|On the Bus
They were on the bus heading from California to East Texas. No one really noticed at first, because being on the bus was all about doing your own thing and not getting in anyone's face too much. It was a small space: if you got all up in everyone's business all the time it was like being in a cage.
It was early afternoon: the sun glinted off the tinted windows, and the flat brown landscape stretched past the road and out into forever. An in-between time, JC thought handing the game controller over to Justin, in between places, and in between meals and in between shows, a waiting time.
"He's gonna kick your ass, C," Joey said.
JC sighed. "Tell me something I didn't know." He sucked at Mortal Kombat. He had always sucked at Mortal Kombat. That was why Justin liked to play him.
"I'll be back," JC said, standing. His knees popped when he stood. It was good to have a day off.
"Goin' to drain the weasel, old man?" Chris snickered.
"We can't all have a colostomy bag, geezer," JC said over his shoulder.
"Ha!" Chris snorted. "JC gets off a good one!"
He went in, did what he had to do, came out. Stopped.
The curtains on the bunks were all open, like they usually were during the day, revealing a tumble of blankets and pillows and various clothes. Justin even had a bear, the fucking kid. No one made their bunks, ever. But the mess hadn't caught his eye. Lance had.
He had thought Lance was just lying on his bunk reading, or listening to music, or looking at paperwork, or one of the many quiet introverted things Lance often did on the bus. It had taken them all awhile to get used to Lance when he first joined the band. He was so still. He would come into a room and sit down and not even say anything, but somehow the energy in the room would change. Justin, their emotional barometer, had taken to him right away. And, of course, after spending five years with a guy, you got used to the fact that everyone shut up when he talked, and his laid back attitude, and the streak of stubbornness that made him the backbone of a group of mostly goofy guys. Lance was easy to get used to.
And he often spent his time on the bus researching, or reading, or running one of the many enterprises he was suddenly into. Lance, JC knew, had no illusions about being the hottest band in the free world for forever. They had talked about it, once.
"Nah, man," Lance had said, smiling. "You and Justin, and maybe Chris. But I'm not gonna be doin' this forever, you know that."
And JC had known. You could only be in a boyband for so long. Unless you were Chris.
But this afternoon, Lance wasn't going over contracts, or listening to demos on his Walkman, or jotting down notes in his loopy girly handwriting. He was sleeping.
He was lying on his side, curled toward the wall of the bus, one hand under his chin. He still had his shoes on, and a sheaf of papers lay under his cheek.
No big deal. It had been a hard series of shows in California, one set of guest appearances after another, and when they weren't working, they were partying. The beauty of L.A. was that people there liked to pretend that they didn't notice you, even if you did have the number one song in America. So it had been a hard week, and Lance was catching up on some rest. He would be doing that, too, if he hadn't promised Justin he would kick his ass in a stupid video game.
Lance's mouth was open. He seemed . . . sweet, JC thought. Sweet and tired.
Except Lance shouldn't be tired, because he hadn't gone out with them last night. He had stayed in at the hotel and slept.
"Hey," JC said, leaning down and resting one hand on Lance's arm. "Hey, Lance."
"Are you feeling okay?"
Lance rolled onto his back, one arm shielding his eyes. "JC?"
"Are you feeling okay?" JC asked again. He reached out and touched Lance's forehead. It was warm, but JC couldn't tell if that were from a fever or just from the nap. He grabbed the papers from the pillow and put them on the top bunk.
"No," Lance said. "I'm coming down with something, I think. A cold."
"You nauseous or anything?"
"Nah. It's not the flu. I'm just . . . rundown, I guess."
"Okay. Get back to sleep then. You want your shoes off?"
"Huh?" Lance mumbled. JC leaned down and tugged the shoes off. "Thanks." The smile was lazy and sleepy. Girls would have paid hundreds for posters of that smile, JC thought. He fought the urge to kiss Lance's forehead.
"Let me know if you start feeling worse."
Lance smiled a sleep-ridden smile. "I know, no replays."
"That's right." JC patted his shoulder and went back to the front of the bus.
"Hey, man, where'd you go?" Chris asked.
"Yeah," Joey called over his shoulder, his eyes glued on the video game. "We thought you fell in."
"Lance isn't --"
"Speak of the devil," Chris said. Lance was in the doorway, rubbing his face, hair standing up on end.
"Hey," he said.
"Were we too loud for you, man?" Justin asked. He was, JC noticed, kicking some serious ass in Mortal Kombat. He would never win.
"Nah, I was just awake."
"Sorry," JC said.
Lance shrugged. JC slid over on his seat and patted it. Lance sat down.
He seemed to be feeling better at first, making jokes about Joey's truly pathetic play, and talking about the impending dates in Houston and Austin, but after a half hour maybe, JC noticed that Lance was starting to flag.
He leaned over, letting his arm rest against Lance's shoulders. "Maybe you should go back to bed," he murmured.
"I'm tired of being in bed," Lance said. "It feels like all I do is sleep."
"Okay." He rubbed Lance's shoulder gently. Lance tipped his head forward, relaxing into the motion. "You're sure you don't want to lie down?" he said. He knew he was being a mother hen, he knew Lance didn't want to go back to bed, but the impulse to protect him was overwhelming. Lance did everything for them.
"I want to stay here," Lance said.
"Okay," JC said. Lance rested his head on his arm on the table. JC rubbed his shoulder gently, through the thin t-shirt. Lance sighed, closed his eyes. Joey lost with a truly spectacularly bad score. Chris spoke softly into the cell phone.
"Lance," JC said, his voice low and close to Lance's ear.
"No," Lance said. His eyes were still closed. He smiled.
"Then come here, at least," JC said. He had been sitting in the corner of the seat with one foot up on the cushion, and he pulled Lance toward him until the boy was in the V of his legs, leaning back against his chest, stocking feet dangling in the aisle. "Here. Now, just relax, okay? Get some rest." He wrapped an arm around Lance's waist, anchoring him.
Lance turned his face into JC's neck and sighed, settling more comfortably against him. Lance's hands folded over his forearm. Lance was warm and solid, and JC could feel him slump gradually into sleep. He reached up with his free hand and ran it though Lance's crazy hair for a while. He may have hummed a little.
"How is he?" Justin whispered, leaning across the aisle. He peered into Lance's pale face, then looked up at JC
"Fine, I think," JC murmured. "Just tired."
"Poor Lance," Justin said.
"Yeah." JC sighed. "Poor baby," he whispered into Lance's hair.