"He's got a neelaphobia...needleaphobia. How do you say that? He's even scared of, like, real pointy pencils." -Chris
It was Kelly who suggested it first.
She was talking with Joey about the fact that Briana wasn't taking too well to the formula the doctor had given her and said in an offhand manner, "Much longer of this and she's gonna be the infant version of JC."
"Well, I mean, Jesus, I was watching you guys on Rosie last week and started wondering if someone had hired him as a poster child for anorexics everywhere."
"He's stressed out."
"Teach him meditation or something, the boy needs to eat."
"We tried that. We've tried everything. Drugs make him sick, meditation either puts him to sleep or freaks him out, vitamin therapy isn't doing anything so far as we can tell, you name it, it hasn't worked. When he does manage to get up sufficient motivation to eat, he generally just gets sick afterwards. Shit, Kel. I mean, he does this all the time, gets stressed out and all, it's just never been this bad or for this long. The article in Entertainment Weekly, the one about the teen trend being over, that sent him into a full-blown panic attack. Justin had evidently seen him have one before, which was good, because Chris wanted to take him to the emergency room. He fucking passed out. I don't know what's gotten into him, I mean, he's always worried about public reaction, but this is insane."
"Babe, are *you* okay?"
Joey chuckled. "A little stressed out."
"Just a little, huh?"
"Well, take this for what it's worth. You know when the morning sickness lasted way longer than it was supposed to and I went to see my doctor to find out if there was anything I could do?"
"Yeah, he sent you to someone, didn't he? You said it helped." Joey remembered. He had felt guilty about not being there to go to the doctor's with her. Chris had spent a fortune in newly released video games trying to cheer him up.
"He sent me to a Chinese Herbalist. It really, really helped."
When Joey suggested it to the group, they all looked at JC to see if any opinion would be forthcoming. JC had taken to sleeping even more than usual and when he wasn't sleeping he would lay around, silent and listless, saving up energy for the concerts and appearances. It was this behavior more than his eating habits or the weight loss that had keyed the other guys into the problem. JC may have slept more than the rest of them, but when he was awake, he could rival even Chris for sheer manic energy at times. Normally.
JC listened to Joey's idea with his eyes closed. He knew that they guys were hoping for him to have some kind of reaction to the entire thing, so he slid his eyes open for a moment, smiled at Joey and said, "Probably couldn't hurt at this point."
Lance, who had been handling the fact that his best friend was inadvertently starving himself to death by researching and coming up with a million different solutions, immediately got up to figure out the logistics of making an appointment and set one up.
Justin and Chris found JC first after the appointment. He was lying, curled on his side on his bunk, covers pulled nearly over his head, shivering and white.
"Jayce?" Justin kept his voice soft and calm because he had found out back on the set of the MMC that freaking out when JC did only made the problem worse. Cautiously, he climbed into the small bunk space with the smaller man and wrapped himself over layers of blankets. "Josh, c'mon, I know you're in there."
That got a small laugh and Justin heard Chris's sigh of relief from behind him. Chris reached out to stroke the small patch of JC's hair that was still visible. "What happened?"
"It's stupid. Just me being a spazz."
"Yeah, well," Justin rearranged things so that JC wasn't speaking through several layers of blankets, "you already have the nickname, you might as well back it up."
JC swallowed and tried to burrow deeper into Justin's arms. "Hewantstodoacupuncture."
It took both listeners a moment to sort that confession out and understand what they were being told, but when they did, their reaction was fast and loud.
"Like, with needles?" Chris practically shrieked the question at the same time that Justin released a high-pitched, "Acupuncture?"
Chris didn't wait for an answer. "Screw that, we'll figure something else out, C. Don't worry about it, okay?"
JC sighed and clawed his way out of the blankets far enough to be able to look past Justin to Chris. "What are we gonna figure out, Chris? This is like the eighth thing we've tried and I can't keep doing shows like this. I have to try this because I don't know what else to do, I just…I just don't know what else-"
"Okay." Justin was stroking JC's hair and coaxing him back into the blankets. "It'll be okay, you'll see."
JC allowed himself to be mothered by his younger friend, falling asleep to the sound of reassurances that made less sense as minutes passed.
"I'm going to the appointment with you."
"What?" JC's eyes flickered away from the sci-fi channel to where Chris was standing, feet apart and arms crossed, the way he always did when he was ready to fight. "No, Chris, no you're not. You can make me nervous when I'm doing just fine let alone when I'm facing down my biggest fucking phobia."
But Chris's stance had been indicative of the type of mood he was in and a determined Chris was a very hard thing to derail. "Look, C, I know something about dealing with phobias. I do it for you jerks almost every damn night."
JC had to concede on that factor. "How do you do that? I mean, I know you're not closing your eyes or holding your breath or anything like that, so, uh…?"
Chris came over to sit next to JC on the sofa. "At first, it was kind of just a matter of pushing it off until later. Remember how I roomed with Joey and Justin a lot on the first tour?"
JC nodded, it had been slightly irritating at the time, having wanted to spend time with Justin and Joey, both of whom he had known for far longer than Lance, himself.
"They're the deepest sleepers of the group other than you, and you didn't seem too keen on the idea of rooming with me. I was having nightmares and I didn’t want to wake others up, because it was pretty constant."
JC decided that this was not the moment to explain his reasons for having preferred not to room with Chris and instead focus on what the older man was trying to get at. "So, um, is it still that way?"
"No, I think I'd have lost it by now if it was. Remember when Dani and I first got together and we were hanging out with that friend of hers, Melissa, all the time? Melissa was a specialist in meditation and visualization exercises and she spent a lot of time working on prep exercises with me that I could do up to an hour before going up to get myself calm enough to handle things."
"And it worked?"
Chris shrugged. "Yep, I'm evidently better at the whole using-my-mind thing than you. Are you going to let me come to your appointment?"
JC gave Chris a rueful look. "For someone who can be the most tangential human being alive, you never loose sight of a goal, do you?"
"Are you gonna? Are you gonna?"
"Alright, alright." JC threw his hands up in the air and allowed them to fall back down. Chris caught one on its way.
Chris almost regretted having been so insistent. JC was lying on the table, gown open in front rather than the more traditional back, stiff and doll-like. His breath came out in shudders and his eyes had fixated on an unspecified point in the ceiling, staring at it in blind terror. He started and came close to screaming when Chris took his hand.
"Just me, C." Chris reached out to stroke JC's hair with the hand that wasn't being crushed by one considerably larger than it. Chris knew from experience that if JC stayed that tense for long the younger man was going to have trouble walking, let alone dancing, later.
JC flinched at the feel of alcohol on his forehead but allowed the man working on him to place the needle slightly above the spot right between his eyes. Chris wanted to flinch himself. "C, you okay in there?"
The only response was a loss of feeling in his hands as JC's fingers closed in tighter. Oddly enough, Chris found himself thinking it was mildly reassuring.
More needles went in his forehead, then over his sternum, upper stomach, forearms, lower legs and feet. Looking at JC's body when the acupuncturist declared himself done and left them alone while the needles did their job, Chris swore he'd never complain about hanging in the air for a couple of seconds ever again.
"C, do you want me to talk or shut up, or what?"
"Uh…talk." JC's breathing was still pretty frantic and Chris wondered if it would hurt anything if he passed out with the needles still in him. He did as JC asked though, giving his opinions on the guys' latest choice of outfits for a talk show gig. By the time he got to Lance, who he always saved as the grand finale, JC's breathing had slowed somewhat and Chris thought he could feel blood creeping slowly into his fingers.
"Can I ask you a question?" Chris knew that his timing sucked, so he added an apologetic, "You don't have to answer."
"Sure." JC's eyes pulled away from the spot on the ceiling to meet Chris'. He still looked terrified.
"What is it about this time that's so bad? You've never stressed like this before. Stressed, always, but you know…"
JC tried to look confused through the terror. "Chris, as a kid I had nightmares about things as insignificant as overdue rental tapes, stress is like the replacement part for my brain or something. The only time I don't feel it is when I'm performing, it can't get to me then."
"Yeah, no, but I mean, it's never gotten to the point of Rwandan-waif, near-catatonic-JC before."
JC was silent for a moment before changing the subject. "What are you gonna do if Celebrity doesn't sell the way it needs to? If Jive just lets our contract run out and we break up?"
Chris thought he might understand where this was going, so he played along. "I dunno, probably FuMan stuff. Is that what you're worried about, getting a job? Shit, C, you're as set if not more than the rest of us."
JC almost laughed. "I'm not worried about a job Chris, I know I can always get one of those. I don't even really need one, I had one of my dad's friends who handles money deal with mine. Financially, I'm set for life."
"Okay, so why did you want to know?"
"Do you know the first time I ever relaxed when I wasn't on stage?"
Chris shook his head.
"Remember that day, real soon after Lance joined, when we were all together, talking about the name and what our style was gonna be and just working out all the logistics?"
"There were a few of those."
"Yeah, well, we were over at Justin's place for this one and his mom had set us free on the leftovers she had from some party they had given and everybody was making fun of Lance for how politely he was eating."
"Yeah, okay, I remember."
"Anyway, I was stressed out over the fact that we didn't have a name just yet and we hadn't really decided on a sound and I was trying to concentrate while you guys were digging on Lance and right as I was about to really freak out, Lance said, 'JC, I could use some friendly assistance here.' And Joey went, 'Yeah, right, like Jayce is really gonna side with you.' It was like they just knew and interrupted my little breakdown and went on. You guys are always like that, it's why there have been so few panic attacks since this thing started, I used to have them all the time."
Suddenly, Chris understood. "Jayce, when I said that I face my phobia for you guys, I wasn't joking, I do it because of you and Justin and Joey and Lance, no other reason. Without you guys, I'm not that brave. But 'Nsync is just a title. Even when we're not called that, we'll still be us and we'll still be friends."
JC didn't have time to respond before the acupuncturist came back in to remove the needles. JC whimpered slightly with each removal and went back to cutting off Chris's circulation. When everything was out, the man left them alone again to get JC in his clothes.
The curtain to JC's bunk was drawn back an inch and Chris's face appeared through the crack. "You up?"
"Hurts to fucking breathe."
"If you can make it to the couch area, I convinced the guys that you could use a good rubdown."
JC smiled. Rubdowns were something of a band tradition. Chris had gotten one when Dani had left him and Justin when the fan had publicly accused him of yelling at her for saying she liked JC better. Joey had been the recipient during all the rough points of Kelly's pregnancy and Lance when he had been sick. The routine was simple: when one of the band members wasn't quite up to par, he would lay on a bed or on the floor and the other four members would massage him. It was as much for the pleasure of the physical end of massage as for the reassurance that the other guys were there. "Help me up?"
Chris tugged the larger man to his feet and walked with him into the common area. Justin, Joey and Lance were already on the floor, waiting. JC gave them a tired smile and collapsed in the middle of the circle they had created. "Thanks guys."
Lance folded his legs into a pretzel and pulled JC's head down on his lap, where he gently massaged his friend's temples. "Sure thing. How ya feelin'?"
JC gave a contented sigh. "Better now." Joey's hands were largest, working their way into his calf muscles. Justin's long fingers moved diligently along JC's right arm, while Chris's small but strong hands created their own rhythm on the left one.
An hour later, JC had been limp for about forty-five minutes and asleep for a good half an hour. The guys were mostly just stroking fingers that were too tired to curl let alone massage along JC's skin. Joey smiled down at him, "I could probably get him to bed, he's pretty light."
Chris gave an amused huff. "Since when did you become so good with the understatements?"
Each city came with a different color room and a different face bearing the needles, but other than that, things were pretty much the same. JC's breathing still became erratic, he still flinched at the feel of alcohol even knowing that the needles *might* sting, if there was that much sensation, and he still tensed his muscles so badly he had trouble sitting up afterwards. The only surprise to JC was that Chris still came with him every time. He hadn't even asked after that first time, just woken JC up the morning of his second appointment and said "Get in the shower, we gotta move."
Chris was entertaining without making JC laugh, which would move the needles in his stomach. He was careful to make sure that JC didn't get cold and go even tighter than necessary. He helped JC up afterwards and didn't laugh the time his muscles were so stiff that he got stuck with his shirt only halfway on, caught over his head. And even though Chris would have volcanic bursts of energy from the time they got out of the appointment to the time he fell into an exhausted sleep, he was completely calm and wholly still when they were in the room together, JC acting the part of pincushion.
It was on the fifth or sixth appointment when Chris was busy poking fun at Justin's ever-so-subtle birthday present to Britney that he trailed off and said, "Why do I make you nervous?"
JC, who knew that Justin was every bit as nervous as Britney about sex and found Chris's insights on the topic amusing on different levels than the older man probably suspected, was thrown by the change of topic. "What makes you think I make you nervous?"
"You told me that. Geez, does anxiety lead to early alzheimers?"
"When did I-" The memory came to JC. "Oh. I just told you that because I didn't want you to come and see me being a wimp, I thought it would get you off my back."
"You lie even worse than Joey, that's like, a talent, or something."
"Well, don't take this the wrong way but you do have all that energy and-"
"Nope, try again."
"For the same reason I never wanted to room with you."
Chris thought that one over for a moment. "I assumed that was because I made you nervous. Well, after you told me that it was what I assumed."
"What did you assume before that?"
"I dunno, that you thought I would keep you up at night or you got annoyed by me, it coulda been lots of things."
JC read the hurt in Chris's voice beneath the easy rationalizations and he was pretty sure it made him feel worse than the needles and the stress combined. "It wasn't like that."
"So what was it like?"
"It was like... It was like the way you got nervous around Dani all the time while we were shooting that video and we had to redo some ridiculous amount of shots because you were being a hormone-driven imbecile."
Chris didn't say anything and JC was too nervous about the silence to interrupt it, but when the needles were removed and they were left alone for JC to dress, Chris sat JC up and hugged him for a long time, snapping, "Wait a fucking minute!" when the acupuncturist knocked on the door to see if they were ready.
"Um, no shit?" Lance gave an exasperated sigh at Chris's dumbfounded glare. "Just, now that you know, could you not use this as teasing material? 'Cuz, he's kinda had it bad for you for forever now."
"Wow, thanks for the vote of confidence."
"That wasn't how I meant it."
JC snuck out before Chris had woken up for the next appointment. He was sitting in the waiting room, listening to acid rock too loudly on his earphones the way he did when he didn't want to think, when Chris showed up and casually sat down next to him.
Chris lifted one earphone up and queried loudly, "Was I running that late?"
Chris had two ways of getting angry. One was loud and hard on the furniture and burned itself out pretty quickly. The other was calm and intimidating and could last out an apocalypse if Chris wanted it to. One look and JC knew he was facing down the second type. That pissed him off.
"I can do this without you." JC placed the earphone back in its original position. Chris grabbed the whole apparatus from his head.
"Don't ignore me, Joshua."
"Like you've been ignoring me? What, you can dish it out but you can't take it?"
"I haven't been ignor-" Chris stopped midsentence and the anger visibly drained out of him. It occurred to him that the last few days had probably seemed that way to JC. "I guess I have, but it wasn't meant that way."
"What way was it meant?" JC was attempting valiantly to stay angry.
"See, when you told me, and I hugged you, it felt really good, right? But I thought that was probably just me reacting to you and for once in my life I thought that being all impulsive and acting on it would probably fuck things up, especially with your complex about the band breaking up and needing things to be stable right now, so I went to talk to Lance. But Lance just said not to tease you about it, which was the last thing that had crossed my mind up to that point and when he warned me not to, I thought that it was kinda weird that it hadn't, because, well, you know, jokes are my way of dealing with everything. So I decided to file it under, 'okay, whatever,' and move on. That didn't work because every time I would see you all I could think about was how much I hated acupuncture because it scared you but at the same time that I've never really gotten to spend time with you like I have over the past month and a half and that I'll miss that when you're fixed and good as new, which is probably pretty soon because you're eating now and all. But it was like all these things came to me and I was scared that I was just lonely and wanting to give you what you wanted." Chris stopped to breath but started again before JC could interrupt. "When I woke up this morning and you had left without me and I freaked at the thought of you doing this alone but felt like you didn't want me there, I almost sent Lance. Then I had an epiphany. The epiphany was pretty much this -- I'm 29 fucking years old, almost 30, which is well past old enough to make my own decisions. I wanted to be here, with you, so I came. When we leave, I want to leave with you, I want to go back to the hotel with you, I want to tell you jokes when you can laugh without hurting something and run you a bath to loosen up some of your muscles and watch you sleep and do a whole bunch of romantic shit that I refuse to say out loud."
The end of Chris's soliloquy was hushed and abrupt and a look of anxious bravado settled onto his features as he waited for JC's response. JC narrowed his eyes. "On one condition." His lips curved into what Justin referred to as JC's cat-stealing-the-cream smile. "I don't have to take that bath alone."
It took Chris a moment to understand, as he had pretty much forgotten almost everything that he had said the moment after it left his mouth. When he did, he conjured up a matching grin and said, "I can agree to those terms."
Later, when both of them were clean and dry and taking their sweet time making out on the hotel bed, JC pulled away, looking dazed and excited and apologetic all at once. "Chris?"
Chris didn't answer, instead trying to end the not-yet-begun conversation by reinitiating the make-out session. JC gently pushed him away. "Chris, no, I'm hungry."
This penetrated, because while JC had taken to eating regularly with them, this was the first time he had expressed an actual interest in doing so. "What? Really?"
"I'm not tasty enough?"
JC smacked him lightly and rolled off the bed. Chris took a second before following him, enjoying the uniquely awkward grace that defined JC.
JC stopped at the door, peering back over his shoulder. "You coming?"
Chris smiled. "Yeah," he said slowly, looking straight at JC, "I'm hungry too."
JC couldn't help thinking that maybe acupuncture had its uses after all.