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ps: 100000000% fiction

Time Of Your Life
by astolat

It probably all started with the breakup. The way David found out was the same way everyone else found out, when a TMZ paparazzi showed up outside the tour buses with a video camera to ask Cook about his girlfriend hanging out with some other guy in a Hollywood nightclub. Cook just shrugged and said mildly, "Yeah, with the tour happening, we decided to cool things off. I'm having a blast out here myself, so I'm glad she's having a good time."

It didn't even occur to David that it wasn't totally true until he said to Ramiele later, "What's up with Cook?" after Cook blew a third cue on stage that night.

"You heard the TMZ jerk!"

"Well, but if they decided—"

She tilted her head forward and gave him a look. "Oh," David said. "But how does he know it's true, then?"

Ramiele said, "Because JustJared posted photos of her having smoochies ten minutes before we pulled into the lot, and five million people texted to warn him, duh."

But the next night Cook was spot-on again, and he smiled and gave the same easy answer when reporters jumped on him in each new town all that week, so it seemed to David like he really was over it. He didn't see why Cook wouldn't be—David wouldn't want to be dating someone who wanted to be kissing other people, either.

It confused him a little when Cook said to him, the morning they rolled into Minneapolis, "Thanks, by the way."

"Um, for what?" David said. It was just the two of them sitting up front with their laptops and bottled water; no one else was up yet.

"For being the only one who's not treating me like I'm made of glass," Cook said.

"Oh," David said, and belatedly he said, because it was what you were supposed to do, "Um, though, you know, if you do ever want to talk about it—" and then he realized, "uh, well, I'm probably not the best person, because I've never actually dated, but—"

Cook had to clap his hands over his mouth to muffle his whoops of laughter, and even when he finally managed to stop, he was still grinning, so David decided he was going to call that a win.

A couple hours later, they got to the hotel, and Carly came hesitantly over and pulled Cook aside and whispered something to him. Whatever it was, his face got weirdly hard, and he took Carly's cell phone and talked to someone on the other end for just a little while. Then he gave it back to her and turned and walked into the hotel.

But the show that night was great, to a packed stadium, and Cook was on fire—he went for every one of the crazy high notes he ever threw in, and got all of them, and he didn't stop moving on the stage even once. He got the audience on their feet and screaming and kept them there for his whole set. David stayed and watched the whole thing, even though he'd seen it a million times already, and clapped wildly after. It was amazing, probably Cook's best night all tour. David didn't get why Carly looked sort of worried when he said so, as he ducked backstage to get ready for the last group sing. That was awesome too—they all kind of had to step it up just to keep up with Cook, and afterwards they got a huge standing ovation that lasted even after they had all left the stage, going on and on and audible from backstage, and it just felt great. It was hard not to bounce like an idiot in his seat on the bus as they went on to the hotel.

After they dropped off their stuff, Cook said, "I'm going out, if anyone wants to come."

"Yeah, I'll come along," Michael Johns said immediately, and Carly said, "Me, too," and Brooke said, "Why don't we all go," and looked at David, and he didn't quite get it, but he said tentatively, "Um, can I get in? Wherever you're—"

"It won't be a problem," Cook said, and Brooke squeezed David's shoulders approvingly, except it turned out that the reason it wasn't a problem was because Cook had played here before Idol, and he knew the band, the bartenders, and the owner. No one even asked David for an ID.

David was both a tiny bit guilty and also secretly glad he hadn't known in advance, because he was pretty sure his dad wouldn't have let him come, or at least would've wanted to come along, embarrassment city, and it was really cool. Well, it was smoky, and the band was so loud it hurt his ears, and it smelled kind of bad, and the chairs were uncomfortable, but it was a rock club, real in a way that the stadiums weren't, and even though they were just sitting out in the open, at a couple of big tables right next to the bar, nobody came over to ask for autographs or kisses or hugs.

He got a Sprite, and Brooke got a cranberry and soda, and everyone else ordered beers, and then Cook waved a fifty and raised his voice and said, "Tell that asshole Bill I want a triple row of blasters, and he better put on a fucking show."

"Fuck you, Cook!" the bartender yelled back, grinning, and he set up a row of four empty water glasses, stacked three little shot glasses on top in between them. He popped two cans of Red Bull, one in each hand, and poured halfway up in three of the water glasses, filled the shots from one of the big glass bottles behind the bar, and then he whacked the first shot glass with the bottom of the bottle. It tipped over and poured into the water glass, knocked the second shot glass over to do the same thing, and that hit the third one, like dominos all falling over.

People whistled and clapped, Cook right along with them, and the waiter brought over the three glasses. "And now you better chug all of them, fucker," the bartender called, and Cook raised one of the glasses to him and tipped it straight back.

"Sure you don't want to take that a little—" Michael said, just as Cook took the second glass and did the same thing, "—slower, mate," he finished.

"Seriously, man, I used to do five of these at a time," Cook said, and knocked back the third one without a break.

David watched a little wide-eyed, because he'd never seen anyone drink that much before, and he wondered if Cook was going to fall over or get sick or something, but he seemed fine. He slouched a little more, and he put his feet up on a chair, but that might've just been because the chairs were crappy and not really that clean to start with, so they weren't going to get a lot worse if you put your feet on them. He didn't start slurring his words or anything. A few other people he knew came over to say congratulations to him, and he talked to them for a little bit, and even though Michael and Carly were whispering urgently to each other and eyeing him, David didn't really think there was anything wrong.

Then the lead singer leaned into the mike and said, "Hey, David Cook, are you too much of a famous asshole now to come up and do a song for the little people?"

"You sure you—" Carly said, but you could barely hear her over the people yelling, and Cook was already getting up. Michael shrugged at her and said, "He's got the bit in his teeth, that's for sure."

"Guys, he's a big boy," Jason said. "Y'know, maybe it's a good thing he's getting it out of his system."

"Okay," Cook said into the mike, "we're going to do a little Nine Inch Nails for you guys," and Carly said, "Oh, God, we're going to need security," and grabbed for her phone as Cook turned back to talk to the band as they set up.

David thought that was kind of overkill. He'd never liked the song—he'd watched the video with some of his friends at their house while their parents were out, and it'd been fun in a stupid kind of way because of getting away with something, but the song just sounded angry and kind of freaky to him, not sexy or whatever it was supposed to be, even if the girls had all giggled nervously through it. And anyway, like half the people here knew Cook, and no one had been hassling them so far.

Then Cook cupped his hands around the mike, smiling with half his mouth, and said, low and soft and tender, "You let me violate you," without any music and not even singing, and David's shoulders did this involuntary shivering twitch, and then they did it again when Cook said, "You let me desecrate you," and then the band came in on "Help me" and the air conditioning wasn't working or something, because David was really hot and sweating all of a sudden.

It was already crowded around the stage, but more people were getting up from their tables and going up to dance, coming in from the other small rooms. The club had been full before they'd gotten there, and more people had been arriving with no one leaving, so now it was jam-packed. People started stamping hard along with the song, thump-thump-thump rattling through the wooden floor, and when they got to the chorus, Cook held up a hand and the band just stopped, and everything was totally silent, silent, silent, and then someone in back yelled, "Sing it, for the love of God!" and Cook grinned, lights reflecting hot in his eyes, and sang, "I want to fuck you like an animal," and the whole room started screaming

David jumped hard—Brooke had just put her hand on his arm. He stared at her, her mouth was moving but he couldn't hear anything.

"I said, I think we should go!" she yelled.

David still didn't quite process it, because how could they go, Cook was up there in the middle of the song? and anyway David was having a hard time paying attention to anything but the music—it was so loud, and Cook's voice was just slicing through everything else, and people around the stage were jumping wildly up and down.

"Oh my god, those girls, are you seeing this?" Syesha said. Cook was right at the edge of the stage, leaning over while he sang, and someone in the front row had her hands on his leg and was rubbing up and down, and another one was touching him from the other side, and another one had her hand right on his—David blushed hot and tried to figure out where else to look. And Cook wasn't stopping—he was just staying right there at the edge of the stage letting them, his eyes closed, holding on to the top of his jeans with one hand to keep the girls from unbuttoning them, still singing the crazy song, and there were hands all over him now and more reaching out, and people were pounding on the stage floor with their fists.

Michael said grimly, "I'm going to get the bartender and go up there," and Chikezie said, "Yeah, man, I'm with you," and Jason got up too, and David wondered hazily if maybe he should go with them, but Brooke was holding on to his arm really tight, and then the bodyguards Carly had called showed up instead.

They shoved their way up to the front of the stage and got in between Cook and the audience, pushed some of the crazier people back away, and then the song was over, and after the endless screaming and clapping got done, Cook stepped down from the stage into the crowd. Even with the bodyguards on either side, people were reaching for him, touching him, and he wasn't pushing away from them, either. By the time he finally worked his way out and back to the table, he had two girls sort of half hanging on to him.

David stared up at him as he came to the table, and then Cook put a hand on David's shoulder and leaned over him. There was a really—really—weird moment when David thought for a second that Cook was about to—was going to—and David's stomach squeezed into a tiny knot, but Cook was just reaching over to grab the jacket he'd left on his seat.

"See you guys at the hotel," Cook said, and walked out with both of the girls.

"Oh—my God," Carly said, after a moment, with her hands over her face. The club was still buzzing and yelling and the band was into their next song already, people dancing like mad.

"Right," Michael said. "So, that went well," and David put his hands around his cold wet glass of soda and tried really hard not to cry.

They had two big suites at the hotel, guys in one, girls in another. One of the bedroom doors in the guys' suite was shut when they arrived back. "Right, fellows, I'm taking the couch," Michael said.

David crept into his own room as quietly as he could, glad glad glad that his dad was already asleep and the lights were off. He went into the bathroom and shut the door without turning on the light, fumbled around until he found it, and then he was staring at himself in the mirror. He looked the same as always, stupid soft round face and big eyes, just a kid. He didn't even look flushed or anything, even though he still felt hot.

He splashed cold water on his face and wiped his face, and then he sat down on the toilet lid so he wouldn't have to look at himself. He didn't get how nothing could've changed when everything had, and then he bent over and pressed his face into the wadded-up towel and cried for a while.

"You boys have a good time last night?" his dad said the next morning, coming out into the suite for breakfast. Jason and Michael were already up. They traded glances, and David said, "Um, yeah, I guess—" and then the door to Cook and Michael's room opened and the two girls came out, dressed and with damp hair. They paused and everyone stared at each other, and then one of the girls shrugged a little and said, "Hi, ignore us, just doing the walk of shame," and they darted for the front door and went out into the hall giggling.

"So, uh, yeah," Jason said. "Some of us had a better time than others?"

Michael put down his fork and laughed into his hands. David hunched over the eggs he was pushing around on his plate; he didn't even want to look at his dad's face.

"So I see," his dad said after a moment. "David—"

"No worries, Jeff, he didn't have a thing but soda pop," Michael said. "Behaved himself properly. Unlike some I could name—" he started, raising his voice as the bedroom door opened again, but then he stopped short, because it wasn't Cook, it was another girl. She didn't even look at them as she went for the hall because she was on her cellphone dialing already as she came out, and the hallway door didn't close behind her fast enough to keep them from overhearing, "You are never going to believe this—"

"Right," Michael said. "Lay anyone odds on this hitting TMZ before noon?"

"I am keeping my money," Jason said. "The song's already on YouTube."

Cook finally came out half an hour later, with wet hair, in boxer-briefs and his ratty old sleeping t-shirt, looking sheepish. "Uh," he said, awkwardly, and rubbed the back of his neck. It made his shirt ride up a little, over his waistband—David jerked his eyes away.

"Hang on, wait," Michael said, putting his hands up like a picture frame. "I have to remember this. The moment Dave Cook went Hollywood."

Cook rolled his eyes and flipped Michael off and sat down, next to David. "Just hand over the coffee and no one gets hurt."

"Except for you blinding us with your splendor?" Michael said, sliding a cup across, and it could've been like any other day, except David couldn't stop noticing Cook's leg just a few inches away from his, and the little curl of damp hair against Cook's neck, and how his shirt smelled a little bit sweaty, and his arm slung over his seat back and the big watch on his wrist.

And then Cook reached over and nudged David's bare arm with a couple of knuckles and said, "You okay?" and a shiver ran up David's arm straight to his neck. He almost jerked away, but he also almost leaned in, so it all canceled out and he ended up staying right where he was.

"Yes!" David said, and then swallowed and said, "Yes. I just—uh. I didn't sleep that great last night."

"He was traumatized," Michael said. "So were the rest of us."

"I'm not going to hear the end of this for a while, am I?" Cook said.

"Nope," Jason said. He'd finished his breakfast and was poking away on his laptop, and his eyebrows were up really high. "One of the girls posted a review on her blog, it's getting linked all over."

"I don't even want to know the answer to this, but—a review of the song?" Michael said.

"Nope," Jason said.

"What?" Cook said, coffee cup frozen halfway to his mouth.

"Hang on, man, relax," Chikezie said, after a moment. "It can't seriously be one of them, they only left like half an hour ago."

"Says she texted the post from her cell phone," Jason said. "Also she says she's got pictures she's going to put up later."

"What?" Cook said.

"So, Jase, what's the verdict?" Michael said, grinning, and ducked away from the roll Cook threw at him, hard, across the table.

"Dude, I'm not gonna read it," Jason said.

"Thank you," Cook said. "At least some of my friends have basic human decency."

Faintly, through the door and across the hall, the sounds of shrieking laughter came from the girls' room. Cook's face fell. It fell even more as his cellphone went off and he looked at it.

"Your publicist calls?" Michael said.

"My mom," Cook said, grimly. "I'm going to—" He pointed at the bedroom and took the phone back inside and closed the door.

"Yeah, it's looking like a bad day for our boy," Chikezie said, shaking his head. He pointed at David across the table, and David jumped and stared at him. "I hope you're learning a lesson from all this."

"Um," David said.

"Yeah," Michael said. "Don't sleep with groupies until you've locked up their cameraphones."

There was a knock on the door, and Carly put her head in. "You guys need to close your curtains if you haven't, there are paparazzi trying the roof on the buildings next door for photos. Is someone yelling at him yet?"

"I think there's a line," Michael said, and looked up as Cook came back out of the bedroom with an appalled expression on his face. "So how's it going so far?"

Cook sat down again and rubbed his face. "My mother made me tell her I used condoms, and my publicist congratulated me. I'm trying to decide which one was more disturbing." He looked at Carly. "Please tell me you guys didn't read it."

"Don't be ridiculous, of course we read it," Carly said. "We're going to print it out and read bits of it out loud on the bus all day. Especially the five paragraphs where she goes on and on about your—"

"Aaaaa!" they all yelled, and Carly smiled in victory.

"So what you're saying is you're all completely depraved," Cook said. "Good to know."

"I remind you, we are not the ones who did it," Carly said, undaunted. "By the way, at the end she says the other two girls are going to send her theirs later today, and she'll put them up too. They all got chummy and traded emails and phone numbers, it's really a beautiful story. They're going to license it as a Lifetime TV movie; it's like Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants but with porn—"

"So hey, did they, like, make out with each other?" Jason asked Cook.

"Dave, I think we'd better get packed," David's dad said, putting down his coffee cup, and when they were in the bedroom, he said, "Davey—"

"Don't, dad," David said, stuffing his things into his bag. "It wasn't—anything. Nothing happened."

"I don't think you did anything, that's not it." His dad sighed. "But I know how you feel about Cook—" David flinched a little. "This is someone you like, somebody you look up to. I need to be sure you understand that what he did last night, that isn't a good model to follow. Okay?"

"Yes," David said. "I need to get my stuff from the bathroom." He ducked into the bathroom and shut the door and washed his face until he could get his eyes to stop leaking tears again. He wondered if his dad would rather have him picking up three girls in a bar instead of being—being—He swallowed and grabbed his toothbrush and toothpaste and went back outside to finish packing.

There were paparazzi everywhere in the lobby. The two other girls had also posted their reports, and by now it wasn't just on TMZ, it was on the AP wire. David snuck about halfway through the room before someone caught him and stuffed a microphone in his face and said, "What's your reaction to one of your tour-mates having an orgy?"

"Um, is that what an orgy is?" David said, surprised into answering, because he'd always thought an orgy was like, Satan worshipping, or something really creepy.

"All right, that's enough. Hassle me all you want, but leave the kid alone," Cook said, coming up and putting a hand on David's shoulder, side of his palm warm and right up against David's bare neck, and David realized with slow, absolute horror that he was getting an erection right here in the room with ten million photographers, and then, thank God, the bodyguards were in a pack around them and Cook was moving them out the doors and straight onto the bus. He kept his hand on David's neck the whole way.

They got on board and David stumbled to the back to shove his bag under his bunk, and then he locked himself into the bathroom. He stood trembling over the toilet and then he shut his eyes and shoved down his pants and jerked off, frantic and miserable and as quick as he could. Afterwards he cleaned himself off with some toilet paper and flushed three times and scrubbed his hands under hot water until they were pink and tender, and then he crept back out and took off his shoes and lay down on the narrow cot and shoved his face into the pillows.

He tried to avoid Cook. It was hard, seeing how they were all living together on a bus, so David spent a lot of time in his bunk, sleeping, and took a lot of long showers. And he jerked off like crazy. It made him feel awful—he'd done it a few times before, but not like this, not thinking about someone like this, wanting—wanting—

He held out almost three days, and then he peeked at the first paragraph of one of the "reviews," reading it on the iphone web browser under the covers in his bunk. Then he shut off the phone. Then he turned it back on and clicked the 'read more' link, and then he read a few more lines, and then he read all three of them all the way through, and then he felt sick and wished he hadn't, and then late that night he read them again. So now he knew that Cook was, um, big, and that he laughed a lot while he had sex, and that his beard was soft and all the girls had liked it on their skin, and he was good with his hands, and liked to make out a lot and not just go for it, and he liked to kiss all over.

David felt so awful and guilty after, he couldn't jerk off at all that night. But then he had a weird hot dream where he was back in the bar, and Cook leaned down over him and kissed him on the mouth in front of everyone, and his clothes disappeared and then they were on the tour bus and he was lying in his bunk and Cook was on top of him, and he woke up wet and sticky and horrified in case anyone had noticed.

"So," Cook said, about a week after that, and slid into the banquette next to him. David jumped: he'd started to go up front in the early mornings, when usually he had the bus to himself for a good couple of hours before anyone else—before Cook—woke up and joined him. He looked at his computer clock and it was still only 6:40, way before Cook's wake-up time.

"Um, hi," David said, and struggled not to tremble, edging a little further in towards the window. Cook was right against him, hard thigh pressed up to David's. He had his hands folded together on the table and was staring down at them. He looked kind of tired and grim.

"It's not okay for you to be stuck going stir crazy in your bunk all day, every day," Cook said quietly. "Or waking up at the crack of dawn and getting five hours of sleep. You're going to get sick, and your dad's pretty worried."

"What?" David said, feeling his face get red and hot—it had never occurred to him that Cook would notice, and oh God, what if he'd realized—

"If it makes a difference," Cook said, "I get that what I did was stupid on a whole host of levels, and I really am sorry about it. It's not my scene, man. My head was just in a bad place."

"What?" David said again, confused now—Cook was apologizing to him?

"I'm not saying that's an excuse," Cook said. "It's completely legit to call me on it, and if it crossed a line for you, I get that. I'm not going to pretend that doesn't hurt, but I can't fault you for it. The thing is, we've got another month of this tour to get through, and we're going to have to live together until then. So if you can't get past it, then—"

"Wait," David said, "I don't get it, you think I'm, like—because you're a—a bad influence or something?"

Cook paused and said, "Uh, okay. So... why are you avoiding me?"

"Oh," David said. "Um. I'm—I'm not?"

"Okay, so that was possibly the most unconvincing lie I've ever heard," Cook said, his mouth quirking. "Seriously, man, you're not even trying."

"No, I am, I'm just really bad at it," David said, feeling kind of desperate. "Could we—can we pretend I'm not?"

"We're living on a bus together, so it's kind of hard to miss," Cook said. "What gives? Did we have a fight and I missed it? Or—did your dad tell you to or something?"

"No!" David said and then realized he'd just screwed up again. "Oh—I should've said yes."

"Going by your track record in this conversation so far, I'm going to go out on a limb and say I probably wouldn't have bought it anyway," Cook said. "Why don't you just try telling me the truth? Then maybe I can fix it—"

"You can't fix it," David said. "It's not you—I mean, it's you, but it's not really you, it's me, I'm just, I don't—"

"Whoa, there," Cook said. "Breathe, Archuleta. It's—"

"I'm gay," David blurted. He didn't mean to, it just came out. It took him a second to even realize he had said it.

Cook's eyebrows had some trouble deciding what direction they wanted to go, up or down, and then he said, "Uh. Okay?" He sounded confused. "And you thought I'd have a problem with that?"

"No!" David said.

"So, then—" Cook said, and then he said, "Oh—oh." He sat back and rubbed a hand over his jaw. "Um. Wow." He paused. "Wow," he repeated, and then he shook his head and said, "Okay, sorry, this is just so completely not the conversation I was expecting to have." He looked at David. "Seriously?"

David looked down at his hands on the table.

"All right," Cook said. "Uh."

"You don't need to worry," David said, swallowing. "I'm not going to go crazy and jump you or anything."

Cook cracked out a laugh. "Well, good, because you know that anxiety was preying on me. Come on." He nudged David's side with an elbow until David had to look up at him again. At least Cook didn't look mad. Cook studied him and then he said, "Listen, I'm beyond flattered, okay? Don't look so tragic, man. Crushes are supposed to be fun."

"Fun?" David said. "Maybe it's fun when—you tell all your friends, and you sit around planning how to ask them out to the movies, or what kind of text to send them, and everybody teases you, and your parents think it's cute or something, and," he gulped, because he wasn't ever going to get to do any of those things, "and not when you can't tell anyone or else it'll end up on TMZ, and everyone will say you're—and maybe you won't be able to sell albums, and you'll get—kicked out of church, and—your family will—" and he scrubbed his arm across his face desperately and turned towards the window.

Cook put his hands on David's back and gripped his shoulders, saying softly, "Hey—hey—" and pulled him around and in tight. David clung on to him and pressed his face against Cook's shoulder. "Shh, it's okay," Cook said, stroking David's head. "It's okay."

David breathed deep, like he was doing exercises, and then he sat back and rubbed the back of his hand over his face. Cook leaned over and snagged some napkins from the sideboard and gave them to him. "Sorry," David said, and wiped his nose. "I'm sorry, I—"

"You've got nothing to be sorry for," Cook said. He still had his arm around David's shoulders, holding on.

"Please don't tell my dad," David said.

"This is yours, man, I'm not telling anyone you haven't told," Cook said.

"I haven't told anyone," David said, desolately. "I didn't even know, until—" He stopped.

Cook looked half away, like he expected to find some kind of answer on the far wall of the bus. He blew out a breath and ran his other hand over his face. "All right, look, man, I'm not going to tell you I have a clue what you're going through," he said after a moment, "or that this is all going to be easy or some bullshit like that. Just, you know, you want to give people some credit, okay? Cause—yeah, some of them will let you down, but, you'll figure out who those are, and the rest you hang on to. And if you can't make it being yourself, then what's the point?"

"Oh my gosh, it's easy for you to say that," David said. "When you're being yourself you're awesome."

Cook cracked up laughing. "So are you, dumbass," he said, putting his hand on David's head and shaking him a little.

"Oh, no—" David said, dropping his head. "I don't even know who I am yet."

"Looks to me like you're doing a good job of figuring it out," Cook said. "And I like all the pieces you've put together so far."

David poked at the edge of his laptop, feeling his cheeks get all hot. He wanted to believe it, except here Cook was being so cool about it all, and—"I'm not," he said, swallowing. "I—you don't know—"

"Yeah, I really do," Cook said.

"I read the—the thing," David said, with a desperate burst of courage. "On the blog."

Cook put a hand over his face. "Oh, God."

"I'm sorry," David said, hunching forward a little.

Cook groaned. "Okay, not that I'm condoning this, but that page has seventeen million hits. Everyone's read it."

"But not—Carly and them, they didn't read it for—not for—" David said, and waved a hand because he couldn't say it.

Cook grabbed him by the wrist and pinned his hand down to the table. "Okay, that's too much information, Archuleta," he said. He was half-laughing, even though his face was kind of red. "No, don't get all fetal-position on me again. If I'd ever had that kind of material on a crush, I'd probably go look, too. I wouldn't necessarily tell them about it, though."

"Oh," David said, blushing. "Um. I didn't think of that."

Cook folded his arms and put his face down on the table and laughed so hard his shoulders shook. The back of the bus opened and Michael Johns came out, rubbing his face with both hands, yawning. "Morning," he said. "There coffee anywhere?"

"You know the rule, if you have to ask—" Cook said, sitting up and pointing at the empty coffeepot.

"And how long have you been up? Lazy bastard," Michael made a face and put on the first pot of the day. After he got it on, he slid into the booth across from them and said, "So, haven't crashed the bus yet this morning," giving Cook a raised eyebrow.

"No, I think we're good," Cook said. He put his arm across the back of the banquette, behind David's shoulders, and looked over at him with kind of a tilt of his head.

"Um, yeah?" David said, feeling like he was missing something, but he didn't really care. All of a sudden he felt so much better it was ridiculous.

Cook ruffled his hair, which was okay even though David hated it usually, and then he said, "Hey, I don't know about you guys, but I'm not waiting another three hours to eat." He leaned over and hit the intercom for the driver. "Gary, there anyplace around here to get bacon?"

"Coming up we've got a McDonald's, a Cracker Barrel, and an IHOP," the driver said back.

"Oh my gosh, IHOP!" David said.

"Pancakes and bacon it is," Cook said. After they finished their breakfasts, he ordered a full round of the stupid Funny Face pancake with the whipped-cream-and-cherry face on it, and dared them all into an eating race. They all ended up with chocolate and whipped cream smeared on their faces, except Cook, who had faked them out and didn't even try to eat it. He nearly tipped out of his chair laughing until Michael Johns got them all to catapult leftover whipped cream at him with their spoons.

After they got back on the bus, David took his laptop back to his bunk, and he wiped the history on his web browser. Then he went to the bathroom and washed his face, and then he went out front again. Cook was sitting in the banquette again, reading a paperback, and David took a deep breath and sat down next to him. Cook looked up and smiled at him. David smiled back and opened up his laptop and started working on a song.

And then, what felt like five minutes later, the tour was over. The last show was huge—the whole Tulsa stadium was full, and when Cook came out on stage the roar actually made the set shake and rattle backstage, and after Billie Jean, they just kept screaming so loud that Michael said, "Listen, man, you have to go out there again."

He just meant, to take another bow, but Cook grabbed his acoustic guitar and went out and said into the mike, "Guys, I can't even plug this thing in, but if you'll keep it down, I'll give this a shot. Some of you might've heard me do this one around here a couple years back," and the place was totally silent while he sang one of the songs off his old solo album. At the end he kind of choked up and just stood there with his face wet, looking around the stadium while the screaming went on and on.

David thought their last number was going to be lame after that, but the audience was so happy they sang along with the whole thing, so loud David couldn't even hear himself singing over them. At the end when he and Cook were out front, Cook put his arm around David's shoulders while they sang. David put his hand on Cook's back and could feel him shaking.

They crowded into the girls' suite afterwards and ordered pizza and beer and soda and took turns talking about the tour, the whole last year, the funniest things they remembered, the weirdest ones, the best ones, the worst ones. Cook started crying again, and after that they all pretty much went off one after another. They all got blankets and pillows and slept together on the floor, and David wound up next to Cook and woke up in the middle of the night with his head pillowed on Cook's shoulder. Carly was on his other side, fast asleep. Cook was awake and staring up at the ceiling.

"Where are you going, after this?" David whispered softly.

"Back to L.A.," Cook said. "Finish up the album, all that jazz."

"Me, too," David said. Cook rubbed his back. David squashed the shiver that wanted to run up and down his spine and settled back in to sleep again.

It didn't hit him for real until about a week later. It was a Wednesday: he woke up to his 7am alarm and showered and got dressed and had breakfast with his dad and his publicist, and then it was over to the Jive studios to record, and then he had lunch with some record executives, and then he had to do his schoolwork, and then he had a workout with the personal trainer. Then, that afternoon, he and his dad went to look at apartments—they needed someplace to live in L.A. while he worked on the album—and somewhere in the third one, standing in an empty, echoing hardwood-floored room, David suddenly realized that it was over—Idol was over, the tour was over, and he wasn't going to be hanging out with Cook or any of the others ever again.

He took out his phone and looked at it. He didn't even have Cook's number. They'd been sleeping less than a hundred feet away from each other for the last year, he'd never needed Cook's number. Maybe Cook wouldn't want him to have it, anyway. He was probably even busier, and the tabloids were saying he was dating again, an actress from a TV show David had never seen.

He had Carly's number, though—they'd exchanged back when she'd gotten voted off. And she was just up north in San Jose. He texted her a hello, and got a message back, hi swt<3 C U @ MJs this Friday 4pm ok?

He drove himself over—really nervously, because the L.A. traffic was scary and he kind of loved his new car a lot, it was a Mini Cooper convertible and he'd gotten it painted this really cool dark orange color.

"Check you out," Cook said, coming over and slapping the roof as David parked—he'd just gotten out of the back of a towncar. "Okay, now I'm jealous."

"Cook, I think you can get a car if you want!" David said. "Maybe not as awesome a car, though," he added, after a moment.

Cook laughed and grabbed him in a headlock and walked him over to the passenger's side window of the car that had brought him. "Hey, Reg, you can take off. Archuleta's going to give me a ride home in his Hot Wheels."

"Oh my gosh, I'm so not now," David said, batting at Cook's arm uselessly. He resorted to poking Cook in the side.

"Not ticklish," Cook said, smugly. "Later, Reg," he called, and tugged David into the house—the front door was unlocked, and Michael's puppy—not really so much a puppy anymore—came running up barking madly, jumping at their knees.

"We're outside!" Michael yelled, in the distance. It was a really cool house—hardwood floors and big windows and full of light, although most of the rooms they went past were kind of empty. David followed Cook out into the big yard: there was a high fence all around, but with trees planted to hide it, and the puppy went racing across the yard and back.

"So you bought this huge place," Cook said, "but you moved over all the same furniture, and you're still spending all your time out in the yard with the same old grill."

"A grill takes seasoning," Michael said. "Don't insult my grill if you want to eat."

"He insulted my car, too!" David said.

"You're a bad, bad man, David Cook," Michael said, and flipped a bottle cap at his head.

"Bad to the bone," Cook said, grinning at them, and he got a beer out of the cooler and stretched out on one of the old crappy lounge chairs.

It was Michael and his wife, Carly with her husband, and Chikezie and his girlfriend. Amanda showed up a little later with a couple of bottles of whiskey. Sometime after they ate the steaks and grilled chicken, Michael went in and brought out a couple of acoustic guitars, and Carly and Amanda sang some Joni Mitchell while Cook turned one upside down and played along with a lot of wrong notes that made them all laugh. Then he sang some Dylan, and about halfway through David realized he was singing harmony along, without really planning to. It sounded cool.

It was getting dark, then, and fireflies were coming out—the last fireflies of summer, and they were all just sitting quietly watching. David found himself singing a hymn, and Chikezie and then the rest of them one after another joined in, and they all finished in close harmony, with Cook picking a soft line of rhythm along.

It was really—weird. David had used to break into singing sometimes around his friends. But they'd always laughed at him a little, and now when he did it, they all got really quiet and clapped afterwards, which was worse. They didn't just dive in with him. He'd never imagined before what it would be like hanging out with people who were into music the same way he was.

On Idol, on the tour, they'd been working, practicing. That had made sense, and it had been cool, too, but not like this. This thing where they all just sat around someone's porch, not worrying about performing, or what anyone would think, or what they would do with it. Just making music, and getting into it, and letting it go where it wanted to go, with bad notes and no rehearsing and no repeating, and all of them together—like family, except instead of blood it was music. It was something David hadn't even known he wanted.

They moved inside, and Michael started a fire in the fireplace, and everyone sprawled out in the living room on the battered old couches. David stretched out on his stomach on the big fluffy white carpet and dozed a little watching the fire, full and happy and warm all over. He only roused up when Cook said, amused, "I think I'm going to have to call the car for both of us."

"I'm awake," David said. "I'm just, you know, comfy. This is awesome," he added, rolling over onto his back to look at all of them, and then he yelped a little as the puppy came over curiously and started licking his face.

"Awww," Cook said, and took out his phone to snap a picture. "Straight to myspace."

"No, no!" David said, trying to fend off the puppy and block Cook's shot with his other hand. "I already have cuteness issues, gosh."

"They're not going away as long as you lie around on the floor playing with puppies," Cook said, grinning at him, so David got both hands around the squirming puppy and heaved it up and into Cook's lap. He squawked and nearly lost the phone trying to manage the puppy.

Michael told them a whole bunch of awful-funny stories supposedly about different unnamed record executives, which David kind of hoped weren't true, especially the one about the exec who had started groping Michael's leg after three martinis at lunch. "So she starts going higher," Michael said, "and I'm kind of edging the seat away—Archuleta, quit looking at me like that, it's scary, I keep thinking your eyes are going to come out of your head—and she's leaning a little more to reach, and I'm edging over some more, and she's getting serious at this point—"

"I don't think I'm old enough to hear this," David said.

"I don't think I'm drunk enough to hear this," Cook said.

"—and then she falls out of the chair," Michael finished. "What'd you think happened?" Carly threw a pillow at him.

Chikezie had an album deal in the works, "though I'm not saying anything else, before I jinx myself," he said. "How much longer is it for you two?"

"Oh, gosh," David said. "They gave me another six tracks yesterday. I mean, they're cool, and all, just, that's like, fifty or something now. I don't know. It's going to be like, I guess, November?"

"Yeah, same here," Cook said, "unless I go postal before then. Those fuckers tried to sneak Always Be My Baby onto the album again this morning."

"What does that make that, nine times so far?" Michael said.

"Aw, I like that song," David said.

"I like it too, but it's all wrong for the album," Cook said. "I told them I'd do it for a soundtrack, or a b-side for a single, or an extra digital download, whatever the hell they want. But I'm not letting them shove it between Impulses and Vindication."

David bit his lip and didn't ask, although he really really wanted to hear the whole thing. Cook had played a lot of bits and pieces for them on the bus, but he'd been so busy, racing back and forth, and there had been so many songs, and they'd been changing every time he played them. David didn't even recognize those two song names.

Carly put on a song that she was working on, and asked them for advice—they all had different ideas, Michael thought it was a little too fast in the chorus, and Amanda wanted it faster. David wasn't sure what he thought, because it was more rock than he was really used to listening to. "Um, maybe," he ventured, while Cook played it back again for the fifth time, "maybe if it was—I don't know, a little higher?"

"Yeah," Cook said. "It's a good melody, but I think you need to get out of your chest voice. Save that for the bridge, really hit it there. Transpose the rest of it up a third, and pick it up some. Like—" He grabbed the guitar again and strummed it through. David hummed it with him.

After that, Cook and Michael and Chikezie and Carly took turns playing Grand Theft Auto, and David watched kind of horrified while they stole cars and ran over pedestrians and knocked over streetlamps. "Oh my gosh, what is this game?" he said, and then Cook made him try, and he totally ended up flying down the street and crushing like ten million people and flipping the car three times until it exploded into flames.

"Wow," Michael Johns said, in awed tones. "I didn't know you could make the car explode."

"The police are after me!" David yelped, and started running away.

"You have to steal another car, you can't outrun the cops on foot," Carly said. "Try that one—"

"I am so not stealing a car!" David said, and jumped over a wall and ended up swimming in the river. "See, I am getting away!" He climbed the guy out, once the police had stopped chasing him, and then he bumped into someone on the street and they started shoving him, and he punched a lot of buttons and ended up in a fistfight that he somehow won, and the person he had beaten up dropped a big pile of money and a gun.

Cook tipped over onto the floor, wheezing with laughter. "You're better than all of us."

"I don't want a gun!" David said, but he'd already accidentally picked it up.

He got a text message while he was waiting for his next turn, from one of his friends back home: wht u doing? hmwk so boring :( It hit him, looking around the room, that he was hanging out with grownups, and pretty much the coolest grownups in the whole world, and he couldn't help giggling a little. "What?" Cook said, and poked him in the side until David squeaked and squirmed away.

"No, just," David said, "I totally didn't even get to sit at the cool kids' table at lunch this time last year," and he laughed again, and Cook said, "This time last year, I made—uh—fifty bucks for a gig, I think?"

"Hey, man, that means you had a gig," Chikezie said, and they all were laughing.

It got late, and finally Michael's wife Stacey said, "Okay, guys, you don't have to go home, but you can't stay here. Unless you want to sleep on the couches, in which case you can."

"Damn, I've got a 7:30 call," Cook said and heaved himself to his feet. He bent down to give David a hand up from the floor, and they hugged all around and went out to the cars.

"This thing is the size of a shoebox," Cook said, miming as if he was being squashed tiny, even though there was totally enough room for him to stretch out his legs, once he'd slid the seat back as far as it would go, and David even put the top down, too.

"I get thirty-two miles to the gallon," David said, firmly, because he'd decided that would be his comeback if Cook made any more comments about his car. "Oh, don't forget your seatbelt."

Cook cracked up, like that was funny—"I'm not kidding!" David said. "I'm not even starting the car if you're not wearing it, I'll totally get into a crash and you'll die, and everyone will think I did it on purpose or something and your fans will kill me, and then I'll die."

"Man, your fans are the ones to watch out for, those guys scare me," Cook said, belting in.

Cook only gave him directions little by little, until they started to get close and David realized— "Did you—Cook, are you living in Beverly Hills or something?"

Cook groaned and put a hand over his face. "It wasn't my idea!" he said, muffled. "One of the 19E people found it for me, they didn't tell me where it was—"

"Did you, like, not check your own address before you bought it?" David said.

"It's just a rental?" Cook said, feebly.

"Gosh, that is so lame," David said. "You can't tickle me while I'm driving!" he added hurriedly.

It was a really nice house, though—big, with a long private driveway lined with palm trees, and a fountain. "Wow," David said, staring.

"It's just a rental?" Cook said.

"I was looking at two bedroom condos yesterday and they were all, like, two thousand a month!" David said.

"Uh, yeah," Cook said, with a guilty expression.

"Oh my gosh, how much are you spending?" David said.

"Uh," Cook said. "Want to come in and listen to the album?"

"Yes," David said immediately, because it was totally worth letting him off the hook for that.

The house was really fancy inside, too—marble floor in the foyer, and then two steps down into a sunken living room with a wall of stereo equipment, a big flat-screen TV and bits of Rock Band scattered over the floor, looking out onto a huge yard with a lit-up pool and a tiled deck. Cook didn't even turn on the lights, just put the CD into the player and sprawled back on the couch, his boots thumping on the coffee table as he put his feet up. David sat down next to him.

He didn't know what to expect, except rock. The first couple of songs just blasted out of the gate, fast and pounding and happy; then slid right into the third one, Vindication, which started out lyrical and almost slow and then built up to a huge sort of—desperate anthem, and David felt his throat get a little bit choked up, because it was—it was Idol, it was all the years up to it working and hoping, all the things going wrong, and then that one crazy nonstop rush of everything happening, one thing after another all the way to the end. "Wow," he said, softly, afterwards, and heard Cook let out a breath, like he'd been waiting.

David was going to say more, but then the next song came on, and he wanted to listen to that, and the one after that. And then it was over with one last crashing thunder of drums into silence, and David took a deep breath, and then Cook's voice came back on, low and gravelly and somewhere between tender and brutal, and he sang I want you all the time—I want to take you all the way—

It hit David like a punch to the gut, and his stomach flipped and a hot prickling rush went up his neck and face. He gulped desperately for air. Cook was right next to him, and the house was dark and quiet, except for the voice sliding out of the speakers and down his spine. He clenched his hands tight and hunched over and bit his lip, but it was still going on, and then Cook said, "Uh—" and reached for the remote on the table, going to turn it off.

David grabbed blindly for his hand, because it hurt but he still didn't want it to stop, ever, and Cook turned towards him and started saying something, and David clumsily and desperately leaned in and kissed him.

He'd never kissed anyone before, he didn't know what he was doing, and Cook wasn't exactly working with him, so it was probably the worst kiss of all time. He landed off-target and mostly got the left half of Cook's mouth, and his nose hit Cook's cheek. But Cook's mouth was open and warm and still a little faintly sour from the beer, and his beard really was soft, and so was his skin.

David leaned in and tried to fix the angle, just as Cook reached up for his shoulders. They overbalanced and fell backwards onto the couch with him landing mostly on top of Cook, planting an elbow in his gut.

"Ouwff," Cook said, coughing.

"Oh my gosh, are you okay," David said, trying to prop himself up on the soft couch.

Cook started laughing, on top of the coughing, and wheezed out, "You promised you weren't going to jump me."

"Oh," David said, "Um."

"Dave," Cook said, more seriously, gently, and David pushed himself up and off him and looked away.

"I know," he said, fumbling for his car keys in his jacket. "I know, you're not—I'm sorry. I'm going to—"

"Hey," Cook said, and caught his arm.

"Don't," David said.

"Hey," Cook said, and shook him. "I'm sorry, okay? I, uh, should've probably thought about this situation a little more before I walked us into it."

"I don't want you to be all—I don't want you to think about me being all—stupid," David said, miserably, like it even mattered. Like Cook was going to want him around ever again, after this. One of the best nights of his life, maybe, and he'd just completely messed it up, as badly as he ever could have, and wrecked something he was never going to have again. Even all the others—Michael, Carly—they all liked Cook more, obviously, and—

"You're not being stupid," Cook said.

"I'm just being a—a fag," David said, the word thick and ugly in his mouth, the first time he'd ever even said it, and he tried to pull himself free, because all he wanted at this point was to get away

Cook's hand tightened. "Don't you ever fucking talk about yourself like that," he said, low and furious.

David said, "It's what I am—" and Cook cupped the back of his head in one hand and tipped him back and kissed him.

Cook totally did know what he was doing, and he didn't land off-center, and he licked into David's mouth and stole the breath out of him. David stopped trying to get loose and clung on to Cook's shoulders instead. His heart was pounding, and he didn't really know what was happening, and he didn't know exactly what to do.

All of a sudden it was really clear to him that this wasn't just kissing. This was a stop on the way to sex. Cook had had sex before, lots of times probably. Cook would want—he wouldn't want to just sit on a couch and kiss, he'd want to—to go to a bedroom, maybe, and to take their clothes off, and to—and David wasn't even really sure how it worked, with two boys, but maybe Cook knew, and he'd want to do it, and David wasn't sure for a moment whether he was more excited or more scared.

He'd just decided that he was more excited, and then Cook broke off the kiss and eased him back. "Okay, there," Cook said. "You done calling yourself names?"

"Um," David said, because he kind of didn't remember what they'd been talking about. "Oh—yes?"

"Good," Cook said. "Because I'd fucking punch someone else who did, do you understand me?"

"Yes?" David said. He was mostly hoping that was the answer that was going to get him kissed again. "Can we—would you—we—um. We could go upstairs?"

"Uh, no, we could not," Cook said. "Jesus, Archuleta, two months ago you said you'd never been kissed. What have you been doing since then?"

"Um, nothing?" David said.

"Oh, God," Cook said. "That was your first—?"

"Yes?" David said. "It was—it was awesome," he added.

Cook groaned and covered his face.

"But," David said, because his heart wasn't racing quite so bad anymore, and he was starting to get confused as he thought about it, because he knew for sure Cook had dated that one girl, and probably those two others, and they'd met one of his exes in Kansas City, and—"but, you're not—or—are you?"

" 'Gay' isn't a dirty word," Cook said. "And I'm pretty much a two-beer queer. I've never dated a guy, but I've made out a couple of times. It's not a big deal."

David stared at him helplessly. It was like Cook was talking to him from another planet.

Cook sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "Dave, the problem's not so much that I'm straight, it's that you're seventeen."

"Oh," David said. "Um—it's only three months—?"

"And a lifetime as a registered sex offender," Cook said. "No, look, the statutory thing—okay, it's like drinking underage, people do it and no one goes to jail. But it's there for a reason. I'm in a different place—"

"No, you're not," David said. "We're touring, and making albums, and—and—buying apartments, and cars, and living in stupid Hollywood, and getting chased by paparazzi, and making music. We're in the same place. We're more in the same place than anyone in the world, practically."

Cook paused and raised an eyebrow. "Wow. I don't actually have an answer for that one."


"Yeah, no, I'm still not going to have sex with you," Cook said. "Nice try, though."

"Oh," David said. He was still really turned on, and he couldn't stop sneaking glances at Cook's mouth, but he wasn't totally sure if he was disappointed or maybe a little bit relieved.

Cook grinned at him, as if he knew what David was thinking. "And aside from everything else, I've still got a 7:30, and you probably do too. So get out of here and go to bed."

"Okay," David said, blushing a little, and stood up, going for his keys again. "Thanks for letting me, you know, hear the—the album," he said, waving a hand at the stereo. "It's awesome—it's really—and sorry I, um, you know—"

"I'll make you pay me back by letting me hear yours," Cook said, standing up to walk him to the door. "Call me when you're done."

"I—I don't have your number," David said, a little hopefully.

"What's yours?" Cook said, and took his phone out and texted him a 'hi' message as David recited the number off. "Got it?"

"Yes," David said, saving the number carefully as a new contact. "And, um. Thanks," he added. "For not—for being—"

Cook gave his little offhand shrug. "Yeah—I'm just naturally amazing, what can I say."

"Oh, um," David said, fighting down the giggle that wanted to come out, because he didn't ever know what to say back to stuff like that. He went out to his car and got in, and then he had an idea, and he looked over at Cook, standing by the door, and he cleared his throat and said, "Cook?"

"Yeah?" Cook said.

David said, "I think you're wrong. I think you should let them put Always Be My Baby on the album, before Vindication." Cook's eyebrows went up, and David added, "Except, it should be a techno dance remix—" and Cook yelled, "Get out of here, Archuleta, before I beat your ass," laughing, and David was grinning stupidly as he pulled away.

He was still really nervous that—maybe Cook had just been being nice, and he didn't mean—maybe he'd want to avoid David after all. But the next Friday, Michael Johns sent around a text for another barbeque, and he was on the list. David brought along a guitar this time, even though he was pretty bad at it, and a really fun puppy toy that was this big knotted-up thing with bells and a treat in the middle that was hard to get to, so the puppy went crazy over it and ended up rolling around in a ball on the lawn, wrapped around it, while they all laughed.

Cook was there, and he didn't act different at all. David almost wondered if maybe, if he'd made it all up somehow, because he didn't get how—they'd kissed, and he didn't get how that could just—be okay, and not weird or something. But it really was.

Carly played them her new version of the song, and it was way better, and really amazing, and then David played the song he was working on, which wasn't anywhere near as good, but they all had good suggestions for him—it was really great, he totally got what they were saying. And Carly said, "It's ridiculous how good your voice is," which still made him really happy to hear from her, even though people always said that.

He got home late again, and this time his dad was waiting up in the living room. "How was it?" he said, looking at the clock: ten to one in the morning.

"Oh—it was, it was great," David said. "We all—we sang, and, um—I sang Glass Curtain for them, and they had some cool ideas—it was really neat."

"And this was—"

"Cook," David said, "and Carly—and Michael and his wife—and Chikezie—Amanda couldn't make it this time, but one of Michael's friends Dana was there instead, and she was cool."

His dad nodded after a moment. "You remember we've got to be at the studio tomorrow by eight?"

"Yeah," David said. "Um, I'm going to—go get to bed."

His dad didn't say anything more than that, but somehow David felt that he didn't—get it, maybe. Not that he didn't like any of them, but—David didn't know. He wondered if maybe—if his dad didn't want him going anymore. He curled up in bed and stared out the window. It made him feel weird and a little bit mad, and that made him feel guilty. He knew he was supposed to respect his dad's wishes, and he did, just—not this one.

His dad didn't actually say anything, though, so David kept going, whenever he could. It was pretty much a regular Friday-night thing, whenever Michael was in town, and sometimes even if he was out, Stacey would have them over anyway. Who was there changed, week to week, but everyone was always cool, even the ones David didn't know in advance, except one time when Amanda brought Paul, a guy she was seeing. He was a big guy, taller than Cook and almost as tall as Michael, and heavier-built, kind of like a bodyguard, and he was a metal guitarist.

He didn't do anything, just eyed David up and down, in a what are you doing here? way that made him want to be quiet and not talk. David had brought his guitar, and after dinner Carly said, "Hey, give us the latest version," after dinner, but he said, "Oh—no, I don't—um," because Paul had been talking about "that fucking crap rainbow song they made you sing," to Cook, and David didn't really want to play in front of him.

Paul said, "You're writing some of your own?" in this dubious voice.

Cook had just grinned before, and he'd sung the joke version of the lyric from the internet, with "fucking rainbow" instead of "magic rainbow," but now he said, "Yeah, the kid's going to show us all up before he's even twenty. How about you, man? Do you write at all?" and it turned out Paul didn't.

Pretty soon Amanda said, "I'm going to get an early night," and when he went out to the car she rolled her eyes and said, "So much for that one," before she followed him out, and after he was gone, Cook stretched out a leg and poked David's ankle and said, "All right, now," and made him play the song after all.

Other than that, David really liked everyone that the others brought, although he struggled a little when Cook brought Marcela, one of his backup singers. She was really nice, and really pretty, and everybody liked her a lot, so David tried hard to like her too, even though mostly he wanted her to die a fiery death, except he didn't really, except he kind of did. It sucked. But he knew Cook wasn't going to, to wait for him—he probably wouldn't have wanted to date David even if David wasn't seventeen. So it was stupid and hopeless. David knew that even before Marcela showed up, except he still hadn't been able to help daydreaming about, maybe, on his eighteenth birthday, and if his album was doing pretty well, maybe Cook would go out to dinner with him, to celebrate, and after—after was pretty vague in David's head, including how they would get to after, but it made him all shivery anyway.

So he didn't really like Marcela, even though she was totally nice, and said all sorts of nice things when he sang. It was kind of stupid, he almost wished she'd been mean, because then he wouldn't have had to say thanks back to her.

The next week, his publicist asked him if he would go to a Hollywood party on Friday night, nothing really important, but instead of saying no, so he could go to the barbeque, David said yes. Then she said, "And would you mind going with another client of ours? Gina Reymon, from America's Got Talent. Not as a date or anything—she's just shy about going to the party alone, and," she dropped her voice, "to be honest, David, I don't want to have her go with someone who might be—well, let's just say I know I can trust you to be a gentleman."

"Oh, gosh." And David didn't feel like he could say no to that, so he said, "um, sure."

He was pretty nervous about having anything to say, and not looking really stupid, but Gina bounced into the limo as soon as it pulled up outside her apartment, wearing a swirly blue dress with a neckline that went down to her waist, and said, "Oh my god, I'm so excited, does this dress look okay? I totally love you, by the way, all my friends are crazy jealous. Your album is coming out in like five seconds, isn't it? Are you nervous? I'm so sorry, I have to tell you, I'm going to talk like this all night, I always babble when I'm hyped up. Please don't think I'm completely stupid."

He said, "Oh my gosh, that's awesome, I can never think of anything to say," and she said, "Okay, so this is like, totally perfect," and they laughed, and the party went great, because all the times where he would've just been standing in a corner trying to hide or feeling all embarrassed because someone was gushing at him, Gina was with him, and she could talk over anyone, and then in the limo on the way home she took a deep breath and said, "Okay, so will you totally think I'm like, awful, and talk about me behind my back—"

"Oh my gosh, of course not—" David said.

"—if I kiss you?" she said, and then she said, "Really?" and before David could say anything else, she was kissing him. He felt sort of weird, but then he thought about how nice Cook had been, to him, and then he tried to remember what Cook had done, and he put his arms around her, and tilted his head a little, and leaned in, and she went all, "Mmm," and leaned into him, and they sort of fell over onto the limo seat, and she was on top of him and all warm and her back was bare, and oh, gosh, he was—he was totally—

"Um," he said, hopelessly confused, because—Cook—but—she was kissing him again, and squirming, and she kissed him some more, and then she giggled and said half-whispering, "I, um, I kind of really wanted to get to make out in the back of a limo, at my prom, but I had to miss it—"

"Oh, me, too," David said, kind of dazed—he meant, he'd missed his prom, too, but she put his hand on her breast, and David had no clue what to do, but she seemed to like it when he rubbed a little, carefully, and then she put her hand on his

"Oh, gosh," he said, feebly, and she said, "Oh my god, wow," which was, um, kind of nice, and he really liked the feel of her breasts in his hands after all, and then he realized oh god, he was totally about to have sex, and maybe that wasn't the best idea, and then she said, "I, um, I totally don't have condoms, and I'm not on the pill," and he said, "Oh," relieved, and then she said, "but, we could—you know—"

David thought helplessly that Cook could totally have gotten out of this, and also would actually have known what you know was, but then she showed him what her part of you know was, and he said, "Oh my God," and any possible idea of stopping went away, because—wow, and also he was having to spend any mental energy he had trying desperately to, um, not be done really quick.

She stopped and said breathlessly, "I'm sorry, is it okay if I don't—swallow?" and he said dazed, "Anything you want is okay," and she said, "Oh, good, because, I totally never have, and, oh, here," and she grabbed some napkins.

Afterwards when it was his turn, he blurted, "I, um, never did this before, so, um, if I—if it's not—" and she giggled and said, "I'll tell you if you're doing it wrong," but she liked it, a lot, and he liked doing it too, even if it was kind of messy, and afterwards they snuggled on the limo seat and she was warm, and he felt amazing and also guilty and also a little bit like a rock star.

And then they pulled up in front of her apartment, and he suddenly realized he totally had to say something. "Um, do you—are you—um—free? Tomorrow?" he asked. "For breakfast?" he added hurriedly, because he didn't want her to think—he didn't mean he wanted her to do it again, or something.

She was sitting up and putting back on her dress, and she giggled and said, in a conspiratorial voice, "Lunch would be better, my mom is out all afternoon. Come over at one?" before she slipped out of the limo, and then she stuck her head back in and said, "Oh my god, and bring condoms!" and vanished back out.

"Um," David said, in terror.

He wasn't totally positive that you were even allowed to buy condoms under eighteen, and he was one hundred percent positive that if he got caught doing it by a photographer his life would be over anyway.

And also he knew this was totally not the right thing to do, and his parents would be really upset, and he was probably going to go to hell. But mostly he spent the night imagining himself on the front page of the Enquirer, and then he called Cook first thing in the morning.

"Oh my gosh, this is so not funny," he said, while Cook just went on laughing and laughing in his ear.

"Yeah, it really, really is," Cook said, high-pitched with hysteria. "Jesus, I think I'm going to have a heart attack. Okay." He cracked up again. "Okay," he said, when he could breathe. "Come on over, I'll hook you up, you player, you."

"This is so not—so not my idea—Cook! stop! it's not—"

Finally David just hung up on him and drove over. A housekeeper let him in—David stared at her—and she said, "Mr. Cook is out back."

David said, "Um, okay," and edged past her and went outside through the living room. All the Rock Band stuff was neatly put away, and the whole place looked kind of shiny-clean, freshly polished and vacuumed.

"So, I've been thrown over, huh?" Cook said, grinning up at him. He was lying out by the pool under an umbrella, barefoot and in these sort of, well, clingy black shorts, and a black t-shirt with TIAMAT on it in big heavy-metal letters, and the really silly glitzy-gold sunglasses that Carly had bought him as a joke in DC. He had an acoustic guitar, a notebook, and a stack of poetry books piled up on the other chair, and he was a little bit sweaty, and bits of his hair were damp on his forehead.

David stared at him, swallowed, and sat down limply at the foot of his lounge chair. "I don't even know what's wrong with me," he said glumly. "I'm still totally into you, but then there's also Gina, and, I just, you know—" He flailed his arms. "I give up! I don't get any of this." He sighed. "Can I have the condoms, please?"

Cook put his hands over his face and laughed into them, muffled.

"If you don't stop laughing at me, I'm going to tell everyone you have a housekeeper," David said.

"That's so not my fault," Cook said. "The management sent her—"

"She calls you Mr. Cook," David said.

"Oh, God," Cook said. "Fine, since you're adding blackmail to the list of your black deeds, come on." He got up and took David inside and upstairs—"Marble staircase!" David hissed. "Shut up," Cook hissed back—and into his bedroom.

It was a ridiculously big room, with a wall of french doors onto a long balcony overlooking the garden and long white curtains billowing artistically, and an even more ridiculously big bed—white sheets and pillows and fluffy comforter and even a canopy with more white curtains—

David looked at it and swallowed again, because it was totally silly and rock-star, and he kind of wanted to make fun of Cook some more about it, but he couldn't. It seemed like it would be really comfy. Looking at it made him think about being in that bed. And, um, you could leave the doors open, and the breeze would come in, and—he jumped as Cook came back from the bathroom and held out a stack of foil packets.

David took the packets and stared down at them. He looked up.

"Oh, boy," Cook said.

"Oh—oh, no," David said.

"I can't believe they didn't make you do this in sex ed," Cook said.

"Sex ed?" David said, cringing away from the banana.

"Jesus," Cook said. "Take the goddamn banana, Archuleta. You're not getting out of this house until I'm reasonably sure you're not going to be getting hit with a paternity suit in nine months."

"I, um, could call her, and, um, pretend to be sick," David said, feebly, but he took the banana.

"Okay," Cook said, and held up the packet. "Don't get fancy, and no teeth. You tear it, cut it, or poke a hole in it, you need a new one." He ripped the foil open and took out the condom. It looked like a flat disc with a little bulge in the middle and a thicker rim. Cook made David take that, too.

"Oh my gosh, it's all slimy," David said. "How is this even supposed to, um, work?"

It took about half an hour before David managed to get one on the banana without ripping it, or tearing it while he opened the packet, or getting stuck, mostly because Cook spent about half the time sitting on the floor with his back against the kitchen cabinets, laughing. There was a way smaller stack by the time they were done, too.

"Wow, I think I pulled something," Cook said weakly, after, tipping his head back against the cabinets with his eyes closed.

David looked at the pile of sticky wrecked condoms, and then he carefully put all the nice sealed ones into his pockets, and then he picked up all the others and dumped them on Cook's head. Cook yelled and batted at them, and David ran for it. "Excuse me, bye, thank you," he gasped to the startled housekeeper as he fled past her, except Cook caught him at the door and hauled him around by the waist and swung David up onto his shoulder. Condom packets went flying everywhere.

"Wait, wait, no!" David squeaked, struggling, but Cook had his legs pinned together. "Cook, you so deserved it—no!"

"Excuse me?" Cook said, marching out back to the pool. "I spend my Saturday morning helping you get laid—"

"And making fun of me!" David yelled.

"Dude, that is not even on the same scale," Cook said. "As I was saying, I spend my Saturday morning helping you get laid, and showing you the ropes, after you brutally cast me off for another—" Cook was taking David's sneakers off.

"I asked you first!" David said. "No, oh my gosh!" He scrabbled desperately, and managed to latch on to Cook's waistband just as Cook launched him over the deep end, so Cook flailed and yelled and went in right along with him, and there was a giant splash and they were both coughing and spluttering in the pool, and Cook was cracking up again.

"I don't believe you threw me in the pool," David said, crawling out dripping, and sat down panting on the edge. "Oh my gosh, I'm supposed to be there in an hour."

"We'll get Sally to toss your clothes in the dryer," Cook said, and reached down to ruffle David's hair. "I didn't do all that work just to see it go to waste. Come on, you can shower in the guest bathroom, there's a robe in there."

David was ridiculously nervous, and then he got to Gina's place and could barely ring the doorbell, and she opened the door wearing cute short-shorts and a baby-doll t-shirt that left a slice of her belly visible and she beamed at him and grabbed him by the hand and tugged him in and said, "Do you want pizza? There's this awesome pizza place nearby, and they make this great veggie pizza, if you like broccoli, or else there's a really good Chinese place, and an okay Thai place, although they make really good Thai iced tea if you like that—"

"Pizza is awesome," David said, swallowing, and then she was kissing him, and they made out on the couch for a while after they ordered, until the pizza showed up, and after they ate she took him up to her bedroom.

"Which is totally boring," she said, "because all my stuff is still back home on Long Island, and my mom doesn't want me spending any of the money on nice stuff for here, because it's all got to go for college, which I think is totally lame, she won't even let me get a car—oh, and I totally love your car! it is so totally cute," and David would have defended his car's honor, except she was unbuttoning his shirt the whole time she was talking, and he was watching her hands travel down him in a daze.

They started out kind of petting—David had a hard time getting over them just being, um, naked together, and the whole thing where, he could touch her, and she was all over him, and then after a little while she whispered, "Would you—again—maybe, if you didn't mind—"

"Oh, no, it was awesome," David said, and so he went down on her again, and she really liked it again, and it was a lot easier in the bed, too, and after a while she petted his head and said, kind of gaspy, "David—David, do you—do you have—"

His hands were shaking, a little, but it was actually kind of easier than with the banana, because he didn't have the rough bits to tear it, and then she put her hand around him and sort of—aimed him, and it was, um, kind of crazily good, and he had to bite down on the inside of his cheek hard and brace himself up over her and just hold really really still, and then she giggled and he felt it, and—"Oh, gosh," he said. "Um, sorry—"

"That's totally okay, we can do it again," she said, and he said, "Really?" before he could stop himself, and then he blushed, and she giggled and kissed him on the nose and then they were kissing, and a little while later, they did do it again, and he managed to last for almost five minutes this time, and then after that they sort of collapsed in the bed giggling together, and he felt so cool.

The crazy high lasted until the next morning, when he went to church with his dad, and one of the lay members got up and gave a testimony all about fornication, and how it was all disrespectful, and immoral, and David felt like maybe there was a giant glowing red arrow over his head pointing down at him. Plus, afterwards they asked him to sing, and everyone applauded and smiled at him and were all, oh, we could really feel the Spirit, so he felt really embarrassed and awkward.

On the way home his dad said, "Did you have a good time at the party Friday?"

"Oh," David said, freezing in the passenger seat. "Um. Yeah? It was—okay? It was kind of—Hollywood, I guess. But, um. Gina—Gina was— is—" He wimped out. "Gina is really nice, though."

His dad nodded. "I'm glad to see you spending some time with people your own age," he said, "although that's probably not the best environment. But the bishop was telling me, there are Mutuals at the church on Fridays."

"Um," David said, because the girls at the church always stared at him when he was there, and they whispered and giggled behind their hands, and he just—um, no.

Anyway, now there was Gina, although he knew just how thrilled his dad was going to be about that. And, well, David was really glad that he wasn't gay after all, at least not all gay, but even that was confusing, because he wondered if maybe that was—cowardly, or something. And he was sure it would be totally lame to try and make his dad happy about Gina by saying, well, I was almost gay or something like that.

He was still trying to decide how to break the news to his dad about Gina, and how to ask her to maybe, um, wear something less revealing when he brought her over to meet him, when she hugged him one night and said, "Oh my god, I'm going to cry like, for a month, when I get home."

"Um," he said.

It turned out she'd gotten third place on America's Got Talent for gymnastics, which wasn't something that got you a ton of work in L.A., and anyway she had to move back to Long Island to start training for the Nationals.

"Your girlfriend is an Olympic gymnast," Cook said, after a moment of silence, when David called him up, because Cook was his only friend who even knew about Gina. "You get that every man alive has the obligation to hate you now, right?"

"Except for how she's totally dumped me," David said, sadly.

"Awww," Cook said, and he moved the phone away from his mouth, and David heard him saying, "Hey, guys, I need to call it an early night, sorry." He came back on and said, "Okay, come over, I'll meet you at my place."

"Oh—you don't have—I don't want to—"

"I do have to," Cook said. "You've been dumped, it's an official friend duty to feed you ice cream and sad movies."

"Um," David said, "I'm pretty sure that's for girls?"

"Yeah, but you don't drink beer, so we're going to have to improvise," Cook said.

David fell asleep sniffling through Old Yeller on Cook's shoulder, and woke up on the couch, covered with a blanket, with the soupy remains of the tub of rocky road on the coffee table in front of him. Marcela was standing on the steps of the living room, staring at him, and he rubbed his face and said, "Um, hi," awkwardly.

"Er, hi?" she said. "Is David around—"

"Oh, um, I don't know," he said.

"Hey," Cook's voice floated down from upstairs. "I'll be down in a minute," and he came down in jeans and a t-shirt and his usual pile of jewelry. "Hey, we're going to breakfast at Spago," he said to David. "You have time to come along?"

"Um," David said, because that sounded super-fun, not, and he could see from the look on Marcela's face that she was about as thrilled about it as he was. "Actually, I should, um, get home—my dad—oh my gosh." He sat up in horror. "My dad must think I'm, like, dead—"

Cook laughed. "Relax, I called him after you crashed. I'm pretty sure he'll be fine with you doing breakfast."

"Oh," David said, so he ended up sitting uncomfortably at Spago with Cook and his girlfriend. Marcela was acting clingy, too, and she kept kissing Cook, which made David want to cringe since they were about two centimeters away from him. He could see her tongue, and ew.

Cook looked kind of awkward about it, he darted a couple of looks at David, sort of apologetically, and after she did it for the sixth time before their orange juice even came, Cook started to get a little bit of a weird expression on his face. He looked around the room, and then one side of his mouth sort of went up and down. He sat back in his seat, sort of easing back out of her reach, and took out his phone, so his hands were full, and he said to David, "So hey, did I tell you it's up to twelve times they've tried to get the Mariah song on the album?"

David didn't get it until they were leaving and he noticed the camera flashes from the table of paparazzi in the corner. Marcela was holding on to Cook's arm as they walked by. Cook wasn't smiling; his face was almost stern-looking, his mouth in a straight line, and when they got in the back of the car, he pulled his arm loose and said, "Where can we drop you, Dave?"

It was quiet in the back seat the whole way to David's condo. Cook spent most of the time looking out the window. Marcela said a few things, just, like, about the weather, and about some party they'd gone to the previous week, but Cook didn't really answer her except with yes and no.

"I'll see you Friday?" Cook said, when they let David out.

"Um, yes," David said. "Oh, and, you know, um, thanks," he added, and then ducked out fast and gratefully. He watched the car pull away again, and then he went inside.

His dad was in the living room on the phone, and when David came in, he said, "David's home. I'll call you in a little while," and then he put the phone down, like he didn't want to continue the conversation while David was in the room. He said, "Is everything all right?"

"Yeah?" David said. "We, um, we watched some movies. And—I went to breakfast with them—with Cook and, um, his girlfriend, and—" He trailed off. It wasn't lying, he told himself, but that didn't help a lot. It still felt like lying. He'd been a little bit glad, almost, because at least he didn't have to tell his dad about Gina now. Except now that felt like a big cop-out, too, and—

"He's still seeing that young woman, the singer?" his dad said.

"Um," David said. "Yeah, but—" He stopped and didn't go on. It wasn't really any of his business.

"Was she there last night? Or some of your other friends?"

"Oh, no," David said. "It was just me and Cook. She came this morning."

His dad nodded, after a moment. "You should call your mother, you didn't talk to her last night."

"Yeah—yes, I will," David said. "I'm going to—I guess I should—I'm going to take a shower, then I'll—" and he went upstairs, and he hesitated on the landing, and he heard his dad pick up the phone and say, "Yes. Yes. He says it was just him and Cook... I don't know. I have no idea... He's twenty-five. They're all in their twenties, Johns is thirty by now—" and David kind of didn't want to hear anything else, so he darted into his bedroom and shut the door.

That Friday, Cook came out onto Michael's deck—he came alone—with a huge bottle of champagne. He stood there and said, "Vindication's going to be the first single," and popped the cork, and they all cheered and brought their cups and mugs to catch some of the froth, even David.

The Monday after that, David was working on some more tracking for Glass Curtain—they were letting him put it on the album after all, which made him really happy and also terrified, because what if it sucked, or, or, people hated it, or they didn't want to release it as a single, or they did release it as a single and it totally crashed and burned, or—anyway. So he was recording about twelve extra versions of the vocal, so he could play around with them a bunch more, and wondering if maybe he could get Cook to come into the studio and listen to it for him.

His dad knocked on the studio door, and he got called outside: his manager Phil was there, and also his official manager Lorrie—David mostly didn't see him, because Lorrie was way high up and didn't actually come to the studios that much— and his, like, six assistants, with clipboards and calendars, and apparently they wanted him to come with them to 19E headquarters for a big strategy meeting.

"We just think we should have a little bit of a conversation, here," Lorrie said, which David didn't realize was code for a giant battle to the death until they got into the conference room and found all of Cook's management team lined up on the other side of the table. He stared around and looked over helplessly at Cook, who gave him a raised-eyebrow shrug and rolled a bottle of water to him across the table.

It was about scheduling. Cook's team wanted to release on Black Friday, and they wanted to put out the single four weeks beforehand. David's team wanted to release the week before Black Friday, and they wanted to put out their first single three weeks beforehand. Cook's team was apparently all pissed off that David's album would go out first, David's team was apparently mad that the two singles were going to bump into each other, and all of them were yelling in about thirty seconds.

David didn't get any of it at all, except that he thought it was a really dumb idea to put out anything up against Vindication, and also that he really didn't want to be here, especially after one of Lorrie's assistants said to Cook's people in a kind of fake-nice way, "You know, I get your anxiety, comparisons are inevitable and you've got a lot to lose—"

David stared straight down at the table while it went on and on, hoping that Cook knew this had so not been his idea, and then a water bottle cap bumped his finger. He looked up: Cook was looking at him across the table. Cook's eyes went to the door, and then he stood up and said, "Okay, you guys keep this going, I'm going to step out to the bathroom," and went out.

David glanced at his people. The conversation had barely paused while Cook had left, and David didn't bother trying to cover it up even that much, just pushed his chair back quietly and slipped out. Cook was in the hallway tossing the receptionist's koosh ball in the air, and he threw it to David when he came out. "Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry—" David said, catching it.

"Not our fault," Cook said. "Okay, so tell me, what do you want to do?"

"Um," David said. "I don't know? Except I don't want my single to come out against Vindication, because that would totally suck." He threw the koosh ball back.

"Aww," Cook said. "You know what yours is going to be, yet?"

"No, but, oh my gosh, I didn't tell you," David said. "They're putting on Glass Curtain!"

"You get that that's a surprise to exactly one person in the entire world who has heard that song," Cook said, but he came over and high-fived David anyway. "Come on, let's go get a soda. I've got an idea."

"You want me to—" David said, staring, when Cook told him the idea.

"Uh, only if you want to," Cook said. "If it's not your vibe—"

"Are you crazy?" David said. "Gosh, that song makes me cry, and you want me on it?"

"Okay, then," Cook said, grinning.

"So, wait, then," David said, "will you—would you do, like, backing vocals on one of mine, too?"

"Yeah," Cook said. "And guitar, if you want. Maybe that one Tedder wrote for you? Thin Ice?"

"Oh, that would be so cool," David said. "And—um. Maybe—do you remember, that song you played for us on tour, Lingering? What do you think—I mean, if you aren't saving it for the next album—we could do it as a duet? Like, maybe, put that out first—"

"Awesome," Cook said, and they went back into the conference room, and everyone on both sides immediately started saying why it was all a really bad idea, and trying to argue with Cook, except Cook just kept smiling at them, and they couldn't yell at him even though they pretty obviously wanted to. At one point, Lorrie worked his way around the table and leaned in to David and said, low, "Listen, David, I'm sure Cook made this duet single sound pretty cool—"

"Oh, um, the duet was my idea, actually," David said, loudly, and Cook grinned at him. Then one of Cook's people said, "You know, we could do it as a Wal-Mart exclusive," and everyone got quiet and thoughtful, and then they started talking about joint front-of-the-store promotion, and someone on David's side scribbled some numbers for putting out a CD single, which they hadn't been planning to do, with all three songs on it. After another hour, Cook said, "Okay, so, you guys can work out the details without us, right? Because we're going to go get in the studio," and everyone waved them off distractedly; they were in a bunch of clusters around the table now, working together.

David went out with Cook. "Come on, I'll give you a ride," Cook said. "Or did you come in your car?"

"No, they drove me over," David said, and then he stopped and stared, because Cook was driving a race car, or at least what looked like it—it was low-slung and sleek and dark red, with black wheel rims.

"It can do 250 miles per hour," Cook said.

"Um," David said. "Is that safe?"

Cook poked him between the shoulderblades. "Get in and quit worrying, I haven't even had a chance to break eighty yet."

"And you're not going to try now, right?" David said, and sat down in it a little nervously. It felt like being in a really fancy video game. "Cook, how much did you pay for this—"

"Bugatti wanted me driving it around," Cook said. "They gave it to me for half-price, on a lease."

"Like the house," David said skeptically.

"Uh," Cook said. "I bought the house."

"Oh my gosh, Cook!" David yelled.

"Come on, the house is awesome!" Cook said. "Hey, I didn't even show you before, there's a recording studio in the basement."

"Can we use it?" David said.

"Huh," Cook said. "Yeah, I guess we can. Actually, I think we have to, I don't think I have the latest version of Lingering at the RCA studios."

They put out Lingering first, six weeks ahead of time. It hit number one in like five seconds and stayed there. And stayed, and stayed, and stayed. All their people had another big meeting trying to decide what to do, because they had planned to put out the two singles and the combined CD all together, except now they were afraid that was going to step on Lingering, or worse, that Lingering was going to hang on and the other singles wouldn't get up above it, which apparently would look bad for the albums, for some reason?

It was weird, they seemed kind of upset at how well it was doing, which was crazy and backwards to David. At least the fans were really happy, even though they were all arguing online over who sounded better on the song, him or Cook.

Finally Simon Fuller got everyone together and said, "Look, people, this doesn't make any sense. We've got to put it on one of the albums. Make it the first single from that one, and then we'll just put out the other one."

So then there was this moment where everyone sort of looked at each other across the table again, and it went all tense. At first David thought it was because they didn't like the idea of releasing another, but it was the other way around: they both wanted Lingering, a lot, because it meant the album would start with a number-one single, and they didn't need to worry about the new single getting above it.

"Cook wrote it," Giles Renee—he was one of Cook's people—said flatly. "Just because he shared the credit—"

"Whoa, hey," Cook said. "Guys? Lingering doesn't fit on this album. I'd have to drop at least three songs and rework the whole order, and I don't think I've got time." He looked at David. "You want it, man?"

"David," one of Cook's other people said, urgently.

"Um," David said, uncertainly, "if—I mean, Giles is right, it's totally your—"

"It's ours," Cook said. "I'm happy with my album, man. If you want it, it's yours." He grinned at David. "I'm totally stoked, it'll be my first songwriter credit on someone else's disk."

"Gosh, okay, if," David said, kind of relieved, because he was pretty sure Thin Ice wasn't a number-one hit.

Cook's people started making some noise, but Simon Fuller raised his hands and said, "It's got to be one or the other, and this is as good a decision as we're going to get. Let's get Vindication out there, and put some heat on it. Let's get this guy some television, spin the songwriter thing. Even if it doesn't hit number one, that's going to do some heavy lifting for Cook's album."

"They're going to have me premiere Vindication on Leno, Tuesday," Cook said at the barbeque that Friday, and poured himself a shot glass of whiskey.

David bit his lip. He felt kind of bad, now, because his people had come out of the meeting so happy they were practically gloating. They'd gone straight into planning the next three single releases, and a talk-show circuit for him, and Lorrie said now Disney was interested in having him guest-star on Hannah Montana, doing the song alone. They'd even gotten him an acting coach, which was horrible because the coach kept taping him and making him watch it. It was making him get better, though, out of desperation.

Anyway, David hadn't really thought about, well—okay, Cook was older than him, and definitely knew what he was doing more than David did, but he was still only twenty-five, and it might not actually have been the best decision business-wise. Now all David remembered was everybody telling him how, even if a song was awesome, it was still totally a crapshoot getting to number one, and Lingering wasn't showing any sign of budging at all.

It just, it would suck if it hurt Cook's album at all, and if it helped his own at the same time, that would be even worse. He didn't know how to apologize, or what to do, and when Cook left a little bit early, because he was going to spend the weekend in the studio rehearsing, David sat a while longer silently petting the puppy, and then he looked up and said, "Um, hey, are you guys free, on Tuesday?"

He called Leno personally, which was terrifying, but got him the nine tickets they needed, even though the show was already sold out. Cook came out on set during the commercial break with his face fixed and serious and a little bit distant. Then he did a giant double-take and stared at them and the giant wacky signs Michael had gotten them all to make, with stuff like Marry Me David Cook! and OMG WE LOVE U! covered with pink glitter and stars and hearts and smiley-face stickers, and one saying Cougars For Cook with Cougars crossed out and Puppies written in and a big photo of Michael's dog on it, and Cook cracked up so hard he was still breathless and right on the edge of laughing when he started singing. Before the first verse was over, David knew it was going to be okay, because the whole audience had gotten really quiet, even the giggling girls sitting right behind him, and Cook's voice went up and up and up on the first glory note.

They gave Cook a standing ovation, after, and Leno went up next to him and said, "This album is going to be a monster, people. Wow. So, we're going to see you for the next single, too, right?"

"As often as you'll have me, man," Cook said, shaking his hand and smiling in that kind of wobbly way that meant he was trying really hard not to tear up, and when they piled into the green room afterwards to see him, he lost the fight and just sort of held on to all of them in a giant group hug with his head ducked down.

"Are you sniveling again, Cook? I swear to God, man, you're an embarrassment," Michael Johns said, after a bit, and Cook laughed in a watery way and managed to stop, and then he hugged all of them separately, and that night, as they dropped him off after dinner, he leaned over to David especially and whispered, "Thanks, man," and hugged him close one last time before he got out.

David looked over at Michael, who grinned and winked at him.

David went home and stayed up the rest of the night refreshing the iTunes Top 100 chart. He got the pre-order pickup notice in his email at nine, right when Leno started airing on the east coast, and Vindication showed up at eighty-seven.

It started climbing steadily from there, seventy-nine, sixty-three, fifty-one, and then the first squealing posts showed up on the forums as the performance aired, and all of a sudden it was at number three, behind Lingering and Rihanna's Don't Sing Me To Sleep. David hunched over his keyboard, biting his lip. Central got it to number two, but it looked like Lingering was actually going up, too, compared to the rest of the chart—like people were remembering and buying it now, argh, when they'd had six weeks to get it already. The Mountain time zone hit, and they were so close now, but Lingering still had a few extra bars on the popularity meter. David kept refreshing it, kind of by rote, mostly waiting for the west coast now, and then suddenly, at eleven-fifteen, Vindication was at number one with eight bars.

David refreshed two times more before he even realized, and then he stared at it blankly and jumped for the phone. Cook's lines all went straight to voicemail, his cellphone and his home phone and even his old cellphone, so David texted him instead and then he kind of jumped up and down in his room in frustration. Then he went looking on the forums, and someone had posted saying the DJ on Z100 in New York had just played it five times in a row and called it the song of the year.

"Yes, oh my gosh," David said, yelling, and then his dad opened the door and David jumped guiltily. "Oh, um, sorry, did I—were you asleep—" he said, hurriedly.

"What on earth?" his dad said.

"Oh, um," David said. "Cook just got to number one," and his dad looked at him a little oddly and said, "I'm glad you're so happy for your friend."

David didn't get the weirdness until the next morning, when Lorrie came in to the Jive studios and said to him, "I don't want you to worry about this, David." Vindication was in number one by like twenty bars by then, and David had heard it on the radio three times driving in. Okay, so he'd been scanning through all the rock and top-40 stations for it, but still.

"About what?" David said, confused, and then he stared and said, "um, I'm really glad for Cook."

"Good, good," Lorrie said. "That's a really generous attitude, David, that's great," in this way that made David feel like he was being petted on the head like a dog or something.

"Dumbass," Cook said, affectionately, when he called David back later that afternoon. "You've been feeling bad the last two weeks, haven't you."

"Well—" David said. "I mean—it's you, and, and, you gave me Lingering, and it was just—"

"Yeah, you're going to go far on that cutthroat instinct, Archuleta," Cook said. "It's lucky you can sing like nobody's business."

"Oh, gosh," David said, embarrassed.

"So listen," Cook said. "They want me on Saturday Night Live next month—"

"Cook, that's awesome," David said.

"I want you to come with me," Cook said. "We'll do Vindication and Lingering."

"Really?" David said, after a moment, kind of dazed.

"No, I'm just playing with you," Cook said. "Come on, what do you say?"

"Um, wow, let me think about that," David said. "I, um, I don't know if I really want to be associated with—"

"I know where you live, Archuleta," Cook said.

David jumped up and down after he hung up. And then he went to go find Lorrie and tell him, and he just barely held in the so there.

David had to spend his album release day at the studio with everyone from his team as the first-day sales came in, doing radio interviews and fielding phone calls and congratulations. When it broke fifty thousand before lunch, Lorrie showed up and went around shaking everyone's hands, and by the end of the afternoon, they had a hundred and sixty thousand, and David was shaking, he was so relieved.

He was at three-fifty by Black Friday. They'd gone home for Thanksgiving, and the house was all full of family and friends, and he couldn't get a minute alone. Finally he got a call from Lorrie, late in the day—he was hearing from Lorrie directly a lot more now—to tell him they'd done another hundred and ten in sales. "We'll be gold by the end of the weekend," Lorrie said. "Congratulations, kid, you're a star."

"How is—do you know how—Cook is doing?" David said.

"I haven't got his numbers," Lorrie said. "This isn't official, it's just raw numbers from the stores. I'll have Cathy make some calls, see if she can get hold of someone."

"Oh, okay," David said. "Thanks," and when he hung up, he stayed hiding out in the back room and went online on his iphone, instead, and found people all talking about how they wanted the numbers, and how both albums were flying out of stores, but no one actually knew, and then finally David tried calling Cook at his mom's house.

"Foraker residence," a guy answered. It wasn't Cook—David thought it was his brother, maybe?

"Um, hi," David said. "This is—this is David Archuleta. I was wondering—if David Cook is—"

"Uh," the guy said. "Wait, did you say—um. Hang on," and David heard him saying, "Dave, it's David Archuleta?" in kind of a confused way.

"Hey, man," Cook said, coming on the line a moment later. "Happy Thanksgiving."

"Oh, um, you too," David said, and then belatedly he realized it was kind of weird to call Cook up and ask him for his numbers. "Um. Did you—did you have a good dinner—? Oh my gosh, stop laughing at me."

"You're seriously worrying about this a lot more than I am," Cook said.

"Because you totally know, and I don't!" David said.

Cook said, "Yeah, okay, I sold a few records today."

"Tell me! Or I am going to like, go online and post naked pictures of you from the bus on TMZ," David said.

"You have naked pictures of me?" Cook said, and then David heard him turn away from the receiver and say, "Uh, this is not what it sounds like."

"Maybe I do!" David said, although he totally didn't.

"You totally don't," Cook said.

"Okay, but I do have a picture of you with your underwear on your head," David said.

"I'm pretty sure that's only going to add to my rock cred," Cook said. "What with selling two-fifty my first day," and David said, "Oh my gosh, seriously?" and Cook was kind of laughing sheepishly, and he said, "Yeah, it's, uh," and then he said, "Spin wants to interview me."

The interview went up online a week later. Cook had already made gold, and their albums were one and two on every chart there was. "We'll keep you at number one longer next time," Lorrie said, but David so did not care, and anyway he was pretty sure that he was getting a boost because Cook's fans were picking up his album, too, for Lingering and for Thin Ice.

He was in the rehearsal studio all day, practicing for SNL and Letterman, with his cellphone going to voicemail; when he got done, he skimmed the list—it was crazy how many people had somehow gotten his number—and called Michael back, first.

The second he answered, Michael said, "Did they get to you yet?"

"Huh?" David said.

"Right, well, they will soon enough," Michael said. "Don't go outside without looking both ways. Did that crazy wanker tell you he was going to do this? He might have figured we were all going to be asked."

"Um, what happened?" David said.

"Those bastards at Spin asked him if he'd ever kissed a guy, and he said yes," Michael said. "I've been asked if it was me six times so far today."

"Oh, uh," David said.

"I think next time I'm going to tell them yes, and that secretly we're having a passionate affair," Michael said. "I've always wanted to get an interview with After Elton—ow!" he yelped, and David heard Stacey's voice in the background. "Or maybe not. Anyway, wanted to make sure you got warned."

"...thanks," David said, faintly.

He set his phone to go straight to voicemail for the rest of the day. He waited until it was dark to leave, and then he called a car service and got them to come around to the back door and he ran for it the second they pulled up, even though he didn't actually see any lurking paparazzi. He was so not taking chances. Of ten million questions he did not want to ever have to answer in his life, "Have you ever kissed David Cook?" was right at the top.

He got home and made another dash for the condo, and got in and shut the door behind him, gratefully, and then he froze. His dad was sitting in the living room with his hands folded in his lap and his head bowed, and when David came in nervously he said, "Please sit down, David," and David had a moment where he almost ran out the door.

He went into the living room and sat down, and his dad said quietly, "Are you dating Gina Reymon?"

It was like getting smacked in the face when you were expecting to be punched in the stomach. David stared at him. "Um."

His dad had a laptop open in front of him. He slid it over. SHOCKER: ARCHULETA'S NOT GAY, said the headline on the video, which was of Gina coming out of gymnastics practice in a short flirty skirt and a snug sweater, and she squeaked when the paparazzo jumped out at her and said, "Oh my god, what is your damage! I am so not stalker-worthy, seriously," and the paparazzo said, "Do you have a comment on whether David Archuleta is gay? He took you to the Seventeen Ball, right? Did he stay hands-off?"

"Wow, you are so lame," she said, trying to walk away from him. "That is like, the lamest of all the lame questions in the world, and David is awesome, and that is all I have to say."

The paparazzo said, following her, "Everyone's pretty sure he's the one who's been taking it from Cook," which made David flinch.

"I'm sorry," his dad said quietly. "This isn't something I'd normally want you to watch."

On the screen, Gina was rolling her eyes and saying, "Oh my god, who said that, that is a total scummy lie, okay?"

"Last June he told Seventeen he's never had a kiss," the paparazzo said. "It's kind of a long time to wait for a kiss if you're not hiding something."

"He's got zero to hide," Gina said, which would have been great if, um, it were true, and then she added, "and he has kissed since then, and also, he is totally awesome at it, so there," and then she got in her car and drove away.

The article said, An unnamed source in the Reymon circle admits to TMZ that Gina has bragged to friends that Archuleta is also 'totally awesome' at pretty much every other sex act in the book. You heard the shocking news here first, people! He's straight! And a million tweeny fangirls shrieked in joy.

"Oh," David said, dazed with horror. "Um."

"I know that the media will make up stories, we've had it happen before," his dad said. "I trust you to tell me the truth. If you say it's a fake, that's all we need to say about this."

David swallowed, and then he said, softly, "I dated Gina for, um. A couple of weeks."

His dad didn't say anything for a moment. "Was there some reason you didn't tell me or your mother about this?"

"I—" David said. "I was going to. Soon. But then—she, um, had to go back to New York. So, we broke up before I ever—and then, I just. Um." He swallowed. "I guess, I—didn't think you'd like—it."

His dad didn't seem any happier to hear that part. He folded his hands and looked down at them. "There are a lot of temptations around you here that most young men your age don't have to face, at least not to the same extent," he said. "I've failed you by leaving you open to them. I didn't want you to feel constrained, and I was too permissive, instead. I'm sorry."

David didn't exactly know what to say to that. At least, um, he hadn't been disowned or something, but his dad saying I'm sorry didn't really sound like he was apologizing, and that didn't make any sense, anyway; it wasn't his fault or whatever. It was sort of ominous, like he was saying, he'd let David screw up, or something, and now he wasn't going to, anymore.

"You've been spending a lot of time with much older people," his dad said. "And, I'm sorry to say, some of them don't have the best principles. Cook—"

"Oh my gosh," David said. "You can't—Cook has been awesome to me, he's—"

"He's a generous and warm-hearted young man," his dad said. "I like him personally myself. However, he's also promiscuous and irreligious. I should never have let you spend so much time with him. David, those hurtful words that reporter was saying, those were false. But they wouldn't have been said at all if you had been keeping cleaner company. You know a man by his friends—"

"Then I want to be known by him," David said. "And Michael, and Carly, and the others—they all—they love me. And, and, I love them. Just, it's like, they're all amazing—"

His dad said abruptly, "David, has more been going on at these parties?"

"Huh?" David said.

"Have you been having sex at these parties?"

"What? Oh my gosh, no!" David said, staring. "What, like, with—no!"

"All right, I'm glad to hear it," his dad said. "But David, you have to see that I needed to ask the question."

"No, I don't," David said. He felt like he was going to be sick, and his eyes were prickling with tears. "I don't know how you—you know them—"

"David, this man who you say is your friend and role model told a national magazine that he casually practices homosexual behavior," his dad said. "We've known him to have sexual relations with multiple partners, at once—"

"Stop it!" David said. "Just—" He was standing—he hadn't really meant to get up, it was like he was going to explode if he didn't move. "Just, stop," he said, half begging.

"David, sit down," his dad said. "I understand this is hard to hear. It's hard for me to have to do this. But this needs to stop now. I don't want you seeing these people anymore—"

"You didn't mind me seeing them when I was on Idol, and making money from it," David said. He didn't sit down. "You didn't say no when Cook—when Cook was—when he gave me the song, and changed his whole schedule, and sang on my album, and—"

"That was before—"

"Before today," David said. "Before he said—before he said he'd—been with a guy."

His dad hesitated, and then he said, "All right, yes. You're right, I'm being evasive, and I should just be honest about this. Cook is a very attractive and charismatic young man, you're too close to him, and you're at an impressionable age. I think it would be very hard for you to say no if he made an overture towards you."

David's throat was so thick and tight he could barely made it work. He said, "Cook's the one who said no. To me." And he turned and went out of the room, blindly, already running, and out the back door.

He didn't really pay attention to where he was going, to start. All he wanted was to get away. He climbed over the low wall out back into the neighbors' garden, and then he got out into the street and ran for a long time, taking turns to zig-zag away from his place, stumbling down to a walk when he got out of breath and starting to run again as soon as he could, until he was gasping so hard his ribs hurt. He finally staggered over to a tree and sank down on some random person's front lawn. He wrapped his arms around his legs and pressed his forehead to his knees.

It was late. Cars went past him once in a while, but it was a dark, quiet side street, and no one stopped. He heard a dog barking in the distance for a little bit. Down the street the front door of a house opened once. A car pulled into the driveway of another house, past that, and the driver got out and went inside.

David was wearing a hoodie, because it had been a little chilly out, but it was getting cold now for real: he could see his big panting breaths in the air as faint mist. He pulled his hands into his sleeves and put the hood on, which kept him warmer, but pretty soon he was shivering. He didn't know what to do.

Finally he got up and started walking again, mostly to stay warm. He was somewhere in the Hollywood Hills, he thought—lots of winding streets going up and down the foothills of the mountains, smaller houses with fancy landscaping, trees hanging low over the street. He kept going up, not for any good reason, just because, and finally hit a park, pretty much deserted at this hour, but there wasn't a locked gate, and there were some benches near the parking lot. He was really tired. He lay down on a bench and curled up. His legs were sore, calves aching and tight from the climb, and he was cold at the same time.

He dozed for a little bit, but after a while, the cold woke him up. He sat up and huddled in on himself again, shivering. It was weird to think—he was just out here, all alone, and nobody knew where he was, not the paparazzi, not the fans. He wondered what his dad was going to do. Maybe he'd try to—maybe he'd want David to go to some kind of—to that cure thing, Evergreen. He'd looked them up online, once, but it just—it didn't make sense to him. Like it didn't make sense that he was supposed to get to be a better person by not hanging out with Cook—or the rest of them, all of them, when they—It didn't.

He finally took out his cell phone. His voicemail was full, and there were a bunch of missed calls from his dad and his mom, and even some from Jaz and Claudia. There were other calls, too—Cook, and Michael, and Carly, from all of them. David touched Cook's number.

"Where the fuck are you," Cook said, without even saying hello; he'd answered on the first ring. "I swear to god, David, tell me right the fuck now—"

"Um, what? I, uh, I don't know," David said, startled. "I'm—I think I'm in the Hills somewhere? There's a—a park?"

"Jesus fucking Christ," Cook said. "Is there a street sign?"

David had to stand up and walk to the edge of the lot, and then he found a sign reading Laurel Canyon Park. "Okay, I'm coming," Cook said. "Don't you even think of going anywhere, seriously. I'm not even hanging up," and David heard the door shutting, and his car starting.

"Wait, you shouldn't drive and talk on the phone," David said.

"Okay, so just to be clear on this, I'm coming there to kill you," Cook said.

"But," David said, totally confused, "what—why are you—what—"

"You have any clue how fucking scared we've all been?" Cook said.

"Did my—did my dad call you?"

"Of course he called me!" Cook said. "He called everyone in the fucking world, Dave, you ran out of the house without anything. Jesus."

His voice got a little further away, and staticky—like he'd put the phone on speaker and stuck it on the dashboard. The car roared.

"Did he tell you why I went out?" David asked quietly.

"No, but I'm going to make the amazing deduction it's got something to do with the Spin article," Cook said. "If I could go back and tape my mouth shut, I would."

"I told him," David said. "About me, I mean. Um. About—about me being—whatever."

"Well, he didn't throw you out of the house," Cook said.

"He—he wanted me to not—to not see you," David said. "Or the others. Ever."

"Did it occur to you you're turning eighteen in less than a month, and you're a millionaire? You don't actually need to run away from home in the middle of the night on foot."

"I didn't," David said. "I just. I couldn't—Cook, I couldn't listen—I couldn't be there—"

"Yeah," Cook said, after a moment, softly. "Okay. I'll be there soon."

David sat and listened to Cook's engine coming for him, until he was hearing it in stereo, and the Bugatti pulled up next to the park. Cook got out and came over and grabbed him and hugged him tight, just wrapped up around him. David pressed his face into Cook's chest and shut his eyes.

"Okay," Cook said. "Come on. Am I taking you to your place or mine?"

"Yours," David said softly.

In the car, Cook finally hung up his phone and then dialed again. "Jeff?" he said. "I've got him—yeah, no, I mean I've got him in the car, next to me. I'm sorry I didn't call sooner, I didn't want to let him off the phone until I got to him."

David looked down at his hands. Cook said, "Will you talk to him?" David swallowed and took the phone.

"Hi," David said softly. "I'm—um. I'm really sorry you were scared. I didn't—I really didn't mean to—I, um, just needed to—be away."

His dad didn't say anything for a minute that stretched and dragged in silence. "Are you coming home?" he asked. His voice sounded kind of rough and tired.

"I—um. I'm going to—I'm going to go to Cook's place, tonight," David said, and then he gulped and said, "I'll—I'll come home tomorrow."

They didn't say a lot more. David hung up and held the phone in his lap, looking down at it, while Cook drove back to his place. "You know we'll all get it," Cook said, about halfway there, "if you need to back off for a while—"

"I can't," David said. "It's all—being with you, with all of you—that's why to win Idol, that's the point, not—not the money, or, or the screaming girls, or whatever. Just, to make music, and—I—this is everything I want, everything—" He had to stop and breathe, but Cook got it anyway, and he put his hand on David's shoulder and gripped on and held.

He slept until ten and stumbled downstairs still groggy. Cook was rehearsing an acoustic version of Vindication in the living room, turning it slow and sweet. "Morning," Cook said, and Sally brought David a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice and asked him if he wanted eggs or pancakes.

"We're going to have to hang out a while before I can drive you over," Cook said. "There's three paparazzi camped outside on the street, and the telephoto lenses can get the driveway. I'm getting some more bushes in next week."

David curled up on the couch after he ate and listened to Cook practice, and sang along with him after he figured out where the backing line should go. Then the paparazzi all disappeared a little while before lunchtime, and Cook got a phone call from his friend Andy Skib, who told them to go look on TMZ.

The story was called Cook Kisses Everybody, and it had quotes from Andy and like thirty of Cook's pals from high school and college and the Tulsa and Kansas City band scenes, and even some other famous people he'd met like Raine Maida and Ed Roland, all claiming they were the one Cook had kissed, and Dave Grohl had said, "I haven't, but I would. Have you heard that fucking album?"

Cook laughed his head off and called all of them to say thanks, and then they ate lunch, and then there wasn't any more excuse to drag it out any longer. Cook pulled up outside David's house, and David just sat there in the car.

"Listen, man," Cook said. "I'm going to call up Johns, we'll hang out at Troubadour, okay? It's three minutes away, if you need anything, just call."

David let himself into the house and stopped; his mom was sitting in the living room with his dad. She jumped up and came to hug him, and he started crying totally without expecting to, really lame and just sobbing all over the place and clinging, and then his dad came over and hugged them both, and all of them were crying, and afterwards his head ached a lot, but they collapsed limply on the couch together, and his mom laughed a little, still sniffling, and said, "We're such a mess," and got the box of tissues.

They made some chocolate milk and sat down at the kitchen table, and David gulped and said, "I should tell you—I need to tell you all of it," and he told them about his thing for Cook, and Gina, and then he said, "And I don't—I don't want to be some kind of, um, crazy Hollywood True Story or whatever. I just—I don't have anything to—I don't know, like, my friends from school are all kind of weird now, except, you know, a few of them, but even them, I don't—it's like, they're all in school and doing, like, college stuff, and I'm already here in my life. This is—this is what I want my life to be, and Cook, and them, they're all—it's their life too. That's why they're so important.

"And, um," he added, nervously, "it totally wasn't—I mean, the, um. Gina is—she's really, um, cool, and I'm so not, and I mostly, um, didn't really know how to—she wanted to, and I—I liked her, and I—" He stopped and shut up, because he figured he was about to get into dangerous territory.

They talked to him a long while after, and his dad even apologized, for real, about getting weirded out by David being friends with the others, and then he said, "Davey, you're too old for us to tell you how to live your life, but I hope you'll never be too old to tell us honestly what your choices are, and—and to listen to our advice. We love you, and we want you to be happy. What the church says about—" He stopped and finished, "It's never going to change that."

They all cried again, after that, and then they hugged him again, and then he went upstairs to wash his face. When he came quietly back downstairs, they were both together on the couch, crying some more. It hurt a lot, but when he ducked back into the kitchen and noisily got glasses of water and came out again, they had both wiped their faces and his mom said tentatively, "Maybe we could all go to church together, tomorrow," and they went, and the sermon was about tithing and totally painless, and David wasn't sure, but he thought maybe it was going to be okay after all.

They got to New York on Friday and did a whole bunch of magazine interviews, then Larry King Live that night. Larry asked Cook which of the guys he'd really kissed, and Cook said, grinning, "I can't say, I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings if I leave them off by accident."

Larry pointed at David and said, "Do you know who it was?"

David said, "Didn't he kiss all of them?" and Cook and Larry both sort of double-taked at him, and Larry said, "Wow, was that a joke?" and David said, "Um, yes. Is—is that okay?" looking a little nervously at Cook, who cracked up completely and had to swivel his chair around and turn his back to the cameras for a minute.

They were supposed to be just the musical guests, Dakota Fanning from Coraline was hosting, but the SNL crew had asked them to do one skit, too, about Idol. David was supposed to be trying secretly to kill Cook so he could inherit the title. "Um," David said, "isn't this kind of, uh, dumb? I don't think it works that way."

"I'm glad you're giving this so much thought," Cook said, grinning.

"No, but, you know what I mean!" David said. "Like, if I did it during the show, to win, that would make sense—oh my gosh, I hate you."

Cook did actually talk to the writers with him, and they got it tweaked, and David was happy until about thirty seconds before they were supposed to do it, and then he realized he was supposed to go out there and be funny on camera, live, and then he panicked and grabbed Cook's arm.

"You got me into this!" he said.

"Hey, I bet they'd be okay with it if I just kissed you on stage instead," Cook said, cheerfully. "I'll do that if you lose it."

"That is so not funny!" David said, and they were on, and it actually went fine, and he didn't forget his lines, and then they were done and off and all they had left to do was sing, and people had even laughed.

They went out with the crew after the show, and then they went back to the hotel. They were staying in two rooms across the hall from each other, and David hesitated on the threshold and said, "Um, night."

"Night, man," Cook said. "Awesome job."

"Oh, um, you too," David said, and then he went inside and changed into his t-shirt and pajama pants and brushed his teeth and called his mom and his dad, and then he got into bed and stared at the ceiling. Then he got up and took his room key and went across the hall and knocked, really quiet in case Cook was already asleep.

Cook opened the door, and David said, "Do you—we could—watch something? Unless you want to, um, sleep—"

"Nah, come on in, I'm still pretty high myself," Cook said, and they put on Cartoon Network and ordered hot chocolate with whipped cream from room service.

"You've got some—" David said, raising a hand. Cook held still for it, and David leaned over, close, and kissed him.

He was pretty sure he was doing it right this time. He'd landed in the right place, and he had his hand in Cook's hair, and he was tilted a little bit and Cook's mouth was warm and chocolatey and sweet.

"Holy shit," Cook said, breaking off. "Archuleta, has all of this been a pass from the start?"

"Um, yes," David said.

"You're getting freaking dangerous," Cook said, and David figured that sounded like a good sign, so he kissed Cook again. Cook even went with him on it for a bit, and then he broke off again, but he was breathing kind of hard.

"It's only two weeks," David said.

"Yeah, but I don't put out on the first date, unlike some of us in this room," Cook said. "No, seriously, this is an absolutely terrible idea."

"Oh," David said.

"Don't do that," Cook said.

"You don't have to, um, date me," David said, although he gulped.

"So aside from how I'm not a complete asshole," Cook said, "that would work great, given that you already start looking like someone kicked a puppy anytime you see me with somebody else."

"We could date secretly?" David said.

"Oh, God," Cook said, and pointed at the door. "Get out."

All in all, though, David felt kind of awesome about it, actually, because it was a little bit like they were dating secretly, because he'd kissed Cook, twice, and nobody knew, and that was kind of, well, fun, and exciting. Except then they went back to L.A., and JustJared got exclusive photos of Cook kissing Elisha Cuthbert at Parc, and she was in like, Maxim's top 100 hottest women in the world. It was so far out of David's league he couldn't even be jealous, just depressed.

"Um, congrats," David said, determined not to be lame, when he saw Cook that Friday. He was glad she wasn't there.

"For what?" Cook was slouched messily over one of the deck chairs, drinking something out of a paper cup—whiskey, David realized, kind of surprised.

"Uh," David said. "You know—um, Elisha—"

Cook laughed, shortly. "Yeah. It was awesome. I got told to show up for a photo shoot, she walked in, kissed me, we were done. I'm kind of pissed she didn't pay me. Or maybe I was supposed to pay her." He tipped back the cup.

David said, "What—what did you do?"

"Fired my publicist," Cook said, "and told 19E if they pulled that shit on me ever again, I'd walk all the way back to a bar in Tulsa."

"Aw," Michael Johns said. "The trials of an American Idol."

"Fuck you," Cook said, and put down the cup and walked out. David stared after him, looked at Michael—who looked back just as shocked—and then he ran out after Cook and got to him just as he unlocked his car.

"You are so not driving," David said, and plastered himself against the car door. "You can give me the keys, if you want to be a—a big jerk. I'll drive you, wherever."

"I'm not in the mood," Cook said flatly. "One shot doesn't do it for me, I'm fine."

"I don't care if you're not drunk, you're too mad to drive," David said. "I'm not moving."

Cook planted his hands on either side of David's head and said softly, "You're not?" and leaned in.

David stared at his mouth. It was, um, really close. "Is this—this is supposed to make me want to move?" he asked cautiously.

Cook's mouth twisted. "I guess not. Are there any paparazzi watching?"

David didn't really get it, and anyway he was kind of distracted by hello, Cook's mouth, right there. "Um, no?" he said, holding still, hopefully. "I don't think so? Are—are you going to kiss me? You can," he added.

Cook flinched and looked away, and then he pushed away from the car and from David and took a few steps and let his head hang. "I'm sorry," he said, roughly. "I'm sorry, man, that was—that was way out of line."

"Oh my gosh, what's out of line is taunting me," David said, disappointed.

"Do you even get how much of an asshole I just was?" Cook said.

"Yes!" David said. "You were like, half an inch away. It was really mean." Then he got it, belatedly, and said, "Oh." He paused. "Um, but I don't want to be caught by paparazzi."

"So of people who want to date me, that makes a total of you and, let's see, you," Cook said.

"Then, um, that sounds like you should date me?" David said.

Cook didn't exactly laugh—it was kind of a cough, and it came out like it had surprised him. He dropped his head and just stood there a moment, and then he said quietly, "Okay, so I need to shut my ass up and stop whining, because I have seriously lucked out in the friend department. Thanks."

"Aw," David said. "Are you going to come back in, then?"

"Yeah," Cook said, and jerked his head at the door. "Come on."

"That was still really mean," David said as they walked back. "You totally owe me a kiss."

"Uh huh," Cook said. "You can collect when you're eighteen."

"Okay," David said.

"I was kidding," Cook said.

"I'm not," David said, and darted into the house before Cook could say anything else.

Cook followed him back outside onto the deck and went over to Michael and said quietly, "Hey man, I'm really sorry."

Michael put his arms around him and gave him a hug and whispered something to him, and then he slapped Cook on the back a couple of times and handed him a beer out of the cooler. "Go make yourself useless," he ordered, pointing at a chair, and Cook saluted and went and dropped into it, and it was okay again.

Or anyway, it seemed to be, except Cook was still pretty quiet that whole night, and after they ate dinner he said, "Hey, I'm going to take an early night. I'll see you guys next week?" and Michael looked around the room—there wasn't anyone new tonight, it was just them, and Stacey and Carly and Todd—and he said, "Listen, man, if we let you go, are we going to be seeing your ass on TMZ tomorrow?"

Cook laughed a little and said, "No, I'm kind of motivated to stay off it right now. I'm just going to go home and crash." He crossed his heart and held up his hand. "Scout's honor."

Carly waited until after he'd gone and said, "All right, people, we need to find him somebody. Stacey, do you not have any sane girlfriends in town we can hook him up with? No more starlets for him, honestly."

David stared at her in horror, and tried to think of something to say.

Michael threw a pillow at her across the room. "We need to mind our own business."

"Since when is that your philosophy!" Carly said, and then she said, "What?" while Michael made weird faces at her, and then finally Michael rolled his eyes and said, "Right, so, Archuleta, you'd better make your move before she gets going."

"Um, thanks, Michael," David said, after he sat for a moment in the calm of total horror. "That was—awesome."

"Better than letting her on the warpath, mate," Michael said, which was kind of true, but still.

Carly said, "What?" and then she said, "No," in this loud, shocked way, and then she glared at David. "Oh my God, and you never said a word to me—"

"I never said anything to Michael either!" David said. "I, um, was kind of hoping no one could tell."

"It's not like you were carrying around a ten foot neon torch or anything," Michael said. "It's your own fault for missing it, love, sorry."

"It is not!" Carly said. "Did you know?" she demanded from Todd, who shrugged and nodded. "Oh my God! I can't believe you all! All right, fine, so now we need to—"

"Stay out of it?" Michael said.

"Right, because it's going so well up until now, obviously," Carly said.

"Um, do I get a say?" David said.

"No!" Carly said.

Michael and Todd talked her down from, like, kidnapping Cook and locking him and David in a cabin somewhere for a week—"You both need a vacation anyway!" she argued—or a whole bunch of other ideas that David kind of recognized from old movies. She still poked him in the chest as she was leaving, though, and said, terrifyingly, "We're absolutely going to make this happen," so David thought maybe he should move to another country and change his name or something.

Cook called him the next day and said, "Dude."

"This is so not my fault," David said. "Michael told her!"

"You get that we're going to have to move to other countries under assumed identities," Cook said.

"Yes," David said, except then he couldn't help adding, "Or we could actually, you know, date—"

"You're cooperating?" Cook said. "So basically, I'm dead, is what you're saying."

David said in a small voice, "Would it really be that, um. That bad?"

"What?" Cook said. "Dave—" Then he paused. "Holy shit, are you yanking my chain?"

"Um, kind of," David said, and giggled.

"Wow, I hate you," Cook said, and hung up.

But David really was kind of scared of Carly, because, she was so nice, but she was really intense, and she got excited sometimes and, well, sort of accidentally set off a flamewar or leveled a small city or something. He eyed her really nervously all that next Friday.

"She hasn't made a move on you yet, has she?" Cook hissed to him, equally wary.

"No," David whispered back. "Maybe, um, she's—"

"Biding her time before she strikes?" Cook said. "Yeah."

But she kept not doing anything all night, except then at the end when they were all curled around the fireplace she clapped her hands and said, "So what are we doing for your birthdays?"

"I'm going home for Christmas," David said quickly. "I, um, I won't be back until after."

"So we'll do it at New Year's," Carly said.

"I'm, um," Cook said, and then he covered his face and mumbled something.

"What was that?" Michael said.

"I'm—I'm going to—Disneyworld," Cook said, and then, "Shut up, it was in the fucking contract! I have to open their freaking American Idol Experience."

"Well, I know where I'm going for New Year's," Michael said. "This is going to be too good to miss. What do you say, love?" he asked, leaning back and looking at Stacey, who was still laughing.

"I'll bring the video camera," she said.

"Real friends would stay far away," Cook said, hollowly.

"So, we're all going then, are we?" Carly said.

Carly didn't just settle for nudging them to go, she got in touch with the rest of the top twelve, and then she called 19E and got them to send all of them who could make it, and Disney totally loved the idea to bits and offered them VIP suites and private cars to take them around to the parks.

David talked his mom and dad into bringing the whole family, which was really cool and fun, and also he figured Carly couldn't do anything really crazy with his parents there. Cook brought over a bunch of his family, too, and his little nieces were really cute and all excited and running around. Jason brought his girlfriend—it was the first time they'd seen him since the tour, he'd been doing some touring in Texas and working on an indie album, which sounded really awesome when he played bits for them.

They had a bunch of villas near each other, with kitchens, and they would get together and have big dinners in a group, except when Disney wanted them to be seen around, like the first night, when they all had dinner together in the Cinderella castle. Michael Johns reached over and stuck a giant sparkly tiara he'd bought from the gift store on Cook's head just as the photographers took the first of the official photos. Then they all had to wait for like ten minutes while the two of them destroyed the tiara wrestling over it.

On New Year's Eve, they had Cook doing a little mini-concert—he wanted to bring all them in, but all the agents and managers flailed or something, because of union rules or whatever, they couldn't all do it. So he did his set for the giant screaming crowd, and after that they all went back to the villas and found he'd had all sorts of gear and sound equipment set up for them out front, and they started playing together, just jamming. The other people staying in the villas and the lodge sort of came out and started creeping closer.

Cook said into a mike, "Hey, it's fine if you guys want to camp out and listen," and so a whole bunch of people ended up bringing out sheets and towels and laying on the grass near them, and they all stayed up really late into the night, taking turns playing.

They went acoustic as it got later and the little kids all fell asleep and families started drifting away. "Davey, we're going to go to bed," his dad said quietly, leaning over. He paused before leaving and looked over at the mike, where Cook and Michael were totally butchering These Are The Days—they'd started way too low—and laughing at themselves. Then he squeezed David's shoulder and added, "Don't worry about waking us up, stay until the end," and his mom smiled at him as they went back to the villa.

And then a little while later, it was down to pretty much just them. Carly and Brooke and Syesha were singing the Indigo Girls version of Tangled Up In Blue, low and sweet. Jason was noodling along on a guitar. Cook was lying on his back on the grass with his arms folded behind his head, looking up at the sky with kind of an oddly serious expression. Michael and Stacey had gone in to bed.

The girls finished the song, and Carly came over and nudged David. "Sing us out, sweetheart."

He took the mike and thought and said, "Um, this is kind of—I don't know, it's sort of sad? But I really like it," and he started singing Seal's Prayer for the Dying.

It wasn't hot anymore, just nice and warm and a little humid, and his voice felt really good, and he didn't have to think about opening his eyes or moving around or anything but letting the song flow. Jason started playing and sort of drumming along, smacking the guitar body with his hand while strumming, and on the last life carries on, David reached for a really long, high note and it came like a gift, and when he was done, he opened his eyes and people were clapping for him, even some of them leaning off the balconies on the resort building.

He felt really embarrassed and sort of waved at them, and then he looked at Cook and Carly and them. They were all clapping, too, and Cook was actually wiping tears off his face with the side of his hand, which made David's stomach clench up happily, even if, okay, Cook cried all the time. David ducked his head and started coiling up the mike, and then Carly came and took it out of his hands and held out a key to him. He looked at it, confused, and she hissed, "It's the villa over by the trees there."

When he looked at her blankly some more, she rolled her eyes and took him by the shoulders and turned him towards Cook, who was standing a little way off, putting away his guitar and the cables for his amp, still blinking hard, with kind of a startled half-smile on his face.

"Oh," David said, and gulped, and then he reached out and took the key and went over to Cook and picked up the guitar case.

"Hey, man, thanks," Cook said, and picked up the amp, and then he said, "I'm in this one—" as David walked on past his villa.

"I know," David said, walking on a little quicker, to the villa Carly had pointed out, and Cook followed him, looking kind of puzzled as David opened it up. David put the guitar down next to the sofa, and then he turned around, and Cook was obviously getting it, because he was hesitating on the door threshold. David swallowed and said, "You said I could collect, um, after I—when I was—"

Cook ducked his head and said, a little roughly, "I don't think that would be a great idea, uh, right now," and David crossed back to him and kissed him, fast and sweet and desperate, just holding him by the shirt and leaning up into his mouth, hungrily. Cook shuddered under his hands, and then he was putting down the amp and he'd taken a couple of steps into the room and kicked the door shut, and David was blindly fumbling at Cook's jeans, trying to get his t-shirt out of them.

"Dave—" Cook said, and then started laughing, "Okay, this is going to be weird," and David said, "So stop talking!" and kissed him some more, and tugged him over to the couch and pushed him down on his back, and he did get Cook's shirt off, and his own. He opened the fly on Cook's jeans, and Cook sort of shivered—he wasn't really doing anything, just lying there with his hands braced on David's thighs and breathing hard.

"You are so not taking advantage of me," David said, sternly, and then he gulped and put his hand over Cook's—

"Hel-lo," Cook said, in a sort of gravelly voice, and then he was sitting up, and had his arms around David, and gosh, he really was big, and he was kissing David's mouth, and then he was kissing the side of David's neck under the ear, and nuzzling his temple, and his hands were on David's waist, guitar-string-calluses a little rough against David's skin.

"Oh," David said, shivering, and said, "Bedroom?" and Cook said, "I don't think we're getting there for this round," and David said, "Okay."

"You get that there is going to be no living with that woman after this," Cook said.

"Uh huh," David said sleepily.

"You don't even care," Cook said.

"No," David agreed. Carly could gloat all she wanted, Carly was awesome. Carly had gotten him a hotel room. He snuggled in closer and pulled up the covers over them a little more. It was still in like the seventies outside, but the room was a little too air-conditioned.

Cook put an arm around him, his fingers trailing into the ends of David's hair, petting the back of his neck. "This is still a really bad idea." But he didn't stop.

The funny thing was, the paparazzi didn't catch on for about a year. And the two of them weren't even trying to hide it. Cook had rolled his eyes when David suggested the under-the-radar thing to him again. "Lost cause, man, it's going to get out in fifteen seconds," he said, and he pretty much always had his arm around David's shoulders in public, and he even kissed David on stage, the first night of his solo tour—there were pictures!—and whenever they were both in L.A. they had dinner out together and went to movie premieres and parties and whatever, and TMZ just posted all the photos of the two of them together calling them the Idol golden boys or whatever.

Finally around next Christmas—Cook was doing this cool thing with iTunes where he put out a new track every two weeks, and then they were going to make an acoustic album out of the best ones, and he was going to do an unplugged tour. Anyway, so he was working on it, and David was in the studio with him tracking some vocals and piano, and their publicists showed up together.

"So, listen," David's publicist Amanda said, apologetically, "We need to talk to you guys a little bit. Here's the thing. It's really adorable, the two of you, and the fans love it, it's been great so far, but we'd really like to, well, take a little bit of a different tack this time around." The two of them stared at her, which apparently she figured meant she should go on. "David, we'd like to—position you a little more adult, for the next album? And I know George—" she looked at Cook's publicist.

"Yeah, listen, Dave, I know you were pissed off about the whole thing with Elisha," George said. "But it's been a while since then, and we'd really like to see you around town a little more—you know, we hear Mandy Moore is looking for a date to the Golden Globes—"

David was sitting there kind of horrified, wondering if they were seriously trying to get them to break up for publicity, and then Cook started laughing, and David looked at him and he wheezed out, "So you know how we've been wondering why they haven't said anything? I don't think they know."

"Um," David said. "I thought they were just being, you know, polite."

Cook laughed his head off some more, and then they explained that, um, it wasn't actually so much a bro-mance, and Amanda and George didn't manage to say anything much afterwards and tottered out of the studio weakly.

"Okay, so, TMZ isn't being paid off or whatever, they just really haven't gotten it," Cook said, afterwards. "This is weird, man, I don't know if we're really dating if it hasn't been in a tabloid."

"Now you want them after us?" David said. "I think we'll have to, to make out in public or something."

"We've already done that a couple of times, and it hasn't worked so far," Cook said. "But I was thinking you could move in." He shrugged. "I've got this house and everything."

"Oh," David said. "Okay." He paused and added, "We could get a puppy?"

= End =

With heaps and heaps of thanks to Terri, Cesca, Boniblithe, and Monkiedude for beta! And to Sanj and Ellen and Fox for exciting technical information on song arranging, any remaining mistakes in which are entirely mine. ♥

All feedback much appreciated!
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