It was the softness that first drew Lance's attention.
He had become harder over the years - hard muscled body, hard cool eyes, hard shiny smile. He would stand shirtless in front of the mirror and run his hands from his hard spiky hair to his hard flat abdomen, searching for the tender spots - the base of his throat, the underside of his lip - that were becoming harder and harder to find. It wasn't the price he paid for his fame; it was the armor he had crafted. He was proud of it. Proud of the way he could perform his songs, his interviews, his humble Southern boy act in front of more and more people while revealing less and less of himself.
Of course he wore armor. They all did; it was that or lose themselves to the millions of eyes and fingers and minds that grabbed at them every day. Chris and Justin had had it the easiest, Lance thought. Chris had come into this well-guarded, sharp tongue and quick wit holding the world at bay, and maybe it was a sign of how deeply ingrained his defenses were that he would sometimes let them slip. Lance didn't know whether he pitied the weakness of those jarring, genuine moments of public anger and pain and fear, or if he envied Chris the feeling, that sensation like vertigo, like turning a corner and seeing the road suddenly drop from beneath the wheels and wondering if the brakes would hold. It had been so long since Lance had slipped.
Justin - well, easy was perhaps not the right word. Justin hadn't chosen the press, the pictures, the applause and the adoration that haloed him in a hard opaque glare. It had come to him so smoothly and covered him so seamlessly that even Lance sometimes had to blink and stare to see him through it. Once Lance had been jealous of the way that Justin had slipped inside that veil, yet another dance step that he'd learned effortlessly while Lance sweated and wept over it. But Lance had caught him more than once gazing at his reflection in the bus window, flashing different smiles into the smoky glass, and had known that Justin wasn't running through his repertoire or exercising his charm, but looking for the smile that was real. That smile was only there now when Chris was in the room, and not always then. The armor had come easily to Justin, but Lance thought shedding it might be a different matter.
Like Lance, Joey and JC had had to work for their protection. Joey, smart without Chris' fierce calculation, had grasped early on that it was simplest to hide in plain sight, to appear to be exactly what he appeared to be. And in the beginning he had relaxed into his genial pleasure-seeking persona, laughing with Lance about his exploits as described in the media. It was only recently, when other lives were tied to his, that he struggled against it, large hands angrily crumpling gossip columns, gentle face clouding as Kelly, three months pregnant and sick every day of it, cried over something she'd heard on the radio. The ring he now wore on his left hand and refused to comment on publicly was as much a symbol of defiance as anything else.
Lance had never fought the changes, he had just been slower than the others to realize they were necessary. Once he decided he needed a mask, he worked at it with the same dogged determination that he brought to everything he did. He knew his own strengths and limitations, knew he lacked JC's blinding talent, Joey's reflexive charm, Chris' lightning mind, Justin's captivating grace. What he possessed was a systematic intelligence, a brutal persistence, a relentless discipline. He watched the tapes and saw himself move from uncomfortable and trapped, nervous smile and darting eyes, to practiced and forced, recalling his memorized answers as obviously as he once counted his steps in the choreography. Now his mask was polished to a high sheen. He could talk to a hundred people at a party, marking in their eyes their pleasure at his attention, and find at the end of the night that he couldn't remember a single thing they'd said. He could meet insidious press questions about their record sales, their integrity and their love lives with a smile that never left his lips or his eyes. He could blush on cue.
But while his transformation had taken time, had frustrated and eluded him for years, he had welcomed the safety he felt behind the walls he'd built. He had never been able to understand JC's passionate resistance. JC had always seemed powerful and protected onstage, and if all they had had to do was sing and dance, JC would have been fine. But the interviews, the photo shoots, and the industry events drained him. He swung between a frantic, incessant energy and a depressed lethargy, babbling to reporters until Justin or Chris bailed him out and fretting over the resulting articles. Chris, who had told all of them from the beginning that they could either pick the role they wanted to play or have it pinned on them by the press, had watched with narrowed eyes as JC drove himself almost to tears over a bad review. "C," he had said finally, "you've got to at least act like you don't care."
"I don't know how," JC had said.
"Well, you could try actually not caring."
JC had stared at Chris with unyielding stubbornness. "No," he had said.
The lawsuit had changed something in JC. They were all younger then, less secure in their strongholds, and of course it had rocked them all. But JC had frightened them with the violence of his anger and his shame at being played for a fool. One morning after yet another terrifyingly revealing meeting with their lawyers, Lance had walked with JC down to his car. JC was swearing in a steady stream of rage that made Lance pull him aside. "It's not your fault," Lance had said, tasting futility in the words.
"I should have known," JC had said.
"None of us knew."
"I trusted him," and Lance had wanted to say that he knew how JC felt, but something in the dark shadows in JC's eyes and the twist of pain in his voice made Lance think that he didn't know at all.
Something had changed in JC after that. There was a faraway look in his eyes that had never been there before, and he acquired the same gleaming public surface that they all had. He still veered between slightly incoherent chatter and twelve straight hours of sleep, and he still performed with eager abandon. But he could greet criticism with a hard smile that looked brittle only to his bandmates, and Chris never felt the need to tell him to act like he didn't care again.
So when JC walked into their first meeting after a month-long break, it was the softness of his new look that caught Lance's eye.
It always took them a few days to let down their guards with each other after a long break. It was exhausting to raise and lower their defenses, and they each had to work their way into existing as one of five instead of just one. They had learned to let each other ease back into their common life as if into a hot bath. But JC walked into the compound with the private smile he reserved for his inner circle already on his lips. His hair floated around his head like dandelion fluff. Lance reached out to touch it, then pulled his hand back. It always took a day or two for their boundaries to meld again.
JC caught his hand and smiled at him. "You can touch it," he said.
Lance touched it tentatively, and JC tilted his head toward Lance's hand. His hair was soft, and curlier than Lance had ever seen it, shot through with blond highlights. "You like it?" JC said.
"Yeah. Yeah, I do."
Chris's head jerked sharply when he saw JC's new look. When Lance and JC turned to face him, he did an exaggerated double take. "What happened, C? Did you lose a bet?"
"I didn't like how it was before," JC said.
Lance sat down on the edge of the couch, respectful of the distance from each other that a month's time had engendered. JC, however, sat close beside him, draping an arm over Lance's shoulders. "Missed you, Bass," he said, and Lance found himself smiling at him.
Throughout the meeting Lance snuck glances at JC. The new hair seemed to be just the start of the changes. In public JC had always worn flashy expensive clothes, enjoying as the rest of them did the extra layer of protection they provided. He had hidden behind the designer labels chosen for him, but in private he had favored T-shirts and jeans. Today he was wearing pants of a soft, burnished leather, and a deep green silk shirt that fell open, revealing a lightly tanned triangle of skin.
When they got up to leave, JC smiled his slow easy smile at Lance. "You want to get something to eat?" he said.
"Um. Are you. Are you sure?" JC looked at him patiently. "We always kind of hang out on our own a little when we first come back. I mean, that's how we always did it."
"I didn't like how it was before," JC said.
It wasn't only JC's look that had changed, Lance found. JC had always had a fugitive sweetness, but it was something that he had tried to hide even among the five of them. They loved each other, Lance thought, but it was a jostling, belligerent love, expressed in roughhousing and teasing and light cuffs. JC had offered his gentleness rarely and shyly, as if he feared it was out of place. He was the one they each sought out in illness or homesickness or heartbreak, and Lance harbored memories of long tear-stained nights in JC's room, JC's voice as soft in his ears as JC's touch on his arm. Lance had felt awkward and exposed after those nights, and shrank back from JC on the mornings after. They never spoke about it, and Lance only knew that Justin and Joey and Chris had found the same comfort by the sharp edges in their teasing on certain mornings, and the way JC's laughter was forced and a few seconds late.
Now JC's voice was constantly low and melodious, with a tiny hint of a drawl that made Lance think of a few shabby hotel rooms in Germany and one interminable, pain-filled afternoon in a hospital bed. JC's tenderness was no longer private, and no longer ashamed. He ran a light hand over Justin's shaved head, and complimented it. When Justin joked about JC's hair and electrical sockets, JC just looked at him calmly till Justin shifted and said, "Hey, just kidding, man. It looks great." He didn't try to laugh and play along when Chris launched into an extended riff on JC's jeans, which were intricately embroidered over his crotch. JC just looked confused and slightly hurt until Chris stared at the floor and abruptly switched to a running commentary on the video playing on the TV screen. JC's laugh rang out clear and delighted, and Chris smiled at him.
If JC had been different only with the four of them, Lance thought it might have bothered him less. But JC's behavior around their business partners and crew and even strangers had altered as well. It wasn't that they were self-absorbed or rude, but keeping track of more than the names and faces of the shifting sea of people around them would have required an energy and investment that none of them had to spare. Lance had developed long ago a politely attentive look and the ability to smile warmly and gaze frostily without listening to more than the tone of the conversation. Suddenly JC was striding through stadiums patting shoulders and grinning widely, nodding happily and amiably answering the chatter of the caterers and the local security crew.
It was after an interview that Lance realized the others were noticing as well. They were old hands at the things by now, handing off questions and trading quips and falling over each other in a ritual as elaborate and practiced as their dance moves. Sometimes, after a long day of publicity, Lance felt more like a member of a vaudeville act than a boyband. But JC affected their dynamic this time from the first, chewing a nail and looking down when Justin cut him off, glowing and giggling when his new look was mentioned, clinging tenaciously to a tangent about ABBA songs through three separate attempts by Chris, Joey and Lance to refocus the conversation. Lance felt an unaccustomed tension rising in him. Afterward, Joey had slouched on a sofa between Chris and Lance and said, "You think we need to do something about C's new thing?"
"You noticed too?" Lance said.
"Pretty hard to miss. You think we should, like, say something? I mean, he just seems so ... open."
"Yeah," Lance said slowly, "yeah, I think maybe -"
"Leave him alone," Chris said sharply. Lance glanced at him. His elbows were on his knees, hands clasped beneath his chin. He was watching a quiet conversation between JC and Justin across the room. JC put his hand on Justin's arm and bent his head toward him, and Justin nodded.
"I'm not gonna upset him or anything," Joey said angrily. "I'm just worried about him, you know? Worried he'll say something to the wrong person, or something that gets taken the wrong way, and it'll hurt him. I'm just trying to look out for him."
"Leave him alone," Chris said again. His eyes didn't move. Lance looked at Joey and shook his head. Joey hadn't been in the car with Chris and Justin on the ride back. Lance had asked Justin about Britney, and Justin had smiled easily at him and answered. It wasn't until he saw the look on Chris' face that he realized why he felt a slight tingle of deja vu: Justin's response was the same as the one he had given in the interview not half an hour before. Justin had looked up at the sudden charged silence, and said, "Chris?" Chris had put his hand over Justin's, smiled at him, and Justin smiled back, his real smile. When Justin had leaned his head against the window to sleep, Lance had seen Chris' troubled eyes.
As time passed, Lance was the only one who couldn't adjust to the new JC. He was uneasy when Justin laid his head on JC's thigh and let him rub his temples during downtime on a photo shoot, when Joey walked next to him through a crowded lobby, bumping into him gently, eyes crinkling when JC laughed. Lance couldn't understand it, couldn't understand JC, couldn't understand why it mattered so much to him that he couldn't understand. He found himself following JC, trailing after him on the rare occasions they weren't in the same room. He stole glances, not knowing what he was looking for, and felt the heat rise in his cheeks when JC caught him. But JC never mentioned it, just smiled at Lance until Lance looked away. An anger he knew was irrational burned in the pit of his stomach.
He was walking a few yards behind JC through the halls of the compound, vaguely embarrassed but unable to stop himself, when he found the key to the new JC. They were coming from an angry, awful meeting, full of shouting, about what could and could not be said about Joey's baby. Chris was only slightly less furious than Joey, but finally they were all reduced to staring sullenly at the table as Johnny rattled off numbers, never raising his voice. "Are you ready for this ride to end?" he had asked calmly, and Joey said, "Fine. Fine. Fine," and slammed out of the room. Lance had been surprised when JC didn't follow him.
Now Lance drew back against the wall as JC caught up with Johnny and stopped him, leaning in so close to him that his sleeve brushed Johnny's chest. Lance was too far away to hear more than a few scattered words, but he saw JC's eyes widening in surprise and sorrow. Johnny took a step back under his urgent gaze and spoke rapidly. JC nodded carefully. Then he spoke. "The right thing," Lance heard, " who he is proud of ourselves." JC's voice grew softer and Johnny bent in to listen. JC stopped talking and leaned into the wall, watching Johnny intently. Johnny sighed and put his hand on JC's arm. JC smiled at him, his eyes full of hope. "All right," Johnny said, "you win. I'll tell him." JC clasped Johnny's hand in both of his own, and Johnny returned his smile, shaking his head a little.
Lance stood straight and crossed his arms. When Johnny left, he met JC's eyes. JC looked at him for a minute, and his smile faded.
Lance drove home with his success singing in his ears. He couldn't believe he'd been so stupid, but really, he had to give JC credit. It had been right in front of him all along, but he hadn't noticed. For weeks he had watched how well JC had disarmed strangers, reporters, colleagues. He could even manipulate someone as close as Johnny. It was a brilliant idea, to close yourself so thoroughly by appearing to be so open, to discourage others from hurting you just by seeming so capable of being hurt. He admired C, he really did.
But when the first thrill of discovery had passed, Lance was left oddly dissatisfied. He was - disappointed, he thought. Disappointed that JC hadn't told him, hadn't told any of them, what he was doing. And as he thought about it more, he felt that same dull anger gnawing at him. If only JC had let him in on it, instead of shutting him out with the rest of the world. It was true, he admitted, that Justin was doing that more and more, but the difference was that Justin didn't seem able to control it. JC could.
Lance spent the next few days studying JC, but this time he didn't bother to hide his interest. When JC caught his eye, Lance didn't blush, didn't look away. He returned JC's gaze calmly, steadily facing down the confusion JC let creep into his eyes. Now it was JC who looked away. As Lance watched JC talking with the others, his hands lightly sketching shapes in the air, he thought that all he wanted was for JC's mask to sharpen and shatter, just once, just for a moment. Just to let Lance see something hard and ugly peek through.
Lance was circling JC again, but this time with a purpose. He could feel JC's discomfort, see it in the way JC shifted uneasily under his eyes, and savored it. But it wasn't enough. He needed to see that sharp break, needed to glimpse the hard core he knew lay beneath.
Lance started talking. He had long ago perfected the art of the cutting remark, and if JC wanted to expose himself, well, Lance could make him bleed. He watched JC gasp at a particularly accurate hit, and felt himself breathless too with his own cruelty. Lance was convinced that this would work, that he could crack JC this way. Unfortunately, he hadn't counted on the other guys. Justin clipped him hard in the head with a CD case when Lance critiqued JC's new song, and Joey pulled him into an empty room, his grip bruising Lance's arm.
"What the fuck is your problem, Lance?"
"Nothing," Lance said, shaking Joey off. Those hard muscles were good for something.
"I don't know what's going on with you and C, but you're going to cut it out now."
"Nothing's going on," Lance said.
"Well then, it'll be easy for you to leave him alone then, won't it?" Joey put his hand back on Lance's arm, gently this time. "Listen, Lance, if you have something you want to tell C, you should just say it. Or if you want, you can always talk to me. But you should just talk to JC already, okay?" Lance didn't look at him. "And seriously, Lance, lay off him."
JC stuck his head in the door. "Joey, leave him alone."
"I don't need your help," Lance snarled.
JC looked at him. "You sure about that?" he said softly. Lance bit his lip and turned his head away. When he looked back toward the door, JC was gone.
The next night, Lance opened his door to find JC standing there, a six-pack in his hand. "We need to talk," he said, sliding past Lance. Lance followed him. There was something wrong about JC being here, in his house. Something dangerous. JC sat on the couch. Lance wanted JC out, but couldn't seem to open his mouth to tell him so. "Sit," JC said, and Lance sat.
"What's your problem with me, Lance?" JC asked calmly, no edge to the words. I know, Lance wanted to say, I know what you're doing, I see, but he couldn't form the words. JC sighed and sat back. "I can wait a long time, Lance," he said, and Lance heard something smug in his low, soft voice, and he wanted to slap JC, shake him, do something to crack his complacency.
Lance kissed him.
He knew it was a mistake the second JC's lips met his and he was falling, falling, clutching with both hands at JC's arms, his back, anything to fight that fall. Lance felt it in his stomach and his chest, that reckless lurch, and then JC pulled away and Lance was suspended over the edge of an unknown cliff, muscles taut with the strain of the struggle.
JC's smile snaked across his lips. "I thought you did," he said, and kissed Lance again.
Lance fell, and fell.
Lance wanted quiet with a hard desperate ache, wanted to grapple in silence, no sound but grunts of exertion and the sound of flesh striking flesh. But JC talked, voice low in Lance's ears. "Lance," he said, and "God, your arms, when did you," his mouth on Lance's shoulder, his throat, "sweet, oh sweet." Every word stripped something from Lance, and he twisted in JC's arms. JC crooned gently to him, and Lance closed his eyes, afraid that if he looked down he'd see his body bared to the bone and open to JC's gaze.
Lance was hurtling through a vast darkness, JC's hands, his voice, his breath enveloping him, and Lance felt a deep hot need rising in him like a scream. He wanted to scream, wanted to shriek aloud, to pierce JC's calm collection. He wanted to strike a spark of fear from JC, of pain, even, though the thought stopped his breath, even of hate. Any hard sharp emotion, any certainty, anything was better than this strong soft plunge he couldn't fight. He grabbed JC's shoulders and wrenched him to his knees, slamming him to the floor, fingers gripping hard enough to bruise.
Lance couldn't bring himself to look down, clinging with a violence he didn't understand to this moment just before. Then JC made a small kitten noise deep in this throat, and Lance opened his eyes in surprise. A smile stole over JC's lips. He flexed his shoulders under Lance's hands, and Lance felt the muscles ripple under his fingers. Lance pressed harder, and JC moaned. He stretched, rubbing a soft cheek against Lance's stomach, exposing the long smooth line of his neck. "Lance," JC said. Lance felt JC's mouth soft on him, JC's hair soft beneath his hands. His orgasm tore the last of something hard and cold from him.
Lance slipped bonelessly to the floor. JC slumped next to him. Lance took a deep breath and turned to him, steeling himself for the hard light of triumph he knew he'd see in JC's eyes.
There was nothing there but the soft glow Lance had felt focused on him so often before. Lance was overwhelmed by a wave of dismay and confusion and something deeper and darker behind it. He didn't understand JC, couldn't, would never understand him. He was lost.
JC laid his head on Lance's shoulder, then moved his lips silkily up the side of Lance's throat. He whispered in Lance's ear, the words soft but not too soft for Lance to hear. Lance understood.
Later that night Lance stood shirtless in front of the mirror and ran his hands from his hair, tousled by JC's fingers, to his abdomen, the marks of JC's hands, his lips, his breath pulsing warmly, visible only to his eyes. His skin felt raw and tender to the touch. His reflection looked strange to him, the edges blurred, not foreign but not quite familiar, like a half-remembered dream.
JC came up behind him and slipped an arm around his waist. "Soft," Lance said. "It's all soft," and JC didn't ask what he meant.
"It's better this way," JC said. "I didn't like the way it was before."