"The first issue we need to address is this," Marisa says, tapping a perfectly manicured nail against the blue folder in front of her. All the publicists have been worked up lately. Everyone's a little nervous about the upcoming release. Joey opens his folder, identical except for "Mr. Fatone" labeled neatly on the front, and winces as he reads the Xeroxed copy inside. Jesus, he thinks, why even bother calling it a blind item? He stares down at the folder, gathering his courage to look at Lance, when he hears something strange.
Lance is laughing.
And not the bitter, sarcastic laugh Joey has heard from him too often lately. This is the Bass belly laugh that even now makes Joey smile, although he has no idea what's so funny.
It doesn't have that effect on Marisa. "Is something funny, Mr. Bass?" she asks, as crisply as she dares. They are, after all, paying her salary.
Lance has both hands on the table and is rocking back and forth in his seat. He gasps a few times before choking out, "Look around this room!" Chris snickers, and sends Lance into another outburst of laughter. Joey obediently looks around the room.
Justin is perched on the arm of Chris's chair, almost but not quite in his lap, one arm loosely around Chris' neck. Chris is covering his smirk with one hand. His other hand is on Justin's hip, fingers dipping below his waistband.
JC is smiling politely, legs crossed at the knee at an angle that shows off the wide bell bottoms of his purple velvet pants to the best advantage. He has paused in his labors to look inquisitively at Lance, the nail polish brush still poised over his left hand. Three of his nails are lime green.
"And they think I'm the gay one!" Lance gasps. Joey cracks up. Chris is howling, falling to the floor. Justin looks as if he's thinking about getting angry, when Chris hooks one hand beneath his belt and pulls him to the floor. They wrestle for a minute, and Chris whispers in Justin's ear till he's grinning widely.
JC shrugs and goes back to his nails.
When the laughter dies down, Marisa clears her throat. Her arms are crossed and she looks at them without smiling. "I don't mind if you find this funny. You pay me, however, to tell you these things. And I'm telling you that this is bad for business."
"What do you want Lance to do? He can hardly sleep with fewer guys," Chris says, and Justin giggles.
Marisa sighs. "It's unfortunate. I wish it weren't true, but the fact is, your audience wants to see you as happy heterosexual young men."
"Well, luckily I am a happy heterosexual young man," Lance says. "What do you want me to do? I can't stop them from writing these things."
"You may want to think about whether there's something in your ... demeanor that's sparking these rumors."
Lance isn't laughing any more. "I know what it is about my ... demeanor," he snaps, and the room is still for a moment. Marisa is gone, Joey thinks, staring at the floor. Even if he has to fire her himself.
"I know why they say these things," Lance continues. "You think I never went to high school? You think I don't own a fucking mirror? I'm a pretty boy. For years I looked like a pretty girl. I have clear skin and blond hair and cheekbones. I'm not a big bruiser like Joe here, and I'm not a loudmouth like Chris. I look sensitive. That's what it is about my ... demeanor." Lance spits out the last word, and somehow Joey doesn't think he's going to have to fire Marisa. He waits for her to cry, or say something bitchy. Instead, she sits down in the chair next to Lance.
"I'm sorry," she says quietly. "It's my job."
"It's a shitty one," Lance says. Lance is looking at the table, but Joey hears his voice soften. Lance understands about the jobs people have to do.
"Sometimes it is," Marisa agrees.
"Mine too." Lance's voice isn't entirely steady, and Joey looks up, clears his throat.
"Lance," Joey says, but Lance is on his feet.
"Listen, y'all don't appreciate the service I provide," Lance says. His voice is light, and he exaggerates his accent. "I mean, we're a fucking boy band. The world figures one of us has got to be gay. And as long as the world thinks it's me, well. It's not like they'll ever find any evidence. But while they're busy looking for the goods on me, Chris and Justin can practically make out on talk shows ..."
"Do not," Justin says before Chris claps his hand over Justin's mouth and says "Yeah, thanks, man."
"JC can flame like a four-alarm fire ..."
JC flutters a green-tipped hand in the air and smiles happily.
"What the hell do we need Britney for? I'm like a beard for the entire group. I'm supplying a priceless cover for all y'all."
"Except Joey," Justin pipes from behind Chris' hand.
"Yeah, except Joey," Lance says softly. Joey is looking down, but he feels Lance's eyes on him. "Except Joey."******************************************
In Joey's room, Chris sprawls on the couch flipping through the channels and complaining. "I mean, what kind of four-star hotel doesn't get the Cartoon Network? I ask you. This is outrageous. I'm calling the manager."
Lance walks in with a cell phone in one hand. He's smiling, but Joey thinks he looks strained.
"Lance!" Chris crows, sitting up. "You'll never believe what kind of shitty hotel they've booked us into."
"Chris, it's the Four Seasons."
"That's what I'm saying!"
Joey has heard enough about the Cartoon Network. "What's up, man?" he asks.
Lance looks around the room. "Justin around?"
"Naw, he and JC had some kind of press. Interview. Thingy," Chris says, waving a hand vaguely in the air. "The back-up singers are alone this afternoon."
Lance sits on the couch next to Chris. "So, um. You know that blind item thing?"
"Don't worry about it, Lance," Joey says.
"No, I'm not. It's just. I'm pretty sure that someone sent it to my mom. Or, like, she saw it somehow."
Joey sits on the arm of the couch and puts his hand on Lance's shoulder. Lance is shaking, almost imperceptibly.
"Oh man," Chris says, and his voice is gentler than anyone who's only seen him in public would believe. "Did she tell you that?"
"No," Lance says, "it's just. She just called me, just to talk, you know, and to tell me that she and my dad love me and are proud of me and nothing will ever change that."
"Oh man," Chris says again.
"Well, that doesn't necessarily mean - " Joey starts, although he thinks it does mean.
"Then she told me that I can tell her anything. Her and my dad both. And that they'll always support me in whatever I do."
"There are worse things," Chris says, and he and Lance exchange a look.
"I know. I mean, I know it's kind of. Funny. It's just - she thinks I'm not telling her. That I'm afraid to tell her. And I never would be. There's just nothing to tell. But the more I say that, the more it sounds like I'm. You know. Hiding something from her."
"That's tough," Chris says finally. Lance tilts his head back, closes his eyes. Then he squares his shoulders and lets out an open-mouthed sigh. Something about that just kills Joey.
"What's on TV?" Lance asks, reaching for the remote. He moves over on the couch and Joey slides down to sit beside him. He puts an arm around Lance's shoulder and Lance leans into him. "Hey, Joey," he says.
"Hey," Joey says back.
They're still sitting on the couch, watching a documentary about WWII fighter planes, when JC and Justin come back. "I can't believe you slackers watched TV all day," Justin screeches as he heads for the mini bar.
"What Mr. Timberlake means is, how was your afternoon?" JC says, sitting in the armchair.
"Not great," Joey says as Chris says, "Fine."
"What's up, Joe?" JC leans forward in concern.
"Lance had a phone call from his mom," Joey says, and Lance elbows him.
"Nothing wrong with Mama Bass, is there?" Justin says, sitting on the floor between Chris' legs and handing him a beer.
"Course not," Lance laughs. "Just made me a little homesick, that's all."
"Well, hell, I know the cure for that. A night of clubbing will take your mind off your troubles."
Joey starts to speak as Chris and Justin bicker about the evening's destination. Lance puts his hand on Joey's leg. "Not now, Joe," he whispers.******************************************
A week later, the buses have stopped for a late night Wal-Mart run. Joey still hasn't asked Lance what he meant. He means to, but he keeps forgetting. What he can't forget is the pressure of Lance's hand on his leg, the warmth of Lance's breath in his ear. He thinks this might be a problem.
There's a bigger problem, however, when Justin comes storming onto the bus, a magazine in his hand. "What the fuck is this, Lance?" he yells, slamming it down onto the table in front of Lance.
Joey can't see what's in the magazine, but he can see Justin, and he doesn't like the look of him at all. His color is high, and he's breathing hard, as if he'd been running, and his eyes - well, if Joey didn't know better, he'd think Justin was about to cry. Joey hasn't seen Justin cry since Germany.
Lance sits back in his chair, arms folded across his chest. He's looking at Justin steadily, saying nothing. Something flickers in his eyes. Joey thinks it looks like pity.
"What the fuck!" Justin yells again, and Joey doesn't care what's in Lance's eyes. Nobody yells at Lance like that.
"What the fuck, Justin?" Joey yells back, and Justin shoves the magazine at him. It's not a magazine, Joey realizes, but a tabloid. There's a fairly large picture of Lance and JC dancing at a club. He can't really see JC, but Lance is dead center. It is not, Joey admits, the straightest picture ever taken of Lance. Whoever wrote the snide caption accompanying it seems to agree.
"Justin, it's nothing. It's from the club the other night. That's me and C. You were there, too, remember, and Chris and Joey." Lance's voice is calm and measured, as if he were talking to a three-year-old.
"Yeah, I remember," Justin snarls. "We were all there, but somehow you were the only one who managed to get his picture taken looking like a - "
If he says it, Joey will hit him. He's never hit Justin before, has never even seriously wanted to, but he can feel it in his arms and shoulders, all through his body. If Justin says it, Joey will knock him down.
But Justin stops short, like he ran into a wall. Joey is relieved. He looks up and meets Lance's eyes, and sees the wall Justin ran into.
"Like a what?" Lance asks, and his voice is still calm and measured, but there's an edge to it that Lance has never used with one of them.
Justin spins around and runs toward the doorway, into Chris and JC who are watching silently. He pushes past them and Joey hears him running across the asphalt outside. Chris and JC look at each other, and JC turns and goes back outside. Soon Joey hears him running, too.
Lance is still sitting in his chair. He has two fingers pressed to each of his temples. Chris sits down across from him.
"He's having a hard time," Chris says. Lance nods.
"Jesus Christ!" Joey has always had the most patience with Justin's moods, more than Lance or JC who will walk away from Justin when he gets bitchy, more even than Chris who will let him go only so far before calling him on it. But this is too much. "I don't care what kind of time he's having, this was out of line."
Lance says, "Joey, don't," and his voice is sharp. Suddenly Joey is even angrier. "What the fuck, don't? I don't care if he's the fucking prince of pop, someone needs to shut him down."
Chris slouches in his seat. His eyes dart to Joey and study him for a moment, then move back to Lance. "He told Lynn," he says.
"I thought it was something like that," Lance says softly. "It didn't ..."
"She's no Mama Bass," Chris says.
Lance slides his hands up into his hair and leans on his elbows. He closes his eyes as if everything is suddenly too much for him.
Joey watches, stranded in the middle of the room. His blood is still rushing from the shouting earlier. He feels clumsy and young, younger than he's felt in ages, watching these two men talk at the table.
"He told her he was gay?" When Lance and Chris look at him, he knows he sounds as stupid as he feels.
"Yeah, Joe," Chris says.
"Did she - she didn't, like, disown him or anything?"
Chris laughs shortly, bitterly. "That's not gonna happen as long as he's signing the checks."
Joey doesn't know what to say. "I'm sorry, man. That's gotta be. Rough."
Chris laughs again and Joey flinches. Lance puts his hand on Chris' arm.
JC walks onto the bus, hovering in the doorway. "He's on the other bus." JC looks weary and washed out, despite his bright yellow shirt.
Chris gets up and walks toward the door.
"He's really sorry," JC says.
"I know he is. Tell him we're cool, okay?" Lance says.
"I thought I'd ride here the rest of the way if that's all right with you," JC says, stepping inside the bus. Chris punches him gently on the arm as he walks out the door. JC puts a hand over Chris' fist and holds it against his arm for a moment. "We'll all feel a little better when the CD comes out," he says. Chris smiles at him and leaves.
Lance is tired and wants to go straight to bed. JC is looking longingly at the couch, so Joey says good night. As he leaves, he picks the tabloid up off the floor where he'd dropped it.******************************************
They are all a little tentative around each other when they gather around the long glossy table in the hotel conference room. Justin hasn't apologized, at least not where Joey could hear, but he spent an evening sitting across the table from Lance, listening attentively to some particularly detailed FreeLance plans. The next morning, he sat cross-legged on the couch, watching Joey through his lashes as Joey watched TV. "What?" Joey finally said, but he was grinning. Justin leaned into him and Joey ran a hand over his shorn head. "Infant," he mumbled, and Justin laughed. The sound loosened a tight knot that had been in Joey's chest since Justin stumbled onto the bus, tabloid in hand.
The knot returns when he notices a copy of the tabloid photo in the folder in front of him. Justin makes a small noise when he sees it, and Chris' eyes narrow. Joey tries to look at anything other than the photo and Justin's pale face. Lance is sitting across from him, his lips pressed together in a thin line. Joey closes his eyes.
He opens them when he hears Lance's voice, strangely flat. "What do you want me to do?" JC is sitting beside him, running a light hand up and down Lance's forearm. Lance doesn't seem to notice.
Marisa isn't alone this time. A perky blonde in a tailored suit answers, "Unfortunately, as we've discussed, Mr. Bass, this type of thing can be very detrimental -"
"We'd like you to get a girlfriend," Marisa says.
Lance's laugh is so clipped and sharp that it sounds like a bark. JC's hand pauses, then resumes its gentle stroking. "I'm on tour ten months out of the year, and in the studio the other two," Lance says. "I'd like to see you keep a girlfriend with my schedule."
"We can set something up for you," the blonde chirps. "There's a lot of women, actresses, models, who would love to meet you -"
"This is what I have to do?" Lance looks at Marisa.
"I think it would be wise. Just until the release. We'll have a better idea where we are then."
"All right. I'll do it."
"Who knows, you might even meet someone you really like," the blonde says. "Lots of people meet this way, people who are too busy to -"
"Are we done?" JC interrupts. JC who is compulsively polite, especially to people who work for them. Joey wishes he'd said it.
"We're done," Marisa says.******************************************
Gemma is tall and curvy, with curly hair and a snub nose. Her face is naggingly familiar to Joey until he realizes he's seen her as a guest star on countless sitcoms. She'll play the star's best friend on a new one in the fall, she tells Joey.
She comes backstage after a concert one night. She takes Lance's hand lightly as Marisa introduces them. She teases Chris about his fear of heights, mentioning her mountain-climbing expeditions. She wins JC's heart instantly by asking where he bought his tulip pants. She asks Joey for baby pictures, and tells him about her sister's four-month-old. She takes in Justin's wan, tense face, and her voice softens as she speaks to him. Joey likes her.
Lance likes her too. He tugs gently on her curls as she's talking to Joey, and when she turns to smile at him, he beams widely back. "It's like you're in fourth grade," she says, pulling her hair through his fingers, and when he laughs it's his real laugh, the Bass laugh. Joey smiles when he hears it, and walks away.
"You like her," Joey says later. Lance lies along the couch, looking up at Joey.
"Yeah, I do. I mean, I've only known her a few hours, and there's only so much you can learn about someone in that mess backstage. But she's cute, she's sweet, she's smart. It looked like you guys liked her too."
"She was cool," Joey says. "So, you gonna see her again?"
"Yeah. She's got to go back to LA, but we've got those two days off, so I thought we'd. You know. Have dinner or something. A real date. Not like tonight." Lance sighs. "They should be happy, though. A couple of photographers took pictures."
"You know, you don't have to do this," Joey says suddenly. "We'll be fine. The record will be great. People don't care about those stupid pictures. Gossip. People know better."
Lance sits up. He looks tired, Joey thinks. "They do care, Joe. I don't know why, but they do. God, I think they care more than I ever thought, after." Lance stops, and Joey knows he's thinking of Justin. Joey shifts uneasily. He is, too.
Lance smiles at him. "Besides, I do really like her. She's a lot of fun. And," Lance looks down, flushes a little, "I'm kind of lonely, Joe."
Joey smiles back at him. It makes his face hurt.
In the morning, Lance grins irrepressibly as he makes arrangements to take Gemma to a movie premiere. Chris teases him about getting laid and Lance just laughs. Joey's face hurts.******************************************
Joey finds himself at loose ends while Lance is away. When he knocks on Chris' door, Chris opens it wearing only a pair of jeans. Once Joey would have given him shit about love in the afternoon. But there's nothing for him to laugh at in Chris' harassed face. For the first time since Joey's known him, Chris has been acting his age. Joey doesn't like it.
Chris steps into the hallway and closes the door carefully behind him. "I can't, Joey," he says, running his hand through his hair. "I'm sorry, man."
"Don't be," Joey says, and curses his banality. "And. Just. You know, when it comes out, everything will ease up a little. It'll get better, you know?"
"I hope you're right, Joe," Chris says. "Can't hardly get worse." But he doesn't look at Joey. They both know ways it could get worse.
"Well," Joey says reluctantly. "Guess I'll get going. Tell J I said hi, okay?" Chris nods and starts to go back inside. Then, because he can't help it, Joey says, "Is he going to be all right?"
Chris' sudden smile makes him think of wolves. "He'll be all right, if I have to kill Lynn myself."
"Good plan." Chris laughs, and he looks a little like the old Chris. Joey feels better as he walks down the hall to JC's room.
Outside JC's door Joey pauses. C should be a restful person to be around, Joey thinks, because half the time he's too engaged by his dreams to realize there's anyone else in the room. But when he decides to notice, his attention is almost painfully bright. Joey's been unnerved before at what he's said under the demanding glare of JC's undivided focus. He decides to go out drinking instead.******************************************
The next morning Joey wakes up with a hangover and a blond man in his bed. He thinks now might be a good time to talk to JC.
Joey knocks half-heartedly on the door. He knows it's too early for JC to be up. He lets himself in and stands beside JC's bed. Joey has always heard that people are supposed to look younger in their sleep, but JC looks older, the corners of his mouth turned down, soft new curls smashed against the sheets. It's as if in repose his face has relaxed into the lines of tension he fights during the day. JC is sprawled across the bed, sheet tangled around his legs, wearing boxers and a threadbare T-shirt. Joey thinks he looks more exposed in these clothes, so different from his sparkling daytime finery, than he would if he were naked.
Joey sits, puts a hand on JC's shoulder, whispers "C." JC opens his eyes easily and smiles. "Hey, Joe, what d'ya know?" he says, unsurprised at the sight of Joey sitting on the edge of his bed. Then he blinks hard and bolts upright, one hand pushing his hair on end. "Is something wrong?"
"No, no," Joey says. "Relax. Everything's cool."
JC sags back against the headboard. "What are you doing here?"
Joey opens his mouth to tell him the whole sad tale, then stops. JC's eyes are bright, a small smile on his face. His face is clear, lacking the harsh tense lines Joey saw as JC slept, but not yet taking on the patient, deliberate calm he wears all day as he covers for Chris and Justin and Lance - and himself, Joey thinks with a pang. He can't bring himself to disturb this morning ease. "I thought we could go to breakfast," he says. "Chris and J won't surface for hours, so it'll just be you and me. Maybe we can convince them to let us go out to Denny's."
When JC actually claps his hands in delight, Joey is happy he didn't say anything.
He's even happier when they return, wearing baggy jeans and baseball caps, JC still chattering. As he steps off the elevator, Joey sees that the door to Chris' room is open. "Looks like they're having a good day," Joey says. "We should go say hi."
"Yeah," JC says, but his voice is tight. When Joey turns to him in concern, JC crumples back against the wall, his face miserable. A guard stands up, but Joey waves him off and stands in front of JC, blocking him from view. "I hate myself," JC whispers.
"C? What?" Joey is at a loss.
"I'm just so tired of it, Joe. He's so sad and hurt, and Chris is so mad, and it's heartbreaking, and God, if I'm tired of it, how must they feel? I hate this, I hate this fucking tour. Everything's all screwed up, it's awful, and I don't do anything. I don't do anything."
"There's nothing you can do," Joey says. It's a feeling he knows very well.
"I could say we're stopping the tour for a while so Justin doesn't have to go out there every night and pretend nothing's wrong. Justin won't ask because he doesn't want to let us down, and he won't let Chris ask, but I could. I could tell Lance he doesn't have to fly across the country on one of our three days off this month so he can have a fake date with a woman he's known for all of five hours. But I don't, I don't do anything, I just sit around bitching because it makes me feel a little bad to look at my friends when their lives are falling apart." JC's voice has a bitter sting to it that he would never use on anyone but himself, and Joey bends his head, leans his forehead against JC's.
"I know," Joey says. "I know." He does. "I hate it too. But Justin won't let you stop the tour, he'd just feel worse. And Lance, well, I don't like it any more than you do. But Lance doesn't seem to mind."
"He should," JC says passionately. JC leans away from Joey a little and scrubs a hand hard across his face. Joey can see the red mark it leaves. He moves JC's hand away gently and hugs him.
"You're holding us all together, C," he whispers in JC's ear. "Don't think I haven't noticed." Joey feels a little guilty, because he hadn't really thought much about JC until today. JC puts his head on Joey's shoulder and Joey pulls him closer. Then JC breaks away, takes off his cap, runs a hand through his hair.
"Let's go," he says.
"Um. Maybe you should, you know, take the afternoon off," Joey says. "I'll go hang out with them. I don't mind."
"No," JC says, and strides down the hall. Joey follows him.******************************************
It's not a good day, Joey is beginning to forget what those are like, but it looks like an okay one. Chris is sitting on one end of the couch, remote in hand. Justin is curled up on his side, his feet tucked under Chris' leg. Chris' fingers are rubbing small circles above his ankle. Justin doesn't look great, but the bruises under his eyes are not as darkly violet as they have been, and he looks pale but not transparent, and he smiles and says hi as Joey and JC walk in. Joey is stricken suddenly at exactly how many gradations of looking like shit he's learned to analyze in Justin's face. He feels JC's hand touch his arm lightly, and he arranges his face into a reasonable facsimile of his usual smile and sits down.
"Sit up a minute, J," JC says, and when he does JC drops onto the couch and pulls Justin's head into his lap. JC talks lightly about breakfast, about the people they saw at Denny's. Chris flips through the channels. JC meets Joey's eyes and smiles at him. Joey thinks that if you took a picture of them, they'd look normal, a little tired maybe or hungover, but like nothing was really wrong. He's amazed, and then suddenly hopeful. They're there still, somewhere. They can come back. He remembers what the good days were like.
Suddenly Lance is standing in the doorway, back hours earlier than he was expected. Joey gets up and takes his bag from him, and Chris calls out, "Details, man, we want details." Even Justin sits up. Lance seems tired, Joey thinks, and his face looks pinched and drawn. It could just be jet lag, but Joey takes a second look and thinks it's not.
"How was your trip, Lance?" JC asks.
"Um. Yeah. It wasn't really. It wasn't really very good," Lance says. Joey takes a step toward him and puts a hand on his shoulder. Lance shakes him off, then flashes Joey an apologetic little smile.
"What happened?" JC says softly.
Lance runs a hand through his hair and leans on his elbow against the wall. He stares at the floor. "I guess there was some sort of, I don't know, mix-up or something. It must have been with her people, because I don't see why ours would. But she said that her agent said. Anyway. Um. She was really sweet about it, and sorry. But there was some sort of misunderstanding. She's been getting a lot of shit lately, you know, rumors, and her people thought. She didn't want. She thought. She thought she and I could help each other out."
Lance looks up and then quickly down again. Joey can see that the other three look as confused as he feels.
"Yeah. Um. She's a lesbian," Lance says. There is a stunned silence. "I met her girlfriend," Lance continues in a small voice. "They were really nice to me."
Joey knows there's an element of the absurd in the situation, but he can't appreciate it, not with Lance looking humiliated and kicking at the wall. He thinks of Lance saying, "I'm kind of lonely, Joe," and he feels a simultaneous urge to cry and to hit someone very, very hard. The silence is becoming awkward. Even JC is at a loss for words, and Joey is trying to think of something to say when he feels his heart leap a few seconds before he realizes what he hears.
Justin is laughing. Not the slightly hollow, artificial laugh he uses now during interviews that always makes Joey's skin crawl, and not the short forced sound he makes in private, more as an acknowledgement that a joke's been made than an expression of amusement. No, it's his old laugh, full and clear, giggles shaking his entire body. Justin has his hands over his mouth, and he's gasping out, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," and Joey hadn't realized just how much he'd missed it until this moment. The thought that he's going to have to stop it almost breaks his heart. He's tempted not to for a moment, then he thinks, Lance. Lance. He looks over at Lance to gather the strength to do it.
Lance's blush has faded, and he's not kicking at the wall anymore. His body is still tight and tense, but his face is lit up with an emotion Joey doesn't recognize. He's not looking at Justin. Joey follows his eyes, and sees Chris.
Chris is completely still, barely breathing, watching Justin with a look that reminds Joey of - well, he doesn't know what it reminds him of, only knows with a sudden low ache that he's never felt anything so deep and hard. Chris' look is so intense and so private that Joey looks away. He catches JC's eyes and JC holds his gaze for a long moment. Then JC stands up, runs a hand over Justin's head, and walks to the door. He links one arm through Lance's, one through Joey's, and guides them out.
In the hallway JC lets go of their arms, and Lance pulls away a little and leans against the wall. "Justin didn't mean anything," JC says.
"Oh, I know," Lance says. "I don't care. It was kind of good, to hear again, you know? And at least maybe something came out of -" Lance stops and kicks at the wall again.
"You all right?" JC says, looking at Lance carefully.
"Yeah," Lance says. "I think. I just want to be by myself for a while, you know? I'm kind of tired. I think I'll just. Take a nap or something." He smiles weakly. "Don't worry about me. I'm just a little. I think we're all. You know. We'll all relax when the CD drops."
Joey repeats, "We'll all relax then," like a litany. He's not sure he believes it anymore.
"Okay," JC says. Lance turns to go.
"You know where we are if you want us," Joey calls, and Lance turns back around and smiles.
"I know, Joey," he says.
"Do you want to," JC says, and jerks his head toward his room.
"Naw," Joey says. "I think I just want to lie down for a while or something. You know."
"Sure," JC says. "There's something I should do, anyway." But he's still standing there in the hallway when Joey shuts his door.******************************************
Joey lies on the couch and turns on the TV. He doesn't think he'll actually be able to sleep, but when the knock on his door comes, he blinks and realizes he's been napping for three hours. He heads sleepily for the door.
"Joe, do you mind if I," Lance says, running a hand through his hair nervously. "I thought maybe. Can I come in?"
"Sure," Joey says. "Sure, come on in. You doing okay, Bass?"
"Yeah," Lance says, and sits on the couch. Then he sighs and says, "No. No, I'm not doing so okay."
Joey sits down next to him and puts an arm around his shoulders. Lance leans into him. "Well, you had a tough trip," Joey says. "That was some weird shit."
"Yeah," Lance says. He sighs. "Can I ask you something, Joe?"
"You can ask me anything," Joey says.
"Yeah. Um. Okay." Lance sits up straight, leaving the circle of Joey's arm, and puts his hands on his knees. He sighs again and squares his shoulders. "Do you think there's something wrong with me, Joey?"
"Lance," Joey says. "Lance, no. Lance."
"No," Lance says. "Just because. I don't seem to be able to. I can't. It just seems so easy for everybody else, and I never can. Ever. And I'm so. God, no wonder they all think I'm. But I just can't seem to find anybody, Joe. Ever. And I'm." Lance takes a shaky breath. "Joey, I'm so lonely."
Joey has to close his eyes for a minute. When he opens them, Lance is scrubbing at his face. "God," he says, "I'm such a fucking baby. I'm sorry." He laughs a little, awkwardly. "I'm coming apart here, all over your couch."
"No, Lance," Joey says. He puts a hand over Lance's shoulder and tugs him back, until Lance is leaning into him again. "There's nothing wrong with you. Nothing. It's just hard, you know. Hard for everyone. Our life's not exactly geared toward normal relationships, you know. We all get to feeling that way sometimes. It's not you."
"But it is, Joey," Lance says. "I mean, it'd be different if there was someone, and they didn't like me or something. But I never even get that close. And it is me," he says insistently as Joey opens his mouth to protest. "Because look at us. There's Chris and Justin, and then there's you, and you had Kelly, and lots of girls before that, and then there's. But I just never. I never get close to anyone. It's just me."
"It's not just you," Joey says. "Because look at us, like you said. There's Chris and Justin, and they hit the jackpot, you know? They each found someone with a life as crazy as theirs, but that's not gonna happen for most of us. And then there's me. And I had Kelly, but I sure as hell don't have her anymore, do I? And there were lots of girls before that, but none of them stuck around. God, I can't even remember most of their names. And then there's JC. He doesn't have anyone either."
"Yeah," Lance says. He looks away for a minute.
"It's not you, Bass," Joey whispers. Lance sighs.
"And it's like. God, Joey, you can't tell anyone this." Joey nods. "And I know everything's shitty for them now and everything, but God, sometimes I get so jealous of Chris and Justin. Because they've got somebody, right there, all the time. Somebody to go to bed with, and wake up with in the morning, not just a one-night stand but somebody who knows them. And I go back to my room at night, and answer emails that don't really need to be answered, and read contracts that people who know a lot more than me have already read, and think up a million and one stupid projects just to distract myself. Because, Joe," Lance says, "Joe, I'm so fucking lonely. I don't know what to do."
Lance tips his head back against Joey's arm and closes his eyes. Joey studies his face, so close to Joey's own. He sees Lance so often, he thinks he must have his face memorized. But somehow when he closes his eyes and calls it up, his mind can never quite match the thin perfect curve of lip, the pale tender oval of eyelid, trembling already as if in anticipation of Joey's finger tracing lightly across it. Joey slides a palm along Lance's jaw, skin tingling from the prickle of beard Lance has started to leave for a few days at a time. Lance opens his eyes and smiles at him.
Joey can't help kissing that smile.
Lance pulls away. "Joey," he says, "Joey, what -" Joey sits back and puts a hand over his eyes. When he moves it, Lance is standing across the room, one hand against the window. "Do you all think," Lance says, "you all think I'm. God, I never thought you'd. You all think I'm lying about it? To you?"
"No," Joey says fervently, "no, we know you wouldn't lie, Lance. No one thinks that."
"So you think. God. No wonder everyone thinks it. You do, too. What, you think I'm, like, lying to myself? Or, like, repressing, or what?"
"No," Joey says, "no, Lance, of course not, come on, come sit back down."
Lance presses a hand against his eyes. "Then why did you. Why would you do that, if you didn't think?"
"Lance," Joey says. He doesn't know what else to say. Lance looks at him. Joey knows he has to come up with something. "Lance, come on, it was me. You know me. I'm an idiot. You know that. I'm a slut. I hit on everything that moves. You can't take it seriously. Come on, you know me."
"See, Joey," Lance says quietly, "I might buy that. Except I know you." Joey hangs his head. Lance sighs shakily, and Joey can't bear the pain in that tiny thread of sound. "I can't believe you all thought. The whole world, fine, I don't care, but you know me. You know me. And you thought. And none of you ever talked to me about it. God, Joey."
Lance heads blindly for the door, and Joey gets up to follow him. He stands outside Lance's room. He won't knock until he thinks of something to say to Lance. He stands there until Lonnie comes up and asks him if something's wrong. Joey shrugs him off and goes to JC.******************************************
JC's face lights up when he opens the door. Joey doesn't think that light will last long when JC hears what happened. Joey's right.
JC's mouth falls open when Joey finishes his story. "You kissed him?" JC says. "But, Joey. I thought you were. You know, straight."
"Okay," Joey says, "I'm not sure that's the most important point right now, C."
"But - you aren't?"
Joey sighs. "Well, not militantly," he says, but JC doesn't smile. "Look," Joey says, "I didn't make a big deal out of it or anything. I guess I just always had this, like, theory, that if it was the right person, then gender wouldn't, you know, matter all that much."
"I guess Lance doesn't have the same theory," JC says. "Or else you aren't the right person."
Joey opens his mouth. He closes it. His jaw keeps working. JC puts his hands over his face, then takes them away.
"Joey," JC says, "I didn't mean it. I'm sorry."
"No," Joey says, "no, you're right. I shouldn't have done it."
"Well, that's another issue entirely," JC says. He sits down next to Joey. "I'm sorry I said that, Joe."
"Yeah," Joey says.
"So where is he now?"
"He went to his room. I think he's kind of freaked out."
"Yeah, you think, Joe? He thinks all his closest friends secretly thought he was lying to them, or to himself, about one of the biggest parts of his life, and you think he might be a little freaked out."
"I know," Joey says. "You don't have to tell me. I know I fucked up."
"Yeah," JC says, but his voice is softer. He puts his head on Joey's shoulder. "You have like the worst timing in the history of the world, you know?"
"I know," Joey says ruefully. He puts his arm around JC.
"What made you do it right now? I mean, today of all days."
"I don't know, C. I mean, he was just so sad. He was sitting there, I had my arm around him and he just looked so, I don't know, he just looked so Lance. And I just. I just wanted to."
"Yeah," JC says. He sits up and puts his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. He sits like that for a long time. After a while, Joey puts a hand on his back and rubs it soothingly.
"It'll be okay, C," he says. "The record will be out soon, and everybody will be -"
"And everybody will be what, Joe?" JC says, sitting up and pulling away from Joey's hand. "The record will be out soon, and what exactly will change? We'll either make a couple million more dollars, or our careers will be over, but it's not going to get Lance a girlfriend, or make Lynn less of a bitch, or make you. God," JC says, and sighs. "Seriously, Joe, what do you think it's going to change?"
"I don't know," Joey says. He doesn't. "It's just. Something to say, I guess."
"Yeah," JC says. He puts a hand on Joey's arm, then takes it off. "It's that, I guess." JC stands up. "I'm going to go talk to Lance."
"What are you. What are you going to say to him?" Joey says.
"I don't know, Joe," JC snaps. "Maybe I'll tell him the fucking record will be out soon." Joey looks down. "I don't know, Joey," JC says, more gently this time. "The truth, I guess. I don't know what else to say to him."
"I'm sorry," Joey says.
"Me too," JC says, and leaves.******************************************
The next day they have another press briefing. Joey can't think of anything he wants to do less. But this time they're greeted by an older man in a business suit who hands out schedules, clarifies a few times and locations, asks if they have any questions, then smiles pleasantly and says, "That's it, then. Have a good morning." They all look at him a little stupidly.
"Where's Marisa?" Lance says. "And what's her name?"
"It was decided that their talents would be best utilized elsewhere," the man says smoothly. "I'm sure I can take care of anything you need. Was there anything else?"
"Um, no," Lance says. "Thank you."
"No, Mr. Bass, thank you."
Lance gets up to leave, and Joey puts a hand on his arm. "Lance," he says. "Do you think we can -"
"Not now, Joey," Lance hisses, and brushes past him. JC hurries after him, casting an apologetic look back at Joey. Joey sits. Chris' eyes flicker over him curiously, but then Justin heads for the door and Chris follows him. Joey doesn't move.
The man puts a hand lightly on Joey's shoulder. "The record comes out soon," he says quietly, and walks out.
Joey is alone.******************************************
The record comes out.
Joey hadn't realized he was holding his breath until he sees the numbers and lets it out. He's not sure why he's so relieved. Why they're so relieved, because he can feel all of them relax, stretch out into the sudden space that seems to open before them. He doesn't think it's just the money, the fame, although sure, that's a part of it. But he thinks it's something else. He thinks it's because it buys them all time. It means they keep going the same way they always have. It means they can stay together.
He tries to tell Chris this, and Chris laughs at him. "It'll buy us a hell of a lot more than time," Chris says. But he throws an arm around Joey's shoulders, and his laugh is loud and generous. Joey's been waiting a long time to hear that laugh.
He tries to tell JC, and JC looks at him for a minute. "Yeah, Joe," he says harshly. "We can keep going the way we always have. We can stay together. Chris and Justin can keep living in their little bubble, and Lance can keep avoiding having any kind of normal human relationship, and you can keep mooning after him."
"And what can you keep doing, JC?" Joey says evenly. "What is it that you do?"
JC bites his lip. Then he reaches a hand out and touches Joey's face gently. "I'm sorry, Joe," he says. Joey can tell he means it. "I'm just. I don't know. Give me a few days, all right?" He starts to walk past, and Joey catches his hand and pulls him back.
"C?" he says. "Is something wrong?"
"Just give me a few days," JC says, and walks away.
He doesn't try to tell Lance. He doesn't think Lance will listen. But Joey brushes up against him at a photo shoot one day, and Lance wraps an arm around Joey's waist. And after that it's just like it used to be between them. Joey hesitates only an instant before he touches Lance, and that's not so much, really, a tiny tremor that wasn't there before, like the memory of a pain instead of the pain itself.******************************************
It's funny, but it seems they were right without knowing it. Everything does seem to change after the record drops.
Justin goes home for a weekend. Chris doesn't want him to go, and they fight about it loudly. Joey, Lance and JC sit on the couch in the next room with the TV on and pretend they're not listening. Finally Justin says he doesn't care what Chris does, but he's going, and that ends it. No one thinks Chris will let Justin go alone. They leave, and Joey, Lance and JC sit on the couch with the TV on and pretend they're not worrying.
Justin comes back glowing, looking happier than Joey's seen him in a long time. Joey thinks it's some kind of miracle until he sees the look on Chris' face. Chris still looks tight and tense, and his lips twist while Justin tells the rest of them about his weekend. JC pulls him aside, and Joey watches JC's jaw work as Chris whispers to him. Joey thinks some kind of deal must have been cut that weekend. JC touches Justin's cheek as he walks by, and Justin looks up at him, grinning widely. Whatever it was, Joey doesn't think Justin knows about it. But Justin beats Joey three times at Playstation that day, and spends the afternoon crowing about his exploits at the top of his lungs, and Chris grins and shoves him off the couch. Whatever it was, Joey thinks it might have been worth it.
JC forgives him, too, for the whole mess with Lance. He spends a few days holed up in his bunk or in his room whenever he doesn't have something scheduled, and he comes out the same old JC. He smiles at Justin and looks at Lance with concern and curls up next to Joey on the couch. JC shivers, just a little, as he leans into Joey, and Joey tosses a blanket over him and pulls him close. Joey tries to apologize for dragging him into the whole thing, for making him clean up after Joey, but JC just shakes his head and refuses to listen. He won't let Joey talk about Lance, which is a good thing, Joey knows. He has to move on. But JC still brings him songs to listen to, before he shows them to anyone else, and watches hours of home movies of Brianna, and rubs Joey's leg gently when he puts it up on the seat of the car after concerts. He's the same old JC.
And Lance - Lance gets a girlfriend. Joey thinks at first that it might bother him, but Lance beams with happiness when he's with her. Joey can't stand to see that smooth sleek shine disturbed by the tiny lines that furrow Lance's brow when he sees Joey frowning, so Joey smiles and smiles and sweet talks the poor girl until he's sure she thinks he's hitting on her.
She's pretty, and smart, and nice, and she makes Lance happy, which is the most important thing. Justin quirks an eyebrow at Lance one day before soundcheck and says, deadpan, "So this one. Not a lesbian?" Joey holds his breath; he thinks it might be too soon for that kind of joke. Lance just looks at Justin, who can't keep his mouth shut, of course (thank God, Joey thinks to himself, thank God). "Cause I think you might have dropped the other one too early. I don't think you fully explored the possibilities -" and Lance launches himself over the back of the couch and lands on Justin. He straddles him and pins his arms with one hand and tickles him with the other. Justin squirms and yells and really, there's no way Lance should be able to hold him down except that Justin is cracking himself up. Lance's girlfriend appears in the doorway, and Lance stands. Justin sits up and pulls his shirt down and catches his breath. "What's so funny?" she asks, and smiles politely when everyone laughs.
Lance comes to Joey's room one night, after they've all had dinner together. He sits on the foot of Joey's bed and traces the pattern on the bedspread. "See, I've been thinking about that night," he says, and Joey catches his breath before he sees the look on Lance's face.
"Yeah," Joey says, leaning against the dresser.
"See, I think. I mean, everything was pretty bad then, and I know I was really lonely, and I think maybe you were kind of lonely. And I think maybe we. I think we kind of got ourselves twisted around."
"Well, maybe I got myself twisted around," Joey says, "but you didn't really, Lance."
"Well, yeah. Yeah. But the point is. I was thinking about it, and I think I've figured it out."
Joey starts to tell him there's nothing to figure out. It's the oldest story in the world. But he catches another glimpse of Lance's face and shuts his mouth.
"I just. I was really hurting, and I know you can't take seeing anyone like that, especially. Especially me. And I think. I think maybe you just wanted to, you know, comfort me. Make me feel better. And I maybe. I maybe overreacted." Lance looks up hopefully. "Don't you think that's what that was about?"
Lance can't quite meet Joey's eyes. Lance doesn't quite believe it yet. But Joey knows that if he says yes, soon Lance will. Lance wants to.
"Yeah," Joey says. "Yeah, I think you might have something there. I think that might be what it was about."
"Good," Lance says, standing up. "Because I'd hate to think. Yeah. Good." He starts to walk out.
"Lance," Joey says. Lance turns to him, smiling. "You're happy, right?"
"Oh, yeah, Joey," Lance says. His smile widens until Joey thinks it might crack his face right open. "She's really great. I mean, you really like her, right?"
Joey does like Lance's girlfriend. He always thinks of her that way, Lance's girlfriend, almost like it's one word. It's not that he doesn't know her name. It's just that it helps him somehow to think of her that way. It helps him remember the way things are. It's easier for him, when Lance is laughing up at him or twisting under his teasing fingers.
It's easier for him, when he remembers the way things are.******************************************
Joey sits on a stool before sound check starts. Justin is sitting on the edge of the stage, legs dangling. Chris is lying next to him, stretched out on his stomach. They're bickering companionably over something. Joey stopped listening a while ago. They're happy, Chris and Justin.
He watches Lance and Lance's girlfriend. Lance is propped against his stool, and she is resting against him, half in his lap, smiling up at him. They're happy too, Lance and Lance's girlfriend.
JC comes up to him and stands between his legs, leaning back until he's pressed against Joey's chest. Joey tucks his chin onto JC's shoulder and runs a hand through his hair. JC smiles up at him.
"You okay?" JC says quietly. Joey wraps an arm easily around his waist.
"Yeah," Joey says. "Yeah. We're friends, you know? And that's. That's just. I don't think I'd trade that for anything." This is almost true.
"Yeah," JC says. "I know what you mean. That's the best thing, I think. Friends."
Joey tightens his arm around JC's waist. JC leans back against him and pats his leg. They watch Chris and Justin and Lance and Lance's girlfriend.