by Synchronik
Written for the Slash Across America Challenge.

by Synchronik

I would like to go back to Louisiana
To that night when the moon was full,
the rain glistened on the road in the headlights,
and the air was heavy and thick
and just a little cool.

"Louisiana" Unknown

1. When We Started

Lance didn't remember the first time he had been to Louisiana. Well, okay, he remembered the trip well enough, a show choir competition with Attachˇ, and he remembered what had happened on the trip for the most part, but he didn't remember actually being in Louisiana as separate and distinct from anything else. That was partly because they had only driven through Louisiana on their way to South Padre, Texas, and partly because it was the first time he had ever slept with anyone and so he had more important things on his mind than what state they were driving through.

The person he had slept with had been Emmie, an alto in the choir and possibly his best friend in the world at the time. She had dark curly hair and a bubbly laugh, and she knew he was gay because he'd told her a few weeks before they left, the day after he'd admitted it to himself and the day before he admitted it to his parents. Emmie had probably taken it the best out of all of them: she'd slapped him on the shoulder and said, "well, duh, Lance. Do you think it was the gold lamˇ costumes for Broadway Baby?" She'd made him laugh.

They were on their way back on the big choir bus that seemed luxurious before Lance had any conception of what true bus luxury was. At the time, soft cloth seats with movable arms and individual reading lights and reclining backs had seemed like the height of bus travel. He and Emmie sat together, like always, and sometime during a drive that would end up taking almost two days straight through, she fell asleep, leaning uncomfortably against the ball of his shoulder.

"Emmie," he whispered. It was nighttime, dark. Most everyone else was asleep, although some girls giggled softly, and there were some suspicious kissing noises coming from the seats in the back.

"Hmm?" Emmie asked. She didn't open her eyes. Lance looked down at her sweet face. It reminded him of the face of a baby bird, blind and soft and helpless, and he kissed her forehead. She opened her eyes then. "Lance?"

"Here," he said, scooting back along the seat until he was resting against the arm along the wall of the bus. He pulled one knee up. Emmie was staring at him, completely awake.

"What are you doing?" she whispered.

"It'll be more comfortable," Lance said.

"But, you're. Lance," she said.

"So you don't have to worry about me rubbing up against you," he said. "Come here."

She stared at him for another minute, but she was tired and he tugged on her arm and she finally relented. It took some maneuvering to get comfortable on the bus seat, but they did it eventually, Lance scooting down until Emmie was curled on top of him, resting between his legs, her head on his chest and one arm loose around his waist. Lance squeezed her tight, and she squeezed back for a second before drifting off into sleep.

He hadn't known it would be so nice, the feel of someone's heart up against his. He felt protective of her, his arm around her shoulders, her breath on his neck. It made him feel important in a way that nothing ever had before. It was the first time Lance felt like a man. He fell asleep with his lips in her hair.

In the morning at breakfast, some of the guys tried to give them shit about it, calling them lovebirds and asking when the wedding was. Emmie just smiled and shook her head, and Lance thought he would never have a friend as good as her ever again.

2. We Were Friends

The first time Lance remembered being in Louisiana was the first year of the band, before they went to Germany, when Lou thought they might still have a shot in the United States without the expensive overseas travel. He'd hired them a van and Joey or Chris or JC drove them from strip mall to strip mall, where they'd get dressed in the back of the van and do a few numbers for food. Lou lied to their parents and said there was a chaperone, but the closest they had was Chris, whose only rules were that Lance and Justin couldn't drink and no one could have girls in the van.

Anyway, they had been driving for a long time, and Lance woke up in the middle of the afternoon, his face against the hot glass of the window. The van had air conditioning, sort of, but the air was sticky and thick with the smell of everyone's sweat. He blinked slowly. His forehead was damp.

"Wow," JC said softly. Lance turned his head. JC was staring out the window on his side. He was wearing a tank top and shorts and Lance wondered again when JC had time to do the number of pushups necessary to get arms like that.

"What?" he asked. JC turned.

"Come here," he said, waving. "You gotta see this."

Lance leaned over on the seat, careful not to wake up Justin who was slumped in the middle of the seat, arms crossed over his bare chest. "What?" he asked again.

"Look," JC said, pointing through the glass.

Lance looked. At first all he saw was the pale grey shimmer of hot pavement and other cars rushing by. Justin radiated heat underneath him. The far side of the highway was lined by wide stumpy trees, low and broad, like Lance had never seen before. Alien trees.

"What's wrong with them?" he whispered. JC turned, a delighted smile on his face.

"Nothing," he said. "We're above them."

Lance looked again, and sure enough, he was seeing the tops of the trees, the very tips of their branches, the places where trees hid their secrets. They were on a skyway.

"Cool," Lance whispered. JC smiled again, his face close to Lance's. He opened his mouth to say something, but Justin shifted on the seat, his skin pulling away from the pleather with an irritable sticking noise, and Lance had to pull back before he woke up. He looked out his own window, noticing the trees there, too. Whenever he glanced over at JC, JC was looking out the window, smiling a little to himself.

3. Had to Try

At first, Lance had tried to keep track of every place they'd been, writing down each city they stopped in for a show in a little notebook. By the time he lost the notebook in some luggage screw up, he hadn't written anything in it for months. He'd started with Germany, but all the towns had looked the same there, and after they got back to the United States it had become pointless, all the little towns, all the strip malls, all the motel rooms -- the name of the town didn't make a difference any more. The big cities -- New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Dallas -- they became like familiar furniture in an enormous room. It had gotten so that every time Lance looked up, he was in one of those places.

They all had their favorite cities. Joey loved New York, of course, because he just did. It was in his blood, he said, laughing, when Chris and Justin gave him crap about it. Chris loved Chicago, and Justin loved whatever Chris loved, even though Lance thought that secretly Justin was more of a Texas guy. All those blond girls with big hair. Lance himself liked L.A., the sunshine and the cars and the celebrities you could just run into at the Blockbuster or the grocery. And JC loved New Orleans.

They were in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, playing at some low rent party thing for high school students who didn't have good enough i.d. to get into the real parties, when Lance decided he would kiss JC. He would do it, he thought watching JC pull on the oversized yellow jersey with "JC" written on it in big letters, just because he couldn't not do it. It was all he thought about whenever he saw JC's smile, his bright teeth flashing against the curve of his lips, his eyes crinkled into sparkling blue crescents. JC dazzled him.

The warehouse party was supposed to be a safe alternative for the raucous insanity going on outside, but it seemed rowdy enough to Lance. Someone had obviously spiked the punch, and that combined with the beer that Chris and Joey were sneaking them, made the whole room seem brilliant with color and fun. Their set went by in a rush, all light and sound, and the club manager had clapped them on the back and said "drinks are on me, boys!" and didn't seem to know that he and Justin weren't even close to legal. No one told.

They went out onto the street afterwards, joining in the throng. It wasn't exactly warm, the air slightly chilly on Lance's bare arms, but there were so many people crushed together, all shouting and laughing and drinking that Lance forgot about it after a second. Justin whooped and screeched, clutching at Chris' shirt. Joey grabbed Justin and threw him over his shoulder, jogging a few steps while Justin shouted about barfing. Something touched Lance's wrist.

JC, his hand, light on Lance's arm. He was watching the floats go by, the masked women in beads, the make-up, the sparklers and costumes. JC's mouth was open. He looked stunned. Dazzled. "Can you believe it?" he asked, hardly audible over the crowd noise.

Lance smiled. He didn't know what to say. JC smiled at him, then back at the ladies on the floats, delighted. "Can you?" he said. Lance took a step, catching JC around the waist and pressed his mouth to JC's. There was rum, and JC, and the half-heard whoop of Chris in the background.

"Lance has had enough," Chris shouted, grabbing Lance by the shoulders and spinning him away. When Lance turned around under Chris' guiding arm, JC was trailing behind them, smiling up at the paraders, a hand on his mouth.

4. Ready

"You kissed me," JC said, days later, in the sodium light of the motel parking lot. It wasn't romantic at all, Lance thought, the sounds of Justin and Chris scrabbling in the parking lot over their old basketball. Not romantic at all, but Lance's heart leapt anyway.

"Uh huh," he said. He hadn't said anything and JC hadn't said anything and Lance had kind of hoped that the whole kiss would just get forgotten, like his old haircut or the way he used to dress or any one of the other many embarrassing things about him, since JC didn't seem to want to do it again.

JC leaned back against his door, folding his arms over his chest. "You know what's the best part of Mardi Gras?" he asked Lance.

"No," Lance said. He couldn't think of anything but the slick glistening of JC's lips in the lamplight.

"It's like. You know how Disney World is the Magic Kingdom, like, anything can happen there, right?"

Lance nodded.

"New Orleans is like the real Magic Kingdom. Things happen here that don't. It's. You step out of things. New Orleans comes over you."

Lance opened his mouth to say something, anything, but JC was already there, his hand on the side of Lance's face. The other kiss had been noisy, shot through with colored lights and fire, but this one was quiet, nothing but the faint rush of a truck on the overpass and the soft crunch of gravel underneath Lance's shoes as he stepped forward into JC's room.

JC shut the door behind him, and didn't turn on the light.

"The guys," Lance managed. "They --"

"They know where you are," JC said. He pulled off his shirt. Lance yanked his own shirt over his head. "I'm gonna kiss you, okay?" JC murmured.

"Okay." Lance nodded.

JC tugged him to the bed. The bedspread was scratchy under Lance's shoulder blades, but JC's skin was warm and slippery in his hands, his body fitting itself to Lance's until they were pressed together, chest to chest. Lance could feel JC's breath on his face. Lance gasped, and then they were kissing, JC's legs straddling his, JC's mouth covering his, JC's arms looped around his neck, and Lance couldn't think of anything but heat and breath.

They didn't have sex. They kissed until Lance was dizzy, the thinnest possible thread of embarrassment keeping him from thrusting against JC's thigh, his cock beating in time with his aching heart. He could hear himself, the harsh rasp of his breath, his trembling moans when JC slid his mouth down to Lance's neck. Lance felt his belt loosen, and then the fly of his jeans, but JC's hands stopped there, right above his waistband. Lance wanted to scream. Finally, JC rolled him onto his side and drew back, his mouth just brushing Lance's, feathery sweet contact. "Shh," he said, kissing once more and pulling back. JC's hands stayed under his clothes, stroking lightly at his belly, soothing him. Sort of.

"Lance," JC said. Lance could feel the shape of JC's smile against his own mouth.

"God," Lance breathed. "God, JC."

"Take your pants off," JC said. Lance groaned. JC's laugh was low and husky, a sexy laugh. "We'll go to bed, okay?"

"Okay." Lance shucked his jeans and pulled his legs up under the covers. JC curled around him, tucking his head under Lance's chin, his hand on Lance's waist, fingers just under the waistband of Lance's boxers. "Good night, um, JC."

"mmmm," JC said. He lifted his head and kissed the underneath of Lance's chin. "Lance," he said. Lance hoped that JC couldn't hear the race of his heart.

5. The Same as I Do

They couldn't tell, but they didn't have to, not to the people who mattered, so Lance didn't mind. JC always came and sat by him when they had a break, leaning into him. Sometimes, if there wasn't a lot of people around, JC would put his hand flat on the small slice of stage between them and Lance would put his own hand over it, looking around, pretending it wasn't happening. JC's hand was small.

And when they were in the van at night, JC would slide into his lap and make Lance put his arms around him -- not that it really took any work at all to make that happen -- and JC would fall asleep even if Justin made smooching noises at them.

JC liked to talk about all sorts of stuff that Lance hadn't known he even thought about. Astronomy, for example. "I learned in grade school," he told Lance while they were out in the parking lot of one of the venues. They had just starting playing clubs, real clubs, even if they were German clubs. At least they weren't German strip malls, Lance thought. His mother had taught him to be grateful for little things. "We would go to the planetarium and there would be this cool music in the background and the head scientist guy would point stuff out with a light stick. I liked it."

Lance nodded. He'd been to the planetarium. Now that he thought about it, the planetarium seemed like the kind of place JC would really like. JC's hand hung near Lance's, bumping against his from time to time.

"Like, that, there?" JC said, pointing. "That's Casseopeia. And that's Orion. I can always find Orion. It's like he follows me."

"Maybe he thinks you're cute," Lance said.

JC turned and smiled at him. "You're crazy." His hand folded around Lance's, squeezed. Released.

"Crazy for you," Lance sang, in possibly the worst falsetto ever. "Touch me once and you know it's true." He clapped his hand over his heart.

"Oh god!" JC rolled his eyes. "Come on." He went into the dark shadow along the side of the building, and reached for Lance's hand. His kiss was sweet and slow.

"We shouldn't," Lance murmured. That didn't stop him from kissing JC again, wrapping his hands around JC's tight waist.

"You have the most beautiful eyes," JC said. He leaned back and stepped away, running his hand over Lance's arm as an apology. "You know when I thought that?"

"No." Lance braced his shoulder against the rough brick wall. He knew that he was staring at JC like someone had hit him over the head with a club but it was JC. JC and starlight. JC and the blank flat sodium lights of the parking lot, but somehow that didn't stop him from being the most beautiful thing Lance had ever seen.

"Back when we were touring in that stupid van, and it was super hot, and we were on the highway in the sky. Remember that? With, like, the trees, and stuff?" He looked hopeless and Lance felt bad because he didn't remember; no one ever remembered stuff the same way JC remembered it. He would list detail after detail, leaning in with an eager expression on his face, and everyone would shake their heads until he finally hit on something that someone else remembered, and that someone would then explain what had really happened. "The highway in the sky?" JC said again, and suddenly Lance did remember.

"Louisiana," he said.

"Yeah, right!" JC said. He smiled for a second, and Lance knew he'd forgotten what he was saying. "Your eyes," he blurted. "That's when I thought that. Your eyes are beautiful," he said.

Lance squeezed his beautiful eyes shut, embarrassed. "JC," he said.

"Uh huh. And that's the big dipper, over there. You see it?" he asked. His fingers closed around Lance's wrist.

6. Feel This Way

Lance had never felt sexy before JC. He'd had sex before, once with Chad Brandow and three times with Austin Anderson, but he'd never felt really sexy, sexual, like just his hand on someone's arm or his look across the room could turn someone on until JC started telling him.

"You have great hands," JC murmured in the orange-tinted darkness of a hotel room. They were on tour in support of the album, the new Americanized version that had been flying off the shelves all summer. Their album was at the top of the charts and Lance was having sex -- had been having sex -- with the hottest guy he'd ever ever met. Hotter than Chad Brandow anyday. Life didn't get much better.

JC ran his fingers over Lance's, sliding up and down over the tender part of Lance's wrist. "I wish you could touch me all the time," he said. He held one of Lance's hands up against his mouth, sucked Lance's ring finger, licked his knuckles.

Lance never knew what to say to stuff like that. It didn't seem right to deny it. He settled for kissing JC back. JC made noise in bed, lots of little gasps and moans, and when he came he kind of held his breath and shuddered, his head tossed back. Lance loved to make him come. JC felt orgasms in his whole entire body. Afterwards, JC would collapse over him or under him, a dizzy smile on his face, his body flushed with blood. He looked. Lance couldn't explain how he looked.

JC liked to talk in bed, too, the counterpart, Lance thought, to the gasping and moaning. "Oh, god," he'd whisper in Lance's ear while Lance slid inside him, arms trembling with the effort it took to hold himself in position. "You make me, oh, god." JC rarely finished a sentence.

Lance felt dumb, numbed by the shock of JC's presence everyday, his willingness to be naked, to kiss Lance when just the guys were around, to smile at him and tell him things and be his boyfriend. Lance couldn't make sense of it, so he didn't say anything. Even though he didn't believe in things like jinxes and luck, Lance avoided trying to describe it even to himself. Just to be safe.

JC didn't seem worried, not about jinxes or luck or any of it, although he read his horoscope everyday and sometimes told Lance what it said. JC never seem bothered by anything. He let Lance take the lead, too, which Lance found that he liked after years of being the accommodating one. "I would never have, if you hadn't kissed me first," JC often said, kissing across Lance's shoulder blades in the afterglow. "You changed everything." Lance, lying on his stomach, JC sprawled over him and breathing on the

short hair at the back of his neck, would smile into the crook of his arm and not say anything.

7. Gonna End

Lance and Chris had gotten along from the beginning, three years ago, when Lance had come down to Florida on the strength of a phone call. No one believed that when Lance said it in interviews, but it was true. They weren't best friends or anything, but Chris had taken to him immediately. Chris said it was because Lance knew the value of a good lie.

"We need someone like you," he told Lance once. "Someone has to sling the bullshit around here."

Lance wasn't sure exactly what Chris meant by that, but it didn't matter. Chris liked him. Lance preferred it that way. He saw what happened to people Chris didn't like. Having Chris like you wasn't always a big ball of joy, though.

"What are you doin'?" he asked, sitting down next to Lance at the diner while JC was in the bathroom. Lance knew what he meant. Lance always knew what Chris meant -- there was some secret tone in his voice that Lance thought maybe only certain people could hear -- but he stalled anyway.

"Eatin' a sandwich."

"Ha." Chris elbowed him.

"Having fun," Lance said. He tossed his sandwich back on the plate.

"Oh, yeah?" Chris said. He leaned over and grabbed a chip off of JC's abandoned plate. "How much?"

Lance surrendered. "What, Chris?"

Chris shrugged. He was watching the door of the men's room, just barely visible from the red vinyl seats of the booth. "Sometimes people get what they want, and that's cool."

"Chris," Lance said even though he knew, he knew he didn't want Chris to say what was coming next.

"Sometimes, Bass, people only think they get what they want." Chris glanced over at him, his face neutral. JC came out of the bathroom, drying his hands on a balled up paper towel. "JC's a nice guy."

Lance felt his neck snap, but Chris was watching JC, smiling in a kind of warm and welcoming way. He didn't look over, even though Lance knew that Chris knew that he was looking at him. "Nothing's going on," he said softly.

"Alright," Chris said mildly. Before he got up, though, he hooked his hand around Lance's waist and gave him a light squeeze. Lance considered punching him.

8. Do It All

They climbed aboard the bus one at a time, Chris in front because Chris was always the one who went first. "Go ahead," Lou told them, calling over Joey's shoulder. "Look around, boys. It's all yours." They all stood clumped together by the driver's seat gazing down the narrow hallway. This was their bus, Lance thought, his hand between JC's shoulder blades. Their home.

"Holy shit," Joey whispered. "Can you believe this?"

"I love this bus!" Chris shouted, running down the narrow hall. "I call top bunk!"

"Shut up! I get top bunk," Justin screeched. He grabbed for Chris' shirt, and got dragged away, pulling JC along with them.

Lance rolled his eyes. "There are three top bunks," he told Joey.

"I'm purely a bottom bunk kind of guy," Joey said. He hooked his arm around Lance's neck. "Pretty cool, huh, Bass?" he murmured, close to Lance's ear.

Lance smiled. It was cool, the perfect tiny kitchen, the big t.v. and the Nintendo system, the stereo, the couches, the small dining table, like the trailer his friend Emmie had lived in in high school. Kids had made fun of her, but her trailer had been really nice, cute, and her mom and her had made the curtains by hand. "Very," he told Joey.

"Best tour ever!" Justin screeched from out of sight, his words muffled by something. After a second, Justin's high pitched giggles came from the back.

"So," Joey said, ducking his head to Lance's shoulder. "You and JC gonna share a bunk?"

"Joe!" Lance said. He shoved and Joey took a step away, laughing easily.

He couldn't deny that he'd thought about it, though. He'd thought of JC sleeping in the bunk with him, curled up on his chest, legs twisted together. They'd agreed not to. Kind of. Actually, Lance had started a conversation about it, and had gotten all the way to the part about how they shouldn't "advertise or anything, because it's not fair" before JC had kissed him and Lance had pretty much forgotten all about it. But he thought they'd come to some understanding.

The understanding didn't stop him from feeling his heart leap when JC pushed back the curtain on Lance's bunk and climbed in on the very first night of the tour. JC pulled back, his smile dazzling in the close quarters of the bunk. Lance felt his face flush with blood. "You," he said. JC nodded.

"Me," he said. He tugged his hand through Lance's hair. Lance swallowed, blinked, and opened his mouth before he could stop himself.

"I love you," he said, barely a whisper.

"Oh, honey," JC said. He kissed Lance again and again, until Lance was high with it, unable to catch his breath in the false afternoon darkness behind the curtain. Lance thought he couldn't have been happier.

9. Day and Night

Lance lolled on the couch, one arm under his head, feeling the road unravel like a ribbon beneath the bus wheels and watching JC out of the corner of his eye. JC. His arms folded across his chest, head bowed, listening while Chris talked. JC. His boyfriend.

Lance smiled to himself. Outside, sun shone on the highway. They were somewhere between where they had been and where they were going, somewhere in the Deep South, Lance could tell because of the thick trees and the flashes of sky, so blue they almost hurt his eyes. He stretched out, arching his back, remembering JC's hands there, sliding beneath his spine, holding him up. He wanted to laugh, but he settled for looking over at the doorway instead, and caught Chris' adamant tone, if not the words, and the quick low glance JC shot his way.

Lance froze.

It was cold in the bus, suddenly. Justin had the window open because it was springtime, and the breeze raised goosebumps on Lance's bare arms. He folded them across his chest, and focused his gaze out the window. The window. The beautiful blue sky. He hardly saw it.

JC came and sat next to him, put one hand on his arm. Lance looked out the window.

"Can I talk to you?" JC murmured.

"Sure, yeah." Lance smiled at him and felt his heart sink. JC's return smile was watery and weak.

"I just wanted. You know. To make sure that you, Lance, understand. How I. You know, things between us."

"What things?" Lance asked. There was something in his throat -- a billiard ball, maybe -- and he needed JC to leave so that he could swallow it. And choke. And maybe die.

"Lance," JC said. His fingers on Lance's arm were soft and burned like fire. He tilted inward until his head was near Lance's. Lance could smell his shampoo, his breath, his mouth. "I'm not. Um. I'm not gay."

Lance choked.

"I mean," JC said, his hand pressing firmly against Lance's bicep. "I do stuff. You know. I mean, obviously I do stuff, but. I'm. I can't be your boyfriend. I thought. Lance. This is just for during."

"You're not my boyfriend," Lance said. He meant it to sound more like a statement than a question.

JC nodded. "Right."

"I knew that," Lance told him, and rolled over to face the cushions on the couch. JC stayed for another minute, hand on Lance's shoulder. Then he got up and walked away.

When he got up after maybe half an hour, he saw Chris sitting on the couch across the aisle. "Across the aisle" sounded like Chris was far away, but Lance reached out and put his hand on Chris' knee. Chris, who had been reading a Spiderman comic, blinked and turned a page.

"What did you tell him?" Lance asked.

Chris shrugged. "Nothin' you didn't already know," he said.

"What did you tell him?" Lance asked again. He wanted to flex his hand on Chris' knee, to pulverize his kneecap, to cripple him for life. He wouldn't, even if he could. JC would never forgive him.

Chris looked up, his dark eyes calm and sad. "I told him to tell you the truth, Lance," he said.

"I hate you," Lance told him. Chris went back to his comic book.

10. Room Full of People

The party was just as crazy as Chris had promised, chicks in halter tops and shorts skirts, former Hall of Fame football players signing autographs between shots, champagne fountains (and champagne rivers and champagne streams), and cocktail waitresses in tight jerseys that barely covered their boobs. There was air conditioning, of course, but that didn't seem to matter; it felt thick and heavy and wet in the room, even if it wasn't hot. Lance could hardly breath. He hadn't wanted to come to the party at all, but Chris wouldn't take no for an answer, especially because Justin was in California with Britney and Joey was off on vacation with Kelly. He didn't know where JC was.

"Please, please, please," Chris had begged, literally on his knees. Ultimately, Lance had agreed to come for two reasons: Chris wouldn't apologize and Chris wouldn't say he was sorry.

"Whoo!" Chris shouted, grabbing beers off a tray, sloshing foam over Lance's arm. "Lance, my man, this is a party!"

Lance grinned at him and took a long chug of beer. Chris' arm was clammy with air-conditioned sweat. It was a party, indeed. He emptied his glass.

Eventually, either the room got hotter or he got drunker. There were so many people in the room. People touched him on the arm and said hello. A girl slung her arm around Lance's waist and kissed him on the mouth. Lance laughed. He and Chris just kept drinking, and danced with legitimate Playboy Bunnies, and met so many other famous people that Lance's head spun. "Did you see that?" he asked Chris at one point, clutching the fleshy part of Chris' upper arm. "Cindy Crawford remembered me!"

"Dude," Chris said. "How could she not? Last time you met her, you sent her flowers for a week."

"And y'all made fun of me for that," Lance said. He took a sip of the drink he found in his hand. It was green and fruity and very good.

"Bass, man," Chris said. "You're entirely weird. Have another drink."

"I already have one," Lance tried to say, holding up his cup, but Chris must not have heard him, because then Lance was holding a beer and his green fruity drink. He sipped first one then the other. They tasted like ass together. Lance didn't care.

"Come on," Chris said, setting his empty cup on the counter. "Let's dance."

"Okay," Lance agreed, but they had to stop after a minute or two because the dancing was making Lance spill his drink, sloshing green juice down his sleeve. Chris shook his head and yanked Lance off the floor.

"You're a mess, dude," he said. "You're hopeless."

Lance sucked on his wrist. It tasted mostly like skin and not like the drink at all. "JC used to touch my wrist," he told Chris.

"Oh no," Chris said. "No. No way."

Lance sighed, ignoring Chris. JC had loved his wrists, the pale skin on the inside of them. He'd kissed them all the time. Lance hadn't thought of his wrists as an erogenous zone before JC. "He was the best," he told Chris, lapping at the blue veins thoughtfully.

"He's not dead, man," Chris said. He was rubbing Lance's back, but not in the nice way JC used to; Chris' rubbing was more like a crappy massage, rough and uneven.

"I wish he was," Lance said. He closed his eyes. Chris' hand was warm, if nothing else.

"Oh, hey, don't say that." Chris shifted and pulled Lance further away from the dance floor. Lance kept his eyes closed. The room seemed to move around less that way.

"Why did you bring me here?" he asked, after Chris had propped him up against the wall in a quiet hallway. His breath hurt in his chest. His mouth tasted like rotten apples.

"It was too loud out there."

"No, no!" Lance shook his head. "Here! Why did you bring me here!" He stomped his foot on the floor, and the dizziness that resulted only made him angrier.

"Lance," Chris said.

"You ruined it!" Lance shouted. "You ruined my life! You made him leave!" He shoved Chris' hands off his shoulders and spun around, taking two steps before slamming his shoulder and then his forehead into the wall. His head swam. Lights went off behind his eyelids.

"Oh, Lance, no." Chris' hands curved over his shoulders and pulled him back. Chris' breath was hot and damp on the back of his neck. "He just. JC's kind of messed up about that kind of stuff. And I didn't. You were already pretty involved and stuff and I was." Chris leaned in and shifted his hands to Lance's sides, his body weight pressing Lance against the wall until Lance could feel the paint cool against his cheek. "I'm sorry, okay," he said. "I'm sorry, Lance."

"I know," Lance murmured. He liked the way the smooth paint felt against his mouth.

He puked some time after that, not at the party but only because he'd pushed away from the wall and said "I'm gonna puke" and Chris had hauled him out into the garden. Chris, Lance remembered later, had actually pushed Playboy bunnies out of the way for him. Chris was a good friend.

"Well, now this is a party," Chris had said, rubbing Lance's shoulder. Lance had gagged and choked again on the mingled scent of vomit and hydrangeas.

"I hate you," he'd muttered. He spit, cleared his mouth, spit again.

"Sure, sure," Chris told him, his hand warm on Lance's shoulder.

11. The Things I'm Going Through

Joey was there, outside the door, in his boxer shorts and a t-shirt that read "Italian Stallion." He had a bottle of Jack Daniels in one hand and a six pack of beer in the other. "Lance," he said, pressing his hand over the peephole. "Open the goddamn door."

Lance squeezed his eyes shut and opened the goddamn door.

"Now, was that so hard?" Joey asked. He walked over to the dresser and set the alcohol down. Lance pushed the door shut. It was smooth and slightly cool under his hand. Solid. He leaned against it. The brass lock was a cool groove against his cheekbone. He turned around. Joey would expect him to turn around. The door rested solidly against his back. He wished he were a door.

"Oh, Lance. Baby," Joey said, and then he was there, prying Lance gently from his existence as a door and into his arms, where Lance stayed until he was done crying, his breath slowing from gasps to mere hitches, his fingers loosening around clumps of Joey's shirt. Joey wiped Lance's face with his fingers, and then the tail of his shirt. "Okay?" he asked.

Lance nodded.

"Chris called you, huh?" he said.

Joey nodded. "You should have."

"You were on vacation," Lance said.

Joey pinched his chin in firm fingers and forced Lance to meet his eyes. "You should have," he said.

Lance blinked, and brushed the leftover tears away with the sleeve of his own shirt. "Yeah," he said.

Joey took him over to the bed and sat him down, handing him a ball of Kleenex. Lance took it and wiped his nose on it. His face felt red and swollen and tight with salt. Joey rubbed the small of his back, gently, pressing the muscles there. His hand was warm. His arm was warm. Joey was warm all over. Lance almost started to cry again, just glad that Joey was there.

"So," Joey said.

"He said. He wasn't. He said, Joey. I wouldn't, but --" Lance felt his throat tighten, fresh tears from some unknown endless well.

"Shh, baby," Joey said. "Shh. It's okay." He pushed Lance to the pillow, and yanked the blankets around until they were both underneath them, tucking Lance up against his chest like Lance was still a kid and not a grown man. It was okay. Lance didn't feel very grown. Joey leaned over him and turned off the light. "He said what he said," Joey murmured in Lance's ear. "And maybe he meant it and maybe he didn't. Either way, baby, you're gonna be okay, right?"

Lance sighed. He was never gonna be okay again, ever. He felt raw and useless and empty. Broken.

"I can't," he told the darkness in front of Joey's face.

Joey shook him. "Right, Lance?" he asked.

"Right," Lance said. "Right."

12. Quite a While

Things didn't change much. They couldn't. Chris was quieter for a couple of days, and Justin avoided Lance altogether. It was okay. Justin got caught up in strong emotions and got all worked up and overwrought, and Chris didn't like to admit to having them at all, so Lance was kind of glad they stayed away. Joey was Joey. He put his hand on Lance, sometimes, down low at the small of his back, but that was all.

JC smiled from a distance. He hadn't been Lance's boyfriend, and yet, somehow, they had still broken up. Lance wanted to be upset about that fundamental unfairness, but since he couldn't stand to be around JC for more than 15 seconds at a time, Lance didn't complain.

"You want a sandwich?" JC asked Lance once, when Lance accidentally arrived at the catering table while JC was still there.

"Um," Lance said. JC's eyes, his pretty eyes.

"You haven't been, um, eating much, I guess," JC said. "You're worrying me."

"JC," Lance said.

"Hey, Lance," Chris said, grabbing his arm. "C'mere for a sec." Lance blinked and he was standing twenty feet away, unable to recall how he'd gotten there. Chris was staring up at him, a strange expression on his face.

"Lance," Chris said. Worried, Lance realized. Chris looked worried.

"I'm sorry," Lance said. "He just can't be nice to me."

"No, I know," Chris said, nodding. Lance burst into tears.

That had to stop. Obviously. He couldn't go around crying every time JC said something nice to him, not if they were seeing each other twenty hours a day. It wasn't JC's fault that he couldn't be mean, not even if he tried. So Lance steeled himself and began hanging out in the toy room, and going out to the clubs, and eating with the rest of them. He drank too much at first, and he couldn't sit next to JC, and sometimes he had to leave, the scent of JC's cologne clogging his nostrils, but gradually, eventually, it got so that he could fake it, even smile right at JC, looking into his eyes. JC knew it was fake -- they all did -- but it was something.

13. Off My Mind

Some people, Lance knew, found routine boring and dull. Like Chris, for example. And Justin. And sometimes Joey. But Lance liked it, maybe because routine was so unusual in their lives that it wasn't routine at all, but Lance thought that it was more than that, that he liked routine because it was comforting and predictable and ... routine. So, even though they were on tour for Strings and in a different place everyday, Lance got himself a routine.

He got up every morning at the same time, 9:30, and then he did sit ups and push ups -- mostly because that seemed like a morning thing to do -- and then he ate breakfast, cereal, and read the paper, and looked at his e-mail. After that, the rest of the guys were up, usually, so Lance had unscheduled free time unless he had work to do. Then there was lunch and, pretty soon after that, soundcheck and then the concert and a club with Joey and then bed, no later than one. If there wasn't a soundcheck or a club, Lance read; maybe the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People or one of Stephen Covey's other books, because reading Stephen Covey made Lance feel like he could get anything done if Lance just figured out how to break down into small and accomplishable steps. Almost anything.

Justin laughed at him. "Lance, you should be a tax guy, dude," he said, coming into the common area of a hotel in Missouri one morning. "You remind me of my tax guy."

"What?" Lance asked. He was reading the entertainment page. Susan Sarandon was doing another movie. The album was still number one. Lou could kiss his ass. Lance smiled and folded the paper.

"You're boring," Justin said and poured himself a bowl of cereal.

Lance disagreed. He just liked things a certain way, and their lives were so unpredictable anyways that he didn't see the harm in trying to create some stability. His parents had been big on stability. He didn't tell Justin any of that, though. Justin didn't need to crave stability -- that was what he had Chris for.

The routine made him feel better, happier. It gave him something to look forward to. He had all of their scheduled stuff on Outlook on his computer and synchronized in his Palm Pilot, and every day or so he would sit down and fill in the blanks or time with things he ought to do or meant to do or wanted to do. He liked knowing that at three o'clock he would be picking out clothes for soundcheck, or at ten a.m. he'd be finishing his push ups, his arms aching and tingling, or that at 12:30 he'd be having a sandwich. The routine relaxed him, made him sane. Kept him from thinking.

One night, it rained while they were on the bus. Lance couldn't sleep during the rain; it made him nervous. His dad had skidded out on the highway in the rain when Lance had been fourteen and in the passenger seat and they'd almost died, and ever since then, rain on the road made him nervous. He tried deep breathing and progressive relaxation and when he was still up at two thirty in the morning, he climbed out of the bunk.

"Lance," Joey mumbled from behind his curtain.

"'m okay," Lance called softly, and kept walking. He sat down on the long bench couch and pulled his legs up under him. He thought about checking his email, or calling Justin and Chris, who would still be up after the club they'd gone to, but none of those things sounded like something that should be done at two thirty in the morning. Lance tipped his head against the glass and watched the pattern of the rain in the intermittent flash of the streetlights. He sat there with his arms folded across his chest. He wasn't cold.

After a while the rain stopped, or they drove out if it or something, and Lance could see the night sky through the fast-drying drops on the windows. At some point it occurred to him that the stars used to be full of pictures. Of dreams.

14. Toss and Turn

"Hey, um," JC said to him, touching his shoulder lightly. He hadn't said much since they went out on the road, and that had been fine with Lance. Great with Lance. He wanted to walk away now, but it was JC and it just wasn't possible. "Hey."

Lance smiled. Tried to smile. "Hey."

"I'm. I wanted to tell you Lance. I'm sorry."

Lance nodded, hoping to end this before it started to get to him. "Sure, JC," he said. "I understand."

"No, you don't." JC shook his head, his hair falling in little waves around his face. He was growing it out and it should have made him look stupid, but it didn't. He was better looking than ever, and Lance was beginning to feel that he would never catch a break. "No, um. I. I'm getting married."

Lance felt his stomach drop. He opened his mouth. Nothing. He felt something surge in his stomach, something vile. He'd never wanted to hurt JC before, never. Not even when. Married.

"-- you know," JC was saying. "Eventually. Like, I promised my mom and she. Well. Parents. I guess, they know and stuff, but Lance --"

"Not now?" Lance asked, suddenly catching on. His fist pressed against the soft flesh of his stomach, knuckles digging in. "Not to Bobbie?"

JC looked surprised. "Bobbie? No. Why would you? No." He sighed. "It's. I promised them, Lance. My parents. So I couldn't. You were so great."

Lance blinked at him, unable to believe what he was hearing. "I," he said.

"I just thought you should know, you know?" JC said. He bowed his face into his hand, wiping at his nose and Lance saw for the first time how sorry JC was, his eyes blinking in some Morse code of misery. "I. Chris said I should tell you the truth. So I am." His eyes were still the prettiest blue that Lance had ever seen.

"Okay," he said to JC.

"Don't be mad at me," JC said. "If you can. Don't."

Lance closed his eyes, feeling JC's desperate gaze. It was part of the ethic of the band to give JC what he wanted. Rule One: Chris was to be tolerated. Rule Two: Justin was to be humored. Rule Three: JC was not to be hurt. That had never been a hard rule for Lance to follow before; he had been unable to imagine a situation in which he would want to hurt JC, would even think of it. He had been unable to imagine a situation in which JC would deserve to be hurt. Things changed.

He opened his eyes. "I'm trying," he said.

JC nodded quickly, like a little kid eager to please. "Sure," he said. "No, sure. I totally understand, Lance. I'm going, okay? I'm gonna go."

"Okay," Lance said. He thought he should have tried to conceal his relief but there was no way.

JC nodded at him once more and left, pulling the door closed behind him. Lance turned back to the wall and breathed deeply, concentrating on the rush of air through his nose, in and out, in and out, until he could be sure that he wasn't crying, that he wasn't going to cry, that he was done crying over JC Chasez. It had only taken almost a year. After a second, he realized that there was noise out in the hall, a muffled noise that could be footsteps or voices or anything. He stepped closer.

It was JC, his arms wrapped tight around his own waist, head down, doing his own deep breathing exercises. Eventually, JC tossed his head back, blinking rapidly, shaking himself. "Okay," he murmured to himself, clapping his hands together gently. "Okay, okay, okay."

Lance stayed motionless, watching through the slim crack in the door, until he could no longer hear JC's footsteps in the hallway.

15. Make You Smile

They took a break over the holidays, the way they always had every year since they started making their own schedules, and Lance went home to Mississippi, not to his own grand house, but to his parents. He slept in his old room and visited with his sister and called some people from high school that he hadn't talked to for a long time. He didn't call any of the guys.

On the Monday after Christmas, his cell phone rang. The name on the caller id was "Pizza Man" but it wasn't Joey on the other end.

"JC, hi," Lance said, after he'd caught his breath. He couldn't remember the last time JC had called him.

"Hey, I was just. Callin'. You know. How was your holiday?"

"Fine. Why are you using Joey's phone?"

"This is Joey's phone?" JC asked. Lance heard the shifting noises that meant JC was holding the phone away from his ear and looking at it. "Huh," he said. "That would explain the wrong numbers."

"People have been calling?"

Silence, then the throat clearing that meant JC had been nodding. "Yeah."

"And you didn't realize something was wrong when they were always asking for Joey?"

"Um," JC said.

Lance laughed. He laughed so hard he thought he might have strained something in his throat. "JC," he gasped. "How many people have called you?"

"I dunno. About twenty."

"Twenty." Lance choked back another laugh. "And they're all asking for Joey."

"Uh huh."

"And you didn't think ..." Lance started laughing again, imagining the quizzical look on JC's face, his confused stare at a phone that never rang for him. "Oh, JC," he said.

"Yeah," JC said.

"So, um." Lance said a moment after he'd managed to catch his breath. He realized suddenly that it was JC on the other end of the phone line, that JC had called him, that Joey's phone or not, JC had dialed his number. "What did you want?"

"Oh," JC said. "Nothing. I'm just at home, getting ready to fly back."

"I'm not in Florida," Lance said quickly. "I can't pick you up."

"Oh, no," JC said. "Justin is picking me up. I was just thinking about your family and wondering. About them. So I called. I called to say hello."

"Hi," Lance said. His throat hurt. His gut hurt. His entire life hurt.

"Hi," JC said, his voice so soft that Lance could hardly hear it. "Are you ready to start again?"


"The tour. When we get back. The great southwest."

"Oh." Lance blinked, rubbing his forehead with one hand. The tour. "Yeah, sure. It should be fun."

"Yeah," JC said. "I can't wait. I miss you guys."

"Y'all," Lance corrected absently.

"Y'all," JC repeated. "You. I have to go. My flight."

"Okay, um. Okay," Lance said. He wanted to say something else, but there was nothing. Six months ago he would have killed to hear JC's voice on the phone, to tell him something, anything, that would get him to come back. It was too late, now. He'd come too far to give up his pride for a voice on the phone. "See you soon, Jayce," he said.

"Not if I see you first," JC said. Lance hung up, feeling a ghost of a smile in the air above his head.

16. No Name

JC was right, the second half of the tour was great. The heat was absolutely unbearable onstage, but it became some sort of bonding experience being out there every night, sweat pouring off of them in waves, drinking liters of lukewarm bottled water in between songs, shaking their sweat soaked hair at the first rows. They would come off the stage dripping wet and exhausted and happy, and Lance, watching them towel off, would think he hadn't felt this good in a long time.

And everyone was too tired to go out much after the shows, which meant long hours of watching movies or playing video games or eating and talking.

"No, but you don't understand," Justin would say, trying to explain something about his relationship with Britney. "It's like I don't even want to be the boss, so that's not like she's controlling me. She's not taking away anything I want."

"Except your dick," Chris said. Lance almost snorted Coke out his nose. Chris loved Britney, they all did. And they were all sick of hearing about her, Chris most of all, Lance suspected.

"Dude, shut up," Justin said. "It's not like that."

"It's exactly like that," Chris said. "You're whipped and we all know it. Wshhhtah!" he shouted, making a whipping motion with one hand. "wsshhtah!"

"I'll whip you," Justin growled and made a grabbing motion with his hand, but he wasn't getting up off the couch, Lance was pretty sure, and Chris dodged the hand easily and then jumped up and landed on Justin's stomach, making a karate noise high in his throat. Lance's gut hurt just watching it.

"We should, um," JC said, his hand waving toward the front of the bus. Lance looked down at his hands. He meant they should get to bed, relax, sleep. JC always liked sleeping, and he and Justin had been up late writing songs, new things, for the next album.

"Relax, dad." Chris cuffed him on the shoulder. JC had been perched on the arm of the couch next to Lance's feet, and Chris' hand must have shoved him off balance or something because he landed in Lance's lap, all elbows and damp hair and the salty smell of JC. Lance felt the slip of skin over JC's ribs before JC was up and halfway across the bus, his hands in his hair, blurting something about "really, no, um, sleepy or. G'night."

Lance sat very still and ignored Chris' inquisitive looks until Chris slammed down on the couch next to him. "So," he said.

Lance looked at his hands.

"Oh, for fuck's sake, Lance," Chris said, and shoved at him with his feet until Lance finally stood up.

JC wasn't in his bunk. He was on the floor in the back lounge, his feet pulled up underneath him. He had headphones on, but he looked up, clued in maybe by the shake of the bus under Lance's footsteps, and pulled off the headphones right away.

"Lance," he said. "Hi."

"Hi." Lance looked at his hands again, but they didn't have anything in them. "I don't hate you," he said.

JC managed a sick smile. "No, I know," he said. "You're not like that."

Lance laughed a little. "I'm completely like that," he said. "But I don't."

JC nodded. "You're a good person, Lance," he said. "I, um. I always knew that. That's what I, um. You were so sweet."

Lance shrugged. He'd thought he was done with this feeling, the tightness in his chest, the shallow breaths, but seeing JC's upturned face he knew he'd never be over it. It might subside, it might sink beneath other stuff, maybe even permanently, but he would always have it. "I have to go to bed," he said.

JC nodded again. "Okay," he said. His voice crackled a little. He tipped his head. Lance could see the skin on the back of his neck. "Good night, Lance."

"Night, JC," he said.

17. You Get Home

The thunder woke him up, and he rapped his arm sharply on the ceiling of his bunk throwing up to save his head. Storm. He flopped back onto the pillows, heart racing in time to the beat of the rain on the aluminum sides of the bus. Joey and Justin snored in harmony. It was almost funny. When, he wondered, would the album have sold enough for them to each have their own buses?

He gave up trying to sleep after a half hour, when he knew that the rest of them were still sound asleep, and shoved the curtain on his bunk back. The rain streamed over the windows in the lounge, sparkling in the headlights of oncoming cars. Fucking storms.

He lay down on the couch and watched the patterns for a while, thinking of the show, the album, the next town. People, even the guys, thought that he was really well organized, but it was more repetition than organization. Lance just liked--

"Lance?" JC asked. His voice was slow and heavy with sleep.

"Over here," he said. JC came and sat on the couch. He was in his sleeveless t-shirt and baggy pants; he put his bare feet up on the edge of the cushion.

"Storm, huh," JC said. Lance didn't answer. He didn't need to. "I, um." JC sighed. "I couldn't, either. I. My mind was racing. You know. The show."

"Right," Lance said. "It's coming together."

"Uh huh." JC nodded quickly. He folded his arms around his knees. He was so small, Lance remembered, so light.

"Here," he said, suddenly, holding out his hand. "JC."

"Lance, I." JC shook his head. "I couldn't. I can't. Promise. I don't know."

"I know," Lance said.

JC lay down on the couch facing him, ducking his head so that Lance could not see his eyes. "I'm real sorry," he whispered.

"Don't," Lance said. He took a deep breath and it was flavored by JC's shampoo. "Whatever, JC, okay?" he said.

JC nodded again and rustled closer. Lance lifted his arm and encircled him, folding him in, his forearm lined up along JC's spine. "Okay," JC whispered. His mouth brushed Lance's collarbone. His arms were tight around Lance's waist. "I love you," he said, so quietly that Lance thought he maybe wasn't supposed to hear. He squeezed a little and said nothing. His pulse pounded in his throat. His eyes filled with rain.

"You think we're in Louisiana, yet?" JC asked, pressing his nose into the soft flesh of Lance's upper arm.

"Yeah," Lance said. "I think so."

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