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When he was finally ready to call someone, Lance called JC.

Justin was straight out, because Lance was still too hurt to talk to him, even if he had told Justin that, "No, really, it's fine, I get you needing to do your own thing."

Chris was out because Chris was still too hurt and would say, "I tried that. NSYNC worked out better."

Joey was out because Joey would know exactly what insecurities Lance was having about the whole thing and would immediately attempt to alleviate them, thereby betraying his own level of insecurity as well.

Which left JC. Who was unpredictable enough that Lance at least had the pleasure of not knowing how the announcement would be received.

The downside of calling JC first was that meant Lance had to catch up with JC, who was plain awful about returning phone calls. Lance suspected that this was not because he did not want to speak to the other guys, but rather because JC and technology were not the best of friends and oftentimes, JC did not precisely understand what his ridiculously complicated cell phone (a present from Justin, in the vain hopes that it would mean actually being able to get in touch with JC) was trying to tell him.

It took two days and four messages, but in the end, Lance picked up his own (perfectly user-friendly) cell-phone (which he had named D due to its sweet disposition and a crush that he might have maybe had on a rival boybander with similar qualities) and answered, "Hey Jace."

"Did you leave me a message?"

Conscious that JC was slightly touchy about his relationship with his cell-phone, Lance laughed into his hand. "Yeah, I did, thanks for getting back."

"Just call to talk?" JC sounded doubtful, which was fair enough, since Lance very rarely ever called anyone without some type of purpose.

"I have something I have to tell you about. You're the first person I'm telling, though, so you can't talk about it with the others, at least not until I tell them."

"Cross my heart."

Lance would've bet money JC was actually going through the motion. "About six months ago, I went down to the post office to get my mail from my box. A lot of it was the usual shit, fan letters from people who had managed to find that addy, bills, catalogues, that kind of thing."

"But?"

"There was a brochure from the University of Miami. Inviting me to take a look at their campus."

"I guess you did, or you wouldn't be telling me all this. Did you like it?"

Lance counted to three in his head before taking the plunge. "Enough to apply and get accepted and put a deposit down to start next semester."

There was a second of silence before JC spoke in a whisper. "Holy shit. For real?"

Aware that JC, with his lack of ability to cotton on, was quite often the butt of Chris's more elaborate practical jokes, Lance knew the question was part amazement, part fact-checking. "I can send you the receipt for the deposit that I printed off of Aragorn." Aragorn was his computer, named both for its ability to survive just about anything and in honor of Lance's most pure geek-boy crush.

"Whoa. Lance. College. You're gonna be all edumacated."

"Yeah, well, we'll see how far I make it. It's a four year deal, so I've heard."

"You always finish things."

"This is…"

"Different?" JC asked.

"Big."

"You're bigger," JC said, with a confidence that made Lance's stomach flip. Nauseated or no, Lance felt he'd made the right decision in calling JC first. JC cemented this sentiment with a, "Can I come help you decorate your college student pad? Pretty please? With a cherry and whipped cream and properly heated hot fudge on top?"

*

"This is not a college student pad." JC put his hands on his hips and looked around the simple two bedroom apartment with clean rugs and a bathroom free of mildew.

"For one thing, how would you know?" Lance asked. "And for another, I had enough of living in shitholes when we were in Europe. I'm not a starving college student, I'm an ex-popstar going back to school. Think of this as my shag pad, if it helps."

JC considered the title. With a little bit of added atmosphere, he supposed it could work.

"Don't even think about it."

"Think about what?"

"You are not putting blacklights or lava lamps anywhere near this place."

"La-ance." JC bounced in supplication.

"No, Jace. We're going for college chic, not pimp chic."

"But lava lamps are college chic. I know, Taylor had four of them when he was at Rollins."

"You bought him all four!"

"Well, yeah, but he kept them."

Lance sighed. "Will you relent if I let you string Christmas lights in any color and shape that you choose?"

JC could compromise. "If you take me to a place with a good selection."

"This is my shag pad, you think I'm taking chances here?"

JC grinned. "Wait until you see the housewarming gifts Joey sent with me."

"If it's ugly, I don't care how much thought went into it, it's not being put up," Lance said.

"You're putting up Bri's drawings, we're not even gonna argue about that." JC didn't really expect any resistance, but it wasn't a subject on which he was willing to give room for it either.

"I'm her godfather, Jace, I'm pretty clear on the rules as far as Bri is concerned. What did her lame ass excuse for a father send me?"

"Posters."

"Good posters or bad posters?"

In fairness to Lance, with Joey's sense of aesthetics, it was always a crapshoot. "Well, I think the 'Cat in the Hat' poster is garish, but I'm sure you'll pee yourself. And the vintage 'Star Wars' is the stuff of college boy wet dreams. You'll have to stop your dates from creaming themselves before you get in on the action."

"Original print?" Lance was not easily impressed.

"He even framed it for you, baby."

"That might deserve a thank you note."

Seeing as how Lance was obviously in a beneficent mood, JC figured this was the best opportunity he was going to get to slip, "J heard you were moving, sent you Dr. Seuss sheets, hundred thread count, they're really nice," under the radar.

"Jace."

"He says he's gonna come visit."

"I'll believe it when he's on this side of my door, sitting down for longer than sixty seconds. I'll send him a thank you letter too, you don't have to freak."

Not at all comfortable with the rupture between his friends, not at all comfortable with the fact that it did feel as though Justin had left them all behind, JC said, "Chris sent snacks and informed me that it was my sacred duty to start you on your way toward gaining the freshman fifteen."

"I almost hate to disappoint."

JC tugged at Lance's jean jewel. "C'mon, let's do an Ikea run, pick you up sturdy and yet inexpensive living accessories that neither of us can figure out how to assemble."

"Speak for yourself."

"Oh, I do. I just speak for you as well."

Lance pinched JC in that not-quite painful way, the way that JC had long ago learned to translate into, "I'm glad you're here."

*

Back before Lance had transferred into the joke that was bus school, he had received a pamphlet on how to take the SATs. At the time Lance had read the four pages of information cover to cover, intent on going somewhere a bit more flashy than the University of Mississippi.

One of the sections in the pamphlet had dealt with stress management, how to do well on the test despite being scared witless. It had suggested that the test-taker do something unrelated to the test the night before, get a good night's sleep, wake up and eat a hearty breakfast.

Lance figured that he was roughly about three hundred times as nervous about his first day of classes (two classes, one at nine and another at one-thirty) as he ever possibly could have worked up the energy to be over the SAT. Still, it stood to reason that most of the suggestions were probably solid.

JC had flown out to start work on his second solo album, the one Lance knew JC wasn't yet feeling. Lance had faith that the enthusiasm would come, it always did with JC and music, but so far, JC had all the excitement of a hippo about to cross the Sahara when speaking of the beginning production stages. JC's departure left Lance alone in his brand new digs, and while Lance didn't necessarily mind being alone, when he was tempted to crawl out of his own skin from sheer nerves it wasn't generally the state in which he desired to be.

He thought about hitting a bar near campus, seeing if he could maybe meet up with a few of the other students. He had opted out of orientation events suspecting that the incoming class of freshman wasn't going to support a cadre of people whom he desired to befriend, seeing as how he was a good eight years older than most of them.

Somehow he didn't think getting drunk fit into that whole stress reduction plan, however, so he popped in his DVD of the first season of "Smallville" and thought longingly of Joey and Michael Rosenbaum's cock, in no particular order. He watched the first three episodes before making himself turn the TV off, brush his teeth, change into pajamas, and crawl into the Dr. Seuss sheets with which JC had insisted on making the bed. After nearly an hour of staring at the ginormous "Return of the King" poster that JC had found Lance on Ebay, ordered as JC's very own apartment-warming gift, and insisted on plastering above Lance's bed, Lance got up, took a shot of Nyquil and returned to bed.

Uruk'hai in glasses with coke-bottle lenses and the verbal inflections of one Rupert Giles peppered his dreams informing him that, "College, young man, is not for the faint of heart."

Waking up to the insistence of obnoxiously cheerful morning DJ chatter, Lance sent up a prayer that it was for the faint of stomach. He managed a piece of toast and a glass of water before climbing into his car to head off to campus an hour early. If he had nothing else to show for himself in this whole venture, Lance vowed he would have his promptness.

*

JC thanked every deity he could think of when his phone buzzed against the back of his leg. He dug around in his pockets -- there being three of them near the area that the phone was obviously located in -- and pulled it out, triumphantly. "Uh, guys," he told his collaborators, "I gotta take this."

He whisked out of the studio where nothing much was actually getting done before anyone could object. In the hall, he pressed the talk button. "Baby."

"Hey Jace." Lance's voice was far away.

"Tell me 'bout your first day," JC said, with a gentleness that was obviously required.

"They were friendlier in Russia."

JC's stomach clenched at that. Lance hadn't really complained about Russia, but the guys had all known from the things he didn't say that words like "fag" and "stupid little rich boy" had become part of Lance's daily interactions. At least, their Russian equivalents. "It's only your first day, did you really even talk to anyone?"

"Nobody would talk to me."

JC remembered showing up in LA so green others could still smell the grass if they got close enough. He remembered the looks and the whispers of people older than him at every audition. "They're just stupid eighteen year olds. You just have to meet the grad school students. I mean, you're just in the classes to learn, you don't need other people's approval for that."

"Jace-"

"How were the actual classes? Did the professors seem nice? Did they give you syllabi? I love that word, syllabi, the way you think it should be syllabuses, but it's not, because it's like, Latin, or something."

"The professors seemed nice enough. They weren't rude, at least. And my syllabus for Econ 101 actually seems pretty interesting, the professor believes in real world application and well, I'm good for that."

"You're good for a lot of things. Those prissy kids are gonna be begging at your doorstep for help before you know it."

Lance snickered. "How's the creating coming?"

"It's not." JC hated admitting to it, feeling as though he somehow wasn't holding up his end of the bargain.

"Writer's block?" Lance asked, sympathy running through his tone.

"I just don't think I'm ready to be all 'I'm JC Chasez, Not Of NSYNC, and I have moved on,' because, let's face it, that's really what this album is."

"Is the studio really pushing for you to get on it?"

"Like I'm a stalled car in the middle of rush hour traffic."

"Want me to find a loophole in your contract?"

"Lance, you've already got enough-"

Lance cut him off. "I offered, Jace."

JC said softly, "I just don't wanna be doing this right now. I don't have anything to say. I don’t want an album filled up with nothing but nonsensical silence."

"I'll see what I can do," Lance said.

JC stayed out in the hall for a few minutes after they'd hung up, holding onto his phone, wishing it were something -- someone -- more substantial.

*

Lance stayed in Friday night. He didn't have anyone begging him to come out, and he had a Comp 101 paper practically tugging at his heels. He had made a schedule out, and if he had dinner at six, started the paper by seven, finished by nine, he would have the rest of the evening to scour JC's contract and all of Sunday morning to sleep.

He was ahead of schedule at seven-thirty, having finished dinner early and plunged straight into his no-more-than-three-page-account of what lead him to his "collegiate journey," when the phone rang. Lance checked D's screen quickly and pressed "talk." "Hey Chris."

"Um, actually, not Chris."

Lance didn't know who he felt more betrayed by, Chris or D. "Justin."

"Chris doesn't know I have his phone, okay, so don't give him shit."

"Where is Chris?"

"He went to the bathroom."

Lance typed a sentence he knew he'd have to erase later. "Right. How's the album?"

"Y'know, good."

"I don't know, actually. Seeing as how I haven't heard any of it."

"Chris says you're at college. I didn't believe him, but then I called Joey and Joey knew too, and even then I thought maybe it was one of those things that they'd gone in on together, but I called C, and he was surprised you hadn't told me."

Lance hit the delete button with more force than necessary and ended up getting rid of a half a sentence previous in addition to the one for which he'd been aiming. "You're not the easiest person to get hold of."

"I check my email at least once every two days and my voice mail twice a day, Lance. I'm not the most complicated person to get hold of either."

"Justin, I'm majoring in business management at the University of Miami. Are we good now?"

"I think that's awesome."

"It's not a solo album, or anything-"

"Shut up, Lance." Justin sounded tired. "You should've told me."

"I don’t have to tell you anything any more," Lance pointed out in what he felt was a perfectly reasonable manner. "The way you don't have to worry over what I think about your songs."

"For fuck's- That doesn't mean I've just stopped!" Justin took a deep, loud breath. "Look, fuck it, I'll call you back sometime and we'll talk again."

"Fine."

"I know you, Bass. You can't hold onto this forever. You make everyone think you're the grand bitch of grudges but we all know that's Chris and that you're gonna fold eventually." Justin punctuated his point by hanging up.

Lance turned D off, determined to shun him for the rest of the night as punishment for his treachery. He curved his fingers into the perfect typing position he'd been taught in seventh-grade and continued, "Forward momentum isn't always as easy as it looks."

*

The email was from LBass@Umiami.edu, which made JC's face light up. The text of it wasn't half so exciting, a recounting of a rather disastrous bar expedition, a mentioning of a good tapas bar that Lance had found, and, oh, a note: "C, the loophole's easy. There's no time frame on your contract. Tell those bitches you're outta there and you'll be back when you have something to show them."

JC blushed slightly. He could have figured that out if he'd just had the patience to sit down with his own papers and look. He was just so used to having Lance around to do things like that for him. Which made it convenient that Lance was still willing to.

JC made calls to each of his collaborators to tell them he'd send them checks for time lost on the momentarily defunct album. Most of them were so relieved to be let off the hook that they offered to forego payment. JC mailed the checks anyway.

He emailed Johnny and Jive with a slightly more diplomatic version of Lance's suggested Dear John letter, keeping a hard copy for himself. When his business was completed, he packed a large duffel, threw it in the trunk of his most reliable and unrecognizable car and got on the highway heading East.

He called Joey while heading across Nevada. "Listen, can you keep a secret from some people and not others?"

"I've been known to exercise this power once in a while, what's up?"

"I'm on a road trip, heading down to stay with Lance for a bit."

"You get the car checked before you left?" Sometime between Briahna's arrival and the conception of the as-of-yet-unnamed-but-thoroughly-beloved-embryo, Joey had turned into a dad.

"No, but it had its regular check up a week and a half ago. I'm good, I promise." He was too. Chris had taught JC how to check the oil on a car and make sure the tires were adequately filled.

"Fine, what do you need?"

"I just wanted you to know so that you could be my safety guy, like, in case something happens, you know where I'm supposed to be."

"Who can I tell?"

"Kelly, Chris and Justin."

"Not Lance?"

"I'm going for the surprise thing, here."

"Ah. That'll be good. He's lonely."

"I know." JC tried not to make it clear just how intimately he understood Lance's position on this.

"Call me every night when you get to a stopping place and every morning when you start out," Joey said.

"I know the drill."

"Just reminding you, is all."

JC took a deep breath at the knowing and yet easy concern in that statement. "Thanks, Joey."

"Sure babe, any time."

*

Lance was unloading groceries from his weekly store run when somebody knocked on the door. The study group that he had promised to host wasn't until that evening and he didn't have any friends close enough to randomly drop by so he called, "Who is it?"

"Surprise!" was the only response from the other side of the door.

Lance knew all of the guys' voices in the same way he knew his own. He threw back the door. "You came back."

"Only place I could think of to go. Gonna let me in?"

Lance bodily dragged JC in, not letting go until it was clear that his visitor was going to go down with the bags still hanging from his shoulders. "Hey."

JC said, "You can't charm your way into a social circle and I can't write songs. Did you get any notification of when the world stopped turning?"

For JC's sake, Lance kindly refrained from saying, "Yes, it sounded something like, 'I'm just ready to try different stuff, stuff that I don't feel the group can really carry.'" Instead he asked, "Coffee?"

"Only if you have Nutrasweet around."

"Whole box of it, just don't tell my mom. She read some article about how it gives you cancer and she won't stop harping on it."

"Lance," JC whined, "You know you can't tell me that shit. I don't want cancer."

Lance walked toward the kitchen. "Jace, you suntan and you eat Chinese food laden with MSG on a regular basis. You're already in a high-risk factor category."

"Not making this better."

Lance dumped several tablespoons of a Columbian blend into a filter and fixed it into his sleek coffee maker with at least thirty functions, all of which he knew intimately and tried to use regularly so as to feel that he was getting his money's worth. He set the maker to brew a few cups. "I have sugar, lots and lots of it. You wanna switch?"

"It takes more to make it sweet."

"I'm just offering."

"If I get cancer, will you go on a drinking and whoring binge with me, so that I can tell St. John I died like a rock star?"

"Sure hon."

"Where's the Nutrasweet?"

Lance opened the cabinet that he was already standing at ready by and reached for the tiny pink Packets of Doom.

*

JC escaped to the kitchen before his presence among Lance's study group caused words to be said that could not be taken back. The group consisted of six people, Lance included. Four of them were guys, two girls. Lance had mentioned that there were considerably more guys in most of his specifically business related classes, with the added commentary, "And here I was, thinking we were living in the 21st century."

Lance had pretty much nailed his own situation when he had told JC that he was probably the best in the class at practical understanding but that his actual mathematical understanding of many of the concepts left a lot to be desired. Luckily, one of the girls seemed to have that area covered flat. Even more luckily, she wasn't the one of the two who had evidently joined the group to drool over Lance. The latter being the reason for JC's hasty retreat. Well, that and the guy who was obviously interested in said girl and felt the need to challenge Lance's every statement in some kind of ancient mate-supremacy ritual on which nobody else was precisely clear.

Kids. It wasn't that JC didn't remember a time where his hormonal urges had felt more important than the drive to eat. He did, rather painfully. He just wasn't at an age where he wanted to deal with it anymore. Lance's dilemma had been more apparent by the minute as he fought to explain the complications in the Law of Diminishing Returns when practiced at large so that numbers-girl (as JC had taken to thinking of her after promptly forgetting her name) could explain exactly why it was that those complications arose. The quiet guy with cat shaped glasses and an affected geek-boy look finally spoke up to ask a question and Lance started to answer, when puffed-up-pheremones-boy (PUP, for short) cut in to explain why Lance was completely wrong. JC didn't know much about econ, macro or mino, but he was relatively sure PUP was drawing entire diagrams out of his ass. It wasn't helping, either, as slobbering-girl was still adorning Lance in her saliva.

So JC had gone to get himself some coffee and a bit of space to think.

He was still thinking when he started to the sound of the door to the apartment shutting. A few seconds later, Lance made his way into the kitchen with numbers-girl trailing slightly behind him. They were talking about setting up a private study session. She was saying, "Yeah, Brad's an ass, he's supposedly really smart, he's here on a scholarship, but we all agree we've yet to see any proof of such intelligence. Anyway, I just think we could get more done one on one."

"Definitely." Lance glanced at the calendar he kept pinned to the refrigerator. "How do your Thurday's look?"

The girl shifted her bag from her back to her hip and ruffled through one of the compartments, fishing out a planner. She flipped open to the current week. "Six good? We could do it over dinner, two birds with one stone."

"You wanna come here? We'll make you real food."

"Really? That would be a godsend."

Lance smiled a knowing smile. "Here it is. Thursday at six." He penciled the time and her name onto the calendar. JC squinted. Mina. He looked back at Mina, tucking her planner back into the tightly stuffed bag. She was short, without much body or really anything to recommend her. Her face was pretty in a very average way and her hair was cut into a flattering pixie cut. She was no nonsense and very at ease with herself and JC thought aloud, "You're not a freshman, are you?"

She looked up in surprise, as if she'd forgotten he was there. "Oh Christ, no. Nah, I took a year off after my first year and then came back but started majoring in Chemistry, thinking I was gonna go pre-med. It didn't really work out and I had to backtrack a lot when I changed my major to business, so I've kinda been at the whole college thing for about five years, if you count the year off."

"So you're like, what, twenty-one, twenty-two?"

"Twenty-three, I'm a September baby, missed the cut-off."

"Do you have friends in the college?"

Her eyes narrowed for a second before she turned to Lance. "Yeah, I'm not really surprised you're having a hard time with that, if the display out there was anything to go by."

Lance glared at JC. "I do okay for myself."

"It's hard, the first year. Of anything." Mina slung her bag back onto both her shoulders. "Look, you have my number. If you wanna call sometime just to hang, I'll get some of my friends together. They're mostly grad students now, so even crazier than we are, but they're good for a night out."

"I'll probably do that."

JC bit the inside of his lip. Lance always left himself an out.

"Cool. Okay, I'm gonna jet, the library's calling my name. See ya on Thursday."

Lance let her out of the apartment and came back to the kitchen. "You're a meddlesome pain in my ass."

"Just returning the favor," JC said.

"You always are." Lance stole the last of JC's coffee. JC let him have it.

*

One of many convenient aspects of JC was that he slept very soundly. So a person could play his music or watch TV or talk out loud about his issues once JC was asleep and have very little chance of disturbing him. Which lead to Lance curling up next to his inert form and saying, "I'm probably as fucked up over moving on as you are. Just, nobody expects a solo album from me, so I guess I'm pretty lucky comparatively.

"When I was seven, the cat my family'd owned since, well before me, died. She just went to sleep one night and didn’t wake up the next morning. I was in my painfully shy phase at that point and Queenie -- short for River Queen -- had been my fucking world.

"My parents, who were really just trying their best to stop me from freaking out took me to a pound and let me pick out a new cat. They let me name her and pick out her tags and everything.

"Thing, uh, short for Thing One, he was great, but…I kinda always thought that if my parents had just waited a year that I would've been able to love Thing in a way that I never really could. I just wasn't ready to give Queenie up at the time that he wanted to take her place."

"In other words," a sneakily very-not-asleep JC said, "you think you should call Mina but you're afraid both of betraying us by moving on and betraying her by not being ready to move on."

"You're not supposed to be listening."

"Forgive me for eavesdropping on the monologue you were performing to my ears. It won't happen again."

Lance pouted into the dark.

"You don’t have to call her, you know. I just thought, if you wanted to, I'd make it possible. I am eventually going to have to go back. They'll be patient for a bit but I'm not Madonna or JK Rowling or some other huge pop culture force for which everybody in the world sits back and twiddles their thumbs until the time when I'm ready."

"Why can't you record here? We used to record here all the time. Well, Orlando, but still, you could spend weekends here."

"We recorded in Orlando when we didn't have the money or the name to record in LA and you know it. You know all this shit, you were the one who did half the brokering on the studio deal."

"I just…feel too old to be starting all over again with social circles."

"Lance, you're 26. It's not exactly the societal equivalent of ancient and done for."

"But it is an age where most people have made their friends, settled down, that kind of thing."

"I think that might be one of those things we're supposed to believe. I haven't seen a lot of evidence for it. I mean, look at Mina, she hasn't even gotten to the point where she can hold down a career yet and she doesn't seem terribly bothered by it. Seriously, you're way ahead of the game and this isn't starting over, it's continuing on in a different vein."

Lance's breathing was heavy and loud in the relative silence that followed JC's statement.

"And besides, it's not like we're going anywhere, you know that. Even J isn't, you just aren't willing to understand that yet."

"He's the reason for all this," Lance said, stubborn to a fault and forcefully aware of it.

"Maybe that's a good thing."

"You can't write and I don't want to make friends and this is good how?"

"Life isn't always about logic, Lance."

"It would be easier if it were."

JC rolled over, pinning Lance beneath him, and fell asleep. Lance had no choice but to do the same. He suspected JC had planned it that way.

*

"Jace." Until that moment, Lance had been studiously ignoring the continuous tugging on his arm.

"Lance." JC could give as good as he got. "It's Saturday night. I know you have it in you not to be boring."

Lance gestured to the multitude of paper and the heavy textbook spread out in front of him. "Lots and lots of homework. Not boring, busy and responsible."

"You have all of tomorrow. Boring. Go out with me." JC continued his tugging. Lance knew the value of compromise, he'd have his way any minute now.

"Dinner," Lance said.

"And a movie."

"Once you figure in travel time and getting tickets and everything, any movie we see will be nearly three hours, plus dinner, that's a four hour commitment. Dinner, Jace, that's it."

JC scowled. "Dinner and…a boardgame! Here. Any one you want. And if it gets to be going on too long, you can stop and go back to your fancy econ problems, mister smarty pants college boy."

Lance lay his pencil in the crook of the open text book. "Even if I want Trivial Pursuit?"

JC figured he should have seen that one coming. "Twentieth Anniversary, at least?" That one he had a prayer with. Not much of a prayer, but some prayer was better than negative ten prayer.

"Wimp."

"The fact that my brain does not have room to remember which president fell down the stairs of a Latvian train station does not make me a wimp, ass."

"There aren't any questions about presidents in Latvian train stations, Jace."

"You get my point." JC tugged at Lance's arm. Hard.

"Hey!"

"I'm hungry."

"Two seconds, lemme get my shoes on, geez."

JC let go so that Lance could head off to search for said apparel. He called, "Any good Chinese around here?"

Lance sing-songed, "I can't hear you!"

*

It was the Games & Sports category that was always the downfall of a Trivial Pursuit game between the two of them. Lance had managed a pie for the category by way of completely lucking out and getting asked a question about Michael Jordan. JC had whined for nearly an hour, "That's no fair and you know it. J quoted that statistic to me at least seventy times when we were in Europe, it was like his anchor amid homesickness."

"There aren't any rules as to how you had to have come upon the answer to any particular question." Lance was not one to give up a position of victory based on semantics. Besides, he had actually been nice to Justin despite being told facts he could have cared less about in reference to Michael Jordan every time they had spoken over a period of months in a foreign country, where, Lance felt he should point out, Lance was pretty darn homesick himself.

Also, JC had gotten his pie on a question about male Ice Skating and that was so out of the realm of fair Lance wasn't even sure it could be counted as sportsmanlike that JC actually took the pie.

Which meant that they were both currently circling each other like de-fanged sharks in the middle of the Trivial Pursuit board, each throwing ridiculously nit-picky Games & Sports questions about football, of all things, at each other. JC had given the names of soccer teams in answer to two of the questions Lance had asked, and Lance wasn't doing much better, once giving the name of a college football team and once giving a date in the middle of July for when a particular game was played.

Lance was so used to not knowing the answers to the questions JC chose that when he suddenly read, "What was the working title for Return of the Jedi?" it took Lance a few seconds to realize he was in possession of the demanded random and absolutely useless information.

"Revenge of the Jedi."

"Hey!" JC laughed. "You won!"

Lance scowled. "You let me."

"Oh, come on. I was seriously supposed to know that you knew the answer to that? There was at least a fifty percent chance that you didn't."

"Probably not as much of a chance as with the Games question."

"Lance. We've been playing for over an hour. You wanted to get more done tonight. If you want, we can call it a tie, but I say you kicked my ass fair and square. Even with the Jordan question equation figured in. And that's as much math as I'm gonna do this evening, your ass is the one that needs to get on top of that."

It was one of Lance's favorite things about JC. He liked a game as much as the next person, but he liked it for the experience. He didn't begrudge himself the experience of winning and in fact, enjoyed it quite a bit, but he didn't need to win. He just wanted to play. Lance, on the other hand, was a competitive bitch. "If you wanna go out, it's still early, I could give you directions to somewhere that's supposed to be pretty hot."

"Tempting, but I think I'm gonna wait until I can drag your ass along with me."

"Honestly, Jace, I know you're used to clubbing being a team event, but I'm pretty sure you can get laid even without back up. As it so happens, for some reason that none of us are entirely clear on, quite a few people seem to think you're eminently beddable."

"At the risk of scaring you into a quarter-life crisis, at twenty-nine, I've started looking for something a bit more durable and less athletic than one-night stands, but sweet of you to pet my ego like that."

"Ego? I was just trying to jumpstart your album. A little bit of kinkiness, maybe some artful strobe lights, I'm sure you'll be on your way."

JC's smile was uneasy. "I think I might be looking for something deeper than that on my album, too. Really reaching, here, aren't I?"

"No."

"That was what they wanted. When I went into the studio. I mean, don't get me wrong, I want it to be dancy and fun and all that, of course I do. I just want it to be a little witty and sharp, maybe touching at points." JC shrugged.

"Then it will be."

"You don't have to-"

"I'm not patronizing you," Lance said shortly. "Just because nobody else in the world pays attention to the fact that each of us has more than one facet doesn't mean we have to do that to each other. You want to do something, you will."

JC twisted his lips. "I'm gonna grab my discman. Mind if I take up your space?"

"Ten years and now you feel the need to start asking?" Lance was ridiculously grateful when JC declined to answer.

*

JC pressed a hand tight to his stomach and looked at the clock for at least the thirtieth time since Lance had left for class. Almost time for him to get back, almost. JC used the hand that wasn't keeping his intestines safely where they were supposed to be to make a light run over the keyboard on Lance's synthesizer. Then, just to waste a little bit more time, he played the one-handed, one-person version of "Heart and Soul," which only depressed him into trying a five-finger rendition of "Chop Stix." After that, he wisely gave up.

He wandered around the apartment again, flipped through all two-hundred and seven non-pay-per-view cable channels and was about to try checking his email for the third time in an hour when the apartment door opened.

JC strove for casual as he said, "So, you get your grades?"

Lance's econ professor had promised to return the grade on their first major exam in the class he had just attended. It was his first significant grade since he had started up.

Lance set down his shoulder-bag and toed off his shoes, placing them methodically by the door, so that they would be waiting for him the next time he needed to go out. He took his time, obviously striving to drive JC insane.

"Laaaance. Don’t make me call you horrendous nicknames and mess with your delicately styled coiffeur."

Calmly, Lance walked over to JC, staying just out of reaching distance. He extended his arm, holding out several papers, stapled together. JC snatched up the offering. On the top of the front sheet was a grade, marked in red and circled. "Holy shit, Lance! B plus! That's incredible! I'm friends with a genius, and not just any genius, a genius who's gonna have a college degree."

"I think you may be getting slightly ahead of yourself. Not to mention me."

"Have you called your mom?"

"I thought you said I was a genius. Geniuses don't do stupid things like make their tough little Southern Belle Mamas wait a second more than necessary to hear their first true grade of semester. They just don't."

This was a good point. "Right. Good. I'm totally taking you out for a celebration dinner. Then we're having a celebratory round of custard at that place that has the drive-through so that we can park like randy teenagers."

"It wasn't even an A, Jace."

JC frowned. "Don't do this."

"What? I'm not doing anything."

"You are. You're making yourself feel bad for not being perfect, when you actually are perfect you just have fucked up notions of what perfect is."

"I think most people would agree with me that a B isn't perfect."

"I think everyone who matters would agree with me that for a kid who spent his last year of high school being educated on a moving vehicle along with someone considerably behind him academically and then took several years off of any type of schooling in order to pursue an entirely different line of work that it's pretty darn amazing. I mean, I don’t think I'm stupid, but I know if I tried what you're trying I wouldn’t have a chance. My brain just doesn't work like that. So don’t cheapen the fact that I'm proud of you. It's not fair to either of us."

Lance tightened his lips. "I feel like I have to prove all the people who laugh at me wrong."

"I know. I feel like that a lot too. But we don't, really. We just have to prove ourselves right. And you're doing that. Which I think is cause for celebration."

"Cajun grill level of celebration?" Lance asked.

"So hot we'll be medically in need of the ice cream by the time we're ready to move onto dessert."

Lance raised an empty hand in a mimicry of holding a glass. "To B pluses."

JC clinked knuckles with him.

*

The custard was vanilla with a shot of crème de menthe and crushed Oreos scattered about. It tasted good off the spoon. It tasted better off of JC's tongue.

Lance wasn't entirely sure what had possessed him to lean over and explore the difference between the two tastes, but he knew it had seemed like a good idea at the time and it had only gotten better when JC had closed his mouth over Lance's, evidently keen on the whole taste-testing process.

The whole making-out-like-army-men-who-haven't-seen-a-woman-in-three-years would have gone on indefinitely had Lance's cellphone not rang and had JC not picked it up, mistakenly thinking it was his. "Hello?"

Lance panted, glaring a bit at JC for effect. As JC was less ruffled by the glare than he was by the interruption to his pre-coitus games, the effect was lost. Lance shrugged mentally and took another spoonful of custard. It was somewhat disappointing in the aftermath. Not disappointing enough for him to stop eating.

JC frowned. "Oh!" A look of comprehension dawning on his face, "Oh, hey, no, this is JC." He held the phone away from his ear, "I'm talking on D."

Silence then, "Um, could you maybe not, right now? Just because I think I'm about to get some nookie from him and that'll probably ruin the mood. No offense, or anything."

Lance really hoped whoever he was talking to was formerly a member of NSYNC, because if it was his mother, Lance was never going to be able to have sex ever again. Not if he lived for a million years. A billion.

"Right, I'll have him call." JC tilted his head and waited for the other person to say something. "I promise, seriously."

Please not my mom, please.

"Love you too, yeah. Yeah, right. Bye." JC hung up.

Somewhat tremulously, Lance asked, "Who might that've been?"

Equally cautiously, JC answered, "J."

Inwardly, Lance heaved a sigh of relief. Still, "His timing is not helping his case."

JC buried his face in his hands. "No, no, it's really not, is it?"

Lance pulled JC's hands to him. "You can laugh, it doesn't make you a traitor."

JC nodded, still giggling. "Don’t make me a liar, call him back."

It was probably the only thing in the universe at that point that could get Lance to say, "All right." For good measure he added, "You don't fight fair."

JC took another scoop of custard into his mouth, speaking with a noticeable lack of enunciation due the mound of cold impeding his tongue. "No' a' aw."

Lance brought his lips closer to JC's. "It's kinda sexy."

JC grabbed the back of Lance's head and proceeded to share what remained of the custard.

*

JC woke up to an absent Lance and the smell of coffee. He wandered into the kitchen to find a cup waiting by the coffee machine and a note next to that. "Had class, lazy. You know where the sugar and the milk are. Brush your teeth before I get back."

JC prepared a cup of coffee, drank it while keeping an eye on the clock so that he could go above and beyond expectations and take a shower as well as brushing his teeth before Lance returned. He managed most of this goal but was still in the process of drying himself off when he heard the door open and Lance call, "You up yet?"

JC wrapped the towel around himself and came out to greet Lance. "How was class?"

"I was distracted." Lance stared pointedly at the dip where JC's towel knotted in between his hips.

"I'm gonna leave if your grades start to go down." Nonetheless, JC leaned in for a good morning kiss. Lance responded, sliding down and unhooking the towel, ducking in for a quickie. When he was done, he said, "Go get dressed."

"Um," JC said.

"Seriously, I'll have you make it up to me later."

JC still didn’t look convinced, but Lance seemed awfully intent, so he picked the towel up and hung it in the bathroom to dry before throwing on some jeans and a t-shirt and heading back to find Lance heating up the leftovers from the previous night in the oven. He climbed on a stool. "I would preclude the idea of you being freaked out considering that little act of appreciation, but I'm tempted to rethink that, given the one-sidedness of the whole situation."

"There's a possibility that I'm a little itchy over nearly a decade of unresolved sexual tension going and getting itself resolved, yes, but that isn't what this is about."

"Clue me in."

"I don't want to talk about this with J."

"This being us," JC clarified for his own good.

"I didn't want him to know before I told him. Not that I need it to be a secret, or anything, I just don't like him knowing shit about me that I haven't told him."

"Which is why he never knows anything." JC wasn't feeling particularly repentant in this case. If it had been Lance's mom he had told, maybe, but Justin was every bit as much his friend as he was Lance's. Maybe more at this point. JC didn't want to think about that.

"Really just fair play, don't you think?"

JC had a sense that this was to what it all came down. It wasn't that Justin had up and left them floundering or that Justin was always that much more successful than Lance saw himself as being. It was that Justin always kept council on the stuff he should be talking about until the last possible minute and always told all the stories that he should be keeping quiet about. "I love J, Lance. Love him in the way you did and will again when you get past this. But I'm not sleeping with J because of things like that. I can forgive it in a friend, I can’t forgive it in a lover."

Lance wilted. "I hate you. You don't even threaten, you just…talk."

JC got up and saved the leftovers from the oven before they burned. "That's because you listen."

"I'm not talking to you, we're in a fight."

JC got down on his knees and proved that, contrary to what Lance might believe, they were doing anything but fighting.

*

"Lance?" The identification sounded hesitant.

"Yeah, J, it's me. You called. I'm calling back."

Justin obviously hadn’t expected this as he spluttered, "Uh, um, right. Oh, well, I just, y'know, called to see how things are going, but, um, obviously, with the C thing and all, I mean, if it was what he made it sound like-"

"Jace and I are sleeping together, was that what it sounded like?"

"Pretty much." There was a silence before Justin asked, "So that's…that's probably good, right?"

Lance wished he could be mad at Justin for not knowing, but really, seeing as how he wasn't even completely sure of anything at the moment, "Yeah. Probably."

"How could it be bad?"

Lance didn’t particularly want to be having this conversation with Justin, but it seemed counterproductive to hang up on him now when they were finally talking about something more than the weather for the first time since Justin had let his intentions be known. "I could screw it up."

"Not to be an equal rights fanatic, or anything, but so could he."

"The point is that it could get screwed up, J."

Lance had to hold the phone away from his ear as Justin swore, "Well, for fuck's sake, Lance, what can’t be screwed up?"

"Most things that can get screwed up don't matter quite as much."

"So you're saying that going to space didn't matter that much for you? That going to fucking college wasn't as big a deal?" Justin was obviously doing his best incredulous gaping moron impression and Lance knew he was missing out on all the visuals.

He took a second to consider the question and answered with a quiet equal to Justin's outrage, "Not as much as this, no. J, this is JC." As much as Lance hated to admit it, Justin would understand that. In fact, considering how long Justin had absolutely worshipped the two eldest members of the group, he was probably the only other person in the world who could fully appreciate the depth of that statement.

"For one second Lance, think back to when you used to trust me and go with me on this one: he's saying the same thing about you."

Lance had never stopped trusting Justin, but he wasn't feeling up to admitting that, so in the most time honored tradition of dealing with topics that were just too big for his brain to wrap around, Lance changed the subject. "I got a B plus on my first big test."

"For real?" Justin wasn't even thrown by the non-sequitur.

"Jace was really proud."

"You should be too! You should be more, it’s your grade, dumbass."

"Yeah-"

"I know, I know you. Still, Lance, you rock."

"I'm gonna go now while we're still not yelling at each other."

"Probably smart." Justin rushed the statement, "I really miss you lots."

Lance squeezed his eyes shut, "Me too," and hung up before he could say anything else he hadn't been planning on saying.

*

JC was of the firm belief that post-coital sleep was some of the best sleep to be had anytime, anywhere. Even, say, in the back of a sports car that was technically too small to be indulging in the activity that caused the sleep, or on the cement ground behind the Disney filming lots. So he was a bit irked that he couldn't seem to find any in Lance's big, soft, hundred-thread cotton sheet covered bed with Lance's heated hands pressed warmly against JC's stomach. If ever there were perfect sleeping conditions, JC was pretty sure that those were them.

He didn't have to go to the bathroom -- he had checked, just for good measure -- and he wasn't hungry, so really, this should have been an open-shut situation. It was unusual for anything to get in the way once JC had closed his eyes, tired or no, unless-

JC stilled and then dove from the bed, skittering down the hallway and into Lance's office where he kept the synthesizer. He shut the door behind him as a courtesy to those who could sleep in the apartment and sat down.

He flipped the synthesizer on and laid his fingers over the keys. "Doesn't have to make sense. Don't have to sound good. Nobody's listening. Just play."

There weren't even chords at first, just strains of something that might grow into a chord, little arpeggios, moments of consonance. Every once in awhile JC would add a prerecorded tech rhythm to the background, just to see what it did to the sound. Two hours in he settled on one that was more the subtle tick of a metronome than a true background and got to repeating a melody he had found somewhere along the way. It was a single line of melody, not exciting or impressive in the least, but it made words swim in his head, words about living and creating and knowing and then some more living.

He recorded the melody and set it to play over the time keeping mechanism and stole some paper from the printer on Lance's desk. He found a pen in the de-stuffed Beanie Baby in the drawer, a gag gift from Chris after Lance had gotten flustered and listed the fad as one of his interests in an early magazine interview. Lance had been much easier to catch off-guard then.

JC laid on the floor on his stomach, one ear to the ground, his heart slowly catching onto the soft beat of the metronome, trying to integrate the sound of the not-yet song into his skin. When it happened, it felt different than before, more solid, like the feel of Lance's hands against his stomach. Unconscious.

He started writing, crossing out more than he wrote, filling up both front and back of each page and moving onto the next, blind but not deaf, mute but with a body that wanted to speak, finally having something to say.

Light had long since crept over the building, fighting its way through the partially closed blinds and over the length of JC's head, back, legs, when Lance peered into the office. "Baby, what- Have you slept at all?"

JC rolled onto his back and peered up at Lance. His muscles demanded that he stretch and so he did, his back rubbing against the plush carpeting, every nerve-ending feeling so damn alive it was hard to remember what exactly Lance had just asked. "Um."

Lance laughed. "No, then." He stepped into the office, nodding toward the synthesizer, "Pretty. Working on the lyrics?"

JC smiled ruefully. "Haven't got much to show for it."

Lance did some fiddling with the controls on the synthesizer and the melody quit playing for the first time in hours. He reached down and pulled JC off the floor. JC came fluidly. Lance kissed him, grimacing. "Stayed-up-all-night breath."

JC shrugged unrepentantly. Lance enticed, "Brush your teeth and I'll give you a prize."

JC could guess what kind of prize Lance had in mind, so he ambled down the hallway and used a double squirt of his extra-yummy cinnamon toothpaste. When he got back to the bedroom, Lance was naked and much prettier than any blue ribbon JC had ever seen.

Lance's hands were steady and warm as they guided JC onto the bed and held him there. They were damp and silken against JC's back in the aftermath, when JC sank comfortably and easily into sleep. JC thought there were probably words in those hands. He would think about it when he woke up.

*

Mina was explaining numbers over green bean casserole and Pillsbury rolls -- JC's idea of starchy comfort food goodness -- when Lance suddenly asked, "What scares you about this?"

Mina swallowed. "The problem? That it has four typos in it and I'm not entirely sure I've interpreted it correctly."

Lance reread the problem. "Shit. Think the prof was drunk?"

"Considering he's come to class that way three times this semester? Somehow, I'm not above guessing yes."

"I was being more general, about the scared thing."

"I know, I was giving you a chance to bow out gracefully."

Lance said, "Spilled milk. School, something must scare you about it."

"I've been at it a long time." Mina took a forkful of casserole and chewed slowly. "Feeling like I have to represent women as some kind of separate species."

"You think?"

"C'mon, don't tell me you haven't noticed the demographics. You're a smart boy."

Lance snorted.

Mina stilled. "Ah. Yeah, okay, fair enough, I'd imagine the whole pop star thing makes you about as popular as my pussy makes me."

"Sexy."

"Not like you're in the market anyway."

Lance dropped his fork. "Sorry?"

Mina rolled her eyes. "Don't, okay. You're a good study-buddy so long as you don't treat me like a brainless twit. JC's nice, I bet he's a great friend, but he's not your friend, at least not anymore. Friends don’t talk to each other with their bodies the way you two do."

"It wasn't an intentional slight. Kinda just used to lying to the general public, y'know, with the whole, international star status thing."

"So you're freaking out?"

"Nobody's actually gone out of their way to make me feel like I can do this. Mostly it's like when I tried to go to space, people are just waiting for me to fuck up and I'm struggling to do anything but, meanwhile writing post-it notes to myself that read, 'they're wrong', or, if JC's found them, 'they're so wrong they couldn't make a right turn on a one way street, baby.'"

"Well, how 'bout this, I give you honorary status as a woman in a man-dominated field, which is pretty much the experience you're being put through, and you listen to me explain the rest of this bitch-ass, typo-laden psycho-problem. Then you help me figure out why the numbers I come up with have anything to do with anything. Then we'll do the next problem and possibly the one after that. Then we'll turn this sucker in, get a damn good grade, go out and get lit together while laughing at all the dumbfucks who would presume to laugh at us. We could even take your boyfriend, if that sounded good to you."

"You gonna bring someone?"

"No, but depending on how drunk I am, I might leave with someone."

Lance choked on the bite of roll he'd taken. "Sounds excellent."

"So, three hundred people have invested in Company A at ten dollars a share."

Mina scratched some numbers on the paper, Lance hunched over and watched her work her magic.

*

JC left a note for Lance that read, "Evidently you're my muse. I need an objective third party," and got the hell out of dodge. Admittedly, he only went a couple of towns over from dodge, driving into Orlando wherein both Joey and Chris were conveniently located.

JC picked Joey's house because if all else failed he could pretend that he had come to play with Briahna and give Kelly backrubs. It took one bear hug and an artful, "What's up, C?" to get him to spill.

"It's totally Lance's arena to freak out over emotional attachment, right?"

Kelly kissed JC's forehead and told Joey, "Me and the kid are gonna go get our nails done. Nice of you to visit, C, you'll be here when we get home?"

JC smiled. "Yeah, babe. Thanks."

When she was gone, Joey said, "That's kinda what he lets everyone believe. Keeps people away from him."

JC blinked. "So when he said that he was freaking out about ten years of unresolved sexual tension getting itself resolved, he meant that he was having momentary angst that would work itself out?"

"Yeah, um, pretty much. He's actually pretty good with commitment, he just rarely finds anyone worth committing to."

JC bit his lip.

"Freaking out?"

"I couldn’t write until we slept together. That's like…codependency. I wasn't supposed to stay here forever, I have things to get back to, an album to record, but everything right now is about him and if I leave it'll be same old, same old, I'll be in LA with nothing because my brain is on the east coast."

"C-"

"I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm okay with the being head over heels part, because honestly, it's Lance and I've been that way forever and now it's just working and I'm not at all worried about him leaving or suddenly becoming an ass or us finding out we're much too different for each other, all the shit that I've had to worry about with other people, but yeah, it's a little wacked that I feel like I can't leave his side right now."

Joey waited a bit this time before speaking. "He's off in the summer, yeah?"

"Almost a month for winter, too. And a week in spring."

"Record the album in stages. He'll go with you. You're just gonna have to be each other's backup at different times of the year."

"Jive's gonna bitch up a storm."

"They want a good album. They'll whine and then let you do whatever the fuck's gonna get them that."

"I'm doing the getting-worked-up-over-nothing-thing, aren't I?"

Joey reached out to mess with JC's hair. "Chris and I've been waiting for you to show since Jup called with the news that the two of you were finally talking birds and bees."

JC ducked his head mischievously. "Doin' more than talking, man."

Joey held up his hands. "Don't need details."

"I should call him."

"Yeah, it's probably been a whole three hours."

JC fished for his cell phone and did the one thing he could do easily with it, dialed the memory for Lance's cell.

*

Lance picked up within a ring. "How's Briahna?"

JC sighed. "I'm really predictable, aren't I?"

"I prefer to think that I know you really well."

JC said, "I love you," which prompted Lance to say, "I know, I'm not worried."

"I can't write without you around right now."

Lance leaned back on his couch. "I kinda picked that up from the whole muse thing. You wanna take a break, go back to Cali and see if you can shake me a bit? I'm not gonna tell you I'm thrilled with the idea, because honestly, I'm lonely as shit without you here, but I'll let you do it, if that's what you need."

"I liked Joey's suggestion better."

Lance tried not to get too excited, not yet knowing what exactly Joey's suggestion had been. "Yeah?"

"He pointed out that you have several breaks throughout the year, that you could come back west with me and I could do this one in stages. I don't know how that'll work, I've never really done it before and it's possible to lose the flow, but I figure if I notice it's not working then you can go back to school and I'll stay and see if the momentum carries me even without you. Then I'll come back. I mean, I have to admit, I'm hoping once everything's written that it won't be more than a month of recording. I'm willing to bet Jive's hoping for that too."

Lance didn't doubt it. "I'm good for that. You still freaked?"

JC hesitated. "Would it upset you if I said a little bit?"

"It wouldn't really have been fair of me to ask the question expecting only one answer."

"I'm used to my music being mine. I mean, I know, it used to end up being all five of ours, and I loved that, but in the beginning, when it wasn't really anything other than an idea, then it was mine."

Lance closed his eyes briefly, before opening them, concentrating on a picture of the five of them hanging above his television. "Just because the inspiration is coming from an outside source doesn't make it less yours, baby. It wasn't me who heard that melody the other night, at least not until I came in to get a taste of it playing over and over again on my keyboard. The sound was still all yours."

"It sounded like you inside of me."

"I don't-" Lance pulled his knees up to his chest and rested his chin atop them. "Look, since I came to Florida, since you guys thought to give me a chance, music has always sounded like the rest of you inside of me. I like it that way, it's comforting. To me, that's how it always should sound. It's splintering that right now, it doesn't always. I'll hear a song on the radio and hum along and I won't hear five part harmony automatically and I have to shut the radio off because I'm afraid that one moment wherein things don't coalesce will ruin everything. I don’t know what to tell you, because I've never for a second thought that made music less mine or less a part of me. It just made y'all more a part of me."

"Maybe this is…maybe this is what I was hoping for, y'know, the deeper, better thing. Maybe this is an evolution for me." JC's words were slow, as though he was searching for each one to follow the one he was currently using.

"Maybe. Or maybe it's a fluke. Either way, you have something where before you had nothing."

"In other words," JC laughed, "I should just go with it?"

"For a bit. For as long as it works, yeah."

"I'm gonna stay here for a bit, go bug Chris."

"Tell him to get his lazy ass on top of visiting me."

"Will do," JC said.

"Then get back to me, because I already miss you."

"Same. Totally the same."

Lance said, "Love you," and hung up before he could beg JC to skip the Chris visit and drive back this instant.

*

Chris drove back with JC. Half an hour in, JC threatened to paint Chris' fingernails in his sleep if he touched the radio dial one more time. Chris asked, "Black?"

JC said, "Chameleon pink. With sparkles."

"Chameleons aren’t pink."

"I think they call it that because it changes colors depending on the amount of light it's exposed to."

"Where the fuck do you find these things?" Chris asked, seemingly genuinely awed.

JC smiled. "That bottle was a present from Lance."

"Okay, that's it. You two are so not allowed to date. Not even a little bit. Ever."

JC just kept grinning and Chris gave in, "All right, maybe for a few days. How did I get stuck with you people for best friends? Don’t you know you’re not supposed to pair off and leave people alone like this?"

"Jup's still single," JC said helpfully.

"And while that is an offer that entices like no other, sadly, I'm still an airtight case of heterosexuality."

JC took the time to throw Chris a look of sympathetic pity before locking his gaze back onto the road. "I could fix you up with one of Lance's new friends. She's sorta your type. Smart and completely commitment phobic."

"Now you're talking."

JC shook his head disparagingly. "And you wonder why you never manage to settle down with anyone."

"I maintain that the heterosexual thing was a divine accident and that therefore all of my soulmates are fated to be of the wrong sex."

JC and Lance had privately agreed that Chris might be right about that. It worried them. "You're obviously just looking in the wrong places."

"I agree, LA and Orlando are bad cities for people looking for a relationship. Unless you're Joey and Kelly, or you and Lance, or Emily and Josh, or-"

"I get the idea, Chris." JC didn't feel like fighting about the fact that Chris always ignored the women who came up to him at events like charity functions, women who he could probably actually start something with, passing them over for bar floozies.

Chris obviously didn’t want to go there either as he said, "So, I mean, you and Lance. Finally. That's good."

"Yeah. It is."

Chris flipped the radio station to something loud and angry despite the hanging threat of punishment. JC let him.

*

Lance had just finished up writing another paper for the Comp 101 class that was so utterly and thoroughly kicking his ass when JC and Chris tumbled in the door, overnight bags and empty Yoohoo bottles landing everywhere. "Uh, hi."

"C'mon Bass," Chris attacked Lance, going straight for the solar plexus with his shoulder, "you can do better than that."

Lance allowed himself to be gored, going up with the momentum Chris had gained coming at him, and then down again, as he was dumped on the nearest padded surface. The lazy-boy, in this particular instance. He looked up without moving, "Oh. Dear. Lord. I've. Missed. You. So." He put an extra emphasis on his southern twang, just for good measure.

Chris shook his head. "I drove hours and hours for this?"

Lance was unimpressed. "It's what? Four hours at the outermost? Five once you figure in Jace's driving and your bladder, I guess."

"It's not like the buses, you ass, I have to sit still for those five hours."

Across the room from the action, JC rubbed his fingers together. "Look at me, I've learned to play the smallest violin in the world."

Chris sighed. "No love."

Lance got to his feet. He gave Chris a noogie and said, "Thanks for coming."

"That's more like it." Chris straightened himself out and Lance moved on to greet JC. There was a lot fewer words involved in their hello.

When Lance finally pulled back, he said, "Glad you're back."

JC sagged into Lance. "Me too. Joey and Briahna and Kelly and the fetus all send their love."

"Ugh, they have got to find a better interim name for that kid," Chris said.

Personally, Lance agreed, but he wasn't going to give Chris the satisfaction of doing it verbally. "What? I think it's kinda cute."

Chris rolled his eyes. "Whatever. What's a guy gotta do around here to get fed? Or wait. Is that why C-"

Lance cut in. "Stop now and you may actually still have a prayer of me opening my kitchen to you."

Chris smirked and wandered off to find sustenance. When he was safely out of earshot, JC laughed. "You don't mind, right?"

Lance muzzled at JC's neck for a moment. "Did you have to bribe him?"

JC's hand stole under the hem of Lance's shirt. "He misses you as much as you miss him. How's the paper?"

"Finished, finally."

"Think Mina's up for a bit of entertaining this evening? Maybe Semester's End?" Semester's End was a watering hole frequented mostly by jaded law students and Ph.D. students who were surviving on direct arterial injections of coffee. It was clean enough and people tended to leave them alone and high-quality booze was as equally available as the cheap beer that was the perennial favorite of places like that.

"It'll depend on what her schedule looks like tomorrow. I can never remember which day her early class falls on."

"Sure. If not, I'm pretty sure the three of us can manage a decent time on our own."

"If you'd prefer that-"

"Nah, I kinda want Chris to meet her. Let him see that I'm making a life for myself here."

"He wouldn't doubt your word."

"I know," Lance said, his fingers tightening around the hem of JC's jeans, "but there's something so nice about the tangible."

*

JC was beginning to think that perhaps Lance hadn't considered the whole Mina-is-decently-attractive-and-available-and-not-particularly-into-longterm corner that Chris, well past his second tequila shot, into his third Heineken and probably feeling very little pain, was working. Admittedly, JC should have realized this earlier, as Lance rarely ever noticed how attractive women were or were not unless millions of other people had noticed it for him first.

Chris left to hit the restrooms and Mina, who had indulged in slightly less of the drink than their erstwhile ex-bandmate said, "It was really sweet of you to bring me a fuck-buddy this time."

Lance grabbed the shot Mina was about to do and downed it himself. "That's me. Sweet."

Mina frowned at the alcohol theft, but didn't let it get to her for long, instead signaling the bartender to bring another four. JC wondered if he could pawn his off on Lance, who seemed to need it more than he did. He rubbed the small of Lance's back and whispered, "Chris is a big boy."

Lance turned to JC with a full on pout in bloom. "You planned this."

If what JC had planned was going to work out it would take time to tell and to say that JC was doubtful would have been like saying that Atlantis had been missing for a bit. "Why is it always my fault?"

"Because that makes things simpler?" Lance didn't seem terribly sure, but then again, Lance was probably more drunk than Chris.

Four more shots showed up at the table roughly about the same time as Chris reappeared, which caused a squeal of horribly slurred, "Excellent!" Chris picked his shot glass up, clinked it against Mina's and downed it. Mina followed suit. Morosely, Lance gave into the momentum. JC figured one more probably wouldn't hurt that much and did the shot, mentally promising that it would be his last.

Mina, who was a brilliantly variable drunk, was evidently sentimental this evening, because she informed Chris solemnly, "Lance is the best econ study-buddy, ever," emphasis on the ever.

Chris nodded at this information, as though he'd clearly suspected this all along. "He's a better bass singer."

Mina screwed up her face. "You have to really listen to hear him, y'know, on your albums."

JC frowned. "You can hear him perfectly, he makes everything sound right." Lance punched JC's shoulder in a non-verbal, "That's right, you tell her."

"I'm just saying," Mina just said. "He's better by himself, I can hear him better when he's explaining the way money works to me."

The last shot suddenly didn't want to settle in JC's stomach. "He's…well, I mean, of course he's brilliant that way, but-"

Chris cut in, "Lance is one of us. He's always going to be one of us."

Lance said, "There is no us."

JC swallowed, "Of course there's us. There's us."

Lance rolled his eyes. "I didn't mean it that way."

Wait, JC thought, no. "Just because you're a part of us doesn’t mean you're not your own person. What Mina's saying is right and was right even when we stilled called ourselves NSYNC."

"It's different," Lance said.

"It's not," Chris and JC answered together.

Mina said, "That's really sweet," and laid her head down so as to safely pass out on the table.

*

Lance was still waiting for the aspirin to do it's magic and for the words that were still as acidic as the alcohol remaining inside him to stop stinging when Justin called. JC answered and said, "Sure, he's right here," and Lance was foolish enough to take the phone from his groggy but not-terribly-hungover asshole of a boyfriend.

"Huh?" was Lance's opening parlay.

"Man, I guess this means I won't be talking to Chris for a few hours."

Lance tried to sort that out in his head and failed. "How do you know where Chris is? Do you even know where you are?" It struck Lance that Justin probably, did, in fact, know where he was and that it was Lance who was not party to this information, but really, he couldn't be expected to function brilliantly right now, not even by Justin-fucking-Timberlake.

Who was evidently not phased by any of this. "I'm in Pittsburgh, which is what made me think of Chris and attempt to call him. This met with failure as, according to Joey, whom I called for further information, Chris is with y'all."

"He's still a lot drunk right now," Lance said sagely, if not with brilliant syntax.

"So the visit's going well, then."

Lance considered this. "Mina says I'm doing fine on my own." Well, that was the summarized version, but Lance was pretty sure it conveyed what he'd been trying to tell Justin for…um, a long time.

"That's…good. Who's Mina?"

Right, that was fair. "My new college friend."

"You have college friends? JC didn't tell me you had college friends."

Lance probably felt as surprised as Justin sounded. He had pretty much assumed everything was getting relayed. "Uh, maybe he wanted me to have something to tell."

"Tell then."

"There's not a lot."

"Lance."

Lance nodded, forgetting that Justin couldn’t see him. "Mina's in my econ class, we met in a study group. Marie is her roommate, but she's a med school student, so we don't see her a lot. Jared sits next to me in my Comp class, which he's brilliant at and I suck at, but I've been helping him get dates and he's been doing last minute edits for me and everyone benefits." Lance thought. "That's pretty much it right now. Not terribly impressive. I mean, I hang out with people and all that."

"I'm impressed. It hasn't even been a semester."

Lance frowned. Justin wasn't supposed to be nice like this, it fucked with his ability to hold a grudge.

"And I know that you're perfectly fine on your own. You're probably better than I am, seeing as how you're not the one who has to call of one of us every single day."

Lance rubbed at his forehead and tried to decide whether he wanted to be nice back. "J. I live with Jace."

"You didn't for a whole month, and you still weren't calling us every day."

The you weren't calling me at all was left unsaid, which Lance, despite himself, appreciated. "I meant it more in the way that I can do things, important things, without you guys."

"Lance. You're going to college. Did I like, get a memo that didn't reach you?"

Lance was beginning to think that might be the case. Justin seemed a lot more awed than the situation inherently called for him to be. Still, "I needed to tell you that."

And then Justin's, "I didn't leave you guys because I had gotten bigger than you. I left because," he paused, "because we could do better things separately than we could together. It hadn't been like that before, but it got that way and I didn't want to see you or JC or Joey or Chris held back because nobody was willing to face up to that. And I definitely didn't want us to tear ourselves apart pretending to ignore it."

"Okay," Lance said, the aspirin kicking in right when he wanted to have an excuse not to deal with the conversation they were having. "I kinda fucked with your plan there, huh?"

Justin didn't answer. "If I put you on my call rotation, you'll talk to me?"

"If I have time." Lance was a big believer in baby steps.

"Tell Chris I called, then?"

Lance wrote it on his hand, not really trusting himself to remember.

*

Chris stayed a few more days, doing his best to distract Lance from schoolwork that needed doing and JC from writing that was clamoring to be put to paper. When Lance began looking near to tears, JC threw Chris out of the house with the keys to the car and a map of the town and the dire warning, "Should you come back before a good five hours are up, there will be no publication on this planet that does not know about your inability to sleep without Mr. Bojangles."

Mr. Bojangles was the blanket Chris had kept on his person since before the dawn of time. Only Chris knew where it originally came from and JC sometimes doubted that even he was aware of the lore, particularly seeing as how he absolutely refused to inform anyone else of it. In truth, JC would sooner come out than betray something like that about Chris who one-hundred percent trusted the other four members of NSYNC, something that could not be said for all that many people in this world. Luckily, the only time that JC had an excellent poker face was when he was in a protective rage, and Lance's oncoming nervous breakdown was enough to bring that up out of JC.

As soon as Chris was gone, JC insisted on giving Lance a thorough backrub and making him a rootbeer float. Lance submitted easily, evidently too harried to argue that he only had five hours. When he had accomplished both of these tasks and gotten Lance settled, quietly chipping away at his Management Ethics project, JC went for a walk.

The feel of Lance's skin, warm and tight, was still resonating over his palms and he focused in on it as he idly people-watched. JC hummed little ditties in his head as he watched a small boy and a girl who looked the right age to be his babysitter rollerblading down the sidewalk. He discarded it as they passed. He whistled random notes while noticing a college student trying to do some type of worksheet against the side of a bus stop booth. The whistle filled itself out a little more when JC passed a couple, college-aged and decked out in punk gear, arguing the merits of "I Love Lucy" versus "The Honeymooners."

The tune changed upon seeing an older man trimming the bushes at an apartment complex and then again when JC caught sight of a windmill, the type people stick in their yards with colors and sometimes designs. This one was simple, a rainbow twisting in circular motion over and over with the wind. It found JC's chorus for him.

JC worked it out, humming, whistling, la-la-laing until he made his way back to the apartment and could place it in the much more dependable memory of Lance's synthesizer. That done, he went to go check on Lance. Lance had moved onto econ and was holding the information that, "Chris isn't coming home this evening."

Lance didn't look up from the paper as he said it and JC asked, "Mina?"

Lance nodded, eyes still fixed on the assignment. "I called to ask for help on a problem, she told me he was there, just in case we got worried or something, which is probably good, because lord knows he would've forgotten to call and then we'd've been looking for him all frickin' night, which is the last thing I need."

"Gee, um," JC decided to be proactive and settled himself on the desk, right on top of Lance's paper, "why don't you freak out about something that has nothing to do with what you're actually freaking out about?"

Lance had the grace to slump back in the seat and say, "Sorry. I really shouldn't care if he's getting laid or not, should I?"

"You never have in the past." JC spread his hands, palms up. "And that was when you weren't getting laid."

"I guess I just always really thought he'd get over the straight thing and make it work with Justin."

"You don’t even like Justin right now."

"We're…look, don't get all excited and stuff but we actually talked the other morning when he called. It's better. And just because I don't like him right now has nothing to do with my relationship to him in the overarching sense. He would be good for Chris."

JC waited. When it became evident that Lance wasn't going any further, JC said, "And you'd prefer that Chris didn't do the straight thing with people that you've worked your ass off to make friends with, particularly seeing as how you'll probably have to side with him, all things considered."

"It's not like I don't think Mina can take care of herself-"

"It's really perfectly understandable."

"It is?" Lance looked dubious.

JC couldn't resist the impulse to kiss him, but he made it quick. "It is. But Chris won't be a shit and you know it. Chris gets along far better with all his ex-one-night-stand people than the people he actually dated. Really, so long as they don't get involved, we’re all safe."

Never one to let a potential problem go unworried about, Lance asked, "But what if they do date?"

"That bridge is approximately ten miles away. I'll let you worry about it when we arrive there."

"But-"

"No buts, you have an econ assignment to finish and an apartment all to ourselves to take advantage of."

It was obvious that this was just occurring to Lance, as he pushed JC out of the way and promised, "Twenty minutes."

"Uh huh."

"Flat."

Lance, JC had found, was almost never late.

*

Justin, the sneaky little bastard, invited JC knowing that JC would do the manipulation thing, first exercising his wonderfully practiced puppy-eye routine and, if that failed, moving onto his I'll-just-pull-my-mouth-off-your-cock-right-as-you're-ready-to-come routine, which was less a routine than a torture technique he pulled out for really special occasions. Which obviously left Lance no option but to give in gracefully. Or, as the situation would have it, pleading and trying his best not to all out whine.

The truth was, there really was no reason not to show for Justin's Thanksgiving bash, seeing as how the two of them had planned on being in LA anyway to kick start the actual recording of JC's album. Joey was coming out with the family and Chris had promised to show and Lance probably would have given in eventually, extortion or no. It was just that JC could be so damn impatient.

So it was that Thanksgiving found them clustered in Justin's house, which didn't look near to lived in enough for Lance's comfort. Granted, given that Justin was on the road more than not, the state of the mansion was unsurprising.

Once there, Lance sought out Briahna first and was treated to a full-out catwalk show for the dress that her mother had bought her just for the occasion. To Lance's untrained eye it looked very…well, blue, but a nice shade of blue and the skirt fluffed out when she twirled which caused her no end of delight. For extra emphasis, Lance picked her up, holding her at arm's length and spinning until her giggling became manic and he began to feel the pull of gravity a bit too heavily.

The two of them were still sprawled with all their earthly grace on Justin's expensive Persian rug when Joey found them. "What've you been doing with my kid, Bass?"

"Teaching her to fly, Fatone."

"What, you like her better than me?"

Lance looked up with his well-I-should-think-that-would-be-obvious expression. Joey grunted. "You're never in a million years gonna guess who just showed."

Lance worked to think of someone bizarre and outlandish. "Eminem?"

Joey scowled. Lance tried, "AJ McLean?"

"Closer." Joey picked Briahna up off the floor and turned her around, dusting off the dress, which, so far as Lance could tell, was still pretty pristine. Justin had very clean floors.

"Closer? Okay, someone Justin at one time made the phenomenal misjudgment of dating, then?"

"I dunno that I'd call this one a misjudgment."

Lance held back his shocked profanity only by the skin of his teeth and a quick peripheral flash of Briahna's solemn eyes. "Huh."

"Oh, and that girl you introduced Chris to? Yeah, he called her to wish her a happy holiday before his mother."

Lance was still processing Joey's earlier announcement, so it took his brain a minute to catch up with that, for which he suspected was exactly what Joey had been aiming. Lance ran a hand over his face and said with the air of One Resigned To His Fate, "I suppose it had to happen to somebody's friend. Can't imagine why it wouldn't have been mine."

"C'mon, they're almost ready to serve dinner. Hungry, Bree-boo?"

"Stahhhving," Briahna proclaimed, with the air of a five year-old Greta Garbo. Lance had to wonder what exactly Joey did with his kid during her free time. Wonder, but not ask.

They made it to the dining room, where JC was help setting out courses, decked out in an apron that proclaimed him to be, "A Chef: A person who works with their fingers all day long." Since Lance knew for a fact that Justin's talent in the kitchen extended to being able to defrost quality frozen food products, he wondered where exactly this piece of snark had originated. He winked at JC and wiggled his fingers. JC grinned and wiggled his tongue. Cheeky bastard.

Chris was sitting off to the side, still on the phone. Lance hoped progress had been made to Bev, as it was getting late on the East Coast and Chris would get his ass shredded if he called after ten, what with Molly's kids still being pretty young.

Sure enough, at the head of the table, Justin and Britney were talking, their body language that of two people who know each all too well and, at the same time, not at all. Lance hadn't seen her out of the public eye in a while, but she looked good. Tired and a little bit jittery -- a state Lance attributed to the pseudo-flirting her and Justin were pursuing -- but fit and alert and even prettier than she had been the last time. If he had been into that sort of thing. Justin was.

Justin's smile when he looked up and noticed Lance had come into the room wasn't far removed from the one he'd given him at the door, large and goofy in its size, hopeful and just a little bit jittery. Similar to Britney's current one, if Lance was willing to make that connection. Then again, it wasn't like Lance had ever denied that being in the group was a lot like sleeping together without the actual, say, intercourse.

JC had slipped behind Lance at some point, gathered his arms around Lance's waist and was now squeezing for all he was worth. Lance squeaked a little, involuntarily, and JC loosened up. "Just so you know," JC said, "I would've been happy, just you and me, but I'm glad you agreed to come."

The fact that he said, "you would have been enough, you are enough, I love you" in JC speak made Lance say, "No, I'm glad I did too. It's kinda…nostalgic, or whatever."

JC whispered, "Whatever," and Lance knew he was being laughed at but it didn't matter. JC was biting at his earlobe and Justin was smirking at the two of them and Chris had finally hung up the phone and Joey was harping on them that "I have hungry tummies to feed -- four of them -- and could we please get this show on the road?"

Lance extricated himself from JC and asked, "Where's the knife? I don't trust any of the rest of you clowns to cut this sweet-lookin' bird."

It started a pissing contest, of course it did, but Lance had started it, all on his own and he participated in it, one of five and in the end, JC settled it by shoving the handle of the knife in Lance's hand, firmly gripping the top of said hand and saying, "We'll do it together, what's the likelihood that we'll both screw up?"

It took the other three several minutes to find an answer witty enough to contend with that suggestion and by that time, the two of them were already doling out the portions.


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile