III. JC: Lesson
Lance slumped in his chair and watched the others swirl around him. They were supposed to be getting ready, everyone but JC, for a night out clubbing with the Backstreet Boys. In actuality, everyone was already dressed - they were just waiting to see Howie arrive. Joey sat down next to Lance and put a hand on his shoulder. "You ready to have a good time tonight laughing at us losers?"
"I don't know if I'm gonna go," Lance said.
"What're you going to do, stay here all by your lonesome?"
"Let him stay," Justin said. "He'd probably try to fuck up our chances tonight anyway. After all, he makes more money if the rest of us lose."
Lance sighed and let it pass. Justin had been edgy all day, and Lance knew he'd continue to be until Howie turned up and they left for the club. Chris heard, though, and Lance felt Chris' eyes skate over him.
"Don't be such a fucking sore loser," Chris said, smacking Justin on the back of the head.
"Well, he's being a sore winner, sitting there all mopey in his chair, staying home tonight to gloat."
"You don't know he's staying home to gloat," Chris said. "Maybe he's staying home to think about all the dirty disgusting things he's going to make you do when you lose."
"Ha!" Justin said. "No way I'm gonna lose. I mean, it's AJ. And it's me. No chance. In fact, if everything goes right tonight, I may even be done before C."
"You think that's something to brag about?" Chris said, and Joey laughed. Justin stood there for a minute. Lance could see him running the conversation back through his head, and he could see the exact moment when Justin got it.
"Hey!" Justin yelled. "Hey! I got no problem there. You ask JC!" and he jumped onto Chris' back, tumbling them both to the floor. Chris hooked an arm around Joey's knee and pulled him down with them. Joey shot an inviting glance at Lance, but he stayed in his seat.
The thing was, Justin was right. He was being a sore winner. He couldn't help it. He was starting to regret what he'd done. Not to Brian; he'd known it wasn't the nicest thing in the world when he decided to do it and it would be hypocritical to get all weepy over it now. Besides, he hadn't really hurt Brian, or interfered with his picture postcard life. No, what he regretted was cheating at all. When he'd come up with the plan, he'd been pleased with his own cleverness, and restless in anticipation of the feeling of triumph he'd have when he accomplished it. And for a moment he'd tasted that triumph, seeing the shock on Justin's face, the glee on Chris' when he'd walked into the room with Brian in tow. But he hadn't earned it. It was empty.
Maybe that was a ridiculous thing to feel over something as stupid as their bet, but it spoke of something more to Lance. Justin took the rap for being the competitive one, but his competitive streak was something quick and hot that flared up fast and faded back into the warmth of their friendship. Lance was just as competitive, but he hid it better. His aggressive urge didn't ebb and flow like Justin's; he carried it always with him, a spike of ice close to his heart.
Because of it, he always felt just a little separate from the others. He'd gone in on the bet thinking it was something he was doing with the other guys, but somehow he'd found a way to set himself apart. He wanted to confess, tell the others what he'd done, but he didn't see how he could. He'd ruin the bet. They'd be mad at him, but more than that, they'd be confused. They wouldn't understand why he'd gone to such lengths to win. And he didn't know how to explain it to them.
There was something his mother used to say sometimes. "You're so sharp, be careful you don't cut yourself." Right now, Lance felt like he was bleeding a little.
A sudden silence drew his attention back to the scuffle on the floor. Chris, Justin and Joey were frozen, staring down the hallway. Lance looked too.
Howie was walking toward them. He was wearing a suit and carrying a bouquet.
"Wow," Chris whispered. He nudged Justin. "You better watch out, man. Looks like he's got you outclassed."
"Shut up," Justin said. He scrambled to his feet and ran into the bedroom.
"Hi," Howie said, looking down at Chris and Joey on the floor. "Hi," he said again, smiling at Lance.
"Hi," Joey said.
"Well, hello," Chris said, getting to his feet. "Don't we look nice tonight?"
Howie flushed a little. "Heard you're all meeting the other guys later."
"Yeah," Joey said. "All of them are still coming, right?"
"Far as I know," Howie said. "Oh, except Brian. He had to fly home unexpectedly to take care of something."
"Bet I know what he had to take care of," Chris said low in Lance's ear.
"Oh," Howie said. "Hi, JC. Um. Hi, Justin." Justin and JC were standing in the doorway of the bedroom. JC whispered something to Justin and ran a hand over his head. "Have fun tonight," Justin said. As he passed Howie, he leaned in and said, "Boo." Howie jumped back, and Justin laughed.
"He's just kidding," JC said. "You wanna come in?" They watched Howie walk in. JC waved as he shut the door behind him.
"So," Chris said, throwing an arm around Justin's shoulders, "guess it's time to go land us some Backstreet Boys."
"You coming with?" Joey said, holding a hand out so Lance could haul him up from the ground.
Lance cast a look at JC's door. He could almost see a gentle heat emanating from it. "Sure," he said. "Can't wait to watch the three of you make fools of yourself."
"Damn, Lance," Joey said, laughing, "that's coldhearted."
"Hey," JC said. "You look nice. If I had known, I would have dressed up too." He was wearing jeans and a blue sweater with a white T-shirt hanging carelessly down below the hem. He was barefoot.
"No," Howie said, "no, it's cool." He handed the flowers to JC. "These are. Well, you know. For you."
"Sweet," JC said, and buried his face in them for a moment. He spent a few minutes arranging in them in a water pitcher, and then turned back. "You wanna eat?"
It could have been awkward, should have been, but it wasn't. Howie was a good listener; or rather, it wasn't so much that he was a good listener as that he ran at the same speed as JC. Usually when JC talked, someone cut him off eventually - not rudely, but something JC had said gave them an idea or inspired a joke or reminded them of an anecdote. It was very rare that JC reached the end of a train of thought. Tonight, he talked himself out.
When he had, he smiled at Howie. Howie smiled back. "Well, I guess we better," JC said, and pulled his sweater over his head, the T-shirt coming with it. Howie stopped smiling.
"Um, JC," he said nervously, and stood up. He walked over to the dresser and leaned against it.
"What is it?" JC said.
"It's just." Howie paused. "Look, could you put your shirt back on for a minute?"
"Sure," JC said. He put his T-shirt back on. "That's not exactly what I was hoping you'd say, though."
"I just thought. It was kind of weird, the way you called me the other night. I mean, it was nice of you to. Think of me. But, I just thought maybe you were kind of upset or something, and I wasn't going to, like, hold you to it or anything. It was nice having dinner with you and all, but I don't want you to think that you have to. Um. Do anything." Howie paused again. "I don't know if you understand what I'm trying to say. I don't know if I understand what I'm trying to say."
"Oh," JC said. "Oh, Howie." He sighed. "I have something I have to tell you." He got up and took Howie by both hands and led him back over to his chair. Howie sat down and JC stood in front of him, still holding his hands. "You can't tell anyone, all right? You might be mad, but you have to promise to keep it a secret. I know if you promise then you will, so I need you to promise."
"I promise," Howie said. "JC, what's wrong?"
"See," JC said. "We've got this thing. This, um, bet. And I know this sounds mean but I didn't mean it to be, not at all, but the thing is. The bet is you."
"I'm the bet?" Howie said blankly.
"Yeah," JC said. "The bet is that I can't. Um. Have sex with you."
"Oh," Howie said. "That's kind of a weird bet."
"We're kind of weird guys." JC watched him for a minute. "Are you mad at me?"
"I don't know what I am," Howie said. "You had a bet that you couldn't have sex with me?"
"So you just called me up and asked if I would come over and sleep with you?"
"Well, yes. I mean, what else would I have done?"
Howie laughed. "Let me guess. That's not what the other guys thought you were gonna do."
"No," JC said. "No, they were pretty surprised."
"I bet," Howie said. Then his face grew serious. "Listen, JC," he said, "you don't have to do this. I mean, if you want, I'll tell them that we slept together and you don't have to do anything."
"But that would be lying," JC said. "And, I mean, why?"
"I just don't want you to do anything you don't. I just know," Howie said, running a hand over his hair, "sometimes it can get kind of. Even with me and the boys, sometimes they can get kind of overwhelming. I know your guys wouldn't mean to, but they might have been. Like. Pushy. I don't want you to be, well, kind of bullied into something you don't want to do."
JC looked at him, and then smiled. "Oh, Howie," he said. "You disappoint me."
"What?" Howie said.
"I thought you of all people would understand. I try to explain it to Justin sometimes, but he never gets it. It's cause he's kind of a loud person, and when he wants something, he yells and bitches and moans and eventually he crosses the line, goes too far, and he ends up having to compromise. He gets a name for being difficult, but he's not, really, he's good-natured, he doesn't really mind compromising. But me," JC said, "I don't like to do things I don't want to do. So I just stay quiet, and I let people talk to me and at me and I smile and I shake my head and I don't say anything, and then eventually they go away and I do what I wanted to do all along."
JC slid onto Howie's lap and kissed him. "I haven't done anything I haven't wanted to in ages," he said.
"But it was sweet of you to worry about me," JC said against Howie's lips. "It makes me want to do something nice for you." JC took off his shirt again.
Howie ran a hand slowly up JC's chest to the base of his throat. He kissed him, and JC moaned eagerly and licked at his lips. Howie slipped his other hand around JC's waist. "I want to do something nice for you too," he said hoarsely.
"You know what I'd really like?" JC said. Howie shook his head. "You promise not to laugh?" Howie smiled at him. "I'd like you to teach me how to salsa."
Howie laughed, and JC stood up. "What?"
"It's just," Howie followed JC across the room, "it's just that you sound like all the fan letters I get. Nick gets all these letters that are, like, written on bras and offer to do things to him I'm not sure humans can live through, but all my fans just want to salsa with me and kiss me gently on the cheek."
JC backed Howie up against the wall and kissed him fiercely, running a rough hand down over the front of his pants. "I don't wanna kiss you on the cheek," he said when Howie was gasping and squirming against him. "And I'd be really mad about you saying I sound like your teenies, but I don't think I have much room to talk, what with the bet about sleeping with you and all."
"No," Howie panted, "no, you don't at all."
"I guess we're even," JC said, and stepped away from Howie. "I was serious about the salsa lesson though," and he walked over and started tuning the radio.
"I don't know if we're really even," Howie said. "The two things are not really -"
JC turned around and looked at him. "Do you not want to have sex with me?" he said.
"Even steven," Howie said, holding up his hands. JC kept fiddling with the radio until Howie said, "There. That's good."
JC met Howie in the middle of the room and stood in front of him, swaying to the music. "Okay," Howie said, "you want to take your right hand and put it here, and then you can -"
JC put his fingers against Howie's lips. "I'll learn better," he said, "if you show me."
Howie gulped. "Okay," he said, and put his hands around JC's waist.
They concentrated for a few minutes, Howie watching JC's feet, JC watching Howie's face. "You're good," Howie said. "You're picking it up fast."
"I hope so," JC said, "they spent a lot of money teaching me how to dance."
After a few more minutes Howie started to get a little fancy. JC followed easily. Howie snapped him out into a spin, and JC said, "Whee!" and tucked his face into Howie's shoulder when he spun back. "You're a natural," Howie said.
"'s the teacher," JC said.
Howie said, "You move like music."
"After all this time I should be able to pick up the rhythm," JC said.
"No," Howie said. "I don't mean you move in time with the music. I mean, you move like music." JC looked at him. "Wait a minute, let me think about what I mean." They continued dancing, Howie's hand firm on JC's waist, JC's breath warm against his neck. "It's like, you flow like the music, and you're kind of quiet and dreamy sometimes, and kind of bright and sparkly others, and there are these little sharp parts that a lot of people don't see, but somehow they all work together. I'd never think of putting all those things together, but when you do, they just work. They're beautiful." Howie smiled at him. "And you make me want to dance."
"Howie," JC said.
"Let's just dance," Howie said. They did.
They must have found a salsa hour or something on the radio, because after a while the music changed over. They stopped dancing, and JC dropped his hands to his sides. Howie leaned toward him, but JC put two fingers lightly against his mouth. "Thank you for doing that for me, Howie," JC said. "I've got something I want to do for you now," and he knelt down.
"You don't -"
JC looked up at him and smiled. "Nothing I don't want to do," he said, and unbuttoned Howie's pants.
"Oh," Howie said, "oh," and he groped behind him until his hands hit the dresser. He braced himself against it. JC ran a hand along Howie's thigh and looked up at him. "Easy there," he said.
JC set a gentle slow rhythm, and soon Howie was rocking a little with it. He took one hand off the dresser and ran it through JC's hair, soft strands sifting through his fingers. JC's tongue flickered, and Howie's hand tugged. "Sorry," he gasped, and dropped his hand. JC reached up without stopping and placed Howie's hand back in his hair.
When he was done, JC tucked and zipped until Howie was put back neatly together. He sat back on his heels and smiled up at him, looking satisfied with himself. Howie put out a hand and JC rose gracefully to his feet.
"Do you want - I could," Howie said, and JC shook his head.
"I think everyone's back now," he said, and Howie nodded. JC took Howie's hand and led him toward the door. On the way, he bent down and grabbed his T-shirt and pulled it over his head. At the door, he stopped and kissed Howie once on the mouth.
Lance watched Joey, Chris and Justin play cards and wondered if he could get away with going to bed. Their night out had been a bust. Kevin and Joey had gotten along fine, although they still seemed more likely to join O Town than sleep together. Nick had tolerated Chris' poking at him and jumping on him for about a half an hour before sidling up to Lance and saying, "Keep him the fuck away from me, all right? He's driving me crazy." And AJ hadn't seemed to notice Justin's existence, even when Justin was pressed up tightly against him in a tiny booth. Lance had derived no small satisfaction from that, but it left Justin in a bitchy mood, snapping and snarling. Lance had no patience for it, but there was an unspoken agreement that Justin shouldn't be left on his own until JC was free. It would be kind of shitty, Lance thought, to leave Chris and Joey alone with him.
JC's door opened and they all looked up. JC smiled and patted Howie's arm. Howie said, "Um, hi guys." Lance shot a quick look at Justin. He was watching JC, a shy smile on his lips.
"So," Chris said. "Did everyone have a good time tonight?"
"JC won his bet," Howie said.
"What?" Joey yelled. Lance gasped. Chris shrieked, "You told him?"
"What did you tell him?" Justin asked calmly.
"I told him," JC said clearly, "about the bet we had that I couldn't get him into bed. He promised not to tell anyone. He was very nice about it, which was more than I deserved."
"You deserve a lot of nice things," Howie smiled. Justin cleared his throat. "Yes, well, um, I'm kind of freaked out here, so I'm just going to leave." JC started to walk out with him, but Howie said, "I can show myself out."
JC sat on the arm of the couch, next to Justin. "Congratulations," Lance said.
"Man," Joey said to Chris, "we are so losing this bet."
Justin ran a hand around JC's waist. "You look like you had a good time."
"He's a nice guy," JC said. He bent his head toward Justin's and said, almost too low for Lance to overhear, "I've got a thing for you boys with the hips."
"What'd you two do?" Justin murmured.
"He taught me how to salsa," JC said.
"I bet he did."
"You want me to teach you?" JC said, and Justin got up.
"We'll see you in the morning," Justin said, and Lance watched as he hooked a finger in JC's belt loop and led him off to bed. As he opened the door JC dipped his mouth to Justin's shoulder, and just for a second they glowed warmly against the darkness inside the room. Then they walked inside, and the door closed firmly behind them.