dragon challenge header

not real, made up, purely intended for entertainment


by Pen

Chris hadn't intended to get a stubbie.

He'd known that the sleek, hip-high hunting breeds were out of the question, and the sturdy fighting wyrmolossers and guard types, too. Pets that big needed room to roam, plenty of exercise and about half a truck's worth of fresh meat and kibble. No point even considering one of those while they were touring.

But there were dwarf versions, small hunters with sharp, fine-boned heads, or strong, knee-high fighters, stubborn and loyal. Chris was pretty sure he'd be happy with either. He'd always felt that it mattered to be chosen by a pet, as well as to choose it. So he hadn't made up his mind beforehand, hadn't set his heart on a ruddy-gold or a silver, or one of the more exotic greens or deep reds, or anything, really. Just taken himself along to the emporium as soon as they were back in the States and he didn't have quarantine regulations to worry about any more.

And there he was, looking at a tiny scrap of a thing cowering at the back of its cage, the picture of misery. An odd, squashed face. Eyes so widely spread the little creature seemed to be staring at the sky, as though it wasn't quite sure if it was predator or prey.

"That's one of our stubbies," the custodian said. "He's just a baby now, he'll be about twice that size once he's full grown. The wings are vestigial, of course, he won't fly."

"I didn't think they had wings..." said Chris absently, as he stared at the creature in the cage.

"It's the breeding. Albanians are a very old type, and the miniature forms tend to revert. Modern Standard breeds don't have wing-stubs."

The tiny dragonet puttered to the front of the cage, lured perhaps by the conversation. Chris looked into its pathetic, beseeching little face, and felt his heart melt. "I'll take him," he said.


"I slept all the time," JC said, proudly. He didn't seem to have spent any time eating, Chris thought, pondering yet again the mystery that was JC's metabolism. "How 'bout you, J, did you get to spend any time with your girl?"

Justin grinned that dopey-happy grin he wore now when he talked about Britney, and nodded. "Little bit."

It couldn't have been more than a little bit, anyway, since they'd had what, all of two weeks more or less free before getting back together to work on the upcoming tour. Chris jiggled in his seat, eager for them to ask him what he had done.

"I bet I know what you did," Lance drawled, and Joey grinned with extreme Fatone smugness. Right.

"Weren't you going to see Danielle on Valentine's Day, Scoop?" JC asked.

"Yeah, how'd that go?" added Justin.

"Didja get any?" said Joey, who had no shame.

Lance, blushing, swiped at Joey's head, and said it was none of their business, and there were whoops and whistles from the other three, because, obviously, Lance getting some was such a noteworthy occasion. Chris was pretty sure Lance could and did get some any time he wanted, nobody could be as angelic as Lance acted, he was just discreet, he didn't broadcast the news to the rest of them. Speaking of news...

"I got a pet," said Chris, loudly.

Lance looked at Chris with gratitude. "A pet?"

"Yeah. Now we're gonna be in the States for a while. He can come on the bus with us." Chris lifted his chin defiantly. He hadn't actually consulted the guys about this, because he wasn't prepared for them to say no. He'd wanted a pet, a proper pet, since he was a kid, and he wasn't going to put it off any longer.

"So, where is it?" said Joey. "What did you get?"

"Dragon," Chris said, and didn't even try not to smirk.

"Cool!" said Lance and Justin simultaneously. Joey beamed and told him that was great, man. Only JC looked a bit perturbed.

"I dunno, man, you think a dragon will be okay on the bus? Those things need lots of space."

"It's a dwarf breed," Chris said. "I'm not dumb enough to buy something that's gonna eat Justin for breakfast. We might need him." He caught Lance's eye for a moment, and Lance mouthed "Pity" at him before looking blandly away.

"So when'd you get it? What kind is it? Can we see it?" Justin was being appropriately enthusiastic, and, Chris noticed, carefully ignoring the implication that he might be eaten.

"I'll bring it, um. Next week. It—he isn't quite housebroken yet."

JC winced. "Is dragon poop as disgusting as they say?" he asked.

"Uh," said Chris, for the answer was, oh, way worse than that, and he didn't want there to be any dispute about his right to bring Busta onto the bus. "It's not so bad," he said. "I mean, you can get these litter boxes that absorb the odor, so he'll be fine." Just as soon as he learns how to use it, he didn't say. "I'll bring him in to meet you guys in a few days, so you don't scare him when we're all living together."


Chris was enchanted with his dragonet, and determined to be the best pet owner ever. He stocked up on almond oil for rubbing into Busta's skin while he was growing, and bought a fleece shell for Busta to sleep in, and soft chewy toys for him to play tug of war with, and hard chewy treats to keep his little teeth healthy. The litter box was the best money could buy. Chris had, in sober fact, once owned a car that had cost him less. In fact his dragon was proving a lot more costly than he'd exactly planned for. But they'd be touring soon, Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now, three months right across the US, if that didn't bring in some cash, nothing would.

It was a great relief when Busta suddenly seemed to grasp the purpose of the litter box. And the thing really did work as promised, there was some kind of mechanism which let the soiled stuff through into a sealed bit underneath, so the smell was minimal. Considering the stench in Chris's apartment while Busta was training—especially on that grisly day when he'd gotten into the pop tarts and lost all control—he could only thank the Lord that the little dragon had figured out what belonged where.

He took Busta in to rehearsal in his crate. The fleece shell fit in there pretty well, and Busta was still only a baby, he slept a lot. But it was time to show him to Chris's bandmates. Chris loaded up a bunch of chew toys and snacks, and found himself at the rehearsal studio a half hour before any of the other guys showed up. There were staff around, of course, but they were busy, and anyway, they weren't going to be living with Busta.

Lance got there first. Chris was cuddling his dragonet, talking to him. Busta was a sweetheart, very affectionate and earnest, his absurd little face always seemed to be searching for love, and had a habit of snuffling his nose against Chris's neck which Chris decided to interpret as dragonet kisses. Chris was getting used to being nuzzled by a flat, scaly snout whenever he picked the stubbie up. Busta liked being held. The books said it was because dragons were cold-blooded, they liked the warmth, but Chris felt sure there was more to it than that.

He turned—and nearly dropped the stubbie. "Christ, Lance! Warn a guy! Man, I nearly had a heart attack."

"Didn't want to disturb you," said Lance, calmly. "So. That's your dragon."

"Yeah. Come on, Busta, say hi to Lance." Busta quivered, and snuggled against Chris's chest. "Come on, baby, it's Uncle Lance. Come closer, let him get a sniff of you."

Lance's face was completely blank, but he approached, cautiously, and offered a hand. "He's a funny looking thing," he remarked.

"He's a stub—a Shortsnout Dwarf Wyrmolosser! It's an Albanian breed, they go way back."

"Uh huh." Busta's nose was whuffling over Lance's fingers. "He seems pretty friendly."

"He's good with my sisters," Chris said. "I just didn't want to scare him with everybody at once, you know?"

"Oh, hey! Is that your dragonet?" It was Justin, flinging his bag down as he strode in. "Wow, he's kinda weird looking."

"He's a Shortsnout," Chris said, and sighed. Had none of his idiot bandmates ever seen a stubbie before? "You can stroke him between the ears, he likes that. Gently, moron! He's just a baby."

JC arrived next, made the obligatory remark about Busta's appearance, and was introduced. The dragonet soon seemed comfortable with the guys, and was even allowing Justin to sit and hold him when Joey walked in, late as usual. Okay, not late late, they had another five minutes, but.

Joey redeemed himself, however, by not saying that Busta looked weird. "Man, he's so cute!" he said, and flopped onto the floor at once to say hello. Of course, Joey was a dragon person in a way that JC and Justin weren't, not really. Oh, they said they were dragon people, of course they did, and they were perfectly happy to pose with whatever fancy breeds the photographers wanted to show them off with, but neither of them seemed to feel there was anything missing in lives that had no pets. Chris was a shade disappointed with Lance's reaction, he'd expected a bit more enthusiasm. But all in all, it looked like Busta was going to fit in okay on the bus.


And so it proved. Not that everything went completely smoothly. JC was extremely wary about dragon poop for a while, and made a habit of checking everywhere before he sat down. This was foolish, and Chris more than once bit his tongue rather than assure JC that if Busta had pooped anywhere but in his litterbox, they wouldn't need to look, they'd know.

And Justin was not happy when Busta toasted one of his sneakers. Chris considered he made way too big a deal of it. Anyone would have thought Busta was some kind of arsonist, when actually it was hardly damaged at all, certainly not disintegrated, just a bit singed. You couldn't blame a dragonet for that. Besides, he'd grow out of it once he was full size and his digestion settled. Adult dragons didn't flame. A year from now, he was going to be a fine, handsome Stubbie, he'd probably come up to Chris's knee, give or take.

Chris already preferred the subtle browns and bronzes of his pet's hide to the flashy bright colors of the bigger dragons they'd occasionally see out and about. And he liked the feeling of being needed, being wanted, when he felt his pillow flatten at night as his dragonet sneaked up to curl behind Chris's neck as he lay exhausted in the bunk. The fleece shell only ever got used when there wasn't a handy human for Busta to snuggle with, and even then Chris would as likely as not find his pet hiding in the bunk, or under it, when he got back to the bus. Albanians were Earth dragons, and lived in caves in the wild. JC said Chris's bunk was pretty wild territory, too.

April, they had a photographer come by to take some shots of Chris with Busta on one of the rare days off. There was a noticeable upsurge in Chris's fanmail when the pictures came out.

By the time May rolled around all five of them were fading. Touring was hard work, particularly when they had concerts five nights out of seven, and appearances too. They were into the home stretch when Lance got sick.

Lance made it through the Knoxville, TN concert in one slightly grey piece, but was an idiot about getting on with his private work on their one day off that week, until the four of them staged an intervention.

"You are not getting out of that bed," said JC.

"You're sick," Justin agreed. "You need to rest up."

"I am not—look, I'm not going out dancing or, or running a marathon, I just have to—"

"No." Joey was good at being firm. "We have the Rosie thing tomorrow, we have five more shows to do after that, you need to rest up. Justin's right."

"And how often does anybody get to say that, really?" said Chris. "You got a fever, Bass?"

"No," said Lance, at the same time that JC said yes. JC scowled, and pointed out that their tour medic had instructed Lance to stay in bed. The four of them stood over him until he undressed and clambered back between the sheets. He did look flushed, Chris thought.

"Here," Chris said, handing Busta into Lance's surprised grasp. "He'll love you, if you're extra hot." Indeed, Busta snuggled in eagerly, burrowing under Lance's sheet and leaning his head against Lance's neck. Lance glared, but it was habit, not conviction, and Chris was pleased to see his hand petting the whuffling dragonet as the rest of them turned to leave. When he checked back after a half hour, they were both asleep. He couldn't decide which of them looked more adorable.

After four hours of extra sleep, Lance made it through the Rosie appearance and insisted on doing the concert that night, but he didn't protest when Chris and JC informed him he was too sick to do anything the day after, he was to rest. Which went to prove, Chris said, that they were right. If Lance was too sick to deny he was sick, he was really sick.

He was really sick. Soon as he got off the stage, he crumpled into an unconscious heap. It was one of the more terrifying moments of Chris's life.

Lance's parents arrived the next day to take him and his stomach virus away. Chris stood, Busta in his arms, while the others waved. Busta made noises of woe, hooting like a very small ocean liner, and farted.

"Man!" Justin said, his eyes glazing. "That is seriously rank. It's worse than Joey's!"

"Yeah," said JC, "don't bring him inside," and Joey grabbed Justin by the waist, hoisted him over his shoulder and began to spin.

Chris rolled his eyes and took Busta over to the grass. Trust Lance to leave him alone with these losers.

They all hated performing with someone missing. Despite all the jokes about Lance's dancing being a handicap anyway, it felt so wrong to be on that stage with only three others and the bass coming through the wrong feed. They were off balance, and everyone overcompensated, everyone was bigger, broader, more frenetic, and it didn't quite work. But after the fright Lance had given them, nobody wanted him to be on stage when he was sick. Nobody wanted to see him lose all color and crumple to the ground again.

Chris would very much like never to see that again.

Lance showed up after a few days, still looking like a mutant space freak (as Chris hastened to assure him), but apparently recovered and ready to get back into action. Busta was ecstatic. At the rehearsal for the Blockbuster Awards—fucking Sailing, why couldn't JC have fixated on Yellow Submarine instead, they could have stayed at ground level?—the dragonet inspected all five of them carefully, over and over again, and wriggled his scaly butt and flapped his wing stubs joyfully. He was counting them, Chris realized with pride. Smart little stubbie!

It was a real wrench to have to leave Busta behind while they headed over to Europe for a few days, Chris missed the sturdy little presence by his ankles, missed Busta's affectionate whuffles and his starving to death, feedfeed me, feed me! squeaks, missed having a scaly lump on his lap while he watched TV or creamed Justin at Medal of Honor . But the UK's quarantine regulations were too strict, so the dragonet was staying at home with Chris's family. Chris hoped he wouldn't get back to find Busta spherical from too many treats. His sisters would spoil him rotten. Maybe he should get them a dragonet when he got back? If Mom would go for it. The tour receipts ought to be through Accounting by then.


Time off was overrated. Chris wanted to get back on the road, back to his cosy tour bus and his four favorite morons. Besides, he wanted to talk to Lance and JC. Something wasn't right.

Busta counted the guys again when they arrived for the first refresher rehearsal. He really was smart, for a dragon, and he knew how to use his pathetic little face to get treats—he'd put on quite a bit of weight, thanks to Em and Taylor. Chris couldn't exactly blame them. He found Busta pretty hard to resist, too.
The stubbie was making a lot of fuss over Lance—maybe he was checking that Lance was okay, after his stint as nursemaid? Chris was pretty sure Busta remembered stuff like that. He was the best little dragon anywhere.

They swapped such news as hadn't already been shared by phone, the highlight of which, in Chris's opinion, was that Lance was no longer dating Danielle. He'd have felt bad about the twinge of glee, but Lance didn't look remotely upset about it. It hadn't exactly been the romance of the century, anyway, they'd hardly seen one another, and Lance hadn't shown nearly the same dedication to making time with his girl that Justin showed when it came to Britney.

It seemed there was something much more exciting than a mere girlfriend in Lance's life. Lance had a new pet.

It was a tiny streak of bright gold and sky blue, sinuous as a snake, and it cavorted across the floor like a dancer, and it ran right around Busta three times then shot straight up the side of Lance's pants and across his T-shirt and twined itself around him like an exotic necklace. Its fronded face inspected them all from this vantage point, and its amber eyes gleamed with intelligence.

"This is Xiao Dao," said Lance. "Dao for short."

Chris was speechless with envy.

"Woah!" said Justin, who was not speechless at all. "What is it? Where'd you get it?"

"A miniature Chinese," Lance said, proudly. "Isn't he something?"

"When did you get him?" asked JC. "Can I stroke him? Does he bite?"

"He won't bite," said Lance. "He's very well behaved. I got him a week ago, the Embassy called right after we got back from Europe."


"Yeah, the Chinese won't let just anybody get a dragon. They're very particular. You have to fill out forms and give character witnesses and all sorts of stuff. There's a special Dragon Office at the Chinese Embassy. They don't export very many, and these miniatures are real unusual. He likes to have his chin tickled."

Justin tickled the little creature's chin, and its gold-fronded head swayed dreamily. Then it stiffened like an arrow, and leapt across to Chris's shoulder, where it began poking hopefully at his earring. "Hey!" Chris said in alarm.

"Dao! No!" said Lance, hurrying over and detaching his miniature dragon with some difficulty. "Sorry, Chris. I guess he likes shiny things."

"Glad I wasn't wearing my diamond," Justin remarked. "He'd prob'ly have bitten my ear off."

"Yeah, thanks for the sympathy, J," Chris retorted, rubbing his ear.

"I didn't realize he'd do that," said Lance. "I thought it was only Western dragons that went for shiny stuff. Looks like I have some more reading to do."

"So does Busta like jewelry, too?" said Justin, apparently unable to leave the subject alone.

"Nah, just candy!" Joey interjected. "Don't you, Busta?"

Chris glared at him. "Yeah, well, at least Busta doesn't try to rip people's ears off! Are you planning on bring that on tour with us? Because I don't think we need any more dangerous animals around, we already have Joey."

"Dao isn't dangerous," said Lance, mildly. "He's very smart. We just have to tell him what he's not allowed to do. JC, come here, would you?" JC obeyed, warily. "Get your Leo pendant out, yeah?"


"It'll be fine! See, Dao, this is not for you. No, don't touch. No." Lance paused, and the tiny creature looked up at him. "Not for Dao. Good boy. Now, let's try Chris again."

Dao was shown Chris's ears, in turn, and told firmly that he must not touch. He drooped so pitifully that Chris felt an impulse to say, oh go ahead, and give him an earring, but he stifled it. "Okay," he said instead.

"See?" said Lance. "He's really smart. And he likes being with people. I bought a tunnel cage for the bus, it's transparent, so he'll be able to see us and we can see what he's doing. And it's part-collapsible so when Dao is out playing we can push the cage out of the way. He'd rather be with people, anyway. I'm hoping he'll play with Busta, too. Hey, Chris, you wanna bring Busta over so we can introduce them properly?"

With inexplicable reluctance, Chris picked up his own dragonet and brought him closer to Lance. The two small dragons eyed one another with interest, Dao's long, pointed face about a quarter the size of Busta's squashed one. The little Chinese chittered in what seemed to be a friendly way, and Busta whuffled happily and let his tongue flick out briefly to taste the new arrival. Looked like they were going to get along. Chris put Busta down, and Dao ran down Lance to the floor, bounced happily, and encouraged Busta to chase him around the studio, until he noticed the mirror and was completely distracted by his own reflection.

"Vain little dragon," said Lance, affectionately. "I thought they could keep each other company when we're working."

"Long as there isn't a mirror around," Chris said. "Listen, when we finish today, you wanna grab some takeout and go back to my place?" Lance's eyebrows rose, his eyes widened. He looked like someone just asked him on a date and he didn't know how to answer, Chris thought. "I want JC there too," he added, hurriedly. "There's some stuff that's been worrying me, only I'm not sure if I'm seeing what I think I'm seeing."

"Sure," said Lance, looking perfectly normal again now. "I think that's a good idea." He looked thoughtfully at Dao, who was capering with Busta again. "It's an expensive business, owning a dragon." Their eyes met briefly. If Lance was worrying about the same stuff... Chris's gut twisted. He didn't want to find what he thought he was going to find.


The three of them looked at one another, grim-faced. Chris felt ill.

"Fucking piece of shit!" said JC, and got up, the better to pace and curse more. Chris would have joined him, but he didn't dare move. He quite seriously thought he might vomit. Everything they'd done, everything they'd achieved, being stolen by that fat bastard who'd told them they were family. No wonder Chris still couldn't afford to take care of his family the way he wanted to. All those hours, working themselves until they dropped—literally, in Lance's case—while Lou sat in his fancy office and creamed off the rewards. No, not creamed off, that wouldn't have been so bad, they owed him for giving them a start, a decent profit on his investment would have been fair, but this! He was taking everything and leaving them the dregs.

"We have to do this fast," JC said, coming back to the table. "We have to get the lawyers in. We have to get out of this, otherwise we'll just end up as Lou's performing monkeys."

"We have a tour to finish," said Lance.

"Yeah, make Lou even richer," Chris muttered. "Can we get out of it, though? I mean, we signed... we signed up for this."

"It's going to be dirty," said Lance.

"Yeah," said JC, "it is. But I am fucking sick of being steered around by Lou Pearlman. Every time we disagree with Johnny about something, it comes back to being a boyband, sticking with the music we were doing in Europe, and I bet, I bet anything you like that's a directive from Lou. He doesn't know a fucking thing about music, he just wants us to keep doing what he knows will make him money. We can do better."
He had the air of a crusader, a martyr, ready to march into battle and die for the cause. "All this time we've been telling people we make our own decisions, it's time we made it true."

The dragons had been frolicking around the apartment while the three of them stared at figures. JC's raised voice seemed to rouse their curiosity, however, and they came over. Dao ran up Lance's shin and stood on his tiny back legs on Lance's lap with his delicate, five-clawed front feet against Lance's upper belly and an expression of great interest on his fringed yellow face. Busta whined and butted against Chris's leg.

"Up you come, then," said Chris, hauling his dragonet onto his own lap. "Hey, Busta. Have you had a good time with Dao, then?" That didn't come out quite like he meant it to. Or maybe it was just Chris, neither of the others seemed to think anything of it.

"I guess we'd better tell Joey and Justin," JC said, reluctantly.

"Yeah." If there was one thing he did not want to do, Chris thought, it was tell Justin how badly fucked up this situation was. How he, Chris, had managed to get them into this mess, so excited by the prospect of a backer that he hadn't noticed they were being screwed. Justin had trusted him, and trusted Lou, and now this. JC was calling him, and Lance was on the phone to Joey, and Chris's stomach hurt.

Busta crooned, and stood on his hind legs to nuzzle against Chris's neck. "Hey, there," Chris said, and hugged gently. "You know what, Busta? Lou Pearlman is a shit. Yes, he is. A shit."

The guys arrived together, and JC, white-lipped with fury, brought them up to speed. Busta stayed on Chris's lap, humming, while Justin protested and Joey swore, and Justin called his mom, and the five of them agreed that this was going to be a fight, that they were in it together no matter what might happen.


Lou actually dropped in at their rehearsal two days later, all geniality, to tell them what a great job they were doing and what a fine tour they were going to have. Chris thought he might burst with the strain of being civil, but things had to be kept quiet until they'd figured out exactly what the plan was. Lance, jabbing Chris ruthlessly in the ribs, explained that Chris hadn't been feeling well, and Lou was appropriately sympathetic—all about protecting his investment, no doubt. Really, it would be much simpler to throttle the evil bastard then and there. The guys would alibi him, Chris was sure of that. It was only the prospect of digging a hole deep enough to bury that fat body that deterred him, or so he muttered to Lance as they watched Lou disappear in the direction of Johnny's office.

"We bought that," said Lance, glaring through the open entrance at Lou's shiny silver Cadillac. "Well, us and Backstreet, I suppose. Hey, Dao, what do you have there?" The miniature was capering at Lance's feet, and something flashed in its mouth. "Want to let me see? There's a good boy... Well, would you look at that!"

Chris stared at what Lance now held in his palm. A heavy gold signet ring, with a diamond set in one corner. "Huh."

"It's his, isn't it," Lance stated.

"Lou's? Yeah," said Chris. "Clever Dao! Where'd you get that? Smart dragon!" He bent to stroke Dao, who was unmistakeably preening.

"Should we give it back to him?" Lance wondered.

"No way! I think Dao deserves to keep it. Aren't dragons supposed to hoard gold and stuff? This can go on Dao's hoard."

"Chinese dragons don't work that way," said Lance, who had done a lot of reading on the subject, and could at times be a tool about it. But he didn't sound particularly tool-ish right now. "I mean, he loves shiny stuff but he's as happy with aluminum foil as with genuine jewelry. Maybe Busta would like it. Do Albanian Shortsnouts hoard stuff? Where is Busta, anyway?"

At that moment, Busta emerged from behind Lou's car. Chris had never seen his stubbie look quite so... jaunty as he approached them. The two dragons touched muzzles, then Dao climbed up to his usual perch around Lance's neck, and Chris hoisted Busta into his arms. No sense hanging around out here, they might as well get back to rehearsal.

All five of them, and their choreographer, were considerably astonished when Lou burst onto the rehearsal stage a couple of hours later, sweatily crimson and pasting a veneer of bonhomie over his obvious anger. It was a lot easier to see through Lou's facade now that they had evidence for the kind of person he was.

"You're really too old for practical jokes, Christopher," he said.

Chris, astonished, stared at him. "What practical jokes?" Nobody was too old for practical jokes, Chris felt, but he liked to have actually done something if he was going to be chastised for it.

"Ah, ah, I know you. Not very considerate, was it, letting your dragon inside my car. I'm a very trusting guy, I never dreamed I'd need to lock up while I was parked here, but if this is the kind of thing that goes on, I'll have to re-think that policy."

"I really don't know what you're talking about. I haven't been near your car. We've been rehearsing all day."

"And we really should be rehearsing now, as I'm sure you appreciate," said JC, coldly. "We're back on tour in two days."

"Right. Right. Well. Just remember, in future, sometimes your little jokes just aren't funny. It'll have to be fumigated. And I—aaiiiiieeee!! Ow, ow!"

Everyone gaped as Lou contorted weirdly, hopped, and flapped at his crotch. Dao shot out from Lou's pants leg and ran right up to his vantage point on Lance's shoulder, where he stood hunched and hissing. With an effort, Lou straightened himself up. "You boys should learn to control your pets," he said venomously, and backed out.

There was an instant of astounded silence.

"If Dao wants a steak tonight," said Joey, "I'm buying."

"Did Busta really..." Justin grin was so wide he could hardly speak. "Did you get Busta to shit in Lou's Cadillac?"

"Nothing to do with me," Chris said, virtuously. Busta, sitting in the pen in the corner of the studio from which he, unlike Lance's dragon, could not escape, looked about as smug as a dragon could look. Although Dao was pretty obviously pleased with himself too, now that Lou had left the room he was waving his little head from side to side, like he was acknowledging applause.


After that, things got busy, and things got nasty. Touring was fun, but somehow less fun than usual, with the underlying knowledge that every bit of effort they put in was making Lou Pearlman richer. There was a lot of communication back and forth between them and the lawyers—well, mostly JC and Lance and the lawyers. There was a lot of speculation, but until they got this mess sorted they had to pretend that all was well.

Lance was good at this. He was no less pissed than the rest of them, but he could look an interviewer in the eye and lie through his teeth. Big, innocent eyes and all. Chris had never been able to master the skill of telling plausible lies. He liked to think of this as a virtue, but mostly he suspected he'd never cared about anyone's opinion enough not to be upfront about whatever. Maybe it meant Lance was hiding something, something big, to have had so much practice at lying. They got into the habit of leaving the tough questions to him, or occasionally letting JC fend them off instead, by wandering all around the subject and leaving everybody too confused to know what he'd said. Except when he made it exquisitely clear what he thought of Louis J Pearlman.

It was like having two lives. The meet and greets, the appearances, the shows, just as carefree as ever. And the conferences, the affidavits, the phone calls. The stress. Chris didn't know how he'd have got through the nights without Busta's sturdy little body to cuddle, Busta's soft humming to help him sleep, and snuffly dragon kisses to make him feel better. He knew Lance slept with Dao curled up on his chest, but how Joey managed he could not fathom. As for the others, Chris had been startled but relieved to wake up one morning and see JC in Justin's bunk, holding him gently as they slept. Thank God for JC.

And then, incredibly, unbelievably, it was done and they were free. Just in time for Christmas.


"Man, this is the life!" said JC, lying back on his beach towel and pulling his hat down to his sunglasses.

"New Year in Hawaii," said Chris, contentedly. "Two thousand is gonna be our year."

"Definitely," JC agreed.

"C'mon, guys!" It was Lance, gleaming with sun protection, with Dao riding on his shoulder as usual. "Let's get in the water!"

"Eh," said JC, "I'm comfortable." He stretched, lazily, and relaxed into bonelessness.

Lance rolled his eyes. "Well, we're going in, aren't we, Xiao Dao? You coming?"

"You're never taking that tiny little dragon into the sea!" Chris stood, because this was something he had to see.

"Sure, why not? He loves bath time. I bet Busta likes the water, too."

Chris wasn't so sure about that. Busta was okay with being sprayed in the shower, and he didn't mind the rain, or stomping through puddles, but the actual ocean might be a bit more than he could deal with. And so it proved. Busta stood at the edge until an ambitious wave crept up and swirled round his little legs, then he retreated at speed, and took up an attacking stance, staring at the water with deep reproach. Chris stood on the wet sand and let the water cover his feet, and eventually Busta sidled in to join him. Chris showed the dragonet how to jump the incoming waves, but Busta was not very enthusiastic.

Dao, however, was splashing about in the shallows, swishing his little feet, jumping up and crashing down on the incoming waves.

"He loves it," said Lance, happily. Lance was a complete water baby himself. "Come on, Dao, let's go deeper." He waded forward, and his miniature dragon followed, happily breasting the waves and swimming very effectively as soon as he was out of his depth.

"You want to follow them, hey, boy?" Chris murmured, as his little dragon stared at the golden sliver darting about in the waist-high waves. "Come on, then, you can do it. Up you come." He picked Busta up and moved deeper.

It took a few minutes, but Dao chittered excitedly and sprayed salt water at them when it went up his nose, and Chris crooned encouragement until his little stubbie was brave enough to swim unsupported in a frantic threshing of short limbs that churned up the water and didn't amount to much progress. Dao was obviously delighted to have his playmate in the water, and made a great fuss of Busta. Who seemed to be okay with it, even if he wasn't going to dive through the waves like Lance and Dao.

With Dao's encouragement (and what sounded like instructions in dragonese) Busta managed to make better progress through the water, and he took readily to riding the waves shore-ward, rounding himself into a ball and bobbing on the crest while Dao flattened himself into a miniature surfboard and cruised beside him. Still, Chris thought it was kinda mean to make Busta swim more than he really wanted to, so when a wave managed to deposit the dragonet at the water's edge, Chris followed him out, and the two of them made their way back to JC's supine body. Busta sat down on Chris's towel and looked mournfully at the sandy soles of his little scaly feet. Chris cleaned the sand off, and found JC looking at him with a knowing grin.

"You guys," he said. "So cute."

Chris bridled. He was not cute! Busta, sure, but not Chris. Chris was rugged and manly. However, by the time he'd figured out a suitable retort, JC had gone back to sleep.


"I had to practically kidnap him to get him out of the ocean!" Lance, telling Justin how Dao had taken to the water. "I have to get a house with a proper pool, he'll love it, won't you, baby?" The miniature on his shoulder raised its chin ecstatically for Lance's finger to stroke.

"If the album sells," said Justin.

"It will," Chris said. Justin needed all the encouragement he could get. He was recovering well, they all were, but it had been a hard fall for all of them, and only Joey had so far bounced back to his natural level of optimism. "Then we're gonna be properly rich, like we should have been already. Busta can have a diamond collar. Would you like that, Busta, your very own bling?" Busta, sitting cosily on Chris's foot, did not look impressed.

"Chris is right," Lance said, firmly. "We sold out these two concerts, didn't we. Everybody wants to see in the new millennium with Nsync."

"Don't let JC hear you say that," Justin said, and grinned.

Lance's eyes rolled. "Oh, man. If he wants to celebrate the real millennium next year, he can do it on his own."

"What, Lance Bass is going to pass up an excuse to party?" said Chris.

"Huh. Okay, maybe not. Though I could stand not to be working, this time next year."

The three of them fell silent, and watched for a few minutes the ordered chaos of the stage being assembled ready for tomorrow's performance. Anthony was extra twitchy, he'd had to hire more local help than usual; this being Hawaii and the biggest New Year any of them would live through, a lot of his preferred team hadn't been able to make it. It'd be fine, Chris knew, Anthony was brilliant at running this stuff, everything in proper sequence and incredibly efficient. Over on the left, a gigantic speaker was being lowered into place, and to the right, a loaded cart was trundling into the arena.

One of the stage hands halted in the middle of the arena. There was a flash, and something bright flew towards the loaded cart, just as something else whizzed through the air towards that gigantic speaker. Suddenly there was a bright gold streak dashing to claim the shiny thing that had landed by the cart, and at the same time, Busta hurtled towards the thing that was rolling right under the descending speaker.

Chris moved faster than he'd moved in his life. God, god, he'd be crushed, he'd be—Chris dived, grabbed, and rolled backwards as the huge wheel rolled over the glittering object and left it crushed. Dao chittered at him indignantly, and Chris loosened his grip round the tiny dragon's midsection. Lance would have been devastated if—oh, Christ! Busta!

Hardly daring to look, Chris made himself turn around. The speaker was on the floor. And so was Lance, lying beside it, and even as Chris looked, Lance sat up, and in his arms was Busta, safe and whole.


"My money's on Lou," said Chris.

"Yeah, you get no argument from me. Murder our dragons and disrupt the show—who else would do that?"

"Justin did well. To catch the guy, I mean."

"Yeah," said Lance. "And he was so scared of Anthony, he couldn't spill fast enough."

"Anthony's never going to want to hire locals again," Chris observed. "Gonna put a strain on our budgets, taking an extra coach for all the stage hands."

"Worth it, though."

They were silent. In the quiet of Chris's hotel room, they could hear Busta's gentle snoring from beneath the covers of the enormous bed. Next to the lump that was Busta, a tiny frond of gold on the pillow betrayed the presence of Dao, also fast asleep.



"You first."

"I just wanted to—thank you. He could have been killed, if you hadn't—thank you. I mean, uh. You know."

"Hey. Thank you. I love my dragon, too."

Lance ducked his head. "You know, the—the day you showed up with him, he was so tiny and helpless, you were just, it was the most appealing thing I ever saw in my life."

"Really?" said Chris, surprised. He didn't remember it that way at all. "I was real envious when you brought Dao along to rehearsal. Not that I'd want any other dragon than Busta, but Dao's very cool."

"Yeah, he is." Lance laughed, a touch nervously. "Guess I should go to bed. Is it okay with you if I leave him there? Seems a shame to wake him."

"Sure, no problem. You can stay too, if you like, there's plenty of room, I think we've been in countries smaller than this bed. I, erm, promise not to molest you in your sleep."

"Well, what's the point of staying if you're not gonna molest me?" Lance said lightly, but there was, maybe, something in his voice—

"Of course, if you want, I could probably force myself." Chris hardly dared breathe.

Lance sat very still.

"When I say force myself, what I actually mean is, I won't handcuff myself so that I can't."

"Oh, well, if there's handcuffs, " said Lance, so Chris kissed him.


Something sharp was poking Chris in the neck. He woke, more or less, to find Dao's little face inspecting him interestedly. Dao looked from Chris to Lance, bestowed a dragonish snufflekiss on Chris's chin, and returned to his sleeping place next to Busta. Glad you approve, thought Chris, vaguely, and went back to sleep.


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