said, "Where's Ashley? Ash?"

Ashley turned to look from where he was pouring himself coffee. "Yeah?"

"Ashley!" Jeremy motioned him over. "Come. Meet someone."

Ashley smiled and came over. "Who's this?"

"Trevor? Ashley? Meet Will Friedle. Will, these are Trevor Penick and Ashley Angel."

Will smiled and shook their hands. "Nice to meet you."

"Yeah, me too," Trevor said. "You were on `Boy meets world,' right?"

"Why, yes I was." Will pretended to be surprised. "You mean you don't recognize me from the stage production of `Kids'?"

Trevor looked at Jeremy, confused. "Um... no..."

Will laughed again and clapped Trevor on the shoulder. "Chill out, man, just yankin' your chain."

Trevor sighed in slightly hesitant relief. "Oh... okay. So you don't mind it when people recognize you?"

"Nah, I'm a small enough star that I still enjoy it." Will glanced at Ashley, then back to Trevor. "In fact, I hope you feel the same way, because you look familiar, and it's driving me crazy that I don't know where from. So... tell me. Who the hell are you?"

"They're TV stars, Will," Ben said mildly, coming up beside Jeremy. "Don't you watch TV anymore?"

"Nah, it rots the brain."

"So does that crap you listen to."

"Yeah, yeah... so what show?"

"That reality show," Jeremy offered. "`Making the band.'"

"Oh, wow!" Will turned to Trevor. "That's right! I watch that show all the time."

Trevor smiled skeptically. "You watch the show?"

"Yeah, well..." Will shrugged. "You know how it is... Friday night, girl friend has class, nothing to do but watch TV or masturbate... besides it's an addicting show." He paused. "In an... embarrassing, don't-tell-Mom kinda way."

Trevor laughed. "Yeah, man, okay."

"Anyway..." Will took another puff from his cigarette. "You no-talent hacks decided to come down amongst us lowly working-class screen celebrities to rub it in?"

"Nah," Trevor said, praying Will was joking again. "Just hoping some of you will rub off on us."

"Hah..." Will smiled. "Not bad." Turning to Jeremy, he winked. "Sarcastic and obsequious. A winning combination. Hey, these boys might be worthy of my attentions yet."

"I still don't understand this idea that I hang out with such losers..."

"Well, you hang out with us, don't you?"

"Only because I get paid to."

"And you get paid to hang around these guys, too?"

"Of course..." Jeremy grinned, but as he turned he noticed that only Trevor was standing next to him. "Um... where'd Ashley go?"

Will looked around. "Can't even keep control of your friends, no wonder Ben keeps you from getting any pets... oh, there he is, over there... with Nick. Hey, Nick!" Will waved as he crossed the room. "Hey, cutie!"

Trevor turned to see the guy from the scene they had been watching talking to Ashley. He'd washed the makeup off his face and fixed his hair, and was now dressed in faded jeans and -- he noticed with a smile -- a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt.

"Jeremy, I think I see your handiwork, here."

Jeremy looked at him innocently. "What? You don't like the lighting or something?"

"No... what he's wearing."

Jeremy looked over at Nick and laughed. "Oh... if you must know, he had some soda spilled on him earlier... and he's just borrowing my shirt."


Jeremy grinned as they crossed the room. Reaching out to he pulled Nick close. "Nick, old son, you're looking... nice tonight."

Nick smiled shyly. "Thanks."

"And I see you've already met one of my friends, here."


Jeremy smiled mildly at Ashley. "You know, Ashley was once thinking of becoming an actor."

"Really?" Nick turned to Ashley. "What's all that about? I thought you always wanted to be in a band."

"I am... I mean did," Ashley said. "Except, before I was singing, I was sorta thinking about becoming an actor. Just... things got in the way."

"Uh-huh... `things,'" Nick said knowingly. "Family or friends?"

"Friends," Ashley said simply. "Of course, the irony of it is that my family turned around and got in the way of my music career, so... I figure it was one or the other."

"And family is less of a sacrifice than friends?" Nick asked

"I didn't say..."

"Of course not." Nick smiled at Jeremy and glanced behind him. "So whose this?"

"Ah, how rude of me." Jeremy stepped aside. "Nick, this is Trevor Penick. Trevor, this is Nick Stahl... the star of the movie, just don't tell him I said so."

Nick ducked his head, suddenly modest. "I am not."

"No, of course not. You're just in every scene and play the title role. But you're not the star. Of course not." Jeremy winked at Trevor. "C'mon, Trev, let's go hang out with the real extras -- I mean, stars." As he turned, he motioned to Will. "Comin' old son?"

"Yeah, sure." Will glanced at Nick, then to Ashley. Leaning close to Ashley, he said, "Be careful with this guy. These actor types think everyone's available to them." Then, grinning widely, he turned to follow Jeremy.

Nick turned to find Ashley staring at him.

"What'd he mean by that?"

"Oh... that." Nick shrugged and turned to the pastry dish. "He jokes all the time about how actors are so arrogant and stuff."

"Really?" Ashley watched Will walking away for a moment before turning back to Nick. "I think he's just jealous that you could get more girls than him."

Nick couldn't help laughing as he picked up a buttered croissant. "Yeah... you're probably right."

"So... do you have one?"

"One what?" Nick took a bite, wincing at the amount of crumbs that fell to the floor.

"A girlfriend."

"Hmmph..." Nick held back another laugh around a mouthful of croissant. Shaking his head, he said, "Um... nope."

Ashley studied Nick's face. "Why's that so funny?" he asked.

Nick shrugged as he chewed. "Just... I dunno, I guess I heard that question so many times I'm kinda surprised to hear it from someone... from a non-reporter."

"Non-reporter..." Ashley said softly, still studying Nick's face. "So... you don't want a girlfriend?"

Nick swallowed and returned Ashley's gaze coolly. "Why, do you?"

"Nah." Ashley leaned back against the table. "I just got out of a two-year relationship with a real... well, I loved her, but man, she could be a bitch. Right now, I'm just turned off of girls altogether for now."

"Amen, brother!" Nick raised his croissant as if it were a drink to a toast before taking another bite.

"So how about you?"

Nick shrugged again as he chewed. "Not really interested in girls."

"Bad experience?"

"No. Just not interested." Nick took another bite, and didn't see Ashley smiling.


"Yes, really. Of course, my agent has a heart attack every time a reporter asks me when I'm getting a girlfriend."


"She doesn't want people to know I'm... not interested. She's already freaked out that I get hundreds of letters from gay fans."

"Yeah... that's understandable, I guess... teen-idol business and all." Ashley glanced away.

Nick watched Ashley for a moment, then asked, "So what about you? Get any guys writing to you?"

"Huh? Oh... um... well, not writing... but yeah, we've got guys at concerts and stuff."

"And you're okay with that?"

"Oh, sure. Personally, I don't care. Our management, though..."

"Yeah, the powers that be. Can't have the horrible scandal of sexuality come into the picture!"

Ashley grinned slyly. "Yeah... but I dunno, I think it's kinda sexy, you know? That I can cross gender barriers like that."

"Or at least in a superficial way," Nick said.

"Well... depends."

Nick looked up quickly. "On what?"

Ashley shrugged, but smiled coyly. "On the person, I guess."

Nick smiled back. "Oh? Really?" Half-jokingly, he said, "And what if this person was some wanna-be actor from Texas?'

"Why, are you from Texas?"

Nick shrugged.

Ashley laughed softly. "Well, they say everything's... bigger in Texas..."

"And bigger..."

"Is better."

"Uh-huh... I see..." Nick glanced around the room, but Jeremy was far away in an animated discussion with Will. Turning back to Ashley, he asked suggestively, "So... want to test that theory?"

Ashley just smiled.


"Hey, Germ?"

Jeremy turned. "Yeah, Ben?"

"Check it out."




"Over there."

"I don't -- "

"Shut up and look!" Ben pointed to the other side of the room. "It's Ashley."

Jeremy looked over. "Yeah, so?"


"He's talking to Nick."


"And what?"

"Watch... he'll turn and giggle in just a second... "

"Meaning wha - Oh... oh... my god."

"What?" Trevor had listened to the exchange, utterly confused, and now turned to look over Jeremy's shoulder. "Something wrong?"

Jeremy laughed, incredulous. "No... well, yes... it's Ashley."

Trevor looked across the room to where Ashley was talking to Nick. "Yeah?"

"You don't... notice anything?"

Trevor watched for another second, then shrugged. "Should I?"

Jeremy rolled his eyes. "Some master of observation you are. Look! Ashley... he's... flirting. With Nick."


"It's like a car crash. You don't want to see, but it's so hard not to look."

Ben grinned as he glanced at Jeremy, who was glancing frequently into the rear view mirror. "They're not doing anything."

"And how would you know?" Jeremy kept his voice low.

"Because I looked," Ben said blandly.

Jeremy laughed and called back, "Okay, boys, we're at the hotel. All non-transients out!"

In the back seat, Trevor shook himself awake. "Hmmm?"

Ashley grinned and untangled himself from Nick's arms. "C'mon, Trev, we're back."

"Mmm..." Trevor rubbed his eyes. "What time is it?"

"Twelve thirty," Jeremy said, turning to face the back seat.

"Shit..." Trevor reached for the door handle. "See ya', Jer. Ben. Nick."

"Bye, Trev," Ben called sweetly.

"Bye, Nick," Ashley said, turning quickly and kissing Nick on the cheek. "See ya' tomorrow?"

"Sure thing."

Jeremy watched as Ashley and Trevor made their way back to the hotel, then turned with accusing eyes to Nick. "So... Ashley?"

Nick shrugged, smiling. "He's kinda cute."

"Yeah... and he's kinda straight." Jeremy turned back forward and shifted into gear. "Honestly, old son. For shame!"

Ben giggled and turned to look at Nick. "He's just jealous. He thinks Ash is kinda cute, too."

Jeremy nudged Ben hard, then glanced back at Nick. "Dude? Seriously, what're you doing?"

"Just having fun, G."

"Yeah... fun." Jeremy bit his lower lip. "And he told you... what, he's interested?"

"Not in so many words."

"Of course." Jeremy glanced at Ben for a moment. "Okay, well..."

"And anyway," Nick interrupted, "it was him who was pretty hot and heavy onto me. I just... kinda went with the flow."

"Really." Jeremy thought for a moment. "Nick, you do realize... look, not only is this boy straight, he's part of a boy band. Do you know what that means?"

"Yeah." Nick grinned. "He's being paid to be really cute."

"Wha... yeah, cute. Hah-hah. No, seriously, old son, you can't be comin' in here messing things up for them."

"Why, is that your job?"

"Officially? I don't even have a job with them." Jeremy looked up at Nick in the mirror. "You understand? Their management doesn't want me associated with them. For certain, specific reasons. Reasons which, if they are to believed, leads me to believe that

they're probably not going to like you, either."

"Well, too bad," Nick said, leaning back in the seat. "Ashley likes me."

"And you think you'll see him again?"



"Tomorrow. I invited him to the party at Will's place."

"You what?"


"But..." Jeremy paused as Ben laid a hand on his arm. Wigh a sigh of resignation, he said, "Okay, fine. You're both grown men, you know what you're getting into. Just... be careful, old son."

"Always am."

Jeremy glanced at Ben, who shrugged. Jeremy shook his head and turned to concentrate on the road ahead.


Ashley felt good.

No, he felt better than good. He felt... really good. He had to consciously keep himself from whistling as he walked down the hotel hallway to the room he was sharing with Jacob, mindful of the late hour. As it was he skipped up to the hotel suite door and unlocked it with a fanciful -- and sorrowfully unobserved -- flair.

"Oh, Jacob?" Ashley skipped into the room, looking around. All the lights were on, so he knew Jacob would still be awake. "Oh, Jakie, where are you?"

"Yeah?" came the call from the bathroom. "Ash, that you?"

"Why, are you expecting anyone else?" Ashley came up to the bathroom door and peeked in. "Are you decent?"

"Does it matter?"

Ash pushed the door opened to see Jacob sitting on the edge of the bathtub, shirtless, carefully painting his toe nails.

"You know," Ashley said after a few seconds, "I almost wish I'd walked in on you doing anything else."

"Oh, shut up," Jacob said with a smirk. "So how was your evening?"

"Oh, it was great." Ashley watched Jacob's hand, steady as a rock, painstakingly running the small brush against his small toe nails. "We saw a scene being filmed."

"Really?" Jacob sounded a bit distracted. "What's the movie about, anyway?"

"Some kid who gets trapped in outer space or something." Ashley shrugged. "But anyway, there's this guy you've got to meet on the set, Ni-" but he paused before he said the name. He was hyper-aware of Jacob's feelings for him, and could just imagine all the hissy fit Jacob would throw if he even mentioned another guy. Thinking quickly, he said, "Lisa."

Jacob turned with a puzzled smile. "`This guy, Lisa'?" he repeated.

"Yeah, that just kinda slipped out. It's that girl from `Friends.'"

"Oh." Ashley could see Jacob automatically tuning out. "Which one?"

"The blond one."

"The stupid one?"


Jacob nodded and put the finishing touches on his nails. "Any other hot girls?"

Ashley was slightly startled at the question. Sure, since the beginning of the band, Jacob had always managed to fit in, to just be "another guy" as far as any of them had been concerned, joking and talking about cute girls and stuff. At least until he came out. And now, it seemed almost painfully out of character for him.

That, and, perhaps even more startling, Ashley realized he hadn't even looked at the girls.

Smiling slightly, he said, "Uh... yeah, a few." Quickly changing the subject, he said, "So, did you miss me?"

"Nah," Jacob said, grinning. "I was enjoying a break from you."

"Yeah, I bit you missed me." Ashley leaned against the door post. Striking an over-exaggerated seductive pose, he said softly, "I... know you did."

Jacob looked up and saw Ashley's position. With a light laugh, he said, "You are such a freak, you know that?"

"Yeah, but I'm your freak, right?"

"Why, you don't think I can do better?"

"Hah, yeah, as if you could find someone cuter."

"Yeah. Right," Jacob said, slightly distracted.

Ashley shifted his position. He'd pretended to be seducing Jacob as a joke, just to change the subject, but now he was starting to feel like fooling around. Especially since he'd just spent the past hour flirting with Nick... Leaning further into the bathroom, he said, "Why, you don't think I'm cute?"

Jacob laughed again, but Ashley could hear a slight nervous tone to it. "Of course I do."

Ashley smiled inwardly. He knew Jacob was constantly afraid of upsetting him, or of doing something that would somehow jeopardize their... well, their relationship. Ashley didn't exploit these feelings, he just... used them. Sometimes.

"So I'm cute?"

Jacob looked up at him, totally unaware that Ashley was joking, and said, "You're beautiful."

Ashley held back a laugh. Jacob could be so... ridiculous sometimes. He was really taking this far too seriously. Coming slowly into the bathroom, he sat down beside Jacob. "You really think so?" he asked.

"Yes," Jacob said earnestly.

"Really?" Ashley leaned closer, bumping his shoulder into Jacob's.

"Yes, really."

Ashley snaked his hand around Jacob's waist and leaned close to Jacob's ear. "Really really?"

He felt Jacob tremble slightly. "Y-yeah," he whispered.

Ashley smiled and, with the hand around Jacob, he pulled Jacob's shirt up to gently stroke the skin beneath. "No foolin'?"

He felt Jacob shake his head, his dreads scraping against Ashley's neck. "No..."

Ashley marveled again at how easily Jacob fell to his advances. It used to take him up to an hour of coaxing and convincing to get Shelli to give in. But then, Shelli wasn't obsessed with him, and she certainly wasn't constantly afraid Ashley would go running off with someone else. For a moment, he felt very lucky to have someone so willing to give him what he wanted.

"So," Ashley whispered. "You wanna go to bed yet?"

Jacob hesitated and swallowed hard. "I... I shouldn't."

"Why? C'mon, sexy." That was the most Ashley ever had to do in terms of whining. He knew how much it got to Jacob. It was almost pathetic, as if Jacob wasn't used to someone finding him attractive, so all Ashley needed to do was call him "cutie," or "sexy," and Jacob would be putty in his hands.

As he expected, Jacob smiled shyly, but acquiescing. "But my toes..."

"I'll be careful," Ashley said as convincingly as he could. Reaching forward, he took the bottle of polish from Jacob's hand and put it on the side of the sink. Leaning in, he kissed Jacob gently on the neck. "Unless," he whispered, "you want to be a bit... rough this time."

Jacob turned and kissed him on the lips. "No, be careful. I don't want to get nail polish all over."

Ashley suppressed a sigh of frustration. Jacob could be such a girl sometimes, and not just when he was painting his nails. With the guys, in front of the camera, he was all pricks and barbs, lashing out at everyone, being the hardass... in bed, he was all gentle, cuddly, and sometimes seemed to get off more on being kissed than anything else. No passion, no carnal lust or desire, no energy...

Ashley shook himself and smiled at Jacob. "Gentle it is, then," he said softly and kissed Jacob back. As he pressed into Jacob, a brief flickering in the back of his mind brought up the sudden image of Nick. Nick... Ashley found himself wondering what it would be like to kiss Nick like this, to have Nick in his arms. Nick, who seemed was so quiet in public, so modest and shy... would he be like Jacob, switching roles once the lights went out, being the energetic, aggressive one? Ashley felt a surge of excitement at the thought of what it would be like to be submissive to a more vigorous lover, a primal animal, someone he would virtually have to wrestle into bed, pawing roughly and nipping at his flesh...

"Ouch!" Jacob drew back suddenly, hand on his mouth. "What're you trying to do, eat me?"

"Huh?" Ashley looked at Jacob, and realized he'd bitten down on Jacob's lip. "Oh... oh, sheez, dude, I'm sorry!" Ashley cursed himself for loosing focus. "I'm so sorry... I'm just... I guess I'm just a little tired, that's all."

Jacob looked at his finger. "Well, I'm not bleeding. You got lucky. This time."

Ashley grinned wickedly. "Not yet, but I'm hoping to be soon."

Jacob laughed. "You are such a sex fiend, you know that?"

"I'm a growing boy," Ashley said innocently.

"Yeah, well..." Jacob stood up. "This little growing boy is going to have to wait while I go lay down and watch TV until these nails dry. Then we can have fun."

"Ja-ake," Ashley whined like a little kid. "Please?"

"Ashley!" Jacob scolded. "You're not going to die if you don't get jerked off right away, okay? Just wait ten minutes."

"Fine," Ashley said, pouting.

Jacob looked down at him and sighed. Leaning forward, he kissed Ashley on the forehead. "Okay, five minutes."

Ashley looked up. "Two."

"Four, but if we get nail polish on the bed sheets I'm blaming it on you."


Jacob chuckled and picked up the bottle of polish. "But for those four minutes I'm going to go lay down, okay?"

"Okay." Ashley smiled sweetly at Jacob until he left the bathroom. Then, with a sigh of resignation, he stood up and ran his hands under the water. Looking at himself in the mirror, he muttered, "Too bad I don't have some handcuffs... or some nice rope." Ashley felt a thrill through his spine as he thought about going into the bedroom and taking Jacob down... for a moment he pictured Jacob, tied to the bed, duct tape over his mouth, a look of fear in his eyes.... no, no tape, he needed that mouth... Ashley laughed and felt himself getting very aroused at the thought of Jacob forced to do what he wanted, struggling against him, crying...

Ashley shivered. Crying? Struggling? Where did that come from? Shaking his head, he turned off the water and dried his hands. Jacob was fine the way he was. He was sweet, he was willing, and he worshipped the ground Ashley walked on.

What more could he want?


"Do you think these pants make me look fat?"

"Why no, Jake, they make your pathetically small penis seem so much larger."

"You really think so?'

"Yes, I do."

Erik laughed and, in a high-pitched voice, continued. "Well, that shirt is absolutely fab-yoo-luss on you. I was just telling my hairdresser Franz the other day how adorable it would look when matched with a pair of frilly pink panties and halter top..."

"Why, I so totally agree with you, girlfriend." Dan put his hands on his hips. With an exaggerated lisp, he said, "But I thought Franz was looking at my ass."

"Was he really?"

"I certainly hope so."

"Oh, stop, you'll make me jealous!" With a limp waving of his hand, Erik rested the back of his wrist against his forehead and turned away.

Dan couldn't help it anymore and burst out laughing. Finding a chair he sat down heavily. "Stop it, man, that's too much."

Still in character, Erik turned around, looking like he was offended. "Oh, excuse me, Mister Man? Don't even go there unless you want to deal with Miss Bitch."

Dan laughed harder. "M-m-miss Bitch?" he stuttered between laughs.

"Yes, Mister Man, that's my name, what do you --"

"Hey, guys, what's so funny?"

Erik turned quickly to find Trevor standing, a confused grin on his face. "Trev! What's up, man?" All affectation gone, Erik clapped Trevor on the shoulder. "How was the movie set last night?"

"Fine, fine." Trevor glanced at Dan. "What's he laughing at?"

Dan was trying to get himself under control, but then he'd remember something Erik had done and burst out laughing again. "Eh... Erik... was..." still laughing he pointed across the room.

Trevor, still grinning, turned. At the far side of the room he saw Jacob and Ashley talking to each other beside the cooler full of water bottles. "What?"

"Oh, nothing," Erik said. "They just went off saying they had private stuff to discuss. And since we couldn't hear them, we just sorta... you know, made up our own version of what they were saying."

"Oh... oh, really?" Trevor glanced at Dan, who was starting to get himself under control. "You know, that's really not cool, guys."

"Please! Lighten up Trev!" Dan said. "I mean, you have to admit, they're kinda funny, the way they argue like that."

"We don't know they're arguing."

"They're arguing," Erik said. "They argue all the time."

"Yeah..." Dan took a deep breath, finally calm. "Miss Bitch," he muttered, and burst out laughing again.

Trevor shook his head. "You guys..."

"What?" Erik said, mildly annoyed. "What's wrong with having a little fun?"

"It's wrong when it's at someone else's expense," Trevor said.

"Oooh, we've got Mister Morality Patrol here," Erik said nastily.

"No, I'm just... c'mon, we've got to get along here," Trevor said.

"Why?" Dan said suddenly. No longer laughing, he looked at Trevor seriously. "Why should we all get along when those two argue all the time?"

"Because..." Trevor trailed off, at a loss. "Because we need to be strong..."

"We are strong. We are the only strong ones here!" Dan said, his voice rising a bit in volume. "And as the strong ones, we can't just keep pretending nothing's wrong."

"There's nothing... c'mon, we don't even know anything's going on with those two. And even if there was, there isn't anything --"

"Oh, I disagree," Dan said. "I think that, not only are you being such a goombah by pretending nothing's going on, but there is something very wrong, and... and you know what?" Dan stood up. "I think I'm going to take your advice. We need to be strong. And in strength, I think I'm calling a meeting about this."


"Yes, about this." Dan gestured across to Ashley and Jacob. "There are obviously issues that need to be worked out here. And so we'll do it. Tomorrow."

"Dan?" Trevor said, obviously struggling to keep his voice level. His eyes focused on the camera crews who were headed in their direction, he said, "Dan, I don't think I need to remind you about the cameras..."

"Fuck the cameras," Dan said. "I don't fucking care anymore if the whole fucking world knows Jacob and Ash are carrying on. We're a band, we have to deal with this, and we will deal with it, or our careers are over, anyway."

"But..." Trevor looked helplessly around as the cameras focused on them. Clearing his throat slightly, he said softly, "We don't know anything for sure, anyway..."

"Oh, f... forget this," Dan said. "I'm calling a meeting tomorrow, and there's nothing you can do about it." Glancing at Erik, he said, "C'mon, man, let's get dressed. Dave wants us ready in fifteen minutes."

Erik shrugged and followed Dan.

Trevor watched them go and sighed. This wasn't good.


"When were you going to tell me?"

"I didn't think you needed to know."

"Oh, so I was just going to, what? Not notice you would be gone for several hours?"

Ashley suppressed a frustrated sigh. "Look, it's just a party. I'll be back later tonight. One of the guys from the set invited me."


"Ni..." Ashley caught himself and managed to shrug. "Just... a guy."

"Nick?" Jacob asked, having caught the first bit. "As in Nick the guy Jeremy's been going on about, who he had a crush on? The guy Jeremy thinks is so cute? You're going to a party with a cute young guy?"

"Hey, it's no big deal..."

"No, it wouldn't be... if you'd told me. The fact that you feel the need to hide it from me..."

"Hey, Jake, just chill out, okay?" Ashley turned sharply to face Jacob. "What's your problem, man?"

"My problem?" Jacob pushed a stray dread behind his ears. "My problem is that you... I... I'm willing to deal with infidelity if it's with a girl. Because girls are... I mean, I expect that. But another guy..."

"Whoa, whoa..." Ashley held up his hands. "What's all this infidelity talk? You think I'm cheating on you?" Ashley shook his head. "Man, even if I was gay, or into this Nick guy, it's not like you and I have anything serious to threaten, anyway. I'm not cheating on any relationship because... I mean, look, dude, we've been having sex, yeah, but... it's not like we're married or anything."

Jacob stared at Ashley. "What?"

Ashley bit his lower lip, but said, "Yeah, I mean... I thought... even if we were going out -- which I'm not saying we are -- we've only been together, really, for a couple of weeks. Which even in normal relationships isn't long enough to get serious, so..."

"Normal relationships?"

"Yeah, you know... like... with a girl?"

Jacob stepped back and laughed bitterly. "Normal... like with a girl. I see."

Ashley stepped towards Jacob. "Jake, man, look, I..."

"No." Jacob held up his hand and stepped back again. "I understand."


"No. It's okay." Jacob turned away. "Tell David I might be a bit late."

"Jake! Jake, c'mon, let's talk about this..." Ashley reached forward to grab Jacob's arm, but Jacob threw it off and almost growled at him.

"Get the fuck off of me!" Straightening his shirt, Jacob said, "I don't feel like talking right now. I'll be downstairs in a few minutes, okay?"

Ashley hesitated. He knew he made a mistake somewhere, a mistake he wished he could fix, but... but obviously, Jacob wasn't in the mood. So, nodding, he said, "Okay, man, whatever."

Jacob nodded and stalked away.


Ben studied himself in the bathroom mirror, pulling carefully at his hair with his wet hand, trying in vain to fix the mussed style. Finally, after several minutes of attempting to make his short hair spike up, he gave up.

Before he could turn to leave, a blur of color swept into the bathroom behind him and slammed into one of the stalls, the door banging shut but quickly bouncing opened again. Through the opening, Ben could see a familiar shape sit down heavily on the edge of the toilet, head in his hands, dreadlocks hanging down over his face.


Jacob didn't respond. He didn't even move.

Stepping closer to the stall, Ben hesitantly opened the door a bit more. "Jacob, are you okay?" Still no response. "Jake, it's Ben... I can leave if you want, though..." After a moment more without any movement from Jacob, Ben turned to leave.

"Who's Nick?"

The voice was quiet and hoarse but demanding. Turning, Ben came back to the stall. "What?"

"Nick." Jacob looked up slowly.

Ben sighed and leaned against the stall door. "Nick Stahl? As in the guy --"

"As in the guy Ash met last night." Jacob looked at Ben, his voice slightly accusing.

"Look, Jake... we didn't know he would..."

"Who is he?"

Ben sighed again. "He's... a guy. An actor on the set of the movie we're working on."

Jacob nodded and looked back at the floor. After a few second, he said, "Ashley likes him."

"Yeah... I guess. They seemed to hit it off last night."

"Really?" Jacob laughed, a short, unhappy sound. "How... fascinating."

"Jake?" Ben said, starting to feel a little worried. "Jake are you... you know... okay?"

"Oh, fine. Just fine." Jacob pulled his dreads out of his face. "The only person in my entire life that I care about right now is falling for someone else -- and not just someone else, not just a girl, who I expected and anticipated and was afraid of every waking moment of these past couple of weeks. No, nothing so simple and logical. But another guy. Something that, by all rights, shouldn't be happening..." Jacob looked at Ben. "And you know what? I'm not crying. No tears. I'm upset, I'm furious, I'm sorrowful beyond belief... but I have no tears to cry." Jacob laughed again. "How funny is that?'

Crouching down, Ben smiled sadly up at Jacob. "That's actually quite natural. You're just in shock... and it's a shocking thing --"

"Is he gay?" Jacob interrupted.

"Uh... huh?"

"Gay. Nick. Is he?"

Ben felt a thrill of fear. He knew that tone. He knew that question, all too well. He knew why Jacob was asking, what he wanted -- no, what he needed to hear, because there was a time in his own life when he asked the exact same question. And he knew now the crushing frustration at being unable to tell Jacob the one, simple lie that he so wanted to hear.


"No," Jacob said harshly. "Tell me. Is... he... gay. Does Ashley have a chance with him? Is... will..." Jacob's voice trailed off.

Bracing himself, Ben took a deep breath. "Yeah," he said softly. "Yeah, he is."

Jacob closed his eyes. He hadn't known until now how much he needed to hear a contradiction to his greatest fears. How much he needed to hear that this was just a useless, futile infatuation for Ashley, that Ashley was just confused and exploring, and it wouldn't amount to anything, that Ashley would just come back to him after it was all said and done. And maybe he still would... maybe. But now... now, it was almost as if the mere, simple possibility of Ashley leaving him had become a virtual certainty.

As he sat there, staring at the floor, he could feel something inside collapsing, as parts of his insides he didn't know even existed broke opened. Even the parts of his heart he thought were shattered beyond repair seemed to find more ways and places to break in. Realization and hopelessness overwhelmed him.

Nick... is gay...

Emotions washed over him in waves, but it was almost as if he couldn't feel them. Deep inside he was so broken and shattered that he was numb, unable to cry or rage or even react. He could only sit there, dumbly, staring at the floor.

At some point he became aware that he was leaning against Ben's shoulder, but he couldn't remember when that happened. And somewhere he realized that Ben's shirt was wet, as if someone was crying...

Standing in the doorway, Dan hesitated a moment more before turning to leave.



Nick turned at the sound of his name to see Jeremy, a puzzled look on his face, coming towards him. "Hey, G."

"Nick..." Jeremy said again. "What are you doing here?"

"You said I could... remember? We're picking up Ashley for the --"

"The party," Jeremy finished. "Of course... I forgot." Jeremy sighed and turned to look around him. "Well... we're not finished yet. We... what time is it anyway?"

Nick glanced at his watch. "Four-fifty."

"Four-fifty..." Jeremy mused. "I think David wants another take. One second. Erik!"

Nick looked up to see who Jeremy called. A tall, slender Hispanic young man turned and walked slowly, almost reluctantly over to them.


"Erik... just one more take for this, right?"

Erik nodded. "Yeah, we were supposed to be finished by four-thirty, but..."

"Yeah, I know how things go..." Jeremy paused, staring off into space as he thought. "Okay, I need to go talk to David, um... Nick? Stick around here, I guess. And... Erik? Uh... Erik, this is Nick Stahl. Nick, this is Erik Estrada. Socialize." With that, Jeremy wandered off.

Nick glanced at Jeremy's retreating form, then back at Erik. "Um... I'm sorry, I think Jeremy was a little... you know... out of it, but I thought I heard him say your name was Erik..."

"Estrada, yeah." Erik seemed to be much more comfortable now that Jeremy was gone, and grinned widely at Nick.

"Erik Estrada... like...?"

"Yeah," Erik said quickly.


"So blame my mother," Erik said, rolling his eyes.

"Big CHiPs fan?"

"Coincidence, actually."

"Yeah, right."

"No, really... I usually introduce myself as Erik-Michael, so no one makes the connection."

Nick laughed. "Yeah, okay..."


Nick and Erik turned.

"Hey, Dan," Erik said. "Meet Nick."

Nick smiled at Dan. "How're ya' doing?"

Dan glanced at Nick. "Oh... so you're Nick?"

"Yeah..." Nick smiled, pretending to be nervous. "Why, what have you heard?"

"Oh, nothing... just Ashley's been talking about you."

"Oh... really?" Nick looked from Dan to Erik. "And?"

Erik smiled a knowing smile. "Oh... so you don't know?"

"About what?"

"Tell me," Erik said slyly. "Has Ashley told you about Jacob?"

"Who -?"

"Nick!" Jeremy appeared beside them again. "I... oh!" He noticed Dan and Erik. "You met Dan, too. Great. I think you've met about everyone, then. Um... gentlemen, David wants you to take your places, they're starting to film in about a minute, cool? And Nick... come with me, I'll give you the ten-cent tour."

"Uh... okay." Nick smiled at Dan and Erik. "Nice to meet you guys... I guess I'll see you later?"

"Yeah, later," Dan said and walked away.

"Yeah..." Erik, sly smile still on his face, said, "We'll definitely be seeing you later."

Before Nick could respond, Erik had turned and left. Looking around, he found Jeremy waiting a short distance away.

"So what was that about?"

"What?" Jeremy asked.

"What Erik said."

"Oh... I didn't hear," Jeremy said distractedly. "Okay... ten-cent tour. See that? That's the blue screen, even though it's green." He pointed at the large green wall. "That's a three-inch-deep swimming pool, Erik's arch nemesis. And those are cameras, I think you are familiar with them. These are random people, called crew, and... uh... yeah, we can sit down here." Motioning to a couple of chairs behind the cameras, Jeremy looked around distractedly. "And... I don't know where the girls went. I think they're gone for the day."

"That's okay," Nick said. "I wasn't too hung up on seeing girls, anyway."

"No," Jeremy said, chuckling, "I suppose not." Still not sitting down, Jeremy continued to look around the set.


"Huh? Oh! Nick..." Jeremy motioned to a chair. "Sorry, I just... Ben went to the bathroom a while ago, I'm just wondering where he got off to."

"He probably found some nice boy on the crew and is flirting with him."

"Hah... you're probably... right..." Jeremy finally sat down. "Anyway, how are you? Get much sleep last night?"

"No, not really... but that's okay, I slept till noon today."

"You fiend... you know what time I need to get up..."

"Yeah, yeah, I know," Nick said, grinning. Looking up, he watched as several people walked through the shallow water. "So... tell me. Which one of these guys is which?"

Jeremy laughed. "Why, can't you tell?"

"Well, I met Ashley and Trevor, but..."

"And Dan. And Erik."

"Yeah, but you know me, all boy bands look the same to me."

"Okay, fine." Jeremy pointed. "That's Trevor's standing next to Erik, who's a great guy but has a bit of an attitude."

"Attitude? I didn't notice..."

"The boy's painfully straight. And from New York on top of it. Beside him you've got Dan, a great guy, son of Cleveland and all that, not quite as painfully straight but very caught up with his girlfriend. Beside him is Ashley, who you've met, and..." Looking around, Jeremy frowned. "I don't see... oh, there he is. The dude coming up now with the..." Jeremy chuckled. "The black `wifebeater' shirt and dreads is Jacob." Jeremy paused. "Jacob's... the guy I was telling you about. Really nice guy. Really don't know why he's here."

"Um... I'm no expert, but I think they're here to shoot the video, aren't they?"

"Huh? Oh... yeah, right," Jeremy paused, then with a laugh punched Nick lightly in the arm. "No, I... you're mean, you know that?"

"That's what my ex said."

"Yeah, well, anyway, what I meant was I'm not sure what he's doing in a boy band."

"Being paid to look cute, remember?"

"No, I..." Jeremy pretended to turn away in frustration, touches of a smile on his lips. "You're really bad, you know that?"

"Thank you so much."

"My pleasure." Looking up Jeremy smiled. "And here's Ben. Great."

But Nick wasn't listening. He looked at Jacob, and how he kept his eyes on the ground. He was really cute, as far as Nick was concerned, but... he seemed moody. Depressed. Even a little unstable. And he couldn't help but notice how Jacob seemed to go out of his way to avoid Ashley -- which wasn't easy considering the director had them standing side by side.

He made a mental note to ask Ashley about Jacob later that night. Then he settled back and enjoyed watching other people get subjected to the whims of a director.


Jacob glanced over to the side again to the guy sitting beside Jeremy.

So that's Nick.

Under his resentment, Jacob was aware that Nick was very attractive. He even understood on a certain level how Ashley would want to leave him for Nick. But that didn't forgive what was happening. Ashley...


Jacob shook his head and pushed those thoughts down. He wasn't going to think about it. Turning slightly, he forced himself to focus on staying in place, waiting for the cameras to start rolling.


Instinctively, Jacob flinched, expecting it to be Ashley trying to talk to him again, but it was just Erik. Turning, he smiled thinly. Erik had done a good job of avoiding him as much as possible since... well, for the past couple of weeks, only addressing him to give the most perfunctory of notices and announcements.


Erik seemed to be almost amused. "Dan's calling a meeting tomorrow morning, before we come to the set, like at seven."

Jacob nodded distractedly. "Oh... okay, no problem."

Erik looked at Jacob for a moment, then turned away, still looking as if he were trying hard not to smile. But Jacob didn't think too much about it.


Okay, so Nick was cute. That didn't give him the right to take Ashley away. Didn't he know Ashley was in a relationship...

It's not like we're married.


"I said I know, Erik..." Jacob turned to see Trevor. "Oh... Trev, sorry, I thought --"

"I know, it's cool." Trevor looked over his shoulder and pulled Jacob to the side a bit. "I just... Erik told you about the meeting tomorrow?"

"Yeah, it's no problem..."

"No, did he tell you why?"

Jacob frowned. "No... why? Should I know?"

Trevor sighed and glanced at the cameras focused on them. "Look, man, Dan... Dan's calling the meeting because he has a problem with... well, he thinks there might be a problem. With you. And Ashley."

"Wh... oh... okay..." Jacob automatically glanced at the cameras as well. "About... the stuff that Ash and I... uh... need to work out?"

"I think so," Trevor said.

"Okay... thanks."

"Yeah... I just thought you should know, y'know?"

"Yeah... thanks." Jacob nodded as Trevor turned away.

Shit, Jacob thought. Just perfect. Just exactly what I fucking needed at this exact moment in time. For a brief, terrifying instant Jacob heard the voice of his father, talking about how God found ways to punish the sinners when they least suspected it...

But Jacob shook it off. He couldn't think about that right now. Adding it to the growing list of things he was pushing as deep as he could, he returned to his marked place and waited for the director to call his name.


"I still think it's a bad idea."

"Don't care, dude."

Trevor, Dan and Erik each stared at the glowing numbers over the elevator door as they slowly counted up to their floor. Two cameramen, one on each side, stood conspicuously beside them.

Trevor sighed. "Tomorrow's our light day, though."

"So much the better," Erik said. "We can get this done without being in everyone's way."

"But Ashley's going out tonight."

"Not my fault."

"But you could change it."

"I could."

"Why don't you?"

"Because I don't want to."

"Not very mature of you, dude."

Erik sighed and turned to Dan. "Wanna help me out here, Dan? This was your idea, after all."

Dan looked over. "Huh?"

"You all there, Dan?" Erik asked jokingly.

"Oh... yeah, sure." Dan turned back to the elevator doors. "Just thinking."

"Dangerous habit," Erik said.

"Yeah... but what were you talking about?"

"The meeting tomorrow."

"What about it?"

"Trevor still thinks it's a bad idea."

"Oh..." Dan paused, then nodded. "I think he's right."

"What?" Erik and Trevor turned to face Dan at the same time.

Dan didn't look at either of them, keeping his eyes on the climbing numbers of the elevator. "Maybe we should postpone it." Pause. "Or even cancel it."

No one spoke. Trevor was feeling a mild sense of triumph, but couldn't gloat or revel in it, knowing it would not only hurt someone's feelings but it would seem strange that he would feel so strongly about it.

On the other side, Erik was feeling distinctly betrayed. To this point, he and Dan had been on the same side, if not officially conspiring together then at least in agreement about things. Now... now, he felt very very alone.

With a computerized ping, the elevator doors opened. Dan was the first one out, leaving Erik and Trevor to walk back to their room in silence.


Jacob stared at the ceiling, so full of angry energy that he couldn't sleep. He felt like he drank several cups of coffee, and was restless, bored, and he'd run out of things to think about and count in the dim light.

The irritating thing was, he was very tired and wanted to go to sleep, but he couldn't get Ashley out of his head.


His anger surged up inside of him, mixed with pain and wanting. He wanted Ashley so much... but Ashley didn't want him. Except he did... but only for sex. Like Ben said.

Like Ben said.

Jacob shook his head vigorously. Ben was wrong! Wrong! He and Ashley had something, Ashley just... just needed to explore his newfound sexuality. He had to push himself to the limit. Or to Jacob's limit. Yeah... maybe he was like a little kid, breaking the rules to see if his parents cared enough to punish him, to scold him. Well, Jacob would show that he cared, but he would also show that he was cool. He would be angry, but he wouldn't yell or make outrageous demands...

But what if...

What if nothing. He wasn't willing to give up on this. He'd wanted this for far too long. Months. Over a year. He'd dreamed of it every night, fantasized about it... he needed to make this work. And he could. Because...

Because he had to.

But it still didn't calm him down enough to fall asleep. Turning to face the wall, Jacob stared at the benign hotel-room wallpaper, debating whether or not he should turn to television on. It would certainly distract him... but would it keep him up or help him sleep?

Before he could decide he heard voices outside the door. In spite of himself, he felt a mild thrill of excitement at the scrabbling sound by the door knob as the key-card was inserted.

"...toldja, could do it m...m'self..."

"Of course you did."

Jacob felt confusion, then anger again as he heard first Ashley's voice, then someone else's. A voice he didn't recognize, but he could guess.

Nick? He brought Nick back? he thought. This late? What for? He didn't even want to think about it.

"Where's your bed?"

Jacob turned his head slightly, but kept his eyes half-closed, pretending to be asleep.

"Thissun." Ashley, obviously intoxicated, stumbled away from Nick, who until that moment had been holding him up by the shoulders. Collapsing onto the other bed, he laboriously pulled his legs up and lay on his stomach, slightly sideways.

"That doesn't look very comfortable," Nick whispered, obviously mindful of Jacob, as he carefully took Ashley's sneakers off.

"Iss fin'," Ashley mumbled sleepily.

"Of course." Nick put Ashley's sneakers carefully down by the side of the bed and stood up. "Well, I'm outta here."

Ashley didn't say anything, apparently passed out on the bed. Jacob felt mild triumph, hoping Nick was frustrated at not getting any response.

No such luck. Nick, obviously irritatingly sentimental, seemed to find it adorable, and smiled slightly as he pulled Ashley's legs further up onto the bed. Carefully rolling Ashley over, he positioned him into a more straight position, fluffing the pillow gently under his head. Then, kissing Ashley on the forehead, he straightened.

And saw Jacob staring at him.



In the dim light he saw Nick smile as he sat down at the edge of Ashley's bed. "What's up?"

Jacob suppressed a sigh. What was the big idea, Nick coming in and being all friendly, as if they could be friends? "So did you guys have fun?" he asked, ignoring Nick's friendliness.

"Yeah... I think Ash had more fun than I did." Nick laughed softly as he glanced back at Ashley. "Jeremy was afraid he might puke in the back of his car."

"Jeremy drove you back?"

"Yeah." Nick smiled again. "Look, I'm sorry if we woke you. I tried to keep him quiet..."

"Yeah, sure," Jacob said curtly and lay on his back, trying to give the hint that he wanted to be left alone.

Instead, Nick (irritating, frustrating Nick) cocked his head to the side. "Um... did I do something wrong here?"

Jacob sighed, wanting so much to tell him exactly what he fucking did wrong... but managed to say, "What do you mean?"

"Well... I wanted to meet you before we left, Jeremy's been going on and on about you since I met him, but it seemed like... you know, you were avoiding me or something. And now... it just feels like you don't like me for some reason."

"Oh really?" Jacob said sarcastically. "Why do you think that is?"

Nick paused for a moment, then said, softly, "Just so you know... Ashley told me about you two." When Jacob didn't respond, Nick continued. "I just want you to know... I'm not here to split you two apart --"

Jacob snorted. "Fine job you're doing."

Nick still smiled. "Why?"

"Oh, just that I always accomplish just what I don't mean to do when I..." Jacob paused, confused at his own statement. After a moment of mild embarrassment, he said sullenly, "You're not doing a very good job."

Nick smiled, maddeningly compassionate. "Well, I'm sorry for that," he said softly, no sign of irritation or antagonism. "But you can rest assured, that I have no intention of ruining what you two have."

Jacob turned slightly. "So... what, you're not interested in Ashley or something?" he asked, incredulous.

"Nah," Nick said. "He's not quite my type."

Jacob frowned, confused. "What?"

"Yeah... he's a bit too California clean-cut-kid type. I mean, he's cute, and if he wasn't involved with someone else, I'd probably even enjoy fooling around with him. But... personally, I like the more scruffy, lost puppy dog look... kinda like you." Nick winked and stood up. "Anyway, I'll let you get back to sleep. Just... watch Ashley tomorrow. He'll have one hell of a hangover." And with that, not waiting for Jacob's to respond, Nick turned and left, closing the door softly behind him.

Jacob lay in bed, no less conflicted inside -- in fact, he was probably more conflicted now -- staring into the darkness for a long time before he finally fell asleep.

Okay, if that seemed a bit rushed -- well, it was. I'm moving at the end of the month, and I'm not sure when the next time I'll have a computer will be, so I'm getting as much done before that time. Sorry about that, folks. --- Kai Wailbone