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Lance was pretty sure it had started with the Ginsu knives.

JC had given him the package, wrapped in shiny silver paper with four bows artistically arranged on the top and said. "Happy birthday, and, uh, housewarming."

The latter had amused Lance because he had started renting a personal apartment well over a year before that. The former had bemused him because JC was a complete airhead when it came to dates. The older man had forgotten Thanksgiving one year, looking perplexed when Lance had asked if he wanted to spend the holiday in Florida with the rest of the guys.

They were good knives. Fantastic, actually. Lance was willing to bet JC had stumbled upon a female sales clerk who had been more than eager to help. Not that JC would have noticed. Lance had unwrapped them carefully, not tearing at the paper, driving JC crazy with the deliberateness of the act.

"Scoop, man, get on with it." JC had blinked and reached out to help. Lance had batted the long fingers away. Inside the paper had been a plain wooden box that had opened to reveal the knives.

Lance had fingered one of the highly polished and sharpened blades. "Oh."

JC had run a hand through hair that was too gelled to actually move in reaction to his fingers. "Um. Y'know. For cooking. In your kitchen."

Lance had been seconds from mocking him for stating the obvious when he paused and queried, "How'd you know I like to cook?"

JC's smiles were always mysterious.

*

"You made those little things I like." JC picked up one of the rice and grapeseed leaf hors d'oeuvres, studying it with unrestrained wonder.

"Yeah, well, the cookbook had a recipe for 'those little things' and I just couldn't resist." Lance was still washing the newly christened knives. JC had arrived early. "We did say six, right?"

JC gulped the wrap he'd been chewing and nodded. "I was hungry."

Considering he'd had to remind JC that such a thing as food existed on more than one occasion Lance found this odd, but he wasn't in the mood to examine the issue just then.

"What else'd you make?"

"The recipes that called for knives."

"Weren't there a lot of those?"

"You on a diet?"

"Probably will be after tonight." JC popped another wrap into his mouth. Lance dried the last knife. Dinner was almost ready.

*

"Um." JC sniffed the air. "What does it smell like in here?"

Lance smiled sheepishly. "I, uh. Had an unfortunate cumin accident."

JC surveyed the fine powder that covered the stove, Lance's face and most of Lance's t-shirt. "Wow." He put the flowers he had brought for the centerpiece down on the counter and held out his hand to Lance, who took it. "Is anything gonna burn?"

Lance shook his head. "Nah, it's all just gotta cook for awhile."

JC led Lance up to his bathroom and scouted out the washcloths. He pulled the shirt over Lance's head, careful not to get any of the spice in Lance's eyes. He wet the washcloth with warm water and gently cleaned away what he could of the seasoning. "I can't leave you alone for one minute, can I?"

Lance smiled up at JC and let himself be taken care of.

*

Lance found the second gift in his bunk, near the beginning of the tour, when everything was unfamiliar and overwhelming and he was homesick more out of exhaustion than out of an actual longing for home. JC hadn't wrapped this one, just laid it out over the bed with a note on flowered stationary that looked like it should have been a fan letter. "Heather made this. You looked like you needed it more than me. -C"

Joey was staring over his shoulder, trying to see what had him looking at his bunk in awe. When he saw it, Joey gaped. "Shit. Lance."

Lance nodded knowingly.

Joey obviously felt the need to vocalize. "He gave you something from Heather."

"Yes."

"No, I mean, *Heather*. Heather, my-sister-the-goddess-whose-trash-I-would-probably-save-were-it-to-fall-within-range."

"I've lived around him as long as you have."

"What'd you do, secure him the new Anna Sui contract, or something?"

Lance ran a finger over the tightly knitted yarn. "I cooked for him."

"You must have some mad kitchen skills."

"Evidently."

*

Lance didn't really know how to say thank you for something like that, because while they all made fun of JC for adoring Heather, Lance was pretty sure he came close with Stacey. So he knew, even without Joey's babbling, what the pretty blue and green knit throw meant.

He stayed up one night on the bus learning to make donuts, which were one of the few outright fatty foods that JC indulged in. The day he actually tried making them he convinced Joey to switch buses with JC so that Lance wouldn't have to deal with Chris trying to help or Justin trying to eat them while they were still in the pan. JC politely accepted Joey's offer to switch and came on the bus, laptop clutched under one arm, settling quickly and quietly down at the table to get some writing done. At one point he sang a satisfied, "Smells yum," to some tune he was working on.

Lance brought in the ones that he had sorted out as deformed but having the possibility of tasting right. The rest had been…experiments gone wrong. JC looked up from the computer screen to the plate and transferred his eyes to Lance, wholly the kid in the candy store. "You can make donuts?"

"I think that's probably overstating my abilities."

JC shook his head and reached out for a donut. It crumbled a little too quickly in his fingers, but he just laughed and ducked his head to catch the falling pieces with his mouth. "Oh. My. G-d." He managed to get out the awed, pseudo-compliment between bites.

Lance got up. "Be right back."

It took him a moment to reappear. When he sat back down next to JC, he wrapped them both in the throw, unworried by the crumbs that were littering its surface. "Thanks for the blanket, Jayce."

JC pecked his cheek, leaving sugar in his wake.

*

The third gift got him thinking. It was a Travis CD. JC had written on the inside of the cover, "You should be doing the whole college music thing right about now." He popped the CD in his discman and tried to figure out exactly what college music meant when you didn't live in a dorm or eat cafeteria food.

He asked JC about it in the green room before Letterman. "What would you know about college?"

JC scratched at his temple, head lilting to the side. "Uh, what Chris told me?"

"How many times have Joey and I warned you about listening to him?"

"I just. I kinda think with you it's a shame."

"What's a shame?"

"Missing out on college. Because sometimes you listen to people when they call you stupid for being in a boyband or outta the way you stare sometimes, but you're not. I wish you had a chance to find that out. Outside of us."

"I have four people who would stand by my actions as intelligent if I decided to go swimming in the Suez Canal. Why should I need anything else?"

"I worry that our voices get drowned out. I wish there were others. I wish a lot of things."

Assistants came into the room to hustle the guys on to the sound stage and Lance was left wondering exactly what else JC wished.

*

Writer's block hit JC not a week after the Letterman appearance. Writer's block for JC was roughly the equivalent of heroin withdrawal for most other people. Sleep went out the window, which was hard, considering that at times he slept ten hours a night. He stopped eating, even when reminded and couldn't sit down for longer than two seconds on end. He made Chris look calm.

Justin handled these periods arguably worse than JC, he got so worried about his friend. Justin's anxiety didn't really help anything, so JC inevitably avoided him, hurting Justin's feelings in the process. This time around, Lance out and out asked Joey, "Can you handle the Infant for a bit?"

Justin switched over to the two man bus, which left Lance in a confined space with the two most spastic members of NSync at that given moment. Surprisingly, Chris was actually pretty good with JC when he got like this. Lance thought that Chris probably sympathized on some level. Chris didn’t comment or deride, he just made some decaffeinated chamomile tea and when JC opened his mouth to say that he didn’t really like chamomile tea, Chris said, "Drink it anyway. Trust me." And while nobody knew it, JC had an even bigger hero worship complex with Chris than Justin did. The tea got drunk.

At night, when they could both hear him pacing in the narrow hallway covering the front part of the bus, Chris whispered from inside his bunk, "You or me?"

Lance got up.

He approached when JC was facing him, not wanting to freak the older man out. JC grimaced. "Keeping you up?"

Lance shook his head, "Not sleepy," and prayed not to yawn.

"It hurts."

Lance wasn't sure exactly what JC was talking about, let alone what an appropriate response would be, so he let JC pace and waited for him to explain.

"Like being sick hurts. You’ve got something inside of you that shouldn’t be there, it wants to come out and your body…in this instance your brain, won’t let it. I want." JC tugged at the ends of his hair in frustration, wincing at the sensation. "I wanna scoop my insides out with a spoon."

"Nice visual. You should put that in a song. Millions of teenies singing along."

JC actually summoned a smile, tired though it was.

Lance was relatively sure that now was not the time to discuss the things he wanted to with JC, but he didn't really have anything else to say and those issues were pounding on the walls of his brain. "Why don't you write about what you wish for?"

JC spun violently midpace, nearly losing his balance. "Huh?"

"You told me last week that there were lots of things you wished for."

"Oh." JC collapsed onto the floor and folded his limbs into the new yoga position he'd been trying to teach himself. "I don't think that would be a lot more appropriate than lyrics about disembowelment."

Lance frowned.

JC reconsidered. "That sounded better in my head." He breathed in deeply. "I don’t think our fans want to hear about my…less than heteronormative desires."

"Unless more of our fan base than I had previously believed reads Foucault, I don’t think you have to worry about them understanding lyrics about that." Lance was surprised the words came out as smoothly as they did, seeing as how his brain was screaming, "Whoa, shit, hold up there, sailor!!!"

JC banged his head softly against the side of the table. "You're freaking out."

Sometimes Lance wished the other four didn't know him quite as well as they did. "Not in a bad way. Just in a need-to-process-new-information way. Do the other guys know?"

"Chris -- well, Chris kinda. Um. He helped-"

"It's cool. I get it."

"I think Joey does. We haven't really talked, but, y'know. Joey."

"Yeah. Justin?"

"Like coming out to your little brother. Not ready."

"Right."

The silence was not exactly what could have been described as comfortable.

"Could you, um, talk?" JC didn't sound like he was breathing.

"Probably a shade pale of heterosexual myself."

"Oh. How pale?"

"Think skim milk."

"Tasty and fat free?"

Lance raised his eyebrows. "Can you sleep yet?"

"Did I just lose my being awake privileges?"

"Something like that."

"If you don't mind, I think I'm gonna write some before I come back."

"I can handle that."

*

For the life of him, JC couldn't figure out why he was actually picking up the phone, nevertheless, his hand stole out and grabbed the instrument of his awakening from its cradle. "What?"

"Get dressed in something nice, meet me at the car at the service entrance."

"Lance. Sunday. Day off." JC wasn't giving up his sleeping time without some kind of incoherent argument.

"Please."

JC hung up on him. Ten minutes later, with barely brushed hair and breath that smelled of original Listerine, JC slid into the car. He looked at Lance in his suit and said, "You didn't tell me it had to be that nice."

Lance shook his head. "What you have on is just fine."

"Where're we goin'?"

Lance made a noncommittal noise and told JC, "You can sleep on the way there."

Which was really all JC wanted to know.

*

JC was woken up by gentle shaking and the view out of his car window told him they were at a church. It was tiny and Southern and Baptist, but JC knew a church when he saw one. "I'm Mennonite."

"Yup." Lance agreed. "C'mon."

It was packed inside. JC followed Lance when the younger man slid stealthily into a back row, unnoticed. JC desperately wanted to ask what they were doing there but Lance seemed so intent on the service that he felt interrupting him would probably have ended in damnation and eternal hellfire. He wasn't really willing to risk it.

Toward the very end of the service, the preacher came up and announced the presence of very special guests. JC gathered from the introduction that "Sweet Honey in the Rock" was a musical group of some sort. For the first time all morning, he sat straight up in the pew and tried to see.

The group was five African-American women. They performed a cappella gospel songs about everything from social issues to redemption. The music was soulful and energetic, tinged sometimes with handheld percussions and JC was lost from the moment they started to several minutes after they had ended. He wanted to dance in the aisles with others, would have if Lance's hand hadn't found its way to his knee, gently anchoring him.

When the world around him came slowly back into focus, he turned to Lance, eyes wild, energy radiating from him. "You. That was. Um. Yes."

Lance just smiled, the fact that he knew what JC meant evident in every aspect of his expression.

*

The trip had been the point of no return, at least for Lance. He had called JC from Mississippi a week into their vacation. "Hey."

"Hi." JC's voice was reminiscent of his smiles. "You sound tired."

"Nah, getting plenty of sleep. I forget when we're away that that's the only thing to do in Clinton."

"Aw. Is someone bored?"

"Out of his mind. Listen, I was gonna take a week and go up to New York. I've never really been there when we haven't had massive scheduling and I always wanted to just do the city a bit. You wanna go with me?"

"Well, yeah, but Joey'd probably be a better choice."

"Probably. Getting lost with you could be fun, though."

"Yeah," JC chuckled, "definitely could be."

*

Lance flew to Orlando so that he wouldn't have to try and meet up with JC in LaGuardia without catching the attention of every teenager visiting from California to China. The two of them managed to make it from the airport to the hotel with little recognition, which Lance considered a minor miracle and gave a small nod of thanks to whatever divine power had intervened for them.

JC stared out the window revealing Fifth Avenue. "So, whatcha wanna do?"

Lance joined him. "You have a preference?"

"It's your trip, silly."

"Oh. Right. Yeah, okay, c'mon."

"Where're we going?"

Lance's eyes crinkled with his smile. "Somewhere."

"Laaaance," JC whined prettily, "teeelll meeee."

Lance put his sun glasses on and pulled the baseball cap over his head. JC followed suit, jogging a little to catch up as Lance made his way down the hall. They walked in silence for most of the way, people watching, stopping to rest against the fence separating city from park, considering the sidewalk merchandise. JC nodded when he noted their destination before them. "Oooh. Yeah." He ran up the stairs, waiting for Lance to catch up to him. They went in, paid a few dollars over the suggested fee each and walked, slowly this time, up a second set of stairs.

They made their way through the hallway, stopping for things that caught each other's eye. A black and white picture of New York here, a sketch of the Dutch landscape there. They strolled through temporary exhibits, JC whispering parts of the accompanying text that interested him from over Lance's shoulder. They found the Impressionists galleries together and split as Lance got stuck in front of Van Gogh's Irises and JC lost himself in the muted realism of Renoir.

They joined up again to walk through the medieval galleries, JC hearing hymns as he stared at the Madonna figures, Lance fingering his tiny cross while surveying the large, ornamental ones in cases. Through those halls and a set of glass doors lay the American gallery. Stained glass retelling parables changed into Tiffany windows, separate panes of color cut and placed and melded into iridescent portraits of streams, fall leaves, wildflowers, unseen light.

"Wow." This time the whisper came from Lance, low and awed.

JC was beyond words.

*

Outside, at the bottom of the stairs, Lance stopped and ordered them each a hotdog and a coke. JC took his gingerly. "This stuff'll eat your insides."

Lance rolled his eyes and took a large bite.

JC shrugged and copied him. "Mm. That was. Why haven't I done that before?"

It took Lance a moment to realize that JC was talking about the Metropolitan. "You wanted to, remember? Second time we were here. We had half a day to actually do something before we had to be at soundcheck, but Justin wanted to see the Statue of Liberty and we all agreed that it was something you probably should do while in the city, so we piled on the ferry and climbed Lady Liberty."

"That was cool, though. I liked the museum at Ellis."

"You're such a museum-whore."

JC looked at him for a second before laughing. "Yeah." He took a sip of his coke. "There's a lot of room to think at museums. And it's like you're being encouraged to think. Most of the time, y'know, we are the pictures, we are somebody's thoughts, just not as lofty as the things you find at the Met. I feel…"

"Objectified?"

"That works."

"You're better than any Renoir."

JC blushed.

"Especially when you're thinking."

*

Lance liked maps. He had gotten ahold of a subway map somewhere along the way when JC had been spacing out, and was now busy figuring out how to get from the hotel up to 83rd and Broadway.

"Lance?"

Lance did not look up from his newfound toy.

"Um, why do we wanna go up there?"

Lance looked up, smiling the way he always did right before he gave the guys their Christmas presents. "Remember the scene in 'You've Got Mail' where Meg Ryan goes to meet her e-pal at the café and Tom Hanks shows up-"

"And she doesn't know it's him?" JC finished excitedly for Lance. They were both Meg Ryan buffs. When he considered this in relation to their sexual proclivities, Lance often wondered if it was hard for her to get it on with straight men.

"Café Lalo is the place that was filmed at, I wanna take you."

"Like," JC's eyes were suddenly as engrossed with the map as Lance's had been seconds earlier, "a date?"

Lance's finger traced up the subway route they needed to take. "Yeah. Like that. If it's cool."

"Okay." JC blinked. "But I get to pay for the Metro cards."

*

Lalo's was small. JC had to make himself skinnier than he was to fit in between tables and into the seat the waitress had given them. Lance watched carefully, worried the older man would disappear.

JC spent twenty minutes pouring over the menu while Lance walked up to the counter to get a visual on all the offerings. A good half of the seventy-five pies and cakes made nightly were lined up, labels tacked wherever they would fit. Cheesecakes alongside chocolate pecan pie next to flourless tortes. Making a decision, he returned to the table, waiting for JC to stop marking words with his fingers and actually figure out what he wanted.

The two walls that were visible displayed the faux Toulouse-Lautrec's that served as Lalo's logo art. Directly outside the wall to wall windows that made up the front of the café, soft white Christmas lights that were up year round glowed in the trees. JC looked up, grinning. "Whatcha gettin'?"

"Uh uh. You make up your own mind."

JC pouted, but obediently went back to studying the menu. It took another ten minutes for him to close the spiral bound book and say, "ready," as if at his cue a waitress would appear.

She wasn't far off, and JC's order spilled off his lips in a tumble of sounds. He had gone with a wild cherry Italian soda and a fruit parfait. Lance requested the black and white cheesecake and an Irish coffee.

JC took his time stirring the syrup around in the old-fashioned phosphate glass with the help of the bended straw sticking out. He sipped gingerly and looked at Lance like the cat caught rolling in the cream with no intention of getting out. The look only intensified as he dipped his spoon into his parfait, brought it up his lips and took it into his mouth slowly, savoring.

Lance sipped at his coffee and slid his chair closer to the table, wondering why his pants weren't as baggy as he remembered them being.

*

"Let's see a show." JC was attempting puppy eyes. Lance didn't want to tell him it worked better when he didn't try.

"They're all spitting distance from MTV, Jayce."

"We'll order tickets over the phone, go in close to starting and lay low during intermission. C'mon, we've hidden in plain sight before."

Lance was good at saying no to everyone but the other guys. He was better at saying no to Justin than he was to Chris, better at it when dealing with Chris than with Joey. JC was a lost cause on his part. He looked at the hotel's brochure with the list of shows playing and formed an idea in his head. A couple of phone calls later, things were tied up.

It was all JC could do not to act giddy when Lance ushered them into the theatre that night, bright lights glittering in Times Square's version of darkness, the "Rent" marquis somewhat stark against the carnival atmosphere. When they sat down, JC leaned over and whispered, "You got these last minute?"

Lance smiled his professional smile. "House seats. I made some calls."

JC only had a minute to marvel at Lance's smoothness before the show started and the theatre's darkness was overwhelmed by the rock imbued production of modern musical theatre. Young unknowns poured their souls out into Jonathan Larson's legacy, the costumes of early nineties village living standing out against the stripped down stage. JC's leg bounced not only to the music but, at times, to the dialogue. His hand brushed insistently against Lance's throughout the first verse of "I'll Cover You." Fingers curled lightly around the younger man's hand during the second verse. They were holding hands by the third. JC cried at the ending, caught between being uplifted and despairing.

They walked back, JC having too much energy to sit in a cab and Lance not wanting to try tracking one down in the post show rush of 42nd street.

Back in the room, Lance called the concierge and requested a menu to a Thai food place in the area that delivered. While they were waiting, he leaned over and kissed the corner of JC's right eye. A tear had dried there, JC being too distracted to brush it away.

JC kissed the corner of Lance's mouth. "Two dates in a row. I must be hot property."

*

The last day they were in the city, JC woke up, looked over at Lance's bed and said, "Let's go see the city."

Lance smiled sleepily. "What d'you think we've been doing all week, silly?"

JC shook his head. "Today is my surprise."

Lance lifted his head off of his pillow and propped himself up on a fist. "Okay."

JC knew his strengths. He had the directional ability of a fish without its school and tended to get distracted by things around him, losing his way. In order to avoid getting lost, he left Lance inside the rotating door of the hotel while he spoke with the bellboy standing on the curb. They had a taxi heading downtown within a minute.

Lance watched JC practically cling to the window, soaking up the awnings with dozens of different languages under or above their English names; the people walking dogs that ranged from pedigree breeders to mutts of at least four species; advertisements riding on top of taxis, fixed on bus stations and plastered to scaffolding; street vendors with purses or fruit and artificially colored carnations; playgrounds where kids roamed that only accentuated the concrete jungle design of the city and the tag art that covered buildings like ivy on a college campus. Every once in awhile he would point enthusiastically at something, but was too excited to really elaborate on what exactly he wanted Lance to notice. If he spoke, it was incoherent and made up of a lot of unconnected adjectives.

Lance wanted to tell him he loved him. He thought it would probably sound as incoherent as JC's descriptions of what he saw.

They pulled up outside the World Trade Center. Lance looked up, but couldn't see the end of either tower.

They made their way through the lobby, past security and into the elevator. The ride took about three minutes, which Lance figured was pretty good, considering it covered 110 stories. The doors opened and they turned to stare directly out windows that revealed every bit of the island in the direction chosen and quite a bit beyond. JC walked slowly to where the railing stood approximately half a foot in front of the ceiling to floor windows. His eyes swept over the southern part of the island, taking in the water beyond, the architecturally acclaimed bridges, the skyline from a mildly G-dlike point of view. He walked around, studying the city from every direction. He stopped at the North side, seeing urban sprawl as far as his sight could reach. He breathed in softly and exhaled with the words, "I feel like I'm touching the world."

Lance looked out the window, considering the sentiment. He reached down and, finding JC's hand, latched on. "I am touching my world."

*

It wasn't that different, really, from how things had been before the vacation. So it took the others awhile to notice.

Chris caught JC watching Lance record one day. JC's face was an open book being read on audiotape when it came to most things, so Chris was in on the secret. He found Lance later. "You and the serious one, huh?"

Lance studied his face. "Yeah. New York."

"He's. Kinda high maintenance."

"It's endearing."

"Okay."

"I like taking care of him."

"Well then. I guess my life just got a lot easier."

*

Justin walked in on Lance rubbing JC's temples, ghosting kisses against the underline of his jaw periodically. He realized that they hadn't heard him come in, when his "um," caused JC's eyes to fly open.

"Hey Ju." JC deposited a light kiss on Lance's lips. "Thanks, gorgeous."

Lance rested his palm against JC's cheek. "Everything okay Just?"

"I think. Um. You're both?" Justin scratched his head. "Were you going to mention this?"

JC flinched slightly. Lance tried his hardest not to glare at Justin. "Eventually. When everyone involved was ready to handle it."

Justin blinked. "Well, I mean, shit."

JC's voice was tremulous. "Don't be mad. It's not. We don't want to hurt anything."

"Then why-" Justin gestured impotently.

JC rolled his eyes. "Duh."

Justin tilted his head and looked more confused then he ever had before "This I Promise You."

"I love him." JC rarely sounded like he was making a statement that could not be confuted, but when he did, it was confidence inspiring.

Lance's hand, which hadn't moved, stroked lightly against JC's cheekbone. His statement was quieter, but no less sure. "Pretty much sums things up."

"You love each other." Justin considered this aspect of the whole situation. "That's not supposed to be okay."

Lance's jaw tensed. "I guess you'll have to deal with that in your own way."

"No." Justin crossed his arms over his chest defensively. "No dealing. Because you're my best friends. JC took care of me when I couldn't do it for myself and you always kept the times when I cried in Europe between the two of us. So, um. You're not gonna hurt each other, right?"

"That's kinda the plan." Lance's hand slipped down to squeeze JC's knee.

Justin turned around to leave. "See that you stick to it."

*

"This thing you and the Southern Child have going. Scares me." Joey was concentrating intently on the rhythm of the glittered bouncy ball Chris had given him for Valentine's Day. Chris gave all of them gag gifts on February 14th, ostensibly so they wouldn't feel lonely, but they all privately acknowledged that Chris just loved the novelty of being able to buy others presents without having to carefully consider prices.

JC tucked an errant hair behind his ear. It was in that stage of growing out where it just wouldn't do anything. "C'mon, Joe. If anyone knows that you're not *that* straight-"

"No. Not like that."

"Oh."

"I'm not trying to play mother here, 'cause you're older than me, and all that, but-"

"It's the real thing, babe."

"How can you know that?"

"You know what we're both like as friends." JC waited for an affirmation of some sort. "Right?"

"Yeah. Okay."

"Imagine a dash of chemistry peppered in with that."

Joey's eyes got a little unfocused. "Oh."

"You can stop imagining now."

*

JC and Lance threw a small Halloween party on the grounds that it was Chris's favorite holiday and he still wasn't quite over the loneliness that his breakup with Dani had drug up full force.

Lance was in charge of cleaning and scooping out the insides of all the pumpkins. JC leaned over the finished products, Ginsu knives at his side, lips pursed in concentration, making comedy and tragedy masks, ghoulish faces and flower-eyed happy jack-o-lanterns. Lance separated the guts, cooking the seeds and converting the rest into homemade pies.

JC worked out Halloween related haikus aloud as he hung crepe paper and imitation spider webs with plastic spiders, placed candles and plastic pumpkins filled with Hershey's kisses and put away anything fragile. With an hour to go until the party, he went upstairs, showered and changed. When he came back down, Lance was still in the kitchen. He purred softly, leaning up against the door post. Lance turned around and smiled. "Hey sexy."

JC stalked towards him. "Mrow."

Lance reached out and caught JC around the waist, pulling him in. He bit gently at JC's lower lip but pulled back quickly. "Don't wanna fuck up your paint job."

JC preened. "Like it?" He had decked himself out something like Rum Tum Tugger in "Cats," only more tiger, less glorified house cat. The slashes of gold and black along his cheekbones intensified his angular facial structure and the bodysuit did nothing to hide his other natural gifts.

Lance didn't answer, just grasped the back of JC's neck and then ran his hand down the other man's back, eliciting a rather feline arching of said body part. "I'm gonna run upstairs and change. You'll let people in?"

Fifteen minutes later, Lance was back downstairs. His costume, considerably less elaborate than JC's, consisted of a lot of velvet and a set of very real looking vampire teeth. JC had suggested that the natural color of his eyes made him a shoo-in for the undead. Lance had responded with a hesitant, "uh, thanks." JC had made it up to him with a blowjob in the dressing room of the costume shop.

The party was relatively low-key, being that the only people invited were the five guys, significant others and a tiny group of friends so close they would be willing to give a kidney, should one be needed. Chris was crazy in the way he knew everyone expected him to be until Lance handed him a piece of pumpkin pie straight out of the oven with the warning to sit down while he was eating it. When Chris hauled himself onto the dining room table, Lance ruffled his hair and said, "s'okay," before ambling away to dish out pie to the others. Chris was fresher after that, more unpredictable. Justin soaked it up, running around the house right behind him, making JC more glad than ever that he'd hidden all the breakables.

By the end of the evening, after friends who were sober enough had been herded into their cars and saddled with those who couldn't be trusted to look at a steering wheel, let alone actually use one, Lance and JC told the other guys to stay for the night. Joey was already asleep on the couch, where JC threw the afghan over him and kissed his forehead with a mumbled, "night." Lance settled Justin and Chris on the floor of the living room with sleeping bags, the two of them whispering and giggling long after the hosts had finished doing precursory cleaning and stumbled up the stairs to their room.

Lance ran a shower, which he pulled JC into with him, gently wielding a washcloth to wipe away his lover's facial designs. Color swirled at their feet as Lance pressed his body to JC's, hands stealing behind to massage JC's ass, mouth nipping softly along the length of JC's earlobe.

JC's breath quickened, but he pushed Lance away gently. "Clean, first."

The suds of their efforts to clean each other were still pouring off of them when they fell back against each other, kissing desperately, the water pounding against Lance's back as he pushed with his hands against JC's shoulders, pinning the older man to the wall. His mouth moved down, licking along the jaw line, panting down the path of the throat, nipping at the collarbone. His kisses along the sternum were firm, almost painful. He didn’t waste time when he reached JC's cock, licking quickly from the base of the underside to the tip once before swallowing. JC screamed and nearly fell, Lance's firm grip on his hips keeping him in place. Lance hummed softly for a few minutes and swallowed once before pulling off of JC. JC sobbed at the ceasing of attention. Lance rose up, fluidly, hands still anchoring JC and whispered, "Baby, we have to get out, I don't have anything."

JC pressed his palm insistently against Lance's cock and waited for the small scream of surprise to die out. "I don't care."

"No, Jayce-"

"Lance." JC looked at him, panting, eyes sharp and unfocused all at once. "Trust. Me."

Lance nodded once, unable to breathe let alone respond verbally. He reached for the baby oil that JC used as a moisturizer and popped the top. He took his time preparing JC, both of them maintaining eye contact. When he finally slid inside, JC grabbed his arms tightly enough that there would be bruises later and pulled Lance toward him until he could get no closer. His fingers let go and he wrapped his arms around Lance. Lance kept his own hands firmly against the back of JC's head so as not to let it slam against the tiled walls of the shower. Their breaths came at the same time as Lance set a slow rhythm. JC moaned and squirmed, Lance stayed in control.

Afterwards, they came to an awareness of cold water falling down upon them. They forced themselves back under the spray just long enough to rinse off before turning the handles and stepping out. Lance wrapped them together in the enormous plush shower towel. They moved as one to the bed, where they fell, shivering, beneath the covers. JC immediately curled up against Lance's chest, seeking his warmth.

Lance sighed as the cold began to seep from his body. "Jayce?"

"Mm?"

"I didn't know anything could be this right."

*

He didn't really notice it at first, just thought he was more stressed out than usual with the need to be filming and recording and running a few companies all at one time. In the end, it was JC who said, "Babe, you've been sleeping so much."

JC slept a lot. In spurts. He went through days where he could stay up for three nights in a row getting maybe an hour of sleep and be completely unaffected. Then he would crash and sleep fourteen hours a night for about a month. With naps. It was hell on him when their schedule didn't permit that kind of rest. Lance made him frilly coffee concoctions with a blender to help. So when JC made this observation, Lance didn't even look up from his computer. "You're in an energy spurt, Jayce, *everyone* seems to be sleeping a lot."

"On an average, you sleep six to seven hours a night. This week you've gotten no less than nine on any given night, going up to twelve and you've fallen asleep sitting at the computer three times that I'm aware of."

Lance knew that JC tended to be more observant than anyone gave him credit for, so he wasn't really as shocked by the fact that JC had noticed all this as he was by the way the numbers added up. "Huh."

"You been feeling alright?"

"Um. Yeah. Just tired. I think it might be stress."

"I suppose." JC pushed the laptop away and perched on Lance's lap. "I don't want this to be like before. We have a big tour coming up. I don’t wanna walk backstage with you one night and have to catch you as you go down. It was scary enough the first time."

Lance pulled JC's lips to his and kissed him gently. "Worrywart."

"Lance-"

Lance got busy distracting JC.

*

JC wrapped a strand of spaghetti around the fork meticulously, tucking the ends up neatly with a spoon and delicately ate his masterpiece. "Damn, babe. You were right, we did need a pasta maker."

Lance paused in his effort to cut his pasta into molecular units. "I told you not to argue with me about kitchen supplies. That's my domain."

JC went back to his slightly obsessive-compulsive wrapping and tucking for a few minutes before looking up, laughter in his eyes as he held his fork out. "Want some?"

"Uh." Lance was still cutting. "I have my own."

"Yeah, but you're not eating it."

"I ignored the cardinal rule of cooking this afternoon, snacked on everything I was making."

"You were eating from-scratch, raw pasta? Was this your attempt to chase salmonella?" JC's voice was dry, he didn't believe a thing Lance was saying.

Lance, who wasn't used to lying to JC, and was even less used to getting caught, floundered for a moment. "I'm just not hungry, Jayce."

"How long are you gonna keep telling yourself this is just stress? Because, if you give me a time limit, I can make a doctor's appointment and it will be all set when you come around."

"Jesus, it's my fucking body."

"It's not just your body." JC was slow to anger. It could build inside of him for weeks at a time and when it was released it was never by way of fiery explosion, but rather by way of fury so quiet you had to lean in to hear it. Of course, the danger was in the leaning in. "When you break an arm or a leg, that's not the kind of damage that you can just brush off. You are so much more to me than a fucking limb. I don't for a minute doubt that I'd trade one if it meant your safety. So, no, it's not your own damned body." JC stabbed his fork, pasta swirl and all against the ceramic bottom of his bowl. "Besides, if you think it's fun waking up soaked from you having sweated up three-fourths your body weight or watching you try to breath regularly after just one repetition of 'Bye,' you have so got another thing coming."

Lance was silent for a bit, staring down at his mutilated pasta. "I've been kinda um, not well."

"Yeah."

"Maybe. Um."

"Will you let me call a doctor?"

"My doctor."

"Okay."

JC got up and held his hand out to Lance. "You look wiped. Let's crash."

"I should clean up."

"I'll get it later. C'mon."

Lance got up and followed JC into the bedroom. Taking off their shoes was all the preparation they bothered with before climbing under the sheets. JC wrapped himself firmly against his lover. Lance gripped at his arms too tightly. JC didn't make a sound.

*

Their doctors had gotten used to the guys coming to each other's appointments when they involved anything more strenuous than a yearly check up. The five boys lives had begun bleeding together in an overheated factory in Florida and by the time any of them had noticed, the lifelines were too essential to rupture without serious damage to one or all five of them. So when the nurse called for Lance and JC followed him into the exam room, she didn't say anything just smiled and asked how he was doing before talking to Lance about what was going on.

Lance's doctor was even less phased. She chatted with Lance about what was on the chart for a few minutes before turning to JC and pinning him with a stare, "How long'd it take you to drag his ass in here?"

JC backed up, attempting to disappear into the wall. "A month, or so."

"Wow, what do you have on him?" She smiled to let JC know it wasn't his fault that Lance was a stubborn bastard when it came to taking care of himself.

JC smiled back politely. "You don't wanna know."

She took that at face value and turned back to Lance. "We gotta get some blood kiddo, so that I can do a culture. Then I'm gonna send you down to the lab for a chest x-ray. I wanna see test results before I even start formulating theories. From what I can tell, this could be nothing more than a bitchy virus, but with your heart not sounding completely right, I don't wanna be taking chances. 'K?"

Lance nodded. She left the room and while they were waiting for the nurse to get back, Lance looked at JC who had gone pale at the mention of blood. "Jayce."

"Um."

"Needles, I know. Go wait out in the hall."

"But-"

"Send me support vibes, I'll get'em."

"Are you-"

Lance leaned over to peck him on the lips, and then shoved him off the exam table with a swat to his ass for added emphasis. "Go."

"Aye-aye." JC saluted as he left.

From outside the room, Lance heard a soft repeat of "support" being sung in a key that made it sound like the humming of a meditation mantra.

*

Lance tilted his head at the Tippins box in the refrigerator. "Jayce, did you-"

"Hey!" JC swooped in and closed the fridge door, frowning at Lance. "I told you I was taking care of things tonight." He deposited the dishes from dinner in the sink and pushed Lance back into the dining area. "Sit." He spared another frown. "Nosy."

Lance just watched with wide, tired eyes as JC floated back into the kitchen. JC had tried everything to get him to eat since the doctor's appointment. The results of the blood culture and x-ray hadn't come back yet, and the anxiety was getting to JC far more than it was to Lance. By way of trying to calm him down, Lance responded to JC's efforts by honestly trying to eat. Every once in awhile he was successful.

JC made his way back to where Lance was sitting, pie tin in one hand, pie server in the other. He set the pie down with the air of Edison about to reveal the light bulb. "I've got Ben & Jerry's vanilla in the other room. Didn't have an extra hand."

Lance put his fingers out gingerly, almost touching the tin, close enough to feel the warmth emanating from it. "Mm. How'd you know? I don't remember telling you guys this was my favorite."

"Called your mom. She said it was what you used to ask for every single birthday. About as good a tip as I was gonna get. I tried making one from scratch, but, uh, apple pie's harder'n you'd think to make like that."

Lance chuckled. "Trust me, I know. Took my mom several tries to get me to a level of competence. I'm impressed you tried."

"You can pretend I made this one."

Lance pulled JC down to where he could kiss him. "I don't have to pretend anything with you." And though it took a long time, Lance made sure he ate a whole piece.

*

Lance left his cell phone on the day he was supposed to get the results of the tests back and annoyed Wade by checking the number every time it would ring. Wade was hard pressed to yell though, when Lance was biting his lip and pressing urgently at his chest in between numbers and had nearly cried when JC sat at his feet while Lance reclined on the couch, rubbing his knee and hip joints.

The call finally came around three. Wade turned off the music as Lance hit the "talk" button. "Hey doc. Could I have some good news please?"

The woman on the other end of the line spoke up. "You sure you want to hear this over the phone?"

"If it's fatal, no. If it's nasty but there's a cure, hit me."

"Infective endocarditis."

Lance closed his eyes, struggling against breathlessness to inhale deeply. "What does it mean and how do I fix it?"

"It means that the lining of your heart and your heart valves have been infected by bacteria. It happens sometimes with people who have congenital heart problems, especially when they lead over-active lives." Her voice wasn't condemning, just matter-of-fact. "As far as fixing goes, I'm gonna need you to check into a hospital for a couple of days. I know there are a lot of privacy issues that you have to be concerned with, so I'm gonna let you decide where you wanna go and then tell me and I will talk with doctors at wherever you end up. It's not for long, a week at most, but you've got to be on intravenous antibiotics. Then, when you get out, I'm gonna prescribe more antibiotics to be taken orally. I know you'll be on the road, you'll have to check in regularly with me and possibly see someone when you're in places that you can get to an office, unless you guys have a tour doctor. If so, I should probably get to know that person. You could be on drugs for up to six weeks."

"Fuck. We're supposed to go out in less than a week."

"Tell them your cousin's dog's owner's landlord's sister is getting married and it's an engagement you just can't get out of. I don't care how you spin this, Bass, you have to deal with this now. You don't and one of the nicer things that could happen to you is congestive heart failure. As much as you've probably always wanted to try out having blood clots, or an arrhythmia, or a stroke, or, best yet, a brain abscess, as your physician, I'm going to recommend immediate treatment."

"Thank you for putting the fear of G-d in me." Lance's voice was tight.

"If I don't kick your ass into taking care of itself, not only am I not doing my job, I'm betraying millions of teenage girls."

"Horrors."

"Find a hospital, kid."

"Yeah, I'll be in touch."

"Lance?"

"Mmm?"

"We're gonna kick this thing's ass and have you breaking pre-pubescent hearts again in no time."

Lance worked on breathing for a few moments before responding with a soft, revealing, "Thanks."

*

Lance briefed the guys on what the doctor had said. Joey hadn't let him get half way through with the explanation before crushing Lance up to his body so that the younger man's words were drowned in his chest. Justin and JC carefully pried Lance away without making Joey let go to get the rest of the story. Chris bounced thoughtfully for a few minutes when he was done, then asked, "Can I borrow your phone?"

Lance held out the phone and Chris took it from him, dialing a number. He waited a few seconds before someone evidently picked up, judging from the shocked look on his face. "Oh. Hi. I was kind of expecting voice mail. How are you? It's Chris."

Whatever the person on the other end of the line said made Chris smile, "Good to hear it. Listen, I'd like to tell you I just called to catch up, but I've got a favor to ask. Was Brian receiving treatments for his heart thing before the surgery?"

Chris nodded at the answer. "Wouldja mind telling me where he was going? Lance's heart is evidently in need of some serious happy pills and we're all for trying to keep it pretty quiet."

Chris looked around as if searching for something and Lance whipped out his palm pilot, handing it to him. "Yeah, okay, I'm ready." Chris scribbled on the screen. "Thanks, D, I 'preciate it. Owe you one." Chris paused for a moment, listening. "Yeah? Next time we’re both in town, or, y'know in the same place, at least. Sounds great. Tell the guys hi."

Chris handed Lance his phone back after hanging up and held up the palm pilot triumphantly. "Lance Bass, you have an invitation to the Center for Boyband Members with Sucky-Ass Hearts."

JC shoved Chris. "His heart is just perfect, thank you."

Chris rolled his eyes. "Whatever, let's get on making the arrangements. Who wants to deal with Johnny?"

*

The place was nice, for somewhere that people went to be sick. The rooms were done up tastefully with wood décor and the colors were dark enough not to be tacky and light enough not to make the patients despair of ever leaving. Lance sat on his bed and bounced a few times, gauging the mattress's reaction. JC closed the door to the private room Lance had reserved in the small cardiovascular treatment clinic located on the outskirts of Orlando. "I met your nurse in the hall. He introduced himself. Seemed nice, didn't smirk or roll his eyes when I introduced myself back or slobber on me, so, y'know, good signs."

Lance opened his legs a bit so that there was room between them on the bed. "C'mere, gorgeous."

JC came and sat down in the space Lance had made, legs draping over Lance's right leg, arms around his neck. His face was resting against the side of Lance's. He felt it when Lance smiled. "I don't want you to stay."

JC stiffened slightly, but he trusted Lance, so he said, "Okay?"

"Send the guys to check on me, so you don’t worry and you don't have to deal with getting all freaked out by the IVs."

"I can handle it." JC felt Lance open his mouth again and brought up his own hand to cover it. "James Lance Bass, I'm staying right the fuck here. No arguments. If I pass out, well, couldn't be in a much better place to get the right kind of attention for it, huh? I'm not going home. I didn't pack a bag so that I could drop you off and wish you well."

Lance ducked his head slightly and nipped softly at JC's chin. "Stubborn little fuck."

JC purred.

*

Lance slowly opened his eyes. JC grinned, "Look who decided to join the world again." He picked up the glass from the bedside table and held it to Lance's mouth so that he could drink.

Lance took a few shallow sips and let his head fall back onto the pillows. "I think you may be overestimating the situation."

JC's fingertips skimmed over Lance's cheek and then down his throat and lower, underneath Lance's pajama top to his favorite resting spot of late, directly over Lance's heart. Lance arched up slightly into the touch. "You go home?"

JC looked confused for a second and then touched his damp hair with the hand that wasn't engaged. "Yeah, Joey said he could smell me from outside the facilities and promised he'd stay with you."

"Josh, I swear I can sleep without assistance. You can go do things while I'm out, okay? Get yourself some real food, sleep at home, calm Wade down, I'd say get laid, but I wouldn't mean it. No getting laid while I sleep. Everything else is a go."

"I'll try and remember that." JC stole his hand back. "I got you something."

"Oooh, what did you bring me, huh?" Lance tried his best for child-like enthusiasm but came up closer to deadpan sarcasm due to the toll that an intense antibiotic treatment course was taking on his body.

JC dug into the side-satchel that he'd slung over the back of the chair and brought something up, covering it with both his hands. "So, uh, my parents took Heather and Tyler and I to Ireland when we were all bonnie wee lads and lasses. Uh, lass. They got us these in Killarny, one each. I've kept it with me ever since. Sewed it into my duffel in Europe, stored it under my mattress on the bus during Ain't No Stopping and NSA. Good luck charm, and all. I think you need it more though, now, to keep you safe. Plus, it belongs with you, you'll see." JC cut off with a blush.

"Josh?" Lance pried gently at JC's top hand, brows furrowed in a silent question. JC uncovered the object. Lance knew the moment he saw it what JC had meant with his last sentence. It was a flat paperweight, a Gaelic cross in the center of a swirling, intricate Gaelic pattern. It was heavy, carved out of light green jade. The color of it matched Lance's eyes nearly perfectly. "Oh. That's beautiful."

"Now you know how I feel when I look at you."

*

"I don't know if I can do this." Lance was lying across the bus's couch, head in JC's lap, feet in Joey's. The show had been over for an hour and he was exhausted, but he was still breathing too hard to think about sleeping. It was their third show, having started out a week and a half after Lance had been released. The antibiotics he was taking twice daily weren't as strong as the ones they had been pumping into him in the hospital, but they were hardly the average course of penicillin either. Lance was still worn down from the harshness of the IV drugs and wasn't handling the oral course well at all. Performing for two hours almost every night in less than ideal weather conditions was not helping. All of the guys had been filling in for any early morning interviews that had to be done so that he could get more sleep, but he still had to make photo shoots and deal with his companies.

JC's lips were pursed and Justin rubbed at his shoulders, trying to get him to loosen up a bit. The guys had all been riding one bus for the entirety of the tour, unwilling to let Lance out of their sight for longer than absolutely necessary. JC reached for the water bottle on the table and sat Lance up enough to drink a little. "Did you talk to the doctor this morning?"

Lance nodded. "He said it's okay. As long as things don't get busier. More sleep wouldn't hurt."

Joey's fingers moved from Lance's ankles to his lower calves. "But?"

It was a moment before the guys realized that the hitches in Lance's breathing pattern were not his attempt to breathe but rather tiny sobs. JC hauled him upright and on top of himself with surprising strength. He cradled Lance tightly, "Oh, babe. Okay. It's okay."

With Lance's head turned safely into JC's chest while he cried, JC felt alright letting the others know how worried he was with his facial expression. The three pairs of eyes his met with all matched his.

*

JC made sure Lance was settled in with his work before leaving him to find Chris in the back of the bus. The oldest member of the group was holed up in his bunk, sitting as upright as humanly possible in the confined space. JC joined him, longer torso slumping even more than Chris's. "So?"

"D says Bri was the same way, only worse. He says Kevin was going nucking futs and that's around the time AJ's drinking started going towards the level of Siberian prisoners."

"Well, that's reassuring. Do they give Siberian prisoners alcohol?"

"Fuck if I know, probably not. But if they did, they'd be drinking as much as AJ does. Going back to the actual point of this conversation, Brian's alive and their tour was as much of a success as NSA was, possibly more, I was very busy ignoring numbers."

"Did he have any advice on how to make things easier?"

"He said what we were doing was probably best, not having him go to the early interviews and such. He said to be careful if we perform in the rain to keep him as dry as possible when we get off stage, make sure he's warm and all, avoid dehydration like you would a big box of Ebola and make sure he's doing things that are relaxing for him at least once every couple of days, even if it's just for an hour."

"I should get him to cook."

"Yeah. Uh, D said that Leighanne spent a lot of that tour on the road with them."

"Oh." JC blushed. "Yeah, he's been tired. And, y'know, bus."

"I'll talk to the others about that, I think Lance's heart is more important than our ears right now."

JC suddenly leaned into Chris, pressing his weight up against the smaller man. "Thanks, you. For all of this."

It was Chris's turn to blush. "It hasn't been a problem. I've kinda liked having an excuse to call Howie."

JC turned his head to look at Chris. "Oh?"

Chris nodded. "We're meeting up. One of their shows isn’t that far from ours."

"I'm glad."

"Yeah? It's not like worrisome and stuff? I mean, if PR finds out-"

"I don't care if the world finds out. Not if it's good for you."

"It's…maybe what I was waiting for."

"Then I guess it's what all of us were waiting for too."

*

JC figured Chris had talked to the others about Brian's advice when two days later, Justin, who had become overwhelmingly tactile toward Lance, curled up against him and asked to be taught how to make burritos. Lance snuggled deeper into his bandmate and responded with a confused, "Not that I won't, but why?"

"I'm scared that Chris's insides are going to be destroyed by the amount of Taco Bell he's been eating lately. Thought I'd, y'know, do my part to help keep this group from becoming the less catchy NYNC. Plus, 'Gone' wouldn’t sound the same without him."

"No, probably not."

"So you'll teach me?"

"Yeah." Lance ran his hand affectionately over Justin's buzz. "It'll be fun."

*

JC knew that Chris had said something when Joey opened the door of the bus bathroom, where they were wiping each other down after the show and pointed to JC. "Scoop, what am I pointing at?"

"Um," Lance glanced quizzically at JC, who just shrugged. "My boyfriend?"

"Well, that and a man who seriously needs to get laid. Put two and two together my friend." He closed the door behind him as he exited so quickly JC had to shake his head a bit to make sure it hadn't been some kind of crazy hallucination.

Lance's eyes were wide and shocked for a moment before his lips split into a grin. "Join a boyband and live vicariously, huh?"

JC nodded solemnly. "We're falling down in our duty to the others."

Lance pulled him close, both of them still damp from the washcloths. "Let's fix that, huh?"

*

In the middle of the tour, somewhere on the east coast, JC woke up to Chris shaking him and started to climb over Lance. His progress was halted as Lance rolled over onto him. Lance's rumble was even deeper than usual in the morning, "Morning."

JC smiled and brought a finger up to touch Lance's nose lightly. "Go back to sleep."

Lance took JC's hand and held it open, palm up, nipping at the soft pads of skin. "I'm not tired."

JC took his hand back before things went any further. "While I appreciate the sentiment, I'm not abandoning Chris to do this interview by his lonesome."

"Nope." Lance shook his head to illustrate his point. "I'm gonna go with him."

"No, baby, you need your sleep."

"Jayce, I have a week left of the pills, I haven't had trouble getting through a show in two weeks and, if it'll make you feel better, I'll take a nap before soundcheck today, 'kay? I need to jump back in."

JC filed the plaintive note of Lance's voice away in his head for later examination. "Promise me you'll take a nap."

"I promise."

"You promise what?"

Lance shook his head, but dutifully responded, "I promise to take a nap later today."

JC kissed his forehead, mindful that neither of them had yet brushed their teeth. "Make sure Chris doesn't break anything."

"Your faith in me is inspiring."

*

The day after Lance had triumphantly tossed the last of the antibiotic bottles into the waste bin while the guys cheered him on with polite golf claps, he was back full force. If anything he was doing more than the other guys, filling in so each of them could get some rest. JC stood for it the first week, when Lance would fall into bed too tired to say goodnight or kiss, let alone participate in anything more strenuous. He even dealt with it the following week when Lance had needed extra time in makeup to cover the circles around his eyes. The beginning of the third week, though, when Lance started breathing heavily after the first set in the show and was dizzy by the end of it, JC had had enough. He intercepted Joey on his way to the two man bus and motioned for Justin to follow suit. He grabbed five waters and they all sprawled wherever space permitted.

Joey took in half his water bottle and then wiped his face, "'S'up, C?

JC, who had purposely sat across the way from Lance crossed his arms over his chest. "We need to have a talk."

Justin looked like he was trying to retrace his steps of the last month and figure out what he had done wrong. Chris took pity on the kid and said, "'Bout what?"

"About the fact that Lance seems to think that he can only be a valued member of this group if he pulls his weight, even when that could involve making himself sick all over again."

There was silence for a moment, broken by Chris's, "Is that true?"

Lance was studying his water bottle closely. "No, well, not exactly."

"Describe exactly." Joey looked like he was going to cry.

"Look, guys, I was out for almost two months, you had to delay the tour because of me, Justin got sick because he wasn't getting enough rest, which was only happening because I needed so much sleep that all of you were missing out, JC lost weight he was so worried… I'm better now, and I can make it up to you. That's all, I just wanna make it up."

"But that's," Justin spluttered a bit, "that's ridiculous. Dude, if my heart had gotten infected would you be worried about how much time I was spending in interviews?" He looked at Lance, waiting for an answer.

"Well, no-"

"Then why should we? Are we more selfish than you?" Chris sounded slightly offended.

"No! No, it's not like that, it's just, this isn't the first time this has happened, I fuck things up for you guys all the time-"

"Twice does not 'all the time' make," JC's voice was soft but firm.

"I just don't want to be a disappointment, or a burden." Lance's voice was equally soft, but it wavered.

"You've never been either of those things, kid." Chris looked like he needed to hit something.

Lance snorted. "Chris, you wanted to hire a surgeon to rearrange my hand-eye coordinative abilities when we first started."

"Yeah, but I didn't have to, because you worked ten times harder than anyone else to give me what I wanted. Just like you've worked harder than all the rest of us on this tour to just survive it. That's all we need of you, just to know that you're giving us your best. We need you, not your work quota."

"Yeah." Justin nodded his head sharply. "What he said."

Joey didn't say anything, just moved to where Lance was and swallowed him up in a bear hug. Lance fell against him, the nervous energy that had sustained him through the conversation leaking out. Joey hauled him to his feet. "Let's get you to bed. I can take your place tomorrow morning. Okay?"

Lance eyes had fallen shut and he opened them long enough to glance at each of the other four guys. "Yeah, I'd appreciate that."

His eyes were closed, so he didn't get to see his bandmates share a victory smile.

*
Four Months Later
*

JC unlocked the door to his house and sniffed at the air. "Lance?"

"Hey," a voice came from the kitchen. "In here."

JC ambled into the kitchen and sidled up behind Lance. "Whatcha makin'?"

"Sweet orange chicken with orzo and asparagus for sides."

JC sucked a bit at the back of Lance's neck. "Yummy."

Lance turned around, pushing JC away and waving the knife he was wielding. "Stay away you, or it won't be yummy, it'll be messy and burnt."

JC stuck out his tongue lasciviously. "Threatening me with my own gift, I never thought I'd see the day."

Lance looked down for a moment and realized that he was using one of the knives JC had given him over a year before. He cocked his head to the side. "Jayce?"

"Yeah?"

"Why'd you give me the knives?"

"It was your birthday."

"You never remember our birthdays, you're always surprised when somebody starts planning a party. We get our gifts three months later, which is fun and all, but my point stands."

JC blushed. "Caught me, I guess."

"Why babe?"

"You had been marking things in a cookbook on one of the plane rides we had to take earlier that week. I noticed and thought it would be sexy to watch you in the kitchen, cooking stuff. And knives are kinda sexy all by themselves, shiny and dangerous and all…" He broke off, unable to look at Lance.

Lance set the knife on the counter and took JC's face in his hands, maneuvering them into a long, sweet kiss. "You thought I would be sexy."

"I've always thought that, even before it was okay to think it."

Lance kissed him again. "Remember when I woke up in the hospital the first time and everyone was there with red eyes and noses looking exhausted and freaked out?"

JC nodded.

"I looked up at everyone and thought, 'ugh, they look like shit.' Then I got to you, and you were still beautiful, even looking like shit. That was the first time I knew that you were it."

JC chuckled. "Took us long enough to get it together."

Lance shook his head, "It needed to. What we have, it's sweet and slow."

JC brought his fingers up to Lance's face, "Like a ballad."

Lance rubbed his cheek against the soft fingertips. "Yeah, like that."


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile