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real forever if

by astolat

The main thing he'd been thinking, that whole last week, was that when it was over, he'd finally be able to breathe again. He didn't know what else could've been making him feel so weird, the awful tightness in his chest every time he was in the same room with Cook, the way his stomach just kept clenching up and jumping. Even though he knew, he knew Cook was going to win, really, and he didn't even mind, he was just so happy he'd made the final. But he guessed it was still going to be like this until it was all over.

The feelings had started a few weeks ago after Carly had gone, maybe, David thought, because at that point everyone pretty much knew that it was going to be him and Cook. David felt really bad about it, too, because Cook had been so amazing—he'd come by that night with a couple of cans of caffeine-free root beer and glasses with vanilla ice cream, and he'd said, "Look, man, I'm not going to pretend I don't want to win this thing, and I know you do too. That's the way it should be. But I want you to know that for me, that's never going to be about beating you. And I think you're amazing just every way there is."

So it really sucked that the weird feelings had started then, because it made him feel like such a jerk—there was Cook being so cool, and meanwhile David was secretly being all whatever around him. He did his best to cover it up, not to let himself get jittery when Cook walked in a room, not to squirm when Cook put his arm around his shoulders or poked him, teasing, or tried to get him to laugh, but it just kept getting worse. Homecoming week, he even felt weirdly hot and mad watching Cook's video, everyone screaming for him and reaching for him and crowding around him, and he spent an hour that night praying to ask God to help him stop feeling like this, all jealous and awful.

But then it was over—Ryan had said Cook's name, and David kept waiting to feel better, while Cook hugged him, and pulled him up on stage front and center, and was even more awesome about it, and instead it got even worse, until by the end, standing there with Cook's arm around his shoulders, feeling Cook's voice through his skin, David felt like he was going to just fall over. His eyes got all funny and he saw speckles and stars, and when the cameras stopped rolling and Cook let go of him, he went half-blindly straight down to his mom and dad and while his mom hugged him he whispered, "I think I'm sick."

They took him backstage to Dr. Lydgate, who looked in his eyes and his ears and down his throat, and took his temperature and his pulse, and then she took his pulse again, and then she made him come behind a curtain and take off his pants, and after she examined him she said, "I'm going to need to do a blood test."

David was supposed to go talk to J.D., and there were reporters five deep waiting outside. Instead he was sitting on a chair behind a thin curtain in his boxers and tuxedo jacket, and he could hear Dr. Lydgate on the other side saying flatly to the producers, "No, you can't have him." He was starting to feel a cold, desperate terror even before she came in with the little green plastic stick.

She had him smear a pricked finger over the end and stood holding it and looking at her watch, but she didn't even need to count the seconds. The end turned purple almost right away, and she put it into the biohazard box and then she sat down across from him. "David, have you ever had bonding education, at school?"

"Yes," he said, barely loud enough to hear himself. "Am I—I'm—I'm." He couldn't say it.

"You're in the early stages of fixating," she said.

"Oh," he said, and the only thing that had ever come close to this was sitting in the doctor's office hearing, one of your vocal cords isn't working, and he really really wanted to cry, but instead he gulped it down and managed to say, "Okay. Do I—is there—"

"I'm going to ask your parents to join us in a minute, and we'll talk about some options," she said. "But first I need you to tell me who it is."

"But, I—I don't want to," he said. "It's not—their fault or anything."

"This isn't about placing blame," she said. "It's important to know so we can consider all the alternatives."

"They won't," David said, swallowing. "I can't, I wouldn't even ask them."

"Nothing is going to happen without your permission," she said. She paused. "Is it Simon?"

"What?" David said, staring at her.

"Okay," she said. "Paula?"

"No!" David said. "No, it's not one of the judges," and then she asked, "Ryan? Or Debra?" He was about ready to curl up into a ball under his chair, and then she said slowly, "David, you spent a lot of time with David Cook this last week," and he flinched, and she sat back in her chair and rubbed a hand over her mouth, looking disturbed.

"He's too young to—" David said, swallowing. "He can't, I know he can't—and he's going to be so busy. And, he's not—we're not—he's been great, but it's not like he'd ever want—" He shut his mouth because he was babbling, and this was bad enough already, so.

Dr. Lydgate just said, "I'm going to talk to your parents now, all right?"

He nodded, and then he said, "Can you—can you tell them outside, first? Before you bring them in?"

"Yes," she said quietly, and stepped around the curtain.

The crazy train had pulled out of the station the minute Ryan had said his name on the stage, and it hadn't stopped once since. David had lost count of the interviews and the handshakes and the hugs, and he couldn't have said who he'd talked to five minutes ago. The wrap party was a big noisy happy mess, and there were so many people in his face he couldn't spot anyone he knew—Archie, Michael, even Andrew and his mom were lost in the sea, and the only person who managed to stick with him was his publicist. He got out as quick as he could without offending anyone, and then he went back to his hotel room and just sat there staring out the window at the lights of downtown Los Angeles and thinking, holy shit, I won. He didn't even try to sleep.

The first time someone asked him about Archie was at the six am interview rounds—where's your runner-up? is he sick?—and no one had told him the answer to that question, so he just said, "I hope they're letting him get some sleep, it was fairly nuts yesterday," and then someone else asked, why didn't he do any press last night? was he really upset? and David started wondering what the hell really was going on, even while he bullshitted something upbeat.

He managed to cut away from the Fox local news gauntlet for long enough to get hold of his handler and say quietly, "Hey, do me a favor and find out what's up with Archie?"

What he wasn't expecting was to have Simon Fuller show up halfway through the junket with a big smile for the reporters that dropped off his face the second he had David inside one of the trailers. There was a woman waiting inside, one of the Idol doctors, and a guy in a suit that David didn't know at all. "Doctor Lydgate, right?" David said. He looked at Fuller. "Is everything okay?"

"David," Fuller said, "this is Mr. Jerrick, who's a lawyer representing the Archuleta family. Before we start, I want you to understand, we're legally obligated to let him and Dr. Lydgate speak to you about this, but you are in no way, shape, or form responsible, and this is not intended to pressure you—"

"What the hell," David said, staring.

Dr. Lydgate broke in and said, "David, I have to notify you that David Archuleta is suffering from the early stages of fixation."

"Oh, Jesus, no," David said, feeling sick. "Are you serious? The poor kid," and then it hit him what they were really saying. "On—on me?"

"Well, we're not positive," Fuller said.

"Yes," Dr. Lydgate said flatly.

"Hang on," David said. "I'm only twenty-five, how could this even—" He stopped and turned away from both of them. The inside of the trailer didn't have any answers, it was full of random crumpled papers and a big whiteboard with notes for the staging of the George Michael number, and one discarded chunky gold belt he thought Amanda had been wearing at one point.

"This isn't something that happened because of anything you or anyone associated with the show did, David," Fuller said. "Nobody's suggesting anything like that. Unfortunately, it looks like he was concealing his symptoms for several weeks, or else we would have been able to do something—"

"Just a minute, let's be clear here, he wasn't aware that he was suffering symptoms," the lawyer said. "He's young for onset and the target of his fixation was within his generation group, he had no reason to suspect—"

"Whoa, hold it, I'm not blaming him, I'm just saying this isn't Cook's fault here, it's nobody's fault—"

"Oh, I don't think we're ready to say that," the lawyer said. "The symptoms developed right around when you banned his guardian from backstage and put him in daily close proximity with an eligible partner—"

"Three seconds ago you're saying he's so ineligible the kid had no reason to suspect," Fuller said.

They kept on biting at each other. David walked down the trailer and pulled out a chair and sat down, trying to wrap his head around it. It was nuts from start to finish, the idea that Archie had it like that, for him. They'd been hanging out nonstop the last few weeks, bumming around together—working on music, the commercials, hanging out in the rec room. They'd been sitting squashed right next to each other doing that stupid movie promo, he'd had an arm around Archie's shoulders a dozen times, and Archie hadn't even so much as twitched.

Except Archie did flinch away—from everyone else. He got jumpy about people touching him, he had all along, and oh, fuck, this was for real. David laced his hands around the back of his head and leaned forward against his knees.

He'd gotten bonded himself exactly the way it was supposed to happen. Second half of his senior year in high school, and Melinda had been thirty-seven, the best friend of one of his mom's younger coworkers—close enough to be reliable, not so close he couldn't say no. His parents had vetted her with all the background-check services and interviewed her, he'd gotten to meet her and her husband at the office party over Christmas break, and they'd had three visits and the big party her family had thrown, the whole nine yards. He'd been seriously stoked by the time she'd put the collar on him, and sorry when it ended, the last weekend of August.

"I know, but you're ready, sweetheart," she'd said, with a kiss, and after he'd taken it off, she'd let him take her out to dinner and a movie, as much of a real date as the last of his summer job paycheck would cover, and she'd made out with him in the back seat of his Jeep, laughing like a girl. He'd left her feeling like he could take on the whole damn world, never mind college. It'd been amazing, like it was supposed to be—opening everything up, not shutting it down into a fixation, where you couldn't ever think of anyone else, where all you could ever do was find halfway replacements and give and give, still trying to hand yourself over because you'd never been taken right the first time.

"Let me be clear here," the lawyer was saying, "the Archuleta family have every right to hold you responsible, they do hold you responsible, and if you choose not to cooperate fully—"

"You know what, if you start throwing threats around, this is going to be over real quick," Fuller said.

Dr. Lydgate got up and came down to sit next to David, away from the squabbling. He looked at her and said, "Is there some way for him to stop being fixated except for me bonding him?"

"Nothing reliable," she said. "At best, the available treatment programs can break the fixation with aversion therapy, but the ability to form relationships is still left stunted afterwards. He may not be fixated on you, but he won't be able to bond with anyone else, either." She paused. "I do need to make sure you're aware there are possible consequences for you here, as well. Because he's already in the early stages of a fixation, the chance that he won't be able to detach successfully is much higher, which is already more likely with a bonding where there isn't a generational age difference. If he won't take off the collar, being bonded indefinitely to someone fixated carries major health risks for you, especially with your preexisting high blood pressure."

"But if I don't take the chance, he's just screwed, period," David said.

"Pretty much," she said.

He nodded. "All right. How do we do this?"

"As soon as you possibly can," she said. "There's no point in vetting at this stage, and literally every hour can make a difference, especially when he's now aware of his condition and deeply stressed."

It wasn't what he'd ever imagined bonding would be like, from this side. He'd thought about it, maybe, the way he thought about having kids—mostly about getting to be the kind of person who could do it and do a good job, be responsible about it, do all the steps right and throw a kickass party on top of it. Not some kind of crazy rush job because he hadn't picked up on what was going on with the kid, and even odds on whether it would turn out right or seriously fucking wrong.

"Okay," he said. "Let's do this."

Even from the middle of the argument he was having with Fuller, the lawyer whipped around faster than a rattlesnake. "You're agreeing to the bonding? We have your commitment?"

Fuller held up a hand to stop the guy. "Are you sure about this? You don't have to, you know that."

"I'm not letting this happen to Archie," David said. "Let's go."

He called his mom from the limo, on the way to the hotel. His hands were sweating and the phone slipped in his grip, and the lawyer and the doctor and Fuller were all right there. "I need you to not—I need you to be okay with this," he told her quietly, to get her ready, and then he told her.

She didn't say anything a moment, and he could tell she was struggling with it, and then she took a deep breath and said, "Do you have Mrs. Archuleta's number? Do you want me to call her? Maybe we can at least all have dinner tonight—later—"

He shut his eyes. "Thanks," he said softly. "I'll get it to you."

"I'm so proud of you, sweetheart," she whispered, and her voice cracked on it a little before she hung up.

David sat on the couch looking at his hands. His mom was wandering around the hotel room straightening up the already-neat cushions, tweaking the edge of the perfectly folded comforter, just to have something to do with her hands. She'd sent the girls out with Aunt Risa. His dad was still on the conference call with the lawyers, pacing back and forth nervously across the room, in short, angry steps.

He was just scared, David knew that, but it made him feel kind of sick to hear his dad talking about a lawsuit and a press conference and threatening everyone at Idol, and when his dad said, "—and that sonofabitch Cook, don't tell me he didn't have a clue," David had to put his hands over his ears and quietly sing the lyrics to the first thing that came into his head.

Except that was the Hero song they'd done at the finale, and he kept automatically waiting for Cook to come in on his part, so he had to stop, because that made him feel awful in a totally different way. Dr. Lydgate had said he had to try and not think about Cook a lot, but that was so hard, how could he decide not to think about someone, when trying kind of was thinking about him. David had tried to read a book, but he couldn't while his dad was yelling, and he couldn't turn on the TV, and there wasn't anything else to do but sit here and just—sit here.

He wished he hadn't told Dr. Lydgate, or anyone. He wished he'd made someone up—he wished he had said Simon, because Simon would just roll his eyes and not care, and Simon was rich and had better lawyers, and his dad wouldn't be trying to make Cook, like you could make anyone bond, especially to someone dumb who'd already gotten fixated without even realizing.

Dr. Lydgate had told them about some treatment programs—like rehab or something. The church had some, too; his mom had talked to their bishop a little while ago, and he was getting them some info, pamphlets and stuff. But everyone knew none of that stuff really worked. He just wanted someone to tell him what was going to happen to him, for real. Some people never did bond, or get married, and they were okay. He'd heard all these weird rumors about fixating, though, at school, and now—now that was going to be him, and—

He swallowed and blinked hard a few times. His throat felt really tight, but he wasn't going to be even more stupid.

"Don't worry, Davey," his mom whispered, coming to sit down next to him and hug him by the shoulders. Her eyes were wet.

"I'm okay," he said, hunching a little. He didn't really want anyone touching him.

"It's going to be all right," his dad said, covering the receiver. "I promise you, we're going to make them make this right. It's going to be okay." He turned back to the call. "Right, and look, before we send over the packet, how fast can you draft a formal bonding agreement? We need to make sure this guy has to respect David's rights—this is his goddamn competition, here, he could use this—"

"Dad, don't," David said, but his dad wasn't listening. David looked at his mom. "Mom, Cook didn't—"

His mom's cellphone rang, and she put her hand on his cheek to stop him while she answered it. "Hello?" she said. "Yes, this is Lupe—" Then her face changed, and she covered her mouth and said muffled, "Oh, oh my God," and then she waved her hand wildly at his dad, who didn't see it right away, still on the phone. "Thank you," she said. "Oh, thank you—no, no we hadn't heard—Jeff's been on the telephone, maybe they couldn't get through—Oh, God," and she was crying between words, taking tiny gulps to hold it down.

His dad had put the phone down and come over, staring at her anxiously. She said, "Yes, of course—that would be—that would be wonderful. We can—I'm sorry, please forgive me—you said they're on the way?"

"Lupe, what is it?" his dad said, and she pressed the phone against her chest for a moment to muffle it and said, "It's Beth—it's his mother, Cook's mother, he's coming, he said he would, he said he'll bond," and she picked up the phone again and said, "I'm sorry—I'm so sorry, we've just—"

"What?" David said, feeling kind of sick and dizzy again, like the couch was moving under him. He gripped on to the arm and tried to breathe.

"Oh, Jesus, thank you," his dad said, putting his hands together and resting his forehead on them, and then he went back to the other phone.

"Dad," David said, "Dad, wait, it's not fair, he shouldn't have to—"

"Davey, come on, of course he has to," his dad said, over his shoulder. "All right, listen," he said to the lawyers, "Cook's on the way over, I guess Fuller figured out this was going to be a disaster and talked him into it. They're coming here. How fast can you get together an agreement—"

"Dad, no," David started, and there was a knock on the hotel front door.

His dad said into the phone, "Listen, I'll have to get back to you, they're here—just get it done and fax it to me—" and he put the phone down and went to the door.

David was standing without meaning to, his heart pounding, but it was just one of the lawyers, with Simon Fuller and Dr. Lydgate, who came straight over to him and said gently, "Cook is going to join us in a minute. I know this is happening very fast—"

"I don't want to," he said. "I don't want him to have to—he doesn't want—"

"David," she said, taking hold of his shoulders. "It's fine. He's willing, he was willing right away. I wish there were more time for this, but it's very important to make this happen right now."

Mr. Fuller and his dad were still standing right by the door, talking fast in low voices, and the door was a little bit cracked open, so Cook didn't have to knock again, he just pushed it open and came on. David couldn't help staring at him. Cook was still in his same clothes from last night, the black jacket and the shirt open at the neck and dangling at the waist, his hair fake-messy and the cuffs undone. David swallowed.

His dad turned to Cook and started saying something about the contract, and David mostly wanted to die, but Cook just said, "Look, man, don't worry about it right now, okay? We'll figure the details out after," and came across the room.

"You don't have to," David said, barely managing to get it out as Cook got close to him. All he wanted to do was grab onto him and beg—he didn't know what he wanted to beg for, but whatever it was, he wanted it so badly he almost wanted to cry.

"I know," Cook said. "I'm going to, though," and he reached up and took the necklace off, the tight one he wore all the time, and David felt like his chest was going to explode. It was just a simple chain, with the star in the handcuffs, he'd always thought it was kind of a little funny-looking, and now he couldn't stop looking at it. "I thought this could work," Cook said. "That okay?"

"Yes," David said, though he'd meant to say no, because they were making Cook, and he didn't want—except he did, he did want, and instead he said, "Please," and Cook was saying, "Hey, shh, it's okay, I've got you," and putting the necklace around his neck and fastening it shut.

It was still warm from Cook's body, and the little star was heavy in the hollow of his neck. David wavered and suddenly he couldn't even stand up anymore, leaning into Cook helplessly. Cook put his arm around his waist and held him up, turning to the others. "We'll be in my room, 3214," he said, and David stumbled out with him, dizzy and half-scared, half-desperate.

"Just a couple minutes," Cook said, rubbing the back of his neck in the elevator. "I know, man, keep breathing."

"I'm sorry," David burst out. "I'm sorry—"

"Hey, quit it," Cook said. "It's too bad we've got to do it in a rush like this, that's all."

And obviously he was just saying it, but he was saying it, and he kept his hand on David's skin so David couldn't make his brain work anymore, and then they were at the door, and Cook was opening it, and there was a big rumpled king-size bed, and David didn't really remember a whole lot of what happened for a while after that, except that it was so good, and Cook's hands were really big and warm, and it didn't hurt, and then at some point it got amazing, and then it was over and the world settled back into place.

"Gosh," he said, dazedly, flopping face down over a pillow. Cook laughed next to him and rubbed his shoulders.

"You okay there? I didn't know you were such a tiger, Archuleta."

"I'm a what?" David said.

Cook laughed again, stretching out with one arm behind his head. He was naked, which made David feel really weird, embarrassed, and then David realized he was naked, too, which was even worse, and then he started turning red and oh god, he was being so stupid

Cook raised an eyebrow, and then he reached out and slid a couple of fingers into the necklace around David's neck, the one David had almost forgotten about, and tugged just a little. David almost lunged forward onto him and made an even more embarrassing whimpering noise. "Here, come on, relax," Cook said, just sounding amused, and rubbed David's back, starting with his fingers in David's hair and stroking all the way down, and David choked out, "Can we—would you—please—"

"Yeah," Cook said, and rolled them over, and David remembered all of it this time, and oh.

Okay, so the bonding part hadn't been that much of a problem, anyway. David hadn't been sure how he was going to feel about it—the kid was ridiculously cute and made him laugh his head off five times a day, but that was a long way from wanting to go to town on him, and it wasn't like he was exactly in the prime bonding window himself, either. Except somehow, he'd walked in the door and Archie had been standing there miserable and stricken, and getting that look off his face went from being important to one hundred percent totally necessary by the time David got across the room.

He rubbed his hand on the side of his neck. He could still feel the phantom sensation of the links of the necklace denting his thumbs, and he shot a glance across the limo. Archie was looking out the window for a moment, and the lights from the minibar were glinting on the star pocketed in the sweet spot right at the base of his throat. David had a slow hot curl of satisfaction just looking at it, and wow, this was weird. David dragged his eyes away and rubbed his neck again. He thought he had about six different hickeys popping.

Dinner was awkward, to put it mildly. Archie's family were all still pretty subdued, and his own dad was pissed off and not doing a good job of hiding it. Neither was Andrew, who shot a look at Archie that made David want to step between them, and after the waiter went around, David dragged him off to the bathroom. "What the hell, man," David said.

"I don't believe you let them sucker you into this," Andrew said. "Do you get that this could fuck your whole life? That little shit—"

David had Andrew backed up against the wall without actually meaning to, and both of them stared at each other. David said, "Uh, okay, that was unexpected," and had to deliberately uncurl his fingers from Andrew's shirt and shake his hand out before it started feeling like his own again. "Listen, man, it's not Archie's fault."

"Right," Andrew said. "Look, how do you get fixated on someone and not even notice until, hey, after he's just beaten the pants off you in the finale—"

"What, you think he decided to fixate on me—"

"How do you know he was fixated?" Andrew said. "Because some doctor the Archuletas are paying said so?"

"Uh," David said, and felt his face get red.

"He was hot for you, okay," Andrew said. "That doesn't mean he was fixated. He's looking pretty good now."

"You know what, you totally don't want to hear this, but that's too bad, 'cause you're going to," David said. "He's looking pretty good because we went five rounds in the bedroom before he could make it down the hall—yeah, you can cover your ears and whine all you want, you were asking for it. He's not hot for me, he's melting down. Trust me, all right? I remember what it was like, man, and what he's going through, this isn't it."

"Okay, fine," Andrew said, folding his arms. "All the more reason you should've stayed the hell away. Normal people don't fixate."

"We haven't exactly been living a normal life the last eight months, any of us," David said.

"It's not about to get any better," Andrew said. "Dave, what the hell are you going to do if he won't cut you loose? You're going to be huge, and nobody knows what the hell kind of album he's even going to make—"

"Or he's going to be huge, and I'm going to crash and burn. Come on."

"So then he will cut you loose and take off on his own," Andrew said. "He just doubled his odds of making it, and meanwhile, don't you even tell me you aren't going to do every fucking thing you can to help him, because I remember you going on about bonding, before I went for it, and how it was supposed to be—"

"Yeah, I am going to try and help him out," David said. "That's my job, and I signed up for it."

"Because they fucking pushed you up to the line," Andrew said. "They already had lawyers out—"

"They were scared," David said. "How would you feel if it was one of the kids, Adam's kids? I'd be calling everyone on the fucking planet, and so would you." Andrew looked away, and David took him by the shoulder and shook him gently. "Listen, man, I got taken care of when it was my turn. What kind of an asshole would I be if I let this kid get fucked up, when I'm the only one who has a chance to stop it? I walk away, I'm on top of the world—I won the show, I get the press, the record deal, headlining the tour, and meanwhile he's in some dark room somewhere, getting doped up and brainwashed, being written off? You seriously want me to be the kind of guy who could live with that?"

Andrew pressed his mouth tight and wrapped his arms around him. "No," he said finally. "I just—I'm just so fucking mad you've got to make that choice. It's not fair, man. Now, after everything—"

"Uh, yeah, because my life is so nightmarish otherwise," David said. "If this is what it takes to balance out my karma, I'll take it. It doesn't suck. It's a little nerve-wracking because I don't know what the hell I'm doing, but I really do care about the kid, okay? So come on. Cut him some slack, even if it's just to make my life easier."

They went back out into the dining room, and Archie was craning his head around anxiously watching for them. "Hey," David said, sliding a hand on the back of his neck as he sat down, and Archie said, "Oh," in a stunned voice and nearly fell over into his lap. Awesome.

The fucked up thing was, though, it kind of was awesome. It didn't feel anything like being collared himself. He'd been into it, for sure, but it had been a weird half-drunk kind of fuzzed up feeling when he'd really wanted it. This, though—it was like someone had run a magnifying glass over the whole world, and he could see everything twice as clear, twice as sharp, and hear the irregular pattern of Archie's small, panting breaths.

When they came out of the restaurant, paparazzi were already there screaming questions, are you really bonded, is he fixated, how did this happen, why didn't you know. It had been bad before, but this was fucking insane, cameras being held up high overhead, flashbulbs going off like explosions. David put an arm around Archie's shoulders and pulled him close against his side, stiff-arming people away from either side when they reached microphones in past the overwhelmed bodyguards.

"Cook, you think he's ever going to take off the collar?" someone yelled, and Archie trembled a little next to him.

"It's his as long as he wants it, man, that's the way it works," David said, and he found his thumb sliding over the links, pressing them down a little against Archie's soft neck, spiky adrenaline rush making his heart pound. He got them into the limo, and he took Archie over to the long leather stretch of the side seat, pushed him down and was on him before his brain even re-engaged enough to say what the fuck am I doing?

"Please," Archie was saying raggedly, "oh, God, please, yes, please, please," and scrabbling at David's pants with zero coordination but a whole lot of enthusiasm, and holy shit, Archie's family was three seconds from getting in the car behind them. David clenched his jaw and caught Archie's hands in his and pinned them against his stomach to hold them still, rolling up off him and tugging him back up sitting.

"Oh—" Archie said, voice breaking, staring up at him. "I'm sorry, I won't—I didn't mean—"

"Shh," David managed. "Shh, no, it's fine," while he took deep breaths until he could trust himself to open his eyes again. He did it too soon. Archie was staring up at him, mouth soft and anxious and parted just a little because he was still gasping for breath, and when David looked at him, he arched up—not anything deliberate, just a sort of instinctive lean upwards into him, and David fucking wanted to kiss him, his jaw, his throat, that mouth, until Archie was sobbing for it—

"Jesus Christ, I'm losing my mind, here," David said under his breath, and he nudged him. "Okay, slide over and quit looking at me like that. I can't take care of you when I'm completely around the bend."

"I, um," David said, "it was, um, going okay? Just now?"

"Yeah, if by okay you mean you were about to get laid two feet away from your mom," Cook said, and David jumped and looked over his shoulder and oh my gosh his whole family was getting in the limo like, right behind them, and his shirt was open halfway down his chest.

"Oh," he said, horrified, and fumbled the buttons shut.

"Yeah, oh," Cook said, next to him, muffled. His head was tipped back against the seat and he had a hand over his face. His shirt was open at the neck too, and—

"Um," David said, looking at him again kind of desperately—he wanted—he needed—it had been awesome, Cook moving him around so he didn't have to even wonder if he was doing anything right, and then having Cook's weight pressing down on—anyway, it had all just been so perfect, and then—

"Don't look at me like I just took away your favorite toy," Cook said, reaching out to grip David's shoulder and shake him a little, which um, kind of made things better and worse at the same time. "Hang in there, we're just going to get back to the hotel."

Except at the hotel there were like five million reporters, and 19E had set up an exclusive interview with Barbara Walters, oh my gosh, in a suite upstairs, and then after that they had to race to the airport to catch a redeye for New York.

There was some kind of argument with Simon Fuller and his dad that David tried not to hear—"Cook's a legal guardian now," Fuller was saying, and Dad said, "Cook's supposed to do a ton of solo press, isn't he? Where's he going to have time to look out for David?"—but anyway, it ended up with all three of them heading for the airport together.

Simon Fuller had explained they couldn't get a private jet on this short notice, which David thought was kind of funny, like, what, they couldn't fly commercial now? Until they were actually on the plane, in the air, and he poked himself in the stomach and nearly fell over the armrest for the third time, automatically trying to lean closer to Cook, who was on the other side of the aisle.

"Ow," he said under his breath, miserably, and Cook looked over and then he said, "Jeff, we need to switch seats."

David cringed and stared at the floor, feeling his dad's eyes on him. He bit his lip and didn't say anything, and after a moment his dad said stiffly, "All right," and gave Cook the window seat.

David couldn't help leaning against Cook as soon as he'd gotten into the seat. There was still the big first-class armrest between them, but it was already so much better, and then Cook said, "Hang on," and reclined his seat all the way flat. "Okay, hop up, let's try this."

"But, um, won't I be like, crushing you?" David said, sneaking a glance over his shoulder at the rest of the cabin, with his dad sitting right there across the aisle, partly meaning won't that be weird. But really what he wanted was to throw himself on Cook, so when Cook said, "Yeah, Archuleta, I don't know if my ribcage is up to the strain of your massive bulk," and crooked a finger, David quit even trying to argue anymore and crawled on top of him.

"Oh, gosh," he said, because wow, that was a relief already, and then there was, um, this kind of awesome squirming they did to get into a comfy position, and Cook sort of took hold of him and just bodily hefted him up a little bit further, which was—yeah. David managed to awkwardly spread the blankets over them, and Cook turned off the overhead light, and David had his head tucked against Cook's shoulder, and it was warm, and Cook's arms were around him, and Cook's hand stroked through his hair, and he fell asleep.

David woke up somewhere over the middle of the country—one of the attendants was down the aisle talking quietly to another first-class passenger, in a little pool of light. Everyone else in the cabin was asleep, lumpy dark shapes under their own blankets, and Cook was snoring softly underneath him. David was really hot, except it wasn't the let's kick off some blankets type of hot—it was inside him, and it ached, and he, um. He wanted to do something really weird, like, rub himself against Cook's thigh, and it was actually kind of hard not to.

The effort got bigger and bigger until it was the only thing he could think about, the craving going sharp and painful inside, and it was hitting him in waves almost. He had his forehead pressed miserably against Cook's shoulder, breathing in, which helped a little, and that was as far as his world went, just the corners of Cook's body that were touching him.

"Hey," Cook said softly, overhead. He put an arm closer around David and leaned over to his bag, which was sitting on David's empty seat next to them. He got out a packet of kleenex, and then he put his hands under the blankets, and—

"Oh," David said, with a little gasp, and then bit his lip and darted a horrified look across the aisle, even though his dad was asleep and, oh thank God, turned away from them.

Cook kissed him and kept kissing him, swallowing the rest of the startled sounds he kept making. David was clutching at him and shuddering, his hips making tiny shallow thrusts into Cook's grip. He didn't last long the first time, but he got hard again really fast, and again after that, even though by then he was totally floppy everywhere else.

"Better?" David said into his ear, after Archie went off for the third time.

Archie said, "mnhguh," and fell asleep on him instantly.

"Uh," David said. "Archie?"

The kid made a small humming noise under his breath, a little bit of breathy half-singing, and nuzzled in against David's throat.

David groaned and tried to make his hips go concave away from his zip-fly, which worked about as well as he would've expected. And fuck, he'd even used up the last of the tissues.

So that was an awesome way to spend three hours, and when they landed at six am he had a fucking boner the size of Texas, and Archie was heavy-lidded and listing to one side with a dreamy expression on his face that said I had sex on the airplane! in neon letters, and Jeff was glaring at him.

David swallowed the fuck off that really wanted to come out of his mouth, because to be fair, Jeff had a right to be a little freaked out, and David didn't know where being this pissed-off was coming from. Instead he propped Archie against the seats and grabbed down their bags, and the guitar case.

"Oh, I can," Archie said, reaching for his bag.

"Get this for me instead," David said, and gave him the guitar case, so he could keep one hand on Archie's neck as they got off the plane.

He should've been ready for it after the gauntlet in LAX, but it was worse, coming out of security head-on into a blaze of flashbulbs, people yelling questions at them and Archie wincing under his hand. His shoulders were tightening up into knots even before he noticed Jeff scowling, like it was David's fault all this shit was happening to them, to Archie. Except half the reason that pissed him off so much was that David couldn't help thinking he fucking should have made 19E get them a private jet, and a straight line to a limo instead of the fucking towncar they had to wait for at the door, and then a paparazzo shoved up right in their faces tripped and actually hit Archie with his camera, and the whole world went molasses-slow.

David pulled Archie behind him and grabbed the photographer by the shoulder and the throat and drove him back until they fetched up against one of the concrete support columns. It was the first thing that had felt good in the last four hours, satisfying in a way he didn't even have words for, right, and David slammed him up against the wall a couple more times until the guy dropped the camera and tried to throw a punch.

It was like he could see it coming a mile away. David blocked it without even trying and hit the guy a solid blow to the gut, another one to the jaw. He was still holding the guy pinned against the wall with his other hand, even though they were about the same size. It wasn't hard. What was hard was stopping when the bodyguards came up and tried to haul him off. David couldn't make himself let go until Archie squirmed in between them and clutched at him saying, "Cook—Cook! It's okay—I'm okay—" in a weirdly low, slurred way, and then all of a sudden the world was back in normal speed, and the paparazzo was slumped in the bodyguards' hands, bleeding from mouth and busted nose.

"Oh my gosh," Archie said, sounding stunned. David stood panting, his chest pounding and his hands throbbing. Archie was still clinging onto his shirt and looking up at him with huge, shocked, dazzled eyes, and David said desperately, "Where the fuck is that car?" because he couldn't fucking wait, and then he threw his jacket down on the vinyl airport bench right there and pushed Archie down onto it.

"Congratulations," Dr. Ghent said in his heavy Long Island accent, putting away the blood pressure cuff. "Now you're fixated too." 19E had sent him over from a local hospital to the hotel.

"Uh," David said.

"Frankly, I don't know what Lydgate was thinking. I get that the kid was her patient and this was the only way out for him, but it was borderline unethical for her to let you get on board."

"Look, man, the ship's sailed," David said. "Just tell me how to manage this."

"There's no managing this," Ghent said. "The kid's fixating, that means he's in serious trouble, and you can tell. As far as your hindbrain is concerned, it's red alert all the time, so now it's got you on a hair-trigger, too. We could sedate the hell out of you—"

"I'm thinking no," David said.

"Yeah, so there you go." Ghent shrugged. "On the bright side, you're not going to jail, and you've got a stellar defense for when that paparazzo sues you."

"What does it even mean to be fixated if we're bonded?" David said. "If we're both—"

"Bonding doesn't cure a fixation," Ghent said. "Fixation means you can't let go. Now that you've gotten hooked, even if he pulls it together, you're not going to want to let him cut loose, and believe me, whatever the idea is, there's a million ways a dominant partner can find to keep a bonded from breaking away."

"Okay, well, I'm not going to," David said. "There's got to be something, seriously."

"I'll give you a scrip for some Xanax for emergencies, but aside from that, your best bet is to have sex pretty much non-stop. You have five minutes free, pull the kid into the nearest storage closet. Wear yourselves both out. Good luck," Ghent added, ominously, and held out the note from the pad.

Archie was sitting outside in the suite's living room, curled up on the couch with his knees pulled up close, ignoring the publicist who was still talking fast into her cellphone. He looked up as David came out. "Are—are you okay?" he asked David, kind of desperately, after the doctor had left.

"Well, no," David said, and hung his head. "He told me we weren't having enough sex."

It was a joke, to ease things up. Archie stared at him with big eyes and said, "Um, we could—now?" and David meant to laugh at it, except instead he said to the publicist, "So, hey, you need to leave," and she barely got out the door before he had Archie on the bed again.

He rolled off afterwards and stared at the ceiling kind of horrified. What the fuck, he was turning into some kind of maniac. Archie was flopped limply on his back next to him, also staring at the ceiling. David was kind of scared to ask him if he was okay, but he took a deep breath and was about to, except Archie said, in this sort of thoughtful voice, "I don't think I have to do the treadmill today? I bet this is, um, really good aerobic exercise."

David huffed a laugh, half relief. "Yeah, we should tell Fuller, we can do our own workout DVD."

"Um," Archie said. "I don't think—wouldn't that be—um. Kind of—porn? Oh my gosh, stop laughing at me."

David had to tug him over and kiss him a bunch after that, and Jesus, he really was fixated on the kid.

"Are you sure about this?" David's dad asked, putting the suitcase down.

"Um, yes?" David said, confusedly.

"You could stay in the apartment with me, instead," his dad said. "You'd only be around the corner."

"Um," David said, trying to figure out how to say oh my gosh, no, when he knew his dad was already kind of—upset, maybe, or just weirded out, after the whole New York trip and all the—um. All the times Cook had, like, pulled him into closets or the back of cars or even just into a corner of a crowded room. Oh, and that time on the View where they'd asked, like, how often, and—okay, it really wasn't his fault, he hadn't really thought about how it would sound when he asked if they meant how many times a day, before Cook had said, "Uh, maybe we'll skip that question—"

And, okay, it totally weirded David out too to have his dad, or even strangers, know exactly how completely lame he was about Cook, but, well, it only weirded him out after the awesome sex part was over, so that didn't exactly help him stop or anything.

"It's, um," David said, "and, the apartment's smaller—anyway, they already got us this place—it's big enough?" He hadn't actually even talked to Cook about the whole housing thing—he'd just sort of said, so when we get back to L.A., and Cook said, oh, they're getting us a house, and that was it, they hadn't actually discussed it or anything. "You can come over any time?" he added.

His dad didn't look too happy. "Is he planning on having his friends stay?"

"I—don't know?" David said. "But, I mean, it's okay if people visit?"

"He's been talking about having his old bandmates join him, hasn't he?" his dad said. "You're going to have a lot of work to do without being kept up to all hours by that crowd," which David didn't even get, what crowd? Cook's friends had all seemed nice, when he'd met any of them around all the finale craziness and stuff.

"It—well—I'm sure it'll be okay," David said, and grabbed his suitcase and put it on the bed and hurriedly opened it, figuring that once he was unpacked, it would be a lot harder for his dad to try and make him move.

They had to go pretty quick anyway, because they were still doing some of the contract negotiations, which David already wished would just go away. Cook was getting all sorts of provisions—producer approval and song approval and final album approval and stuff—and David had, um, told his dad about it, without thinking, and now his dad was demanding the same stuff for David's contract. Except then Jive and 19E pointed out that, you know, Cook had made two indie albums and written more than a hundred songs and, what probably mattered to them more, sold millions of downloads over the season with three number-one iTunes singles. And no one in the negotiations really talked to David at all, except when they wanted to try and get at the other side, so David just got to sit there and cringe, pretty much, which was awesome.

At lunchtime Cook called him, and David really wanted to say, "Please come and get me," but he gulped and said, "No, it's, um, it's fine, they're just, you know, talking. It's just boring."

"Yeah, tell me about it," Cook said. "Okay, I'll see you back at the house at five? You good until then?"

"Um, yeah," David said, not really feeling like he was, but—

"Because you know, I could totally go for a little phone sex if you can find someplace private," Cook said.

David said, "Um, I—can you—can I—call you back? In a minute?" and he ran and found an empty office with a private bathroom and locked himself in. He thought it was going to be kind of weird and embarrassing, except Cook told him exactly what to do, and it was totally awesome. And Cook sang some of Drive by Melissa Ferrick at him with this low husky voice, and somewhere in the middle David suddenly realized and blurted, "Oh my gosh, is this song about sex?" and Cook laughed so hard he dropped the phone, and then he picked it up and gasped out, "I seriously love you to pieces, man," and David felt this huge burst of happiness in his chest that was even better than, um.

(Well, okay, it was as good.)

He still had to go back to the horrible contract meeting, but it was way easier to take. Except then his dad said, after they got out, "How about getting a little dinner?"

"I'm—I'm supposed to—I told Cook I'd be back by five?" David said, which was as close as he could get to saying he really wanted to have some more sex with his bonded now, please.

"I'm sure he's not going to worry if you're a little late," his dad said. "He's not your keeper, whatever 19E thinks," he added, kind of bitterly, and David felt bad, so he said, "Um, okay," and he texted Cook under the table from the restaurant to tell him where he was.

He didn't eat a lot. He wasn't really hungry, and his stomach kept churning. He hadn't seen Cook since they'd gotten off the plane this morning and Cook had gotten whisked off to some meetings of his own, and it had been kind of a sucky day, and David was really tired, and he had been expecting—and his head started to hurt a lot before the waiter even brought the bread.

His phone rang while his dad was talking to him about—about royalties or something, and David fumbled for it. "Um, yeah?" he said.

"Hey, honey," Carly said, and David gulped hard and said, "Hi, I can't, um, I can't—talk? I'm—dinner, with, um—" He lost his train of thought.

"Oh, is Cook there?" Carly said, slyly, and David said, "No," almost with a sob, and she paused and said in a different voice, "All right, you hold on right where you are, I'm going to call him this second," and David wanted to stop her, but he couldn't, and fifteen minutes later Cook walked in the front door—without even security, without anyone, and people were whispering in the restaurant and snapping pictures with their cameraphones.

"C'mon, here," Cook said softly, and David scrambled out of his chair and didn't really hear what his dad was saying, because Cook had his hand on his neck and was taking him somewhere—

David sighed, after, and it was only then he realized they were in the restaurant's bathroom. It smelled kind of bad and it was dirty—not, like, filthy, but it was a bathroom, there were urinals and everything like a foot away, and Cook was on his knees on the floor, bracing the door with his back to keep anyone else from coming in.

"You okay?" Cook said, and when David nodded, he stood up and washed his hands in the sink and David did too.

David said, "I'm sorry," and Cook paused and took a deep breath, and David gulped and waited for it, but Cook just let it out again. They went outside and David's dad looked up from the table, and Cook said quietly, "I'm taking Dave home. He'll see you tomorrow."

"We need to talk," his dad said.

"Not here and not now," Cook said. He hadn't let go of David's shoulder, and he turned them and took David outside with him, to a car—someone's car, David didn't recognize it, and Cook hadn't bought one yet, they were mostly getting driven around.

Cook drove in silence, looking straight ahead. "I'm really sorry," David tried again, when they were stopped at a light.

"Huh?" Cook said, glancing over. "No, it's not your—" Then he paused and said, "All right, no, here's the thing, man. This isn't how it's supposed to be happening—your parents and your bonded are supposed to know each other, be on the same page, so you don't get yanked back and forth. It's our fault that's not working out that great, not yours." He looked at David again. "But you have to know when you need it, and you can't blow it off just because it sucks to have to tell your dad you need to get laid. With traffic this time of day, I could've been a couple of hours away, easy."

David nodded, miserably.

"Listen," Cook said, and he sounded determined, "what this is about—this isn't just about having all the sex in the world. This is about—learning how to be the kind of person you want to be, without your parents, or anybody else. This is a stop on the way, you know, with somebody who's not—somebody who's between a friend and your parents, to help you kind of work out who you are on your own."

"Um," David said, confused, "but—that's not—I always thought, it's, your bonded is supposed to be, like, an elder in the church, and work with your parents to help you practice the faith better, and teach you how to, um, not be tempted, and take you on mission, and help you get ready for marriage. Um, the light's green?" he added.

Cook was staring at him, and he jerked and started moving again as the cars behind them honked. "Wow, okay," he said, kind of blankly. "So, we're screwed."

David wanted to kick himself for saying that in front of Archie about three seconds after, but it was still how he felt. He didn't have a fucking clue what to do now. Obviously he wasn't going do Archie any damn good as far as his church went, and as for resisting temptation, David wouldn't exactly have called himself the go-to guy on that one, either.

"Honey," his mom said, when he called her up, "you can't do this someone else's way. Archie chose you, and—"

"Mom, he's seventeen, you know why he picked me," David said.

"I do know, and it wasn't because of that," his mom said. "Stop believing your own Hollywood press. There are many better-looking people than you around that boy." He laughed, a little, which he knew was what she'd been going for. "He trusts you," she went on, "and you had better trust yourself, because second-guessing yourself on this is not going to end well."

So, okay, but David didn't know what the hell to say to Jeff anymore. He'd been ready to fucking unload on the guy for interfering—everything he knew about bonding was, your parents were supposed to take the back seat and stay the hell out of it once you got hooked up with a bonded. Except apparently that wasn't the idea for everyone, and Jeff wasn't really being a jerk. Not that understanding that helped David any, since in his gut he still wanted to strangle the guy. He just felt bad about it now.

That didn't last long, because for the next four straight days, Archie came into the RCA studios right at five, quiet and exhausted-looking again, and blindly headed straight for him even if David was in with studio execs or in the middle of rehearsing. David broke off sessions and conferences to take him into one of the empty dressing rooms, then left him wiped-out and sleeping on couches while he finished up, until finally on Thursday he said, "Okay, man, what's going on with the contract?"

"Um," Archie said, and explained enough that David got the picture.

"Yeah, sure you've got the authority, for that and a whole lot more; you're the kid's bonded," his lawyer said, when David called him, so the next day he canceled his morning and went to Archie's meeting instead.

"Look," he said, "let's just put the cards on the table, okay? You guys are letting me have my head because you know I'm going to play ball, right? If there's a song you think needs to go on there, I'm not going to be a prima donna about it, and if there's one you think just sucks, same thing. So, let's just do it on this, too."

"So—you'll have sign off," one of the execs said.

"Yeah," David said. "Honestly, that's just going to be me listening to Archie, what he wants on the album, but if you're worried about letting him have it, I'll be the backstop."

"Why don't you explain to me how exactly is this an improvement for David," Jeff said, the second they were out of the offices for lunch.

"Dad," Archie said.

"No, this isn't—" Jeff said, putting a hand out to stop him. "I understand you're emotionally tied up in this, but he's your competition. What happens when they offer you a terrific song, something that's going to make your album a hit—"

David sort of wanted to laugh, except for how fucking pissed-off he was. "And I'm going to turn it down for him because, what, I want it for myself? Even if our albums weren't going to be totally different, I'm planning on writing pretty much everything on my album, Jeff—"

"Maybe you'll just want the comparisons to be a little easier on you," Jeff said flatly.

"Oh my gosh, Dad, Cook wouldn't," Archie said, and meanwhile David had to shut his eyes and take a few big steps ahead and take some deep breaths so he wouldn't really hit Jeff instead of just fantasizing about it.

He still felt weird and fucked up and shaky when he turned around, and Archie sort of flinched towards him and away and went all white and silent. "Go with the security guys and grab a table for us, huh?" David said to him, as close to gentle as he could manage. "It'll be okay, go," he added, when he saw Archie's eyes flick to his dad and back.

Archie dragged his ass all the way to the corner, looking back about six times. David didn't look at Jeff at all, though, not until Archie was out of sight.

Jeff didn't wait for him to start. "You can't walk into David's life out of nowhere and act as though you have every right to decide his future," he snapped. "I don't know what happened backstage, why he got fixated on you—"

"Shut up," David said, and it came out of his gut, the same place as the rage in the airport, and maybe Jeff finally got some of that, because he did stop. "He's my bonded. He's my bonded. If you keep fucking with me—with us—like this, I'll go for a restraining order. My lawyer tells me it'll take him five seconds to get one."

Jeff was staring at him, somewhere between furious and horrified and scared, and David felt sick, because it made him feel good, making Jeff back off, having that kind of power. He liked the idea—he didn't want to, and he loved it anyway, the idea of shoving all of them away, locking him and Archie up tight, nobody outside allowed in.

"That's not—" David made himself say, "that's not what I want." Liar, a little voice said in the back of his head, and he shut his eyes and took deep breaths and made himself think about having to see Archie's face—having to tell Archie he couldn't see his family anymore, not as long as he had the collar. "That's not what I want. It's not what's best for him. But this isn't either. Just—you're going to have to trust me, and you've got to give us room. And if you don't—"

Archie was at a table crumbling some bread into tiny pieces when they walked into the restaurant. He got up anxiously and came when David beckoned him with a finger, his eyes already glazing hopefully. David caught the waitress and got the all-clear for the coatroom, empty in L.A.'s June. She flicked a knowing look at Archie, tucked under David's arm, and David wanted to put a hand in front of her, block her line of sight. He said thanks instead, got the door shut and popped Archie's fly, crowding him up against it, Archie's eyes closed and his head tilted back, urgent and waiting, ready to do anything, to give it all up—

David swallowed a deep breath and said, "What do you want?"

"What?" Archie said, opening his eyes.

"Tell me," David said. It was hard—it was so fucking hard, all he wanted to do was just take, drag Archie down to the floor and strip him and—"You need to—you need to tell me what you want. It's yours, you just—"

"Anything?" Archie said. "I mean—anything! Cook, please—"

David groaned. "Don't," he grated out. "Don't beg me, Jesus. Just—just—you've got to want something. Your favorite part. Tell me."

"Oh," Archie said, and sort of looked wildly around the room, like someone was going to overhear him or something, and then he blushed really red and said, "You could—um. We could—like in, in, the supply room? At CNN? Against the—with the—door? And—"

"Yeah," David said, and that was good enough, that was going to have to be good enough, because he couldn't wait another second.

The tour was pretty cool. It was a lot of work, obviously, and Cook had to travel extra to do all these recording sessions, and David went with him because, well, anyway, he went with Cook, but that worked out okay. He got to do a bunch of recording, too, and he could get Cook to listen to the songs for him and stuff. Sometimes they'd sing a little on the plane together, if they weren't sleeping, and the other passengers didn't mind, which they usually didn't. Sometimes Cook played him stuff off his ipod, and David would play him some of his favorite stuff, and, it was really cool; David hadn't ever really been into rock, and totally not into metal, except Cook would get all excited about guitar riffs and things, and that made David like it more, and okay, Led Zeppelin really was awesome, though he still totally didn't get Radiohead.

And Cook came with him when David had to go and film the video for Crush, which was awesome even if Cook totally kept making him crack up by standing behind the camera man and making all these swoony faces while David was trying to be all serious and intense and stuff. Finally, like, the sixth time, David totally just lost it and tackled him yelling, and Cook fell down under him laughing hysterically, and, um, well, they had to go to the trailer for a while, but after that David was all, "Oh my gosh, you are totally staying in here the rest of the day," and Cook laughed and said okay.

And then he stretched out on the bunk and added, "I'll be right here," in that, um, really smoky voice, and he wasn't wearing anything and his shoulders and his arms were all, and David hit him with a pillow, because now he had to go out and film the rest of the video still all whatever. But even that worked out, he got it in one take and the director was all, yay, sexy, awesome, which made David feel kind of embarrassed, but, um, it meant he could go back to the trailer, so he didn't really care.

The best was when they were on the bus, though. They kept all the presents stuffed into David's bunk, and David squashed into Cook's bunk with him, and the bunk was only like two feet high, and it had these curtains you could pull shut, and it was like, when they were in there, there wasn't anything else at all—it was just them, Cook's heart beating under his fingers, their legs tangled up, Cook's arm around him, and sometimes all he wanted to do was stay in there and never come out.

He missed his family, sometimes, but—he got to see them in Vegas and in Utah, of course, and everyone came out to D.C., where they had an extra day, and Cook had to do this hearing thing with Congress, so David spent the day at the Smithsonian, which was really cool, the dinosaurs, gosh. Then they got back to the stadium, and Cook came back and he was wearing, um, a suit, and David hadn't seen him in a suit since the finale, and he blurted, "Oh my gosh, don't," when Cook was going to go change. And it was in front of his mom and dad, sigh, and Michael Johns was all, slyly, "Cook, I think you've got a fan," and David turned all red, but Cook grinned at him and kept the suit on all night, the whole show and everything, so, uh, afterwards David got to take it—um.

Yeah, so, it was an awesome day, and after after the show, David said, "We—we could go out to dinner? With my parents?" and Cook said, "Sure, man, whatever you want," only a little drowsily, and David said, "There's this—Ethiopian place? Ramiele says it's awesome—" and Cook stared at him with kind of this horrified expression, and David said hurriedly, "Not—not if you don't—"

"No," Cook said, a little faintly, "no, let's uh." Of course, then he sat there and eyed the food like it was going to bite him until David said, "Oh my gosh, just try!" and ripped off some of the bread and like stuffed a big lump right into his mouth.

"Okay, fine, I concede this is actual food," Cook said, around chewing, and then he ate a ton, ha, so David felt really smug.

When they were leaving, they ended up signing a bunch of autographs at the entrance. David got into the car first, and his mom said to him softly while they waited for Cook to finish up too, "Are you—baby, are you happy?"

"Gosh, yes," David said, kind of surprised, because wow, how could he not be happy. "See, I told you Cook is awesome to me," he added, urgently, because he knew his dad was still kind of anxious or whatever, even though the album was coming along great and they were happy with all his songs.

She nodded, but then she said, "Do you think, after the tour—" and he got all tense, but then Cook was coming, and she stopped, and David made sure he stuck with Cook the rest of the night, and held onto Cook's hand really tight when Cook seemed to be going to leave him alone with them to say goodbye, so she couldn't finish asking.

So, yeah, the tour was awesome, and—and he didn't miss his family too much.

After the tour was over, they went back to L.A. to finish up the albums—they were both scheduled for mid-November now, so it was this huge huge rush. Mostly they were at their separate studios, but Cook was ahead of schedule, so he came to hang out at the Jive studios while David worked sometimes. His dad was there too, but it was okay—they were all so busy just getting the tracks down, and his dad and Cook actually agreed on some stuff, and David was totally relieved, and everything was great, and then Simon Fuller showed up one afternoon.

He said, "Good work, David, coming along great," and patted him on the shoulder, and then he said, "David," meaning Cook, "something's come up." There was this promoter in the Philippines who wanted to pay this crazy amount of money for Cook to come out, like a million dollars for three concerts crazy, on top of expenses, and they could just fit it in without cutting into the promo for his album, if he went the first week in October, and he could do songs from Idol and from his original album, and his first single—

"Cool," Cook said, and looked at David. "Feel like a trip to the Philippines?"

"Gosh," David said, and then his manager Alexa cleared her throat and said, "I hate to say this, but David, we can't finish the album for November 11 if you go. It's going to be touch-and-go as it is."

"Oh," David said. "Well—"

Except it turned out, if he didn't make November 11, he wasn't getting the album out until mid-December, because the two weeks before Black Friday were going to be a deathtrap, and if he waited until December—

"Sorry, man," Cook said to Fuller. "I don't suppose he'd take me in January?"

"Your tour's already booked," Fuller said. "Dave, this is—"

"—not going to be make or break for my career," Cook said, and he was smiling a little that way he did when the decision was actually made, even if he was okay talking about it some more.

"I don't mind coming out later," David said. "Cook, it won't be such a big deal."

Simon said, "Look, if the kid doesn’t mind—" and Alexa said, "Um—"

Cook raised his hands and said, "Simon, if you wanted me to believe it's not a big deal, you probably shouldn't have sat me down after the finale for that one-hour chat about how I had to be ready to sleep no more than five hours a night the whole summer to get out before Thanksgiving." He smiled again and said quietly, "I appreciate it a lot, man, believe me. I'm sorry I can't."

After Simon left, David tried to say something else to Cook, except Cook rolled his eyes and smacked him upside the head gently and said, "Now you really have to be done on time, pal, so get in there and start working," and actually David did have to go into the studio room right then, and when he came back out Cook had disappeared.

"Oh my gosh, he like, ran away!" David said, indignantly to his dad, who didn't say anything, except when they were done and in the car driving home, he said, "Tell Cook—" and then he stopped and said, "No, I'm going to come in with you."

Cook was in the living room playing video games with his brother over the PS3 network, and his dad waited until Cook had stopped it, and then he said, "I owe you an apology."

David kind of stared, and Cook said, "Not necessary, man—"

"Yes, it is," his dad said. "This isn't—no one could fault—"

"I could," Cook said.

"Yes," his dad said. "That's why I owe you an apology."

"Well," Cook said, and rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly, and then he said, "Okay, apology accepted, how's that?" and held out his hand, and they shook, and then Cook asked his dad if he wanted to stay to dinner, and they all ordered Chinese food together.

David pushed a lot of it around on his plate and managed to look like he'd actually eaten something, at least enough to fool Cook and his dad, since they were both busy working really hard to be friendly to each other when they still totally didn't have anything in common and didn't have anything to talk about.

After dinner was over and his dad left, he went online and googled, and it said you should totally be able to spend a week or two away from your bonded after the first month or so. He wiped the browser history and went and took a shower so he could cry without Cook hearing him, and he leaned his forehead against the cool tile and put his hand up and gripped the necklace really tight, so the points of the star dug into his palm enough to hurt, and he couldn't—he couldn't—

Cook was in bed reading when he came out, and David swallowed and said, "Cook—"

"Come to bed," Cook said, gently, and when David had crawled in, he tugged him close and kissed him and said, "Don't. I know it seems like a big thing, but it's not. This is a big thing. This is what it's about." He nuzzled into David's hair and kissed him again. "You'd do the same for me."

David swallowed hard and said, "Yeah," and he kissed Cook back, desperately.

Dave didn't connect the dots, because he didn't notice it right away. The thing was, he'd just gone from incredibly busy to ludicrously busy again—he'd finally talked RCA and 19 into letting him bring Andy aboard, too, just in time to have him and Neal both help hook up a drummer and a bassist, and now the five of them had to gel if they were going to sound decent instead of like a bunch of strangers who wandered onto a stage at the same time. And the guys were all about hitting the L.A. bars with the L.A. girls—which, okay, it was only natural, the problem was David knew if he went along they got the awesome table and the A-list treatment, and if he blew them off to go home, he came off like an asshole when they couldn't even get past the rope line at Area.

There was already enough asshole quotient he couldn't avoid, like having to have a security guard with him wherever he went and people freaking out for his autograph, so he said yes more often than not, except that meant he got home even later. So he didn't think anything of it if Archie hung out at his dad's apartment instead of at home, or if he came home and Archie was sacked out on the couch, or curled up at one edge of the bed. They were both wiped out, David figured, and it didn't seem crazy that they were slipping to maybe four or five times a week, quickies in the morning before heading out.

Then one night he came in stinking so bad of smoke he went to take a shower before he got into bed, and he came out naked and still dripping a little, wiping himself down, and Archie kind of made this noise and launched himself out of the bed and onto him, and they had sex on the freaking floor, and then sex again in bed, and then more sex, and then Archie crashed like a ton of bricks.

David lay there flat on his (sore) back and took a deep breath, then sniffed himself and made a face. He stank worse than before he'd showered, and the sheet was pretty much glued to his thighs and was not going to be fun coming off in the morning. Then he crashed, too, but the next morning he said, "Dude, I'm sorry, I know I've been AWOL—"

"No, oh my gosh, it's totally fine," Archie said, determinedly, and holy shit, he was trying to ease things off on purpose.

Archie had gotten up to get another glass of OJ, which was good, because it gave David thirty seconds to get over his first reaction, which was seriously fucking psychotic and involved wanting to sweep everything on the kitchen table off to smash onto the floor, and then possibly pin Archie down on the table instead.

He got his hands clasped under the table to keep them from shaking, and he didn't grab Archie and drag him upstairs, and he managed a smile and a "Have an awesome day" when Archie said a little uncertainly, "I—I need to head out," and then after Archie was gone he went down to the little gym they had in the basement and whaled on the heavy bag until his knuckles were burst and bleeding and his shoulders ached, and then he remembered fuck, he had to rehearse today.

"I overdid the workout, sorry guys," he said, coming in with his hands taped up, but Andy just rolled his eyes and said, "Oh how will we ever manage without your three power chords," and David pitched his sweatshirt into Andy's face, and Andy and Neal pretty much picked up the slack for him seamlessly. At lunch break Andy said quietly, "You okay, man?"

"Yeah, I'm fine," David said, over his plate of salad that he wasn't eating. "Just tired. I'm going to crash early tonight," and then he literally lost ten minutes of time thinking about how he was going to call Archie and get him home early too, and exactly how he could pace it so they could spend the whole night having sex, and he snapped back into reality with Neal saying, "Earth is fucking calling, Dave; did you beat on that bag with your head or what?" and he was actually standing at the mike two songs in and he didn't even remember singing them.

"Give me a minute," he managed, and got himself into the bathroom. He stuck his head under the faucet and ran the water as cold as it would get, and then he sat down on the floor and leaned his head against his hands, water still dripping down his neck, damp on his back.

Archie was supposed to detach. He wasn't supposed to be fucked-up and crazy for it every minute of the day. David remembered going Monday to Friday without seeing Melinda, times when work had gotten busy for her, and he'd been okay. He hadn't loved it, he'd called her three times a day by the end of the week, but—he'd been fine. This was good. This was the way it was supposed to go, and in a couple of months Archie was supposed to take off the collar and give it back to him—

It made him flinch even just thinking about it, but it was fucking October—they'd been bonded for almost six months already. If this had been anything like normal, Archie should've been thinking about handing it back around now.

David wondered grimly what it meant if you stayed fixated from the other side after your bonded left, what that did to you, and he pressed his eyes shut against his hands. Then he got up and splashed his face again, wiped down and went outside, and when they were done with the set, he said, "I'm starting to get a second wind. Any of you guys up for hitting Winstons tonight?"

He drank four shots above his usual limit, but he managed to stay out past two, and when he got home, he didn't go upstairs, just dropped himself on the couch and let the alcohol knock him out.

Archie woke him up the next morning coming downstairs, then he hovered at the foot of the couch and said, "Are—are you okay?"

"Yeah," David said. "Just a late night," and he made himself get up and go past Archie, upstairs to get into the shower.

The press for the albums—it was okay, David guessed, 19E had it all planned out so the two of them traveled together, without more than a day apart. He could handle a day apart from Cook now—well, he told them he could, and he could, it was just awful, he felt gray and miserable all day, not even being apart so much as knowing there wasn't going to be any Cook at the end of it, or the next morning, and not until late the next day, and even worse than that was that he still could handle it, so that meant—that meant soon he'd be able to handle being away longer, and then soon he'd be able to—

And okay, he was not thinking about that at all.

The worst was Thanksgiving—Jive really wanted him to go out in a float in the big New York parade, and he thought that sounded really cool and awesome, until he was out and it was like ten degrees below zero and it was lipsynching for about thirty seconds of air time into a microphone that wasn't even hooked up and, um, he kind of thought was made out of Nerf?

And afterwards it was just him and his dad in a hotel suite, because Cook had gone home for it, and when David called Cook, there was this big happy noise going on behind him, lots of people there and dishes clattering, and Cook said, "What's really great is my mom invited a friend from church and her family, which is a little awkward seeing how I dated her daughter junior year—"

David didn't remember the next couple of minutes of the conversation, so he didn't know exactly how he responded to that, but since Cook was still talking normally when he zoned back in, David was pretty sure he hadn't actually freaked out on Cook out loud. But after he hung up, he locked himself in the bathroom and sobbed so hard he made his nose bleed without realizing it, and when he came out his dad freaked out and called Cook, even though David tried to tell him not to, and Cook called the doctor.

It took two hours for Dr. Ghent to get there from his own Thanksgiving dinner, and Cook spent the whole time talking to him on the phone, totally random stuff, even though David was all, oh my gosh, I'm fine—

"Yeah, so then you can talk to me," Cook said, ignoring him. "How do you feel about marshmallows on sweet potatoes?"

"Ew," David said.

"Dude," Cook said, in this deeply-disappointed tone.

"You don't put candy on vegetables!" David said.

"Only on awesome vegetables," Cook said.

Dr. Ghent also ignored David telling him he was okay, and took him into the bedroom and made David do fifteen push-ups and jog in place for five minutes, which felt stupid in the hotel room, and took his pulse and blood pressure and stuff, and took some blood for the lame stick test, and then he shook his head. "Any reduction in your sexual activity lately?"

"Oh," David said, cringing.

"You can be embarrassed for thirty seconds or half-crazy the rest of your life, choose wisely," Dr. Ghent said dryly.

"Oh my gosh," David said. "Um. Maybe? We're—we're really busy?"

"Busier than the week after the finale? Not so much," Dr. Ghent said. "Has he been cutting you off?"

"No!" David said. "Oh my gosh, Cook would never—he always—whenever I—"

Ghent raised an eyebrow. "Have you been cutting him off?"

David didn't think you could really call it cutting Cook off, when Cook was mostly just doing it for him—

"Yeah, don't do that anymore," Ghent said. "This is a bonding, not a weight-loss program—you don't get points for dieting. You fly out to him first thing tomorrow morning, sex three times a day for the next week, and I don't care if that means you have to have sex in front of paparazzi again."

David trembled, because all he wanted to do was jump up and go see if he could get airplane tickets now, and call Cook on the way to meet him at the airport, and he totally didn't care if they did have sex in front of paparazzi again either. "But," he said, choking it out, "I can't—I can't, I can't keep doing this to him—he's done all this—he gave up—"

So he ended up explaining about the Philippines trip, and the fight over the contracts, and how Cook had all been going to share a house with his friends who had come to L.A., except he didn't so David could have more privacy, and how he'd been coming home instead of hanging out with them, even though he totally liked going to clubs and stuff, and he'd spent all this time working on David's songs, and helping him pick, and he'd gone to photo shoots and recording sessions, and he snuggled really awesomely, and he came along to weird restaurants, and when they had sex he—

"Enough, I get it, he's the best bonded in the world ever," Ghent said. "So why don't you want to have sex with him?"

"Oh my gosh, I do," David said, sniffling. "Just—I just—I can't, if I keep messing up his life, and—he'll hate me. So, um, I figured, if I—if I didn't, um, have to, as often—"

"Uh huh," Ghent said. "Did he bother telling you he's gotten fixated too?"

David stared at him.

"Excellent, very Gift of the Magi," Dr. Ghent said, which David didn't get, wasn't that, like, myrrh or something? What did that have to do with—? "I told him, now I'm telling you: your best shot at getting through this is to get laid as much as humanly possible. No more with the noble self-restraint."

"But," David said, "but, didn't—if he's fixated, isn't that because of—"

"Quit it," Ghent said.

Then he called Cook up and yelled at him too, and then he put David on, and David said, "Um," and Cook said, "Dumbass," and David said, "Oh my gosh," and Cook said, "Okay, shut up. How soon can you be out here?"

"Okay," David said. "So, you want to give me a hand, come out with me and the guys."

"Um, to, like, clubs?" Archie said.

"Yeah, like, clubs," David said. "I promise none of them will have orgies."

"No, I mean, I don't mind—" Archie said.

"You don't mind orgies?"

"Gosh, shut up," Archie said. "Just, will they let me in?"

David puffed out his chest. "When you're with the American Idol they will." Then he cracked up at the look on Archie's face. "Seriously, you'll be fine unless you try to drink."

"I won't," Archie said, firmly, and then hit David with a pillow when he laughed.

It was pretty hilarious how anxious he acted the first time, like he really did think it was going to be Sodom and Gomorrah with a bad soundtrack or something, and then it was just an acoustic singer-songwriter duo and beers. "See, it's all good," David said, his arm slung around Archie's neck, and Archie did loosen up, even if he didn't still actually say anything audible from further away than David's earlobe.

After a couple of weeks of that, Neal thumped his elbow onto the table, leaned forward, and pointed at him. Archie stared back with big eyes, and Neal said, "All right, Archuleta. You have thirty seconds to say something, or else I am going to play a huge fucking flat note in the middle of your man's next TV gig."

"Oh my gosh," Archie said.

"That does not count," Neal said, and Archie said, "Um, well—" and flailed a little, and then he blurted, "I don't know! I can't think of anything to say to you, except you look like a vampire, and that would be rude," and they all cracked up. Andy laughed so hard he snorted his beer out his nose.

They hung out with Michael Johns and Carly a couple of times, too, and then Archie tentatively said, "Um," at breakfast one Sunday, and David looked up from the chord progression he was working on, and Archie said, "Would you—I was thinking—that is—" and the end of it was David ended up going to church without his mom for the first time in his life. It was a near-run thing, because after he trimmed his beard and put on a suit, he came downstairs and Archie went dreamy-eyed at him, which almost derailed the plan, except Archie gulped heroically and said, "…after?"

David shrugged. "I don't know if I'll be in the mood, you might have to work on me a while."

"Um," Archie said, faintly, and David grinned at him. "Come on, choirboy, let's go." It wasn't much like David was used to—little kids running around the room while people talked, even during the sermon, which made it noisy, but kind of nice and laid-back. The two of them caused kind of a stir when they came in, especially with the tween set, who made enough eyes at Archie that David casually slung an arm across his shoulders about five minutes after they'd sat down, and glared off one persistently sighing fifteen-year-old.

The—minister? David wasn't sure, but anyway, some guy-in-charge type, came over after and said stuff about how nice it was to see them, and if they would maybe be interested in singing next week. Archie said, "Oh," in the way that meant he didn't really want to, but didn't know how to say no, so David said, "Honestly, with all the hype going on right now, half the attendees under eighteen will end up filming it for youtube instead of paying attention," which got them out of it without losing more than a little skin.

They went out for breakfast after, and David tortured Archie with licking pancake syrup off his fingers a while, until finally Archie hissed, "Oh my gosh, we are leaving right now," and got up and went to the waitress and actually stood there hovering over her until she gave him the check so he could pay. David grinned and pretended to fight Archie dragging him out to the car, and Archie practically shoved him into the passenger seat and drove exactly the speed limit all the way home, dragged him inside, and actually shoved him down onto the living room couch.

"Are you sure you really wanted that?" David said lazily afterwards, stroking Archie's back.

"Oh m'gosh, hate you," Archie mumbled into his shoulder.

It turned into, weirdly, a routine—wake up in the mornings, a nice little pick-me-up round either in the messed-up bed or in the shower before breakfast together. And man, how awesome it was to have a morning person around to make coffee—Archie didn't drink the stuff, but he took over the job anyway after he got the idea that David was going to electrocute himself or something, just because he came downstairs once and found David blearily trying to plug the coffeemaker back in after spilling the entire carafe of water all over because he'd forgotten to open the lid. Sometimes, if he wanted things extra-frisky, he'd even get up and bring a cup of coffee back to bed before David even woke up.

The days weren't ever steady enough to plan out in advance, but when they could they grabbed lunch together, hit each other's recording sessions or rehearsals, and 19E had bowed to reality and was mostly sending them out on promo events together. Not that they had any reason to complain, since it was always good for a few inches, and David didn't mind fielding the usual "How's the bonding going?" question, or the occasional hopeful paparazzo who got a little too far into their space, looking for another awesome public sex tape.

"I still think we should've licensed the thing and sold it for charity instead of throwing the lawyers at it," David said.

"Cook!" Archie glared at him.

"What? Come on, it's all over youtube anyway."

"That's totally different than having it all over, like, Blockbuster," Archie said.

"Uh, I don't know what they rent at your local Blockbuster, but," David said.

"Oh my gosh, you know what I mean," Archie said.

Then they'd hang out with the guys at night, or having somebody over for dinner at their place—Archie hilariously got into nesting, he kept reading Apartment Therapy and ordering throw pillows and darting into stores to buy yet another mismatched place setting, and talking meaningfully about how a decorator could really help with organization and stuff. "Uh huh," David said. "And how much does a good interior decorator cost in L.A.?"

"It can't be that much?" Archie said, and then he called his manager and asked and David laughed for ten minutes solid at his, "Oh my gosh, how much? Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh, are you kidding me?" Except then Archie started working up some extremely special room designs he made himself that looked kind of like a cross between Disneyworld and a bordello—a shy, modest bordello—and David had that moment of, "Uh, it's—a little—" about once a week.

"You know, why don't we start with a Christmas tree," he said finally, as a defensive move that turned out to be an awesome idea only until he had to lug the nine-foot-tall Douglas Fir in through the front door himself, because it wasn't really their tree if someone else picked it out and shipped it to them and set it up. "Oh," Archie said, from somewhere outside the cloud of pine needles that was all David could see.

"What?" David yelled through the branches.

"Nevermind!" Archie said, and something that sounded like, "I didn't like that lamp anyway."

The tree turned out to be great, though; everybody wanted to give them something to stick on it—Archie nixed the glow-in-the-dark condoms after he figured out what they were—and they started having people over almost every night just hanging out around it, drinking beers or cider, jamming on guitars. It beat the hell out of going to clubs and getting grabbed for autographs, and if they got tired or needed a round, they just snuck upstairs.

"Yeah, it's fine," Cook said. "My mom's okay, she had me for Thanksgiving, and I promised her we'd visit the week after New Year's."

David didn't push too hard, because he really really wanted to be home for Christmas—it felt like it had been way more than a year, and everything—everything was so weird, now, and different, and he really wanted to be with the whole family, and his friends from school, and feel like him again, just David and not—not pop star David, L.A. David, whoever he felt like he was turning into, sometimes.

He was so excited to get home, Cook had to catch him by the collar at the airport before he darted out to the car. "We checked luggage, speedy," Cook said, amused.

"Oh, right," David said, and jittered by the baggage claim until the suitcases packed with presents came out. The traffic was pretty bad, but then they got to the house, and Cook said, "Go ahead," and went to help the driver, and David raced up to the door and everyone was out hugging him, and his mom made them hot chocolate, and it was awesome.

David only had a full-size bed in his room, so that was a little crowded, but, um, he didn't mind that at all, and Cook said he was fine with squeezing in—okay, so maybe he wheezed a little bit saying it, David was lying mostly on top of him at the time, but he did say it. It was kind of funny how small his room felt, and he got kind of embarrassed about the lame sixth-grade soccer trophies and the posters he'd thought were cool a year ago, but Cook just said, "Wow, it's like being home, my mom hasn't changed my room since I left for college."

Plus the house smelled like the best food ever, and in the morning they helped open up the table and put out all the nice china, and the tree wasn't as big as their tree back in L.A. but it was still cool, and it had all the little gnomes underneath that he and Claudia had gone nuts over when they were little.

His grandparents came, and all the aunts and uncles, and the whole house was full, and some of his friends from nearby came over to say hi, and—and it was great, it really was, except—except he hadn't realized, maybe, how much Cook was always asking him stuff, what he wanted to do, what he thought about stuff, until nobody was asking him that anymore and sort of telling him what he should think.

Well, it was his family, so that was sort of normal, he guessed. Just it felt sort of funny, to have them all treating him exactly the same. And his friends were all sort of weird and giggly about Cook, and whispering about how David had totally gone off the reservation but they didn't blame him, like he'd done it on purpose, messed up his life and Cook's life for fun or something.

Then—then Cook stepped outside for a little while, probably to escape Claudia's pals who were totally mobbing him, and it was like his family decided that meant they could all start talking about him, and his grandfather said something about how worried his parents had been and everyone agreed it was really awful—and then his aunt was all, I hope you're not picking up any bad habits from him, getting used to that horrible L.A. lifestyle—and then his other aunt was all, he just doesn't seem very reliable—and then one of his uncles asked him in this suspicious voice what Cook had done to him, backstage, during the show, to make David want to—

"Oh my gosh, he didn't do anything!" David said. "He saved my life, I'm the one who—and he's awesome, and—and you can all just be quiet about him!"

Then he noticed he was standing up, and everyone was kind of staring at him, and he kind of wanted to sit down again or, um, really he wanted to run outside to Cook, except if he did, they would all just—figure he was being a little kid, and they'd probably do it again, so David swallowed hard and said firmly, "He's my bonded, and if you don't like him—if you don't like him, then we can leave! And go back to L.A., which is also awesome, and where everyone is totally cool to us, and no one says awful stuff about me to Cook and acts like they're worrying about him, when it's just gossip or whatever."

Everyone kept staring, and nobody said anything at all for a second, and it was about to get even more awkward, but Cook—awesome, awesome Cook, with his totally awesome timing—opened the door and came back inside, and David marched across the room and grabbed him and kissed him.

Cook was all, "mmm-mph? mm! mmphmph!" and then he sort of broke loose and said, "Uh, hey! We're going to go for a walk," and he grabbed a random coat off a peg and pulled David outside, shoving it on him. "Dude! Belts stay on in front of relatives."

"Oh my gosh, I don't even care," David said, dragging Cook into the garage. "It totally would serve them right," and Cook said, "Uh?" and David said, "No, I took care of it, it's okay, can we have sex in the back of this car?"

It all turned out great in the end—nobody talked about Cook after that, not to David's face anyway, and there was a huge awesome turkey like David hadn't gotten to have at Thanksgiving, and piles of stuffing, and presents, and he and Cook had given awesome presents, and everyone liked them, which made David so happy, and after dinner they went out singing carols in a big crowd, which was really funny when people opened the door and sort of double-taked at him and Cook, and also people gave them cookies and eggnog and stuff, and David totally ate them, even though the bodyguard flinched over it.

And then it was on to Las Vegas for the Fox New Year's Eve special—Ryan was hosting it, so that was kind of interesting, in a flashback way, and Michael Johns met them because he was doing his charity Christmas song for it, and that was fun except David had to stop him getting Cook to drink too much and gamble and stay up super late the night before, sigh. David was pretty sure that it didn't really count as a lie when he was all, "Cook, um, I need—can we—" even though he didn't exactly need it right then, or anyway if it was a lie, it was a kind of virtuous lie?

Cook said, "Sorry, man, I'm going to have to ditch you—see you tomorrow," to Michael, and David totally did need it by the time they got up to the suite, so that sort of made it okay. And the suite was really cool, on this sort of special celebrity level, with a bathroom as big as their bedroom back home in L.A., and a huge bed with windows that looked out over all of Las Vegas and the pirate ship show at Treasure Island.

It went off while they were all, um, busy, in bed, and David sort of jumped and looked over and said, "Oh my gosh, fireworks!" and Cook said, "Yeah, I know, I'm just that good," and then cracked up laughing while David hit him with a pillow again.

Plus, after the show—David hadn't even thought about it, but then midnight happened. Cook had been on this other stage performing with his band, but somehow he just appeared out of the crowd, and he tugged David in gently and cupped David's face in his hands and said softly, "Happy New Year," and kissed him, David's first ever New Year's Eve kiss, and it went on and on, and David was so happy he had to stuff his face against Cook's chest after and blink hard so he wouldn't get all drippy on television.

Of course, that was the photo that ended up on the front of TMZ's Happy New Year, Future Celebrity Breakups! entry, with the caption, "Bonded Idol pair David & David, the only couple on this list who probably won't ever split up, since that would be the healthy choice in their case."

Cook just laughed at it and said, "Wow, we beat out Brangelina for the lead," but David couldn't help—it just reminded him all over again—

And then the day they got back to L.A., they hadn't even finished unpacking from the trip, and Alexa showed up on their doorstep and said, "So, listen, can I talk to you guys?" Because apparently, Crush was selling like crazy in the Philippines, and now she wanted him to go and do a mini-tour there.

"Cook is going on tour!" David said. "We're leaving next week!"

"I know, I know, just, hear me out—" she said, and went on about how it was going to be really big, it could mean a lot of money, and also boost his worldwide numbers, which was important for some strategic reason for when it would come time to renew his contract and do another album, and Cook nodded a little bit, and David said flatly, "Oh my gosh, don't even think about it. I'm going to open for the Jonas Brothers in the spring! That will totally have to be good enough. You are so not messing up your tour for this."

"I'm not suggesting that," Alexa said, and it turned out what she was suggesting was David should go see Dr. Lydgate and get a checkup and stuff, and see if he was better enough, and maybe there was some kind of treatment or whatever that would let him go for the week or two—

It was pretty obvious he wasn't, given it was January now, a full eight months, and he still wanted it like, twice a day, or even three times if they weren't too busy, and at least once a month they managed to wrangle a whole day in bed, and—and he knew it wasn't good for Cook, being bonded for a long time, but he couldn't even imagine—

But when he thought about that, he gulped and made the appointment. Dr. Lydgate checked him over, and took his blood again, and asked him a bunch of questions while the test sat there chugging away, and then she nodded and picked it up and glanced at it and then she handed it to him. "What?" David said.

"You're clear," she said. "No more fixation."

"What?" David said. "But—"

"Amazingly enough," she said dryly, "it doesn't take fixation to explain why a pair of eighteen- and twenty-six-year-old guys have almost continuous sex when given the opportunity."

"Um," David said, staring down at the little stick with its empty window, sort of helplessly.

"You're still bonded," she added, "but it's stabilized. You should be able to detach successfully, whenever you feel you're ready."

"What about—but what about Cook?" David said, urgently, because oh my gosh, he totally wasn't ready—

"He can come in for a checkup, too, but I'd be shocked if he showed any different results," she said. "It's almost impossible that you'd have been able to stabilize if he was still out of whack."

So Cook went in, and his test came out clean also, and David could tell soon as he came home, because he gave David this small, quirked-up smile before he told him, and then they sat on the couch together without talking, and then Cook said, gently, "I haven't freaked out worrying about you for a while now."

"That's—that's good," David said, with a gulp.

Cook nodded, and looked down at his hands. "I'm pretty sure you don't need the training wheels anymore," he said.

"But what if—" I want them, David almost said, except—except he couldn't say that. He couldn't be selfish—

"Hey," Cook said, gripping him by the back of the neck and shaking him a little. "I thought you were over the self-blame-game. This—this has been amazing. If I had to choose between this and Idol, I'd choose this, okay, and I seriously can't even believe I've gotten this lucky."

David leaned into him, trembling, and Cook wrapped an arm around him. "But this—it's about being ready. And you know, the whole thing about getting ready to be an elder in your church, getting ready for marriage, I'm pretty sure it's the same thing. You can't be part of something like that all the way until you're ready to stand on your own—until it's a choice. So—"

David couldn't really see all that well, because his eyes were all blurry, but he managed to put his hand over Cook's mouth, and then he blurted, "Not—can we—not tonight. Can we—"

Cook's arms around him tightened, and he said roughly, "Yeah. We can."

So they went upstairs, and Cook—and for once, for the first time in a long time, Cook didn't ask him anything, just pressed him down into the bed and—and did everything, slow and amazing and really really careful, and David shut his eyes and tried to hold on to all of it to remember, feeling weightless and so safe. In the morning, he stirred and Cook was already awake, stroking his head gently, staring up at the ceiling. David pressed his face into Cook's shoulder and took a few short, desperate breaths, and then he fumbled up at the back of his neck and unclasped the chain.

It slithered loose down his neck before he caught it, and he held it tight for a little bit longer. The metal felt warm, and his skin felt cold and naked, and then Cook kissed his temple, and David pressed the necklace into his hand.

David didn't really want to tell anyone, but—but Alexa called, and she wanted to know if she could book the trip, because he would have to leave in two days, and then his mom called just to say hi, and if Alexa knew, he couldn't not tell his mom, and then she was all happy, and everyone had to get on the phone to say congratulations, and he had to say thanks, over and over, when all it really made him want to do was go curl up in a corner somewhere and cry.

Cook went into a back room at some point to call his parents, where David couldn't hear him, so David could let himself tear up a little bit. He didn't think it was supposed to be like this, when you finished being bonded—it was supposed to be a little sad, but also happy, like—like graduating from high school or something, or leaving summer camp, except David pretty much just felt miserable.

Alexa called back in a couple of hours. Everything was set, and she added, "I've found a couple of places for you to look at, by the way. I was thinking we could check them out tomorrow, so you're not coming back to a hotel room, if you want."

David didn't want, he totally didn't want—he wanted to come back to here. Cook would probably even let him, if he asked, except—that wasn't fair. Cook had the right to have his own life back. So David said okay, and then he curled up on the rug by the Christmas tree they hadn't taken down yet, even though it was getting all crackly and dry.

David could tell Archie was pretty broken up, but only the way you could tell about anyone. The itch in the back of his head was gone, faded away over the hours between when Archie had slipped the necklace into his hand and when he'd gone to bed alone that night, both of them crashed on different couches instead of their—instead of the master bedroom.

He couldn't help wondering if it had been this bad for Melinda. He didn't think it had. Five seconds ago everything had been wide-open, no end in sight, and he hadn't minded—no, fuck that, he'd practically built his life around it going on and on. All his hotel reservations specified king-size beds, the bunk on the bus was double-wide—he'd booked shows around Archie's promos. He was going to be hitting the Tri-State area right when Archie was supposed to do a round of morning shows in March, they had a single reservation. He had two dozen plane tickets going back and forth from tour stops to L.A., for when Archie was going to have to be in rehearsals for his own tour.

He didn't know what the hell he'd been thinking. That was another four months—a year bonded, nobody went that long, and if they did, something was fucked up. And he'd planned for it like it was going to be a good time.

His family had said congratulations. Archie's mom had called him, practically sobbing over the phone saying thank you, and Jeff had come over to take Archie out to lunch and for some stuff with Alexa. David had hid out in the studio at the back of the house most of the day, and Jeff had come back and shook his hand.

It was awesome, having to say shit like you're welcome, I'm really glad how it all worked out, with the necklace heavy in his pocket, clenched tight in his fingers, and what he wanted to say was, if it's all the same to you, I'd rather hang on to your son for a lot longer.

Andy had given him a call around two, when David hadn't shown up for the rehearsal he'd completely forgotten about, and half an hour later, he and Neal showed up and took him out somewhere and let him get shitfaced while the last of the bond slid away. David had crawled back into the house around two in the morning and sacked out on the couch in the studio, and in the morning he found Archie sleeping on the living room couch, next to the Christmas tree, fully dressed with his face turned hard into the pillows, and the packed suitcase on the floor next to him. His flight was leaving at eleven.

David made his own coffee and didn't set himself on fire, like he hadn't for the first twenty-five years of his life, and then he made scrambled eggs and woke Archie up to eat something. They mostly pushed the eggs around on their plates, but they both pretended they weren't.

"Alexa," Archie said after a moment, and then swallowed twice before he made it further, "Alexa said she'd—she'll take care of my, my stuff, if I give her the key—if you don't mind."

"No," David said, draining his coffee. He thought he'd maybe look around for another place himself, call Simon's assistant and see about it. "Jeff's going with you?"

"Yeah," Archie said. "He could—he could drive me," he added, but David shook his head, and Archie didn't suggest it again.

It was a good idea, David knew—get a little closure like you were supposed to, the way Melinda had driven him to campus with his parents in the SUV behind, so they'd said goodbye and then she'd been gone and he'd had a ton of work to do and a million new things happening all around him. But he kept waiting for it to ease up, and instead his hands got tighter and tighter on the steering wheel as they got closer to the airport. Neither of them said a word the whole way.

After they parked, Cook silently took David's suitcase out of the back and carried it for him to the counter. Alexa and his dad were waiting there already. It didn't take long to check in, and then they walked over to security together. Alexa and his dad went ahead, and Cook put his hand in his pocket and said, finally, "Have a good trip."

"Yeah," David said. "Yes. You too? I mean, have a good tour—and—and everything. I don't—" And then he was rubbing at his eyes again, and he could see the paparazzi out of the corner of his eye—the ones who stalked LAX all the time, and in a second they were going to be spotted, even with the hats and stuff.

Cook saw them too, and he said, "I love you, you know that," almost harshly, and leaned forward and kissed him, and David kissed him back desperately, and then he stumbled away and into the first-class security line. He didn't look back—he didn't look back, mostly because he couldn't see anything anyway, and his dad was having to tug him along, and remind him to take his laptop out of his backpack, and take off his shoes, and get out his boarding card and his passport again, and oh his belt too, and his cellphone and wallet in the tray, and all the five million stupid things.

Then he was through the metal detector and waiting by the conveyor belt for his stuff, and he couldn't help it—he just glanced back, quick, thinking maybe—and Cook was still standing there, in his hat and sunglasses and leather jacket, even with the eight paparazzi snapping photos of him and yelling questions.

He saw David looking and smiled a little, and all the telephoto lenses turned in David's direction. His scarf hadn't come out of the x-ray machine yet, and it made David want to put his hand over his neck so they wouldn't see. Cook looked at the photographers, and then he looked back at David and raised a hand and waved, and then he turned and started walking away, saying something over his shoulder.

And it worked—they all turned away from the security area and followed him instead, except—except he was leaving—Cook was leaving, for good, and David said, "Oh my gosh, what am I doing," and left his sneakers on the conveyor belt and ran back out through the exit door—

"David!" his dad yelled behind him.

David totally ignored him and skidded across the tile floor in his sock feet, past two photographers and right into Cook, who turned around and caught him, and David clutched onto his arms and said desperately, "I'm not, I can't—can I have it back?"

And gosh, he wasn't stupid, he knew—he knew even while he was saying it that he couldn't, you couldn't bond a second time, and he wasn't—it wasn't that he felt sick or dizzy or weird, he just hurt, he just wanted, but he wanted more than anything he'd ever wanted in his life, and he didn't know what to do except hang on.

Cook held on to him too, and he took his hand out of his pocket—and he had it, he had the necklace, right in his hand. But he said, in this tight, choked voice, "You know you can't," and David said, "Yes," miserably, because it felt wrong—even looking at it, it was like, he didn't even know, like looking at one of those weird dried-up shells that cicadas left on trees or whatever, all empty, instead of something that mattered to him more than anything.

They both stared at it, and then Cook turned and threw it into a trash can that was right there. All the paparazzi jumped for it at once and knocked it over, struggling to get at it, and security was running towards them, but David didn't care, because Cook was saying, "You can have this, though, if you want it—you can have me," and not letting go, and David said, "Yes, oh my gosh, yes, yes, yes," and he hooked an arm around Cook's neck and pulled him down and kissed him.

= End =

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