Tuesday morning was Chris's turn to fly down and get the mail. He dragged himself out of bed at dead o'clock in the morning and flew from New York to Orlando ... just to throw on a wig and ugly glasses, pick up their mail from a box rented to the fictitious "Mr. Johann Schmidt", and fly right back again.
God only knows what the U.S. Postal Service thought of Mr. Johann Schmidt, who received everything from GLAAD bulletins to Gun-of-the-Month Club offers to letters decorated with pink hearts and lipstick kisses. Not to mention the many, many envelopes and packages in a suspicious plain brown with no return addresses.
Next week JC would be doing it from Atlanta, and the week after that Joey had the dreaded L.A. run which, being on the opposite coast, was a trip that claimed his whole night. Lance got to do it from somewhere in Kentucky after that, and Justin had drawn the trip across town when they were back home. Never, ever anyone other than the five of them.
Chris threw his coat on the bed wearily when he returned to the hotel and flopped down next to it, kicking off his shoes. After only a few minutes' rest he sat up and emptied his backpack next to him, sorting the pile of mail into piles based on how the name was misspelled. Once he was finished he grabbed up the other four batches and started on his rounds.
"Mail!" said Chris, pouncing on Justin's shoulders as he summoned up the energy to bound into the room. Justin toppled over and his race car crashed into the wall in a spectacular burst of flames. He threw the controller to the floor in front of him, forgotten, and scrambled up onto the couch.
"Hand it over," he demanded with an eager grin, holding out his hand.
"Say please," teased Chris, holding the mail just out of his reach.
"Pleeeeaase," said Justin, then stuck his tongue out at him and reached up to snatch the mail out of Chris's hand. "I'm taller than you, moron," he added, flicking Chris's forehead. "What did I get?"
"I dunno," said Chris, shrugging as he sat down next to him, poking his side with a single finger. "I don't read your mail, man. You tell me. What did you get? Anything cool?"
Justin thumbed through the flyers and envelopes, setting aside a small magazine to read through. He'd gotten the subscription to 2600 about year ago -- after watching Hackers about five times in a row while he was stuck in the hotel with a bad cold -- because he thought it would be cool. Most of the time it bored him to tears and he didn't really understand what they were talking about, but he still got it.
"Government caught up with you yet?" teased Chris, picking up the magazine and glancing at the back cover.
"Y'all never believed me about that, but I'm serious," he said earnestly. "They keep track of who gets that. It's like a threat to national security or something." Every once in a while, Justin needed to be bad like that. "Johan Schmidt is on a list somewhere, you'll see."
"Hope we never do," said Chris, stretching an arm out along the back of the couch. "It was hard as hell getting that first aliased credit card -- I'd hate to have to go through and do the whole thing again."
"It'd be easier the next time," said Justin, with the certainly of someone who'd always gotten everything he'd ever wanted. "You'd know what you were doing. And what do they care anyway? We pay the bills on time, which is more than most other people do, I bet."
"Probably," said Chris, nodding, knowing the truth of that. Remembering his life before *Nsync. "Can I look at your Playboy?"
"If the pages are stuck together when I get it back, I'm blaming you," said Justin, handing the glossy magazine over. "I wonder if they keep track of who gets that, too."
"That'd be an awfully long list," said Chris, flipping straight to the centerfold and letting it fall forward onto his lap. One eye appreciated the curvaceous body, the other watched Justin flip happily through the rest of his mail. He was too tired to even get turned on by it.
"Yeah," admitted Justin. "And probably a boring one, too. Even my dad got Playboy." He opened his copy of 2600 and frowned at the first thing he saw, then closed it again and handed it to Chris at the same time as Chris was handing the Playboy back.
"Nah," said Chris, waving it off. "I should take the rest of this stuff around." He did thumb through the pile again, though, checking out the headlines on the various newsletters. There was always a handful, no matter how often they got the mail. There was no way that Justin ever read them all. Justin didn't even have enough time in a day to have them all read to him.
"Anyone else get anything interesting?" asked Justin with an eager grin, putting the Playboy down, too, and leaning toward him.
"Yeah, like I'm gonna tell you that," scoffed Chris, pushing him back again as he got up off the sofa and snatched up the rest of the mail before he could look. "You ask around if you wanna know so bad. See you later?"
Justin waved him off and picked up the magazine again. "Fine, go," he sniffed, pointedly not looking up at him. "I'll see you later, Chris."
Chris stifled a laugh as he slipped out the door.
As soon as Chris closed the door, Justin dropped the magazine on the floor and dove into his pile of letters and papers. He could read the Playboy any time; it wasn't every day that was mail day.
He started with the flyers, looking at them all, not even reading them unless a headline caught his eye. He looked for unusual marks, tears, scratches ... anything that might signal that he had been tagged. That he'd been caught. That he was this close to getting in trouble for something.
He examined the letters for signs they'd been opened, maybe even read. When he found the couple that inevitably did look like they'd been monitored he felt a little thrill go through him. Not that he liked being watched particularly; that was such a familiar sensation to him that he was mostly numb to it. No, it was that he was being bad, and there was no one to cover his ass.
He'd never been in big trouble before; he wondered what it was going to be like.
Chris found both Joey and Lance in Lance's room, sprawled on the couch and watching Bugs Bunny with the sound turned way up. He banged on the open door with a fist twice before either one of them looked up to see him.
Joey grinned broadly and motioned him inside, nudging Lance to find the remote and turn the volume down a little so they could hear what Chris was saying to them. They both already knew it was mail day. They all knew when it was mail day.
"Come and get it," said Chris, grabbing a handful of things for Joey and just a few for Lance. "Slim pickings, Bass, sorry."
"It's not quantity, it's quality," retorted Lance, tossing the remote blindly behind him as he got up quickly and reached out for the envelopes. "Besides, the only thing I really want to get are the grades from that last correspondence course I took. Just a single piece of paper, doesn't take much."
"You got an A," scoffed Joey as he reached for his own. "You always get an A. Did I get anything good."
"Brown envelope," said Chris, tucking JC's reasonably light pile back under his arm. "Again. That's always a good sign."
"A!" crowed Lance after tearing open one of the envelopes. "I mean, not that it matters, but still."
"Course it matters," said Joey, speaking to Lance even as he took his packages from Chris, winking at him. "It matters to us. Congrats, Lance. We need to celebrate." This time he did look Chris in the eye as he spoke. "Stay for a drink?"
But Chris shook his head at him. "Nah, need to get this stuff to C then take a break. Long trip and all. Not to mention a few things to look forward to of my own."
"I don't know how you do it," chuckled Joey as he rifled through his mail, his eyes lighting up as he came across the one Chris had mentioned. "You had it with you on the plane that whole time ... "
"I like my privacy," said Chris with a shrug. "Wouldn't want anyone looking over my shoulder while I opened all those porn videos."
"Cause then you'd have to share," agreed Joey, sitting back down again next to where Lance had already crawled back on the sofa, mail piled neatly beside him, ready to be gone through in Lance's slow, methodical way. They all knew why Chris wanted his privacy with his mail, and he was grateful it didn't have to be an issue at all anymore.
"See you two later," he said as he reached behind him to open the door again. "Have fun. Don't forget to share the good stuff."
"Never do," said Joey, and waved at him blindly over his head as Chris left the room.
"It came," said Joey, grinning at Lance and showing him a plain brown envelope proudly.
"What came?" Lance stared at it, blinked up a couple times, then looked back up at Joey.
"Your present," said Joey. "Well, sort of. You get to choose."
"I get to choose what, exactly?" asked Lance warily, back to staring at it again. "Is this going to embarrass me?"
"Probably," admitted Joey without reservation . "But it'll be worth it. Listen ... " He set the envelope down and turned to face Lance earnestly. "I know you're still really shy about the gay thing. And I know you've been wanting to try things out, before you get with anyone. So I figured I'd ... help."
Lance stared at him, then at the envelope, understanding dawning. "That's a sex shop catalog, isn't it?"
"Yeah," said Joey, grinning. "Don't worry, they're totally discreet. Wanna look through it?" His voice and eyes were eager as they turned to the still-sealed envelope, then back to Lance. "You open it."
"You mean with you?" asked Lance, suddenly flushing. "I'm not sure ... "
"Yeah, with me," said Joey, nudging him with his shoulder. "We can talk about them and laugh at the funny stuff and pick out something for you that you'll actually like, that you'd be to embarrassed to get for yourself. And who else are you gonna do it with, anyway?" He picked up the envelope and set it on Lance's lap. "Go ahead. Open it."
"If I didn't know you better, I'd say you were just doing this to embarrass me," said Lance with a soft sigh, picking at the edge of the sealed envelope, tearing it open bit by bit. "And actually ... I do know you better. You sure you aren't doing this just to embarrass me?"
"Positive," said Joey. "That blow-up doll? That was just to embarrass you. This? Nah. Now just open it, it's not going to bite you."
"You don't know that," muttered Lance, but he did open it faster and, taking a deep breath, slid the slim, glossy catalogue out. "There. See?"
"See what?" said Joey, leaning in closer to look over his shoulder. "You haven't even opened it yet. Go ahead. I promise you I won't embarrass you. On purpose, I mean. I swear on those purple boxers I like so much."
Lance give a suspicious sidelong look as he let the catalogue fall open, forcing himself to look at the page. Seeing what was on it, he hurriedly flipped to the next one. Which turned out to be no less embarrassing, but was probably a little closer to what Joey had had in mind when he'd ordered it.
"How about this one?" asked Joey, pointing it out in the middle of the page and raising an eyebrow in Lance's direction.
Lance's eyes widened. "Oh, wow," he said. "Do you have any idea how big that is?" Joey shrugged and made a mid-sized ring with his thumb and index finger; Lance shook his head and repositioned them so Joey's fingers were no longer even touching. Joey made an 'O' with his mouth and Lance nodded emphatically. "No. No way."
"Okay, yeah," agreed Joey. "There's adventurous and then there's ... "
"Masochistic," finished Lance, turning the page and shaking his head again.
"Okay, well, how about that?" said Joey, crinkling the page as he stopped Lance from turning it and jabbing his finger at another item. "That looks, like, normal sized. Right? I mean, it looks dick-sized. Well, it looks like it's the size of my dick, anyway -- I haven't really seen many other dicks to compare it to."
Lance looked at Joey, somewhat impressed and trying to hide it. "Um ... I think I'd like to start with something a little smaller ... " he said softly, staring at it. It was more reasonable at least, but probably something he needed to work up to. "There are ones smaller than that, right?"
"Oh, hell yeah," said Joey, letting him turn the page now. "They come in all kinds of sizes. Do you like them long and slender, or short and thick, Lance?" He wasn't even looking at Lance as he asked, staring intently at the magazine with lines of concentration forming across his forehead.
"You have no shame at all, do you?" said Lance, almost amazed.
"About this?" said Joey, looking at him now. "Nah, no way. This stuff is nothing to be embarrassed about. Sex is nothing to be embarrassed about, like, ever. It's good stuff. So ... which one? You know I want to make sure you get something you really like."
"Well, how do I know which one I like, then?" asked Lance, trying to suppress his own embarrassment again. "I've never tried them before."
"Oh yeah, speaking of that, we need to get you lubricant, too," said Joey, tapping the page again. "It says so right here. How much do you think you'll need?"
"Oh, I have lubricant," said Lance softly, looking down at where Joey was jabbing this time, not really thinking about what he was saying. "I have plenty."
"You do?" Joey sounded surprised. "What for? I mean, I know what lubricant is for, but you haven't ... " Lance did blush fiercely this time, and opened his mouth but nothing came out. Eventually he just shrugged and waggled his fingers at Joey, unable to meet his eyes. "Oh," said Joey, the meaning taking a moment to dawn on him. "Oh! That's great, Lance. I was worried you weren't trying anything." He grinned and gave him an impromptu hug.
"Can I just point out right now how weird it is to have your proud of me for ... that?" said Lance with a self-conscious chuckle.
"You can point it out, but I won't let it stop me," said Joey, letting go to show him an even wider grin. "Not so inexperienced as I thought, huh."
"Guess not," said Lance, unsure of whether to hide his flush from Joey by looking at the book, or hide his embarrassment about liking the book by looking at Joey. "But ... close enough."
"So look," Joey encouraged him, and Lance realized Joey wasn't doing anything to embarrass him. He wasn't even laughing. "And we'll do something about that."
Chris just smiled at JC as, after giving him a few other miscellaneous envelopes, he handed over two heavily decorated letters from a "Ms. Rita Davis".
"She misses you," he offered softly, hesitating by the chair without sitting down. If she felt even half what JC felt for her, she was missing him like crazy.
JC gestured at it and nodded his head. "I miss her, too," he said, "but go ahead. I'm saving them for after the show, so you're not intruding or anything." He opened the one larger envelope with this thumb and pulled out a jewelry catalog.
"You getting her something?" he asked as he sat down, still tired and using the opportunity to relax a little.
JC smiled as he thumbed through the catalog, looking up every so often. "Yeah, she was dropping hints about this locket," he said. "I thought maybe I'd surprise her."
"How long till you see her again?" asked Chris, closing his eyes in spite of his efforts not to. He was risking sleep, doing this, which maybe wasn't such a bad idea. They'd be leaving for soundcheck in a couple hours, and once that hit he wouldn't have another chance until after the show. It was always like this, when it was his turn to get the mail.
"Couple weeks," said JC and Chris was very sorry he made JC frown like that. "If we're lucky. I have a room booked, but ... "
"I know," said Chris understandingly. Not that he'd ever been quite there, but they all understood, at least a little.
"I'll mail her the locket," added JC. "Just in case, you know, it doesn't happen. At least she'll have something." And what JC didn't say was that at least he would have something too, knowing she had something of his. Whatever JC did, he did with passion, and that was as true of his girlfriend as it was of anything. When he was thinking about her, missing her, the tension around JC was almost palpable.
"I'm sure she'd like that," said Chris, still awake, managing to pry his eyes open again. He didn't know what else to say. "I'm gonna head off," he added finally, then smiled. "Mail of my own."
JC smiled back and nodded, "Say hi to Jake for me, if he wrote."
"He did," said Chris, managing with some effort to stand up out of the chair. He nodded at the letters on the bed next to JC. "You ever gonna tell us who she is?"
JC's answer, just an enigmatic smile, stayed with Chris all the way back to his own room.
JC stared at the letters and was so, so tempted to break his vow to himself, to open one of them now to catch a glimpse of Britney's soft, round handwriting. Nothing was as good as being with her, but seeing something from her that was so personal ... it was as close as he could get.
It was so hard for him to keep this secret from the guys, not when he told them everything else, not when he felt that strongly about her. Not when he loved her. He'd told her for the first time the last time they'd gotten together, not that they both hadn't known long before that. It felt dangerous, to say things like that aloud, to admit to them. It was dangerous.
So he had keep it a secret, and she had to. They both had to keep it from everyone.
It was hardest of all to keep the secret from Justin.
Chris stretched out on his stomach on the bed and reached for his pile of mail, drawing it closer. Besides the letter from Jake he had a couple of flyers, a copy of Scientific American and -- hopefully -- the fuzzy handcuffs he'd ordered. But, as always, no matter what else he got, the letter came first.
On top was the usual note from Analise, catching him up on what was going on.
Dear Chris, Jakob as been learning his letters in school and wanted to write you for himself this time. I've translated from his German for you, as I remember how much difficulty you have with reading it. I think perhaps it has gotten more difficult since you returned home ...
She went on to detail some of what had happened since they'd last wrote, but since they e-mailed more often it wasn't much he didn't already know and he hurriedly moved on to Jake's carefully folded letter.
Dear Papa, I miss you. I have a new cat and his name is Mr. Wiggles and he sleeps on my bed and sometimes he puts his bum in my face. Mama cut her hair and now it is short. My teacher put a gold star on my picture of you and Mama and I told Mama to send it to you so you can see.
When are you coming again? My birthday is soon. I want a new truck with big wheels and red or blue. Mama is making cookies now so I have to go. Come soon!
Chris smiled and folded the letter back up, along with Analise's translation, sliding then back into the envelope carefully. He left the picture out to admire for a while, though -- he hadn't been able to get back for a few months now but Jake still drew him and Analise together. If things had been different, their relationship might even have worked out. Instead, they were best friends and Chris had to wonder if, given the whole situation, that wasn't even better.
He'd answer the letters later, once he'd finished going through his mail. Or after the show, on the bus, which is where he usually ended up doing it anyway. In the meantime, he had other goodies to look forward to.
Turning to the small pile next to him, he finally let himself rip into the box and happily pulled his new toy out, shaking the handcuffs to make the chain jangle and feeling up the fuzzy lining. He was also delighted to find a sample bottle of edible body oil tucked away inside the box, and immediately dribbled some on his finger to try it out. He was sucking his finger off with a flourish when someone knocked on his hotel room door.
"Just a sec," he mumbled, tossing them back in the box and closing the lid. Not that he cared if they guys knew what he was getting -- they always did; he couldn't help talking about it -- but he didn't want to share it until he felt like it. "Okay, it's open," he called out, pushing the box to the other side of the bed.
Justin stuck his head in the door. "Hey," he said. Once Chris waved him in, he opened the door wider and held up a white envelope. "This is yours, I think," he said. "Not all subscription renewals are mine, you know."
Chris chuckled and gestured him closer so he could take the envelope. "My bad," he admitted. "All the other ones were yours, though, right?"
"That's beside the point," said Justin, handing it over. "You get anything interesting?"
"Nothing that would interest you," teased Chris, though he grabbed the Scientific American and held it up for him. "Unless you want to read this. But I think you got enough reading material this time to last you for a while." He turned his head to give Justin an inquisitive look, and got a nod in return.
"Yeah," he admitted, and Chris put the magazine back down on the bed. "I have tons of stuff to get through yet. I love mail day." He grinned and almost sat down on the edge of the bed, but looked like he decided not to at the last second. "I should get back to it actually."
Chris smiled at him and tried not to look too grateful that he was going right away. He did hold up the picture from Jake for him, though, knowing Justin would know what it was. "Want me to say hi from you, too?"
"Definitely," said Justin enthusiastically. "Tell Jake I'll be writing him myself just as soon as I find that old record of mine I want to send him."
"Will do," said Chris, waving as Justin slipped back out into the hallway, closing the door behind him. He waited until he was gone before getting comfortable again and studying Jakob's drawing for a long moment.
Eventually, though, he did fold it up and slide it back in the envelope with the letters. The moment he got home after this leg of the tour it would be going up proudly on the wall, next to the rest. Right before he got on a plane to Germany to see them both in person.
He smiled to himself, thinking about that, and reached for the pad of hotel stationary nearby to start on his letter back after all. If he got this out tonight, with a bit of luck, by the time his turn came around to get the mail again he'd get something back from him. It was things like that which made the trip worthwhile, every time.