dragon challenge header

not real, made up, purely intended for entertainment


by Pen

thanks to Joyfulseeker for the beta

"You comfortable?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. Go for it."

"You relax, now."

"Sure." Chris tried to sound bored. "It isn't my first time, you know." Then he felt stupid, since it was so damned obvious it wasn't his first time.

Donny had the grace to ignore it. "Okay, then."

Chris settled flat on his belly, left cheek resting on his crossed hands, and breathed steadily. He was shaved. Prepped. Flat out on a, what, a massage table or something, padded enough to be comfortable, with a big sheet of paper between him and the vinyl. The man behind him shifted, and grunted, and began, and a sharp hot scratch prickled into the sensitive flesh near the base of Chris's spine.

Relax, he told himself. You've done this before.

Hot, vicious. Like a bee-sting. Except Chris hadn't ever been stung by a bee so the comparison was kinda speculative, but whatever. Fucking ow! Seemed he was extra sensitive right there. He breathed carefully. The endorphins would kick in soon enough, and meanwhile... it would hurt. That was okay. It was good. Remind him what an idiot he was, maybe. Fool, fool, fool, blazed into his skin, work it over, get it out of his system by the time he was done.

There was something about the smell of a tattoo parlor, hot metal and steam from the autoclave and a waft of cigarette smoke from the waiting room, antiseptic mixed with the scent of rebellion, it brought back memories. The first time, years ago, the four of them euphoric with success, determined to get a permanent memento. Justin's jittery excitement, Joey's broad but nervous grin, his own determination to be cheerfully blasé about the whole thing. Lance's surprising calm. Lance had been first up, and set a standard of stoic acceptance for the rest of them to meet, allowing the pain to show only in the widening of his huge green eyes and occasional flutterings of his eyebrows.

They'd tried, for a while, to cajole, torment or embarrass 'C into joining them, but JC had been adamant, answering a flat No every time. There was no argument in the world to get him to change his mind and go along. Chris had got that before anyone else—way before Justin had accepted that his pouts and goo-goo eyes weren't going to get him what he wanted, not this time. It had been fun to watch Justin pull out all the tricks, and fail. It was good for the kid, Chris thought, smirking into the flat padded surface, good for him to learn that he could only get his own way most of the time.

The four of them had been so proud of their first ink, swaggering around displaying their ankles every chance they got.

Ankles were sensitive, the guy had warned them, but it hadn't been so bad, the pain. And this was going to be fine, too. Chris caught his breath, as the busy needle found a delicate spot above the bone, but made himself relax again, carefully loosening the tension wherever he found it in his body, just like JC had taught him, had taught them all, years before.

"You good?"

"Yeah. Just took me by surprise. It's fine."

"I got breaks planned, but if you wanna take five, just say."

"No, no, keep going. I'm good."

Chris lowered his head again and grinned into the sheeted surface. He was so going to tell JC he'd used those relaxation techniques to deal with having needles stuck into his body. Heh.

It was strange, Chris mused. This urge to commemorate parts of his life on his skin. And only some parts. He didn't need his family there. No displaying his mom's initials, no way. Okay, so your mom was a permanent part of your life, it wasn't like having some girlfriend's name displayed in a heart for everyone to snicker at quietly when you broke up and had to carry it around like a great big 'loser' sign or only date people with the same name or something witless like that; your mom would be your mom always. Still, Chris thought, it was just a little bit creepy, having a tattoo like that.

He shifted his head to rest against the phoenix. That one, he loved. The *Nsync one was a good memory, but the phoenix, that was a thing of beauty. Maybe it was the reason he was here now. It was a permanent reminder that he could reinvent himself. He'd done it twice already. He could do it again, and the new ink would remind him of that. Course, he'd have to look in the mirror. Two mirrors, even. But still.

It was a beautiful shape. Donny had adapted it a little bit, so it wasn't set all down his backbone. Donny had told him that the spinal area tended to be extra sensitive, which so far was true; it was definitely worse than the arm tats had been. Anyway, the guy knew his job, and Chris believed in getting the best people to do the work, and letting them do it the way they thought it should be done. Donny's portfolio was amazing, and the design was perfect.

And the sharpness of the pain had softened a bit now. The wasp-hum, Donny's occasional muttering, a vague tinny noise from the radio in the waiting room, nothing loud to get his heart rate up, and no fucking obnoxious 'relaxation music' either... If he was JC he'd probably have dropped off to sleep by now. Well, except for being six counties away and still running.

He was definitely going to have to thank 'C for the relaxation techniques.

Besides, it had been way too long since they'd got together. It was, hell, three months? Four? No, wait, it was longer: he hadn't seen JC since before Christmas.

It had been kinda like this, actually, last time he and 'C got together. Well, except for the not having hot air inside his lungs now, and not being completely covered with sweat and also not being actually naked. Also, right now, a guy he barely knew was sticking needles in his back. So, it hadn't been that much like this. Just the lying flat on his stomach, really. In the sauna, just the two of them, practically melted, talking lazily about what was wrong with the world in general, and what was wrong with the music scene in America, and in particular, what the hell was wrong with the more fucked-up members of sometime superstar boyband *Nsync. Specifically, Lance.

* * *

"He oughtta be singing," Chris insisted. "Like the rest of us."


"Joey's done plenty of singing in the last five years. Can't restrict himself to film parts that need a tenor, I mean, how many of those are there? But he does okay. He always wanted to act, wasn't his dream to start his own band. But Lance, now." Chris couldn't leave it alone. "Lance hardly does anything. Studio backup stuff a couple times. Tchah!"

"Dude, he has other stuff. Business. You know Lance."

"Yeah, but... How come you don't use him, huh? You freaking fell in love with his voice right from the start. How come you haven't used him on any of your tracks?"

JC shuffled uncomfortably, and got up to ladle more water onto the coals. "It's not that I—it's just—I want. It to be mine. You know. 'Sides. Maybe he wouldn't want to come and sing with me. You know he used to get pissed off in the studio sometimes."

"When you were being completely anal. Yeah, well, nothing unique about that. Don't mean he wouldn't work with you now."

"Lance is busy. He has stuff going on," JC protested.

Chris wiped a trickle of sweat from his forehead. "All that TV crap he gets into, I mean, is he on a mission to piss Diane off, or what?"

"If he is, you'll never hear him say so," JC murmured. Chris was glad he wasn't the only one who'd noticed Lance's determination to court the trailer trash end of the market. It was something Chris almost admired about Lance—the way Lance would do exactly what he felt like doing, and not give a damn what anyone thought. He would admire it, if not for the fact that what Lance apparently wanted to do was crappy TV shows. Although the thing Lance and Joey had done together had been surprisingly good. Maybe he shouldn't have been surprised, but. Fucking TV networks, though.

"And the production stuff," JC continued. "But I was thinking of the new boyfriend."

"Ah," Chris said, darkly. "Him."

"Did you even meet him yet?"


"You should. While you're out here on the West Coast."

"Not interested."

"And there you were freaking out about how Lance's life is going. Last time I saw him, he looked really happy. This new guy's good for him."

"I don't care," Chris said. "He creeps me out. I've seen pictures. He's a fucking android."

"He's a decent guy," JC said patiently. "You'd like him."

"Hah." No way.

"He's smart. And funny. And genuine. I mean, he's really into Lance."

Chris was quite proud of the obscene response he made, but JC frowned at him.

"You know you're not really a complete fucking jerk, Chris, so cut out that shit. I don't see why you're so determined not to even meet the guy."

"The Android," Chris muttered. "You know he's not real. Lance had him built. Custom made. There's a Perfect Boyfriend factory somewhere in Beverly Hills, or else some plastic surgeon is taking silicon to the next level." JC hmphed, but Chris could tell he was amused. "And you know those things never turn out well. Didn't you see I, Robot? One of these days all the perfect android boyfriends in LA will rebel and start tearing things apart. Just you wait."

* * *

Pain suddenly stung sharp, bringing Chris back to the tattoo parlor, as the outliner moved onto a sensitive patch.

"Uh, 'm gonna shift, okay," he warned. Donny grunted assent. Chris hung both arms down over the sides of the table, adjusting his knees while he was at it.

There was something satisfying about the relentless spark, the rough press of cloth wiping his tenderized flesh, the buzz of the needle gun. He could still feel the needle, but it wasn't so bad. Moving towards his shoulders, the sting seemed to be easing a little, though maybe that was just his brain growing accustomed to the pain input. Assuming brains worked that way.

Couldn't lie like this for long, but it would get the circulation going in his squashed hands again. Somehow the position was familiar... last time... last time he'd been waking up to a hangover. Hell of a hangover. Hangover from hell. And underneath the hangover, the persistent awareness that he couldn't have what he wanted, and all the drink in the world wasn't going to make that any less true.

It was going to take several hours to get the outlining done, and another long session for the shading. He'd been warned, and he wanted this, he did, but man... Chris could take the needles, but keeping still for hours at a stretch, that was hard.

Might as well use the time for something useful instead of dwelling on stuff he couldn't change. There was a song he'd started a week ago and not really worked on. That'd do. Chris forced the lurking memories out of his mind and concentrated on his song.

Fresh lyrics fitted themselves slowly to the melody, and as he repeated it and worked on through to the last fading lines, the harmonies clarified themselves too. It was hard, he had to work to track the little changes. Chris played it over and over in his mind, mentally trying out variations on this note and that chord and this rhyme, so lost in his creative process that he forgot the busy needle and was startled when Donny stopped working and asked if he wanted food. Scribbling his new song into his notebook while Donny went to find the kid to send out for burgers, Chris realized that the drone of the needle-gun, and the regular swabbing of his back, had worked themselves into his song.

It was a good song, he thought.

By the end of the day the outline of bright black ink looked seriously good. Donny was very particular about the aftercare instructions, and the kid he was teaching was more than happy to earn a bit extra for coming round to help. Chris had no desire to show it to any of his friends, certainly not until it was done, maybe not even then, but the kid was different, it was just a business arrangement. Chris hadn't considered that he wouldn't be able to put the lotion on for himself. But, problem solved.

Chris eased himself gingerly behind the wheel for the uncomfortable drive home, and once there, went straight for the refrigerator. He deserved a beer or many. He considered lighting up instead, but he liked to lie back and look at the sky when he toked, and it didn't really suit his mood anyway.

He nuked some leftover chilli and ate it at the kitchen counter. It was a relief to be able to sit on the tall stool, or stand up or, after a while, drape himself over the back of a dining chair to watch TV. His back felt as though a tribe of fire ants were holding a hell of a party just under the skin, but the beer helped. And it was going to be worth it. And he was going to get this idiocy, once and for all, out of his head.

Boldness, bravery, perseverance. Overcoming obstacles, being in control. He was going to be all that, and the blazing triumphant message of defiance on his back would remind him that he was, that he could.

Unfortunately, the most comfortable position for sleeping was on his belly once more. The fire ants under the bandage seemed to be calming down, but it itched like really nasty sunburn, like JC had been at Challenge that year, glowing like a strawberry and smothered in aloe gel, and Chris just knew that if he lay down on his back he'd be wriggling the itch against the sheets. Bad plan. Might damage the ink. He set his alarm for the morning—kid would be round at ten, he'd have to be showered and ready. And he was tired. Ready to sleep.

The sunburn feeling wouldn't let him sleep. It reminded him too much of that day last summer. Nearly a year ago.

* * *

"You need some more sunscreen. Don't argue, dork, let me put some on your back."

Grumbling, Chris rolled onto his stomach.

"Yeah, yeah. You want that pallid Irish skin to burn, don't blame me."

Chris was tempted to say, fuck off and quit groping me then, but Lance was right, and there actually were times when Chris made the rational decision not to cut off his nose for the sake of a smartass line. Also, Lance's hands felt good, all squishy with cool sunscreen, stroking in firm, leisurely circles over Chris's shoulders and gradually lower, then past the swim trunks to the backs of his thighs.

There was a downside to that, but his swim trunks were baggy.

"Okay, my turn."

Chris took his time sitting up, he waited until Lance was prone and settled with his eyes closed before perching on the edge of the deck chair to apply a generous smearing to Lance's pale gold, perfect skin. It would be a crime to let it burn.

Chris forgot, sometimes, how much fun it could be to spend time with Lance, especially when Lance was in exactly the right mood, a mixture of gossipy bitch and lascivious fanboy. He was really in Orlando to visit Joe, but Joe had promised Briahna a day in the Magic Kingdom, and Lance had cried off, pleading cowardice and a strong desire not to spend his day in disguise. It was too hot.

So he'd shown up on Chris's doorstep with a bottle of tequila and about a gallon of refrigerated sunscreen, and all the news too scandalous to print about the Hollywood scene. An unfortunate remark about the current state of Ricky Martin's facial hair had led to an extended game of "I'd do him". Hugh Jackman, Ian Somerhalder, Rob Lowe, all definites, Jake Gyllenhaal was a maybe, but Chris demurred at Jared Padalecki, who, he said, while admittedly hot, was just too damn tall, and wasn't worth the crick in the neck.

"Tom Cruise is short," suggested Lance, blandly, so of course Chris was compelled to expound at high volume all the reasons why Tom Cruise was the wellspring of all that was wrong with America today, and possibly the source of ultimate evil, bringer of plague and dispenser of piles, and if Lance thought that being short was a redeeming feature, Lance was wrong.

"You don't seriously think Tom Cruise is hot, do you?" Chris said, winding down at last.

"Nah. I mean, he's Tom Cruise," said Lance, in explanation.

Chris huffed, reassured, and settled back down.

"Speaking of short, I had the biggest crush on you for years."

"What?" Chris sat up, astonished, and turned to stare.

Lance grinned at him sunnily. "I really did. Back at the beginning, when we were touring in those awful hotels. I used to spend every spare minute imagining how you'd suddenly realize I was all hot and sexy and jump me. Don't worry—it don't amount to much time, it's not like we had that many spare minutes back then."

"You had a crush on me?"

"Uh huh. You were the coolest person I'd ever met," Lance said, and looked thoughtful. "You pretty much still are."

"Dude! You know Justin Timberlake!"

They grinned at one another. "Yeah," said Lance. "But I knew him way before he was cool, so it don't count. You were always cool."

"Even in braids?" Chris must have had good reasons for getting braids, at the time. He just couldn't remember what they'd been.

"I liked the braids. Sexy." Lance's mouth twitched as he pretended not to smile.

Okay, so Lance was winding him up. He must be. Chris would certainly have remembered Lance crushing on him. "You used to think about me and jerk off," he suggested, evilly.

"I guess it was more like, I used to jerk off, and think about you," Lance corrected him.

So much for embarrassing Lance. "Yeah, well, I can understand the coolness that was the Kirkpatrick must have seemed like a sex god to your dorky sixteen-year-old self." A sudden memory of Lance at his audition, innocent as Bambi, all eyes and nerves, flashed into Chris's mind. "Oh God, now I have to scrub out my brain," he moaned. Sixteen-year-old Lance!

Twenty-something year-old Lance laughed and settled back onto his lounger, tilting his cap a little further down to shade his sunglasses. "Nah, 's not like you ever did anything to be ashamed of. Anyway, I got over it. But it was kinda nice, while it lasted, and it probably saved me from getting into all kinds of trouble."

* * *

I used to jerk off, and think about you.

Lying in bed with his skin prickling, he couldn't help it. His mind went there, whether he willed it to or not, went back to his favorite fantasy, and he could imagine it so clearly, so perfectly, and it always worked. It had worked even when he felt dirty and wrong for even thinking about it, and it worked just as well after he'd talked himself into believing it wasn't doing anyone any harm.

Prone in the bed, lying on a pillow to ease his spine, he went back in time.

* * *

That night. The night he came back early to the hotel, his pants sodden with the beer Joey had knocked into his lap. He threw the bedroom door open without thinking, and found Lance. Lance, not asleep or watching TV, but naked on his bed, legs spread, with two fingers dipping into his mouth and the other hand wrapped around his erect cock. Lance, creamy-soft and smooth, gilded by the light from the lamp beside the bed. So lickable, so delicious, he was like human ice-cream, and Chris wanted to crawl onto that bed beside him and lick him, all over, every inch, taste his perfect peachy skin and touch his gorgeous fat cock and make him moan and squirm...

Lance, looking back at him with frozen outrage, cool and untouchable with his haughty raised eyebrows and his wide-eyed disdain. Chris, conscious of his own dishevelment and the smell of stale beer, knew that he couldn't touch, couldn't even think about licking, tasting, wanting that sweet honey eighteen-year-old body. He ran instead, fled the scene and rushed into the bathroom along the corridor, and it took him about a minute to come against the wall of the sordid cubicle, and another fifteen minutes of telling himself he was going to hell before he could open the door and scrub his hands and make himself go back to the bedroom he had to share with Lance.

He'd played that scene again so many times in his mind, so many ways. Standing by the door watching Lance work himself to a frenzied climax. Lance smiling, inviting him closer. Himself, suave and confident, You want some help with that? Unzipping his own pants to stroke himself while Lance watched, entranced. Lance, writhing under his tongue, begging to be fucked. Lance, tied spreadeagled on the bed, moaning and pleading. Lance, wide eyes and skin like summer, kneeling in front of Chris, I want you, please let me and opening his pants, eager for Chris's cock.

* * *

He eased his hips up, almost painfully hard, and rubbed against the pillow. No hands, just the tease of cotton to make this last as long as the scene in his head, until he couldn't stand it any longer and had to wrap his fingers round his erection and stroke himself to a climax so powerful he cried out, and flopped down into the sticky, warm mess and the shame of doing it again.

In the morning, as he showered the bandage off, he told himself it didn't matter what he did in the privacy of his own mind. He never felt guilty about the Gwen Stefani fantasies, so it was just dumb to worry about this one.

* * *

A week later, the outline was healing nicely. The kid said he took the ink real well, and Chris let him talk and be pleased with the progress of Chris's skin, because he remembered how it felt to be eighteen and learning and wanting to be cool. He didn't really need the kid any more, now he was past the Bacitracin stage, but he was a good kid, and probably could use the extra cash, so he still showed up once a day to put lotion on the unreachable skin, and it couldn't hurt. He'd even shown Chris the first tattoo he'd ever done, on his own shin, low down, his initials in a ring of fire. Chris asked him to confirm the next appointment with Donny, and told him he was going to be a master someday.

* * *

Later that day, he was walking the dogs when a high-pitched shriek warned him that he'd been recognized, and a small girl hurtled into his legs and held on tight. He batted the joyful dogs aside and reached to haul her into the air.

"Why, hello, there! If it isn't Susie Sparkle-Knickers! And what are you doing out in the park on a fine sunny day like today? Shouldn't you be in school?"

She giggled as he settled her against his hip. "Silly Uncle Chris! It's Saturday. And my name isn't Susie Sparkle-Knickers, it's Briahna Elizabeth Mary Fatone!"

"Are you sure? All those names for a little squirt like you? I like Susie Sparkle-Knickers better. Have you got a kiss for your Uncle Chris, then?" She threw her arms round his neck and nearly throttled him as she planted a big kiss on his cheek, then he blew a raspberry against her neck so that she squealed and wriggled.

"You tormenting my kid, Kirkpatrick?" Joey, looking like a human stop light in a scarlet T-shirt with no incriminating slogan on it (Briahna was reading, now), and brandishing two strawberry popsicles.

"It's kinda fifty-fifty," Chris admitted. "Hey, do I get a share?" Briahna obligingly thrust the tip of her popsicle into his mouth. "Mmm, artificial flavors and sugar! Thanks, munchkin."

Joey rolled his eyes and detached his daughter, reminding her that Uncle Chris was old and fragile as he set her back down on the ground. But he made her give Chris her popsicle, now that Chris had licked it, and handed over his own untouched one to Briahna, so Chris decided to let it pass. He was feeling mellow on this sunny morning, and Briahna-kisses were a tonic even on a bad day.

Briahna chattered on happily, telling Chris about school, and her new best friend Mariella, and how Uncle Lance was coming to visit, and did Uncle Chris like her new T-shirt? When they found an empty bench, she took the rubber ring to throw for the dogs.

"So, Uncle Lance is coming for a visit," remarked Chris, casually. He hoped.

"Yeah. Next week."

"I'm surprised he can spare the time. I thought he and the Android were setting up house together, or something."

Joey looked at him strangely. "Don't call him that when Lance is here, okay?"

Chris shrugged, and bit off the top of his popsicle.

"It's just, I don't think Lance is ready for... they broke up."

"They wha'?" His mouth was full of sugared ice, he thought for a minute there he was going to choke on it.

"Yeah. A few days ago. Lance called me."

"Was he—is he—how is he?"

"Oh, you know Lance, I mean, the world could end and he'd be all, So, is there gonna be a party? So who knows? He doesn't say that stuff over the phone. We thought he could do with some time away from LA."

"Huh." Chris puzzled over this. "That's just... weird. I mean."

"I know what you mean. I thought this guy was it, you know, The One. The way Lance was talking back at the New Year, and they seemed so good together at the party. Oh, no, right, you didn't go."

"I heard, though," Chris said, darkly. It had led to a hell of a hangover, too late to have New Year's Eve as an excuse.

"Anyway, I leaned on him to come see his god-daughter. It'll do him good."

Chris, watching Briahna, who was happily occupied throwing the slobber-covered toy again and again, thought Joe was probably right.

There was no need, no point, no sense being nervous in anticipation of Lance coming round to see him. It was just Lance, after all. Lance who might actually be grateful that at least one of his friends would be willing to call his ex rude names, and whup his ass at Final Fantasy instead of making with the sympathy all day long and urging him to talk. Lance who, though he had admittedly just been dumped and was theoretically available if only for rebound sex, in practice had a taste for tall, chiseled guys with abs like steel. Lance, who knew nothing of Chris's fantasy life, and who had gotten over his adolescent crush years ago.

But he couldn't help it.

* * *

Chris thought seriously about canceling the booking for getting the shading done. His stupid, half-assed idea that he'd somehow exorcise his secret by having it etched onto his skin just seemed pointless. He just wanted to hide in his house awhile.

But... it was still going to be a beautiful tattoo, and hell, maybe he would be able to live up to it, not anytime soon but someday, and maybe it would goad him along, a symbol of heroism and perseverance (he'd looked it up on the web), of prosperity and good fortune, to remind him that he was lucky, blessed and successful. Even if it didn't, it'd be a work of art, and definitely wrong to go around with it half-finished, whether he was planning on showing it to people or not.

So he settled in on the table again, listened to Donny grunt approval of the way the outline looked, and prepared himself to receive the needles.

Strange really, how many memories lying prone like this brought to mind. Lance's recent visit, for one, sitting in the yard together with Chris flat out on his lounger by the pool, but refusing to take off his shirt. Comparisons with the unlamented Android's sculpted body were not going to do him any favors, but the reason he gave was a terse "New ink," which Lance understood well enough. "And no, you can't see it. It isn't finished yet."

"You're getting quite a collection there," Lance observed.

"I like it."

"Yeah, it looks good on you."

"What about you? Anything new?"

"Nah. I like sunshine on my skin, and it doesn't go so well with ink."

Chris laughed. "Right! Your perfect, all-over tan is completely natural, I get that."

"The sun does shine in California too, you know," Lance reminded him mildly. "And if you have high enough fences you can do all kinds of things in the back yard." This seemed to remind Lance of some memorable things he'd done in his back yard, an avenue Chris was more than happy not to explore, so silence descended. After a while, Chris risked a look, but Lance's face was turned away from him.

Lance was also lying prone, for which Chris was grateful. Arguably—hell, indisputably—the toned and refined body of today's Lance was hotter than the eighteen-year-old stretched out on the bed and burned into Chris's brain, and either way this Lance was still peach-colored and edible, so it was just as well he wasn't lying flat on his back offering himself to the sun and feeding Chris's fantasies with new material.

"Bass, are you okay?"

Lance didn't pretend not to know what he meant. He heaved a noisy sigh, and turned to face Chris. "I'm okay." Chris didn't press it, and after a minute or so, Lance went on. "I don't know what's the matter with me."

"Hey!" Chris reared up onto his elbows. "There's nothing wrong with you! You're—hell, you're you! Aside from being all ripped and shit, you're smart and funny, okay admittedly in a completely retarded way, and you never give a fuck what other people think, you just do what you want to do. Which is actually a good way to live, even if it means you keep showing up on stupid game shows."

Lance laughed, genuine warmth bubbling out. "That's what I've always loved about you, Kirkpatrick, your silver-tongued charm. But that isn't—"

"If that isn't enough for the—for your Perfect Boyfriend, then it's his loss, not yours."

"I never said it—wait, you think we broke up because he dumped me?" Lance raised an admonitory eyebrow. "Ass-backwards, Chris, seriously. And incidentally, I know you call him the Android, Justin told me."

"Fucking Timberlake." Justin had always known how to be discreet on the public stage, and never seemed aware that there could be boundaries at all in his private life. Chris had known far more than he'd ever wanted to know about Britney's little quirks. He coughed, disconcerted. "So if you dumped him, why do you think there's anything wrong with you?"

"It's just..." Lance sighed. "I just don't understand why it didn't work. I mean, hell, it was like, if I'd had a list of everything I wanted, he checked every box, he really did, at least all the important ones, like, right down to number forty-seven, and—"

"You have a list of attributes for your perfect boyfriend, and there's more than forty-seven items on it? Man, you are such a freak."

"Shut up, I'm being all introspective here. Respect the moment."

"I could respect it better if I had more beer."

Lance rose fluidly and picked a bottle out of the cooler, opened it, and handed it to Chris. "Lazy fucker," he remarked affectionately.

"Go on, then. Introspective moment. I'm listening." He could practically hear Lance's eyes rolling.

"It was just... there he was, everything I wanted, you know, perfect. And it was perfect, for a while, and I was all, like, he's so wonderful, and wondering what he could possibly see in me—don't interrupt, my self-esteem's in perfect health, it's just that when you're in love you see it like that, don't you, you see the other guy as so perfect, it seems impossible that he could be interested in you, when you know you're not perfect yourself."

"So you were in love."

"Yeah, but, that's the thing. That's all it was. It never got to be anything more than that, anything long-term. I mean, being in love is great, but, you know, it ought to, like, settle down. Stop being all champagne and fireworks and move onto, um, I dunno, iced tea on the porch in the evening. I think. I guess. I talked with my mom about this, about how she knew Dad was the one she wanted to keep."

"Did Diane like him?" Chris asked, suddenly curious.

"Yeah, sure she did." Lance paused. "I think. I'm not sure. Huh. Weird. But look, what I was saying was, I don't know what's wrong with me, that I never seem to feel that. I fall in love, but I... I don't understand it. I mean, I want what my parents have, I want that, someone I can spend my whole life with."

"Just a sweet old-fashioned girl, huh, Bass?"

The sunscreen hit him in the ribs. "The Chris Kirkpatrick School of Friendly Comfort, bring your own bludgeon." But Lance was grinning, and Chris honestly thought Lance preferred it like this; the atmosphere of unadulterated sympathy at Joe and Kelly's place must be stifling. "So," Lance continued, "I really thought that this time, it'd be, I was ready. I mean, I couldn't possibly have found anyone more perfect. But, I just..."

"He wasn't so perfect after all?"

"No, that's the thing, he actually was. My list wasn't just great abs, beautiful cock, fantastic in bed, you know, there was a lot more to him than that. All the things he's done, the kind of person he is..."

Great, thought Chris. Tell me much more and I'll be in love with him myself.

"I can't help but wonder if... if maybe there's something wrong with me, that I can't love someone the way I want to."

"Sure you can," said Chris, roughly. "It just means he wasn't the right one, thassall. Maybe you'd be better off with someone who isn't perfect. That's what most people get."

"You mean, what I really want isn't what I think I want at all?" Lance sighed. "Back to the drawing board, then."

* * *

There wasn't much consolation to be gotten out of the whole conversation, although Chris did have a deep and fiery satisfaction at the passing of The Android from Lance's life. Even when he was lying here feeling like he was being molested by tiny, determined porcupines. This needle gun sounded different, higher, more frenetic, and he contemplated writing another song, but Haha, I stomp on your Android Jerkitude wasn't the kind of lyric he really wanted to be writing, and nothing else sprang to mind. Not even a limerick.

"You're in that band, aren't you?"

The question, from stubble-headed, art-covered Donny, was so unexpected it took Chris several seconds to process it. "Um. Yeah," he admitted.

"I told my wife you were a client. We saw your gig in that club last Friday. You were good."

"I—uh." Oh. That band. "Thanks." And suddenly he was laughing so hard his entire body shook. The needle gun stopped, and Donny stared in astonishment as Chris sat up, whining and helpless, breathless, with tears streaming down his cheeks as he laughed and laughed. In the end he had to go to the bathroom and calm down.

"Sorry," he explained, climbing back on to the table. "I'm, um, not used to being recognized for that." He settled down, and grinned for every minute of the last half-hour.

And then it was done, and it was spectacular, and it was paid for with a bonus, and a promise to call in when it was healed to have everything checked over, and arrangements made for the kid to come round as before.

On the way through the waiting room, a young woman who was looking through a book of flash gasped, visibly regressed to her teens, and asked, starry-eyed, for his autograph. He threw in a hug for good measure, and gave his approval for the thorny rose she had selected.

He was Chris Kirkpatrick, and he had a Chinese dragon on his back, and he could fly.

* * *

"Wow! That is fantastic."

Coke went all over the counter as he jerked with surprise. What the fuck was Lance doing here? Chris, shirtless and in his tattiest shorts, gaped like a fish.

"The door opened, when I knocked? You shouldn't leave it like that, it isn't safe. Anyone could come in."

"No, I don't, I mean. I was expecting..." except that the kid had signed off on him yesterday, declaring his back fully healed, and had gone off with a pocketful of dollars and a happy grin. It was stupid habit that had led Chris to unlock the door at five to six, cast off his T-shirt and start pouring sodas. "I thought you were in California."

"This morning, I was. Do I get one of those?"

Bemused, Chris handed over a glass. Lance set it down on the counter, though, and tilted his head thoughtfully. "Turn around?"

Unable to articulate a reason not to, Chris turned slowly and braced his hands on the counter. His skin seemed to prickle faintly under Lance's gaze, from the tail tip on his right shoulderblade to the bright green eyes, the only spots of color on the whole design, just above the precarious waistband of the shorts that rested on his hipbones.

"That. Is stunning. Uh. Can I—do you mind if I touch it?"

Chris snorted. "It's not engraved, doofus. You won't be able to feel anything."

"I know, but..." There was an uncertain laugh, as fingertips traced across his shoulder. "I always think they'll taste different."

"It'll taste just like skin, Lance."

"Yeah. Um."

"What the fuck are you doing?" He'd turn around, but Lance was right there.

"Checking the taste?"

"Cut. It. Out."

"I'm sorry!" Lance laughed, throwing up his hands and backing away a couple steps. "Honest, Chris, I didn't mean to walk right in here and, um. I really wasn't expecting to see you without a shirt on."

"Me not having a shirt on doesn't give you the right to start licking my dragon. Okay, so that sounded like a euphemism for a blowjob or something, which is totally not what I meant to say. Not that I have a fundamental objection to blowjobs, obviously. I mean, only human and all. Male, specifically. You can stop laughing any time, really." At which, inevitably, Lance howled. "Oh, shut up." A carefully directed elbow helped, though even after a couple of jabs Lance was still clinging on to Chris's arm and snorting. "Oh, for fuck's sake. You want a real drink?" He eeled out of Lance's embrace and escaped to the lounge. Where had he put the damn T-shirt?

He was still gazing around rather hopelessly when Lance, carrying the two soda tumblers, followed him in, struck a pose, and growled in his best Barry White, "I want to lick your dragon," then collapsed onto the nearest couch in a state of hysteria.

It took Chris a while to calm down, too, but eventually he stopped snickering and got out the Jack, tipped a liberal share into each of their Cokes. There was no sign of his T-shirt, and he gave up on it, collapsing onto the couch opposite and gulping down a third of his drink.

"Don't hide it," suggested Lance, tentatively. "I mean, it really is a fantastic tat."

"I'm not gonna pose around the place with my shirt off just so you can admire it," Chris grumbled, shifting even as he spoke to lie flat on the couch, with his Jack and Coke on the floor by his hand. "Anyway, tell the truth, Bass, you really just wanna admire my hot lilywhite body."

Lance smiled briefly, and drank, but didn't reply.

"So. Why exactly are you here? You only just went back to LA, what, three weeks ago."

"Yeah," said Lance, carefully. "But I was thinking about what you said."

"Words of wisdom a specialty." Chris eyed him thoughtfully, wondering what in particular Lance was referring to. You could never tell what Lance was going to be into next. It might be buying a new house or buying a best friend in an auction, it might be running around in a stupid costume or running off to Russia for spaceman training. He'd sorta prefer this conversation to be one of the crazy things, although if it was all about how he'd found a soulmate on the internet, or was joining an expedition to the South Pole, Chris was probably going to have to smack him. Disturbingly, neither option seemed totally beyond the realms of probability. "Go on. What are you saying?"

"Well. See, I found when I got back, that I didn't really miss, I mean, I did, the sex mostly, but." He gulped down the rest of his drink, and moved to squat next to Chris's couch, and look Chris directly in the eye. "I missed you, though. And I thought. I, uh. Wondered if maybe I was smarter when I was a kid."

Chris frowned, baffled. "What, did we drop you on your head too often in rehearsals?"

"Nah, that'd be you and JC. I got to flip you, remember?"

"And thank God those days are over," Chris muttered, pretending to feel the top of his skull for bumps.

"And I thought, well, you know me, I get these ideas, and I didn't wanna wait because, um, anyway you should think about it. Me."

"Yeah, and if you explain what you're talking about, I'll give it a shot."

"I want, I think we, Iwannalickyourdragon. I mean. If you. So will you think about that, okay?" He stood up, cheeks the color of watermelon flesh.

"Sit, sit!" commanded Chris, irritably. "I can't see you when you're way up there. What do you mean, you wanna—I mean, you can't just, you didn't even know I had, what are we talking about here?"

"About how I threw away my list," said Lance. "About how I don't know if you and me could ever be something you'd want, but I do. I mean, I already love you, so... Don't look like that, Chris, don't say no straight off, please, I'm not expecting you to say yes, I just wanted you to think about it. Give it some time. You don't have, Joey didn't think you were seeing anyone right now, so—"

"I'm not." Chris sat up, astonished. "But I—this is—where did this come from? You don't want me!"

"Yeah, I do. I told you, ages ago, I wanted you back when I was, um. Eighteen." Chris had a feeling Lance had censored that, and he was grateful.

"You must have gotten over it by now. I mean, I know it's me, and obviously nobody could ever completely, but seriously, Lance, that was years ago."

"Of course I got over it. I had to, didn't I, after the time when you walked in on—never mind why, I just, I moved on. I'm not talking about having a crush on you, Chris. I'm all grown up now. I want more."

Chris was going to get the details of that half-revelation, absolutely he was, but not right now, because right now he had to get this clear. "You want," what had Lance said? "champagne and fireworks? With me?"

"I was thinking more like beer and hot dogs. But definitely fireworks, gotta have the pyro." Lance stood again. "I'm gonna go now," he began.

"Don't you fucking dare! Don't even think about leaving!" If Lance went back to the city of pretty plastic people and the perfect boyfriend factory, Lance would probably forget all about this crazy aberration and find himself another android. Chris practically fell off the couch in his desperate scrabble to get up and grab ahold of Lance. He seized him by the wrist and looked him in the eye. "Don't just walk in here and start, and then flit off back to LA without even, you could at least try to convince me here!"

"Oh!" Lance looked very much less tentative. "You reckon you might be convince-able, then?"

"I... might," said Chris, loftily. "Of course my standards are high. I wouldn't let just anyone—"

"Lick?" Lance murmured. "Your." His hands were on Chris's shoulders. "Dragon?" He breathed the next words into Chris's ear. "Did you know the dragon is the ultimate symbol of masculine essence?"

"No, it means lucky, blessed."

"Either way, I'd say licking it sounds like a plan," said Lance, and if Chris hadn't heard the way his voice trembled he might have thought Lance was all smooth and in charge, but he knew better, and it seemed like maybe his dragon had brought him what he wanted after all.

* * *

Later, lying face-down on his bed while Lance kissed his way from tail to teeth and then everywhere else, Chris knew that it had.

Prequel to this story

Epilogue to this story



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