by Lois Lane
Lance's mother started it, when they got back from Germany and her boy was hyper and giddy. "You're a retarded puppy," she said to him, and he liked that. It sounded cute.
"You're all puppies," she said, and it stuck. It worked, because they were all that way, because Germany had changed them, into different breeds.
Chris had so much energy, and he liked to lick people. You just didn't know when he was going to crash through the door, wrestle you to the ground and leave your neck and cheek wet and cold, with goosebumps forming like a story in Braille on your arms.
Justin was lazy and friendly, crawling into your lap and snuffling your neck until you slid your hand under his shirt and scratched his belly. Then he was pliant and soft, and would lay there almost completely still, heavy and warm.
Everyone thought JC was like a greyhound, nervous and fast. He liked to stretch out on floors, as long and lean as he could get, and breathe deep. Like he was remembering something, or just resting for whatever marathon he would put himself up to, next.
The thing about Joey was that he was reliable, and he always knew where everything and everyone was, and he wouldn't forget. He was loving, too, kissing everyone wetly on the forehead or the cheek, or if you were sick he'd kiss you right on the mouth and stay nearby until you were asleep.
And when you woke up again, sweaty and panicked, when the house was dark and quiet and the shapes in the dark played games with your head, you'd see Lance awake also, eyes glinting dimly, reassuring, and you went back to sleep feeling safe, and guarded.
Mostly, though, they were puppies wide-eyed and innocent with the blinding happiness of airplanes and hotel rooms and Germany and screaming girls, and hot lights on hot stages, and the sound of their voices entangled together ricocheting off the back wall of a hot theatre.
Sometimes the giddiness would overtake them, and they would run around, yelling and whooping, in circles, climbing on each other's backs. The mothers would laugh.
"Puppies," they would say, to one another.
"In a box," said Chris, the first time they were all crammed on the same bus together, nipping and snapping for space during the day, snuffling up close and snug at night when everything seemed too far away, and any heartbeat was more comforting than the sound of tires on the highway.
And like childhood, it was simple then: you did what the grown-ups told you to do. You smiled and nodded, you gritted your teeth and looked right into their piggy eyes and you tried not to jerk away whenever they touched you, and you called them Big Poppa because they liked that.
And you never, ever asked any fucking questions, either.
Which is what Lance finally did, when Chris came to him one afternoon and asked him how much money he had in the bank. Lance actually kept a bankbook, and he took it out and showed Chris.
"$374.92," he read aloud. "Is not what a super-fucking-star should have."
Lance nodded, hackles raised, and he made a phone call. They went together to JC's uncle's lawfirm, shuffling into his office as a pack, nervous and twitchy.
He told them that Lou had himself down for 62% of their profits, and he had a stranglehold on their merchandising. And every time they went to management for money, it wasn't anything they'd earned. It was a loan. A really, really big loan.
"You're going to be bankrupt in a year," he explained. Joey swore, and Justin looked out the window. Chris punched a hole the wall, and they knew nothing would ever be the same again.
"We were so fucking stupid," said JC, and Lance nodded in agreement. He thought about cute retarded puppies sounded, but in reality, there was something sad about them, too. How they didn't really know anything.
At the MTV Awards, with Britney prowling nearby, sensing something big was happening but keeping her distance because she walked alone, they decided to fight. Joey tried to keep it silly, stomping around and growling lines from Braveheart, making Justin and Lance laugh. They were still young enough to do that.
Chris went into the hallway and sat on the floor, and tried to remember how it was all just fun, once. JC came out, too, because he was scared, and brought him cigarettes. They smoked together, JC was bad at it, like a junior high girl, but Chris could blow rings with his mouth shaped like a little o, while JC watched.
He just couldn't deal. He started yelling at people, for no reason. Chris made the makeup girl cry one afternoon, barking at her when she asked him to hand her a Q-Tip. He snarled at Lance for typing too loud and too late on the bus. He didn't move with purpose anymore, he loped, took his own sweet time.
One night, JC thought he might try to see if he could talk to him.
Chris looked at him, at JC's soft blues, over the top of the newspaper, the financial section. Chris' eyes were dark and carnivorous, squinting as if he were in the bright sunlight instead of on the bus at 2am.
And somehow, it just made sense for him to let Chris throw the paper aside, crawl across the table and attack him. He leaned back, and Chris gnawed at his neck, ran his tongue along his jugular, nipping as if he could just bite him, quick and sharp, at that most vulnerable place. JC was always like that, letting people in on his weak spots, trusting them not to bite. He almost always got bitten.
As if he understood, JC suddenly panicked. He growled, and shoved Chris off of him, crawled over him.
So then JC was alpha, and Chris seemed pliant and soft beneath him, yipping and crying out under JC's mouth and teeth and fingernails. But afterwards, when they were sated and sweaty, and panting and lapping absently at slick skin, Chris became tense again. Alert and anxious. He left JC as soon as he was asleep, unchanged.
The weeks after that saw an angry JC, spearheading the lawsuit, pushing for a trial. He said things like "that fat bastard," and "fucking pig-headed freak," and pounded on tables. He scared the shit out of Lance when he screamed at a lawyer to "take the motherfucker for all he's worth." He scared all of them, except Chris, who seemed more comfortable now that JC was mad, like him.
And when Chris saw that JC scared Lance the most, he watched him all the time. Lance slowly became aware of the crazy eyes following him wherever he went, and it made him nervous.
"Chris, man. What are you looking at?"
"Nothing. You. Why?"
"You're freaking me out, dude. Stop."
Chris jumped on him. "Make me."
Lance did make him, but only after Chris wouldn't get off of him, wouldn't let him reach down between them while he licked and sucked at Lance's mouth. He started struggling until he could heave Chris off of him, straddle him and pull his shirt off. Lance bit his nipple, and made Chris go belly-up in surrender to Lance's urgent fingers and sleek, peppery taste.
Even before the soft echoes of sex had faded into the steady rhythm of the bus engine, Chris felt Lance change. The way he had his arms around Chris, hard and possessive even while sleeping, was nothing like the loose, happy way that his hugs had been, before. He wasn't slow Southern comfort now; he had his cock still buried deep inside Chris, and he knew he'd wake up to Lance fucking him again.
And after that, Lance didn't take shit from anyone, and JC didn't scare him anymore.
One morning, Justin was crying because Lance had slapped him, hard, for eating the last orange. He didn't mean to cry, he told Chris, he wasn't a damn girl about it or anything.
"But it really fucking hurt," he said. He rubbed his cheek, red welt already forming. "Lance has bony-ass hands."
Chris hit him. Smacked him across the other cheek, and before the surprise had left Justin's eyes he kissed him, so hard that he bit his lip, and nipped Justin's tongue. He pushed him around, across the table in the lounge, against the wall, into the tiny bathroom. Chris hitched him up on the sink, yanked at his belt.
"Hey, hey hey..." Justin batted his hands away, and Chris stopped, alarmed at the softness of his voice. It was his mistake, because then Justin vaulted off the counter, slamming Chris against the opposite wall. It hurt like a son of a bitch, but Chris couldn't react, not with Justin's tongue down his throat, almost choking him.
And when Justin had his mouth around Chris' cock, head bobbing forcefully, teeth scraping slightly over chill-pebbled flesh, he might have been on his knees, but Chris was totally given to him. He pressed his palms flat against the wall, felt a bump rising on the back of his head. He'd bitten his own lip, and the blood tasted silvery-gold and dangerous.
When Chris came Justin swallowed, dribbled a little, and when he kissed Chris it was to get him to clean off his face. When Justin pulled back, he smiled at Chris without sweetness, without anything familiar at all. It was a cocky grin that Chris'd never seen before, and Justin would almost never be seen without, after that.
And Lance would never hit him again.
Chris was still angry, but they all were now. They weren't puppies anymore, but mad dogs circling, waiting for that first sign of fear or weakness, them against the world, against the people who'd fucked them over. They moved together in a dangerous dance none of them had ever thought to learn the choreography for, but it didn't matter because they'd all found it in them anyway. Chris had shown them, ripped it out of them, fucked it into all of them.
Almost all of them.
Joey was elusively silly. He didn't avoid Chris, but he didn't approach him, either, and that made Chris want to be around him even more. He didn't seem to be scared, or pissed off, but Chris could see that there was still light in his eyes, a bright chocolatey happiness that for some reason refused to diminish, even when around them was total darkness.
It was in the dark when Chris felt the bed give, Joey's warm weight moving next to him. He'd been in the adjoining room but had come over during a thunderstorm, because they'd discovered a mutual appreciation for them while in Germany. When lightning filled the room, Chris could see the whiteness of Joey's smile.
"Yup," said Chris, glumly.
Chris wanted to answer the way he'd answered JC, because that might have led to sex, but he wasn't pissed off at Joey. He wasn't angry at him, scared for him the way he was for the others. Chris was jealous, and sad, too.
"What's wrong?" asked Joey, and Chris rolled over, rolled into him.
"You're happy," he said, wetly, against Joey's chest. "Fuck you, for still being happy."
Joey put his arms around him. "Hon, I'm scared too."
"Show me," asked Chris. "You never show it. You just make jokes."
"It makes me feel better, and the other guys too." Joey paused. "Except you."
"You're so mad all the time."
"We got fucked over, Joey."
"I know, Chris, but." Joey's hand made little circles on Chris' back. "It's not that bad, you know. We have each other, still."
"But it's not like it was," mumbled Chris.
"Right," said Joey. "But when it's all over? You just have to think of how it will be."
And then Chris knew. They would get away, break out and just run wild. There wouldn't be any holding them back, or taming them. Right then, Chris wanted to jump up, run to the window and open it, and howl at the moon.
But he didn't, because it was raining, and he hated lightning. And because Joey was warm and soft and fun and happy next to him, and he didn't worry about Joey at all, now, the way he'd worried about the others. Chris had fixed them, so that he wouldn't have to worry about them being young and newborn and vulnerable anymore.
And now Joey'd fixed him, by making him remember how it was to be stupidly happy, like that. He'd been trying to take it from the other three, because he missed it and wanted it and thought he was the only one strong enough to have it without letting his guard down, when Joey had it all along.
"Joe-" Chris turned his face up toward him, and Joey's breath filled his mouth.
"I know, babe," said Joey, kissing him, moving gently over him until he was under him, and Chris was the alpha male, but only because Joey let him, because he was strong enough.
Then they settled the lawsuit a few weeks later, and Chris hit the parking lot outside the courthouse running, crashing through the barrier of press and almost knocking Justin's mother into a parked Honda.
"Sorry, Lynn!" he shouted, before vaulting onto Joey's back, licking his ear and laughing in sharp little yelps. Justin was behind him and he had Lance in a headlock, with JC pushing at them from behind. Their voices were a chatter of noise, five-parts, no harmony, like the chirping of little wild things.
Justin's mother laughed at them, and thought about how four grown men could still remind her of puppies, every once in a while.