Show Time

A pounding on the door, somebody shouting,"Time, JC!" JC looks around the hotel room with the same old exhausted panic. Is that everything? He's never going out clubbing on tour again. And since they pretty much tour nonstop, he guesses that means no more fun, ever. He mourns briefly and grabs an unfamiliar blue hoody, wondering how it got into his room. It's all such a blur in the mornings. He has a fear of leaving something behind, too many opportunities to lose something with all this running around.

He pushes open the door to the suite with his foot, shouldering his duffle and wrestling his overloaded suitcases out of the way. Someone will bring the luggage along later, hopefully. Down the hall, Justin is backing out of his door with what appear to be numerous paper sacks and a yellow nylon messenger bag. His jacket hangs from one shoulder as though he's barely had time to yank it half on, and he looks pale and washed out. He jerks his head at JC, unsmiling, hefting his load.

"Fuck this," he grunts.

JC smiles. Some things you can count on.

** ** **

It's better the next morning. The show that night fucking rocked as usual, and JC remembered how much he loved the lights and noise when it was all for them, and he got some sleep after, slumping against Justin in front of the little tv on their bus until Chris pulled him up by the arm, ruthless but gentle, and told him to go to bed. It's better today, fun even, and they're all on.

"This is Chris," he tells the interviewer, because they love that shit. "He's the funny one."

"Yeah, I'm the funny one," Chris says.

"Why are you the funny one?" the interviewer asks. Joey snorts a little, and Lance shifts in his chair. Set-up city. JC realizes he's grinning already in anticipation.

"Because I'm funny?"

The interviewer looks at him blankly and Chris mutters, "Tough crowd." Justin snickers.

"He's the pretty one," Chris says, pointing at JC.

"I thought I was the pretty one," Justin says, disgruntled.

Lance shakes his head. "You are definitely not the pretty one."

"No, JC is," Chris says decisively.

"Oh, that's right, I'm the talented one," Justin says.

"You're all wrong. I'm the talented one and the pretty one," Joey puts in.

"You wish."

Justin dodges out of Joey's attempted chokehold. The interviewer looks like she's having the time of her life. Another job well done. Chris will be hopping around like a maniac, after. But maybe they should bring this back around to the music.

"We love touring," JC says, then realizes too late that they've moved on to favorite colors or something. He permits himself a tiny sigh.

"Oh, yeah," Chris says. "He's the smart one, too."

Everyone laughs, of course. JC grabs a hank of hair at the back of Chris's head and pulls. Chris gives a piercing yelp, which makes the guys and the interviewer all laugh again, and that's JC's job well done.

** ** **

Lance is waiting for JC when he gets out of makeup at their next thing that day, a photo shoot.

"You got my hoody? Joey said he left it in your room."

JC tries to think. Has Joey been in his room? They usually hang out in Joey's room, actually, because he can always be counted on for the food and booze hookup, or Lance's since he has the best drugs and the best ideas for where to go out after. But he remembers something about a hoody, so he waves at Lance to follow him as he wanders after his bag.

JC roots around, then yanks a black hoody from the bag. He looks at it for a second.

"Give it over, man. I'm cold," Lance says.

Hesitantly JC holds out the hoody. "I don't. Sorry, man. I don't know where your hoody is," he says. Lance looks at him steadily.

"You okay, JC?" he says, taking the hoody and pulling it on.

"I, yeah," JC says. "Isn't, I mean. I thought your hoody was blue?"

Lance shrugs. "It's a hoody," he says, looking at JC some more, and then someone calls JC's name and he's in front of cameras and lights as usual, the photographer shouting out orders and telling him how hot that lost look is, can he do it some more?

** ** **

"Where's my fucking Gameboy?"

Chris slams his way into the Quiet Room. JC blinks at him. Chris is profane as a matter of course, but he's been yelled at by management so often that he usually catches himself when they're at the venue. He must be feeling the stress of this endless tour, too. They all get a little testy after awhile.

JC tries to think when he saw the Gameboy last. Baltimore? No, that was three weeks ago, right? Surely he's seen it since then. But he can't really remember where all they've been since then, the days slipping past in the same old blur of venues, lights, screaming, shows, a few minutes to sleep, and people everywhere. He doesn't know.

"Sorry, man," he says. Chris glares at him.

"J, you had it last. Where is it?"

Justin shrugs. "What Gameboy?" he says. "I have no idea what you're talking about, man."

Chris sneers at him. JC sees a definite need for sugar in his near future.

"Very funny, junior. Cough it up."

Justin grins, for some reason. "Is this a birthday hint or something?" he says, clearly waiting for a punchline. Chris narrows his eyes.

"Are you trying to say you lost my Gameboy?" he asks with controlled calm.

Justin looks confused for a minute, then sulky. "This isn't funny, Chris. In fact, fuck off."

JC turns his head back and forth between them. Chris is tense and still, Justin glowering the way he does when he suspects Chris of fucking with him. JC knows he's tired, bone exhausted really, but he can swear this whole thing makes no sense at all. Maybe he's just not getting it as usual. Maybe they're both fucking with him. He stretches out on the couch and pulls the comforter draped over its arm across his body. Maybe a short nap.

"JC, Chris, Justin, they're waiting for you in makeup," somebody shouts, leaning through the doorway and then slamming the door shut. JC sits up again with a groan. Justin and Chris ignore him, and JC can't tell if they're still bickering, he's too muzzy-headed. Maybe a big giant cup of coffee instead. It will have to do. He gets up from the couch, feeling like he's climbing out of a well.

Joey opens the door to the Quiet Room in full costume and makeup.

"Losers, getting to be that time," he says cheerfully, but Chris and Justin ignore him. Joey raises his eyebrows at JC.

"Do you know where Chris's Gameboy is?" JC asks groggily, pushing past him to the hall.

"What Gameboy?"

JC stops in the dingy hallway and looks at Joey, who looks back at him without a trace of contained glee. Joey's really just asking a question, and over his shoulder in the Quiet Room JC can see Justin, arms crossed over his chest as Chris digs through a grey nylon messenger bag.

JC shakes his head and turns away. Too tired for this right now, and somebody is shouting his name down the hall again. He has to get ready for the show, no time for this, no time at all.

** ** **

"And five-six-seven-eight, slide slide drop step, yes! That's what I'm talking about. No. Joey. Joey, step, remember? We talked about this. Okay. Try it again."

Endless. JC wipes his face and leaves the towel over his head, and having a rehearsal during the tour fucking bites, but Wade was unhappy with the playback from the show in Toronto so here they all are. Lance has that controlled look on his face that indicates the deepest boredom, but he's getting it right. Joey looks pissed beyond belief, and Justin is smooth like butter as always, watching himself twist in the mirror while Wade confers with his assistant. Chris is... Chris looks exhausted, and irritated, and something else that JC can't identify. He's been a touch out of step all day and edgy about it, and JC knows Wade'll get to him next.

"Okay, music."

They start again. JC actually likes this bit when he doesn't have to do it 97 billion times a day, during the show it's hot and the fans always go crazy, it's the little thrust right there and six-seven-shoulder-out...

"JC, what are you doing? Stop. Stop! Fuck."

JC stops and looks around him. He's nowhere near any of them except Chris, out of it completely, and Wade is shaking his head and smiling.

"Bit late to change things that much, guys. But we'll talk about it between legs, how about that?"

JC looks at him for a minute, but the words don't settle into any kind of sense. Justin steps up to slap his hand.

"I told you he wouldn't go for that, man. But you had to slip it in, didn't you?"

He grins and steps back. Joey looks grateful and Lance is watching the door, but Chris's face is utterly still and his eyes are wide, and JC has no idea what Justin's even talking about but maybe they did agree to change up that part, he can't remember. It's all been zipping past him so fast, lately.

"Um, you know what," he says. "I may need a walk through."

Justin rolls his eyes and Joey says something about staying in tonight for a change. Wade says, "Lance?" and Justin snickers until Lance tells him to zip it and steps up next to JC. They run it through and it seems familiar, but JC could swear they'd decided against this combo, but whatever, just gotta get it. Chris, he notices, is watching intently in the mirror and counting under his breath.

"Got it?" Wade asks.

"Yeah."

"Kirkpatrick, you too? Don't think I haven't noticed you over there, stumbling around."

"What song is this?" Chris asks, plaintive, and everybody laughs and they start again.

** ** **

In Philly he forgets the lyrics and in NYC he fucks up the patter between songs, and on their day off Johnny gives him a call.

"What's going on, JC."

"Johnny, man. I don't know. I... not enough sleep, I guess." He ducks the candy wrapper Justin throws at him and widens his eyes dramatically at Chris, who pulls his headset off with a frown.

"JC, I don't have to tell you how important it is for you to focus right now. Do I?"

"No, Johnny," JC says, feeling like a kid. Justin is saying, "Ha-ha, ha-ha," very quietly in the background, while Chris stares at his hands. JC looks down. Chris is twisting the wires of the headset around his fingers tightly, cutting off the circulation, and his fingertips are white.

"I don't understand it, JC. It's not like you. I'd hate to have to mention this to Lou."

JC blinks. "I... what?"

"I think we understand each other. Pass me to Chris, if he's there."

Without a word, JC holds his phone out to Chris. Chris looks at it like JC's offering him a big, hairy spider. Then he mouths, "Thanks, asshole," and takes the phone.

Justin points and makes a "tch" noise, but JC ignores him and heads back to his bunk. He must really be out of it. Lou? As if. Maybe Johnny was kidding. But he would know better, and he sounded as serious as he ever gets in his smooth, laidback way, and anyhow he's right, JC really does need to get his shit together.

He twists and turns in his bunk for a few minutes. The sheets feel scratchy and funny and wrong and they don't smell right, but finally he dozes with the muffled sound of voices drifting through his dreams, crazy dreams. It sounds like Chris keeps saying, "Fucking Lou?" while Justin laughs and says, of all things, "Schooled! Schooled your asses! Ha!"

** ** **

JC drags into breakfast a few mornings later, clutching his head. The biggest cup of coffee in the world will be a drop in the bucket, although he slept, he's pretty sure. It's like that on tour. He can't sleep enough, Lance usually loses weight, Joey gets louder and more huggy, Justin regresses a year for every week on the road, and Chris, hmm. Chris gets dark.

Someone waves at him across the hotel dining room, and for a minute he's at a loss. Then Joey waves, too, and he realizes the stranger is Lance, Lance with dark hair, and he looks pale and serious and older, like he did during all those months he and Joey shot the movie.

"Hey," Joey says as JC drops into a chair at the table, still looking at Lance, and Lance says, "What."

"Seriously, man, when did you have time to do your hair? But I love it, very On The Line."

Lance's face falls. He gets up from his seat and looks at Joey, then back at JC. "Whatever, man," he says, then threads his way through the tables stiffly.

Joey shakes his head. "So not cool, JC," he says. "You know Lance is still sensitive about all that shit falling through."

"Oh," JC says.

"And what was that about the hair? You still giving him shit about that? He said he won't dye it blonde, man. Respect the man for once, can't you?"

Joey stands up and walks away with a last pointed glare.

"Hey," JC says, but he's too late, and when doesn't he respect Lance? He suspects he's missing the point somehow. Cranky as they all get with one another on tour, usually he does have some idea why people are pissed at him. Rubbing his forehead, JC looks around for the waitress. Coffee now.

** ** **

Finally JC decides to ask Chris about Lance, because Chris will give him a straight answer, probably, after he mocks JC thoroughly. JC's used to that from him, though, and it never hurts to let Chris do some mocking to cheer him up. The problem is finding him. He tends to disappear a lot on tour, to make up for being stuck with them for days on end, and JC's a little leery about wandering around the venue so close to the show. It's chaotic and noisy and people everywhere, and he'd hate to get lost and end up late for his own show.

"Have you seen Chris?" he asks Justin, popping his head into the Quiet Room. Justin opens his eyes.

"No," he says, turning his head slowly, and he's sitting on the rug with his legs all folded up like a yoga guru. JC realizes he's meditating.

"Sorry," he says, ducking his head a little and then feeling like a tool.

"It's okay, JC," Justin says with freaky calmness. "I think he's with the stylist, getting his ass kicked." He shuts his eyes again.

"Oh, thanks," JC says, and shuts the door.

He can hear the stylist all the way down the hall.

"Johnny's going to have a fit. You can't just do this. God, Chris."

He grins and leans through the doorway. Chris is in the chair, swaddled in a bright pink cape, and he has the strangest look on his face as he meets JC's eyes in the mirror. His hair is...

It looks like Chris's hair. It's thick and it looks like it always does, like Chris has been rolling around in bed with someone who's been holding on, fingers wound in tight, all spiky and soft-looking. JC bites his lip and raises his eyebrows at Chris in the mirror. Chris just stares back.

"Chris, I mean it. You really need to let us know if you're going to do that. Black! You know I could get in trouble from management for this. God."

Chris watches him in the mirror while the stylist fusses around him. His eyes are so dark, and suddenly it's too much. JC backs out of the doorway and bumps into someone.

"Sorry," he mutters, but they're already gone and it's noisy, why does have to be so noisy all the time? But he can't go to the Quiet Room because Justin's there, and he's, he. JC heads down the hall.

"JC!"

He stops. Chris catches up to him, still wrapped up in the cape, and grabs his arm.

"You okay?" he asks, shaking JC's arm.

JC sighs and leans against the wall. "I don't think so, man," he says quietly. Chris nods.

"We'll talk about it after the show, okay?"

"Okay," JC says. "Was she, the stylist. Was she fucking with you? Because I know sometimes you deserve it, you know, but."

"Later," Chris says, smiling a little, but he seems sad or something. He drops JC's arm and steps away.

"Okay," JC says.

** ** **

They send Justin off to party with Joey and Lance, and although he tries to claim booze and drugs taint the system, his eyes are gleaming. Chris fixes JC a cup of tea and makes him drink it. JC's ragged from the show and the adrenalin and everything, so he can't seem to settle, but Chris drags him to the big couch and sits him down.

"Tell me," he says, so JC does. He can't remember a lot of it, and a lot of it sounds pretty crazy, like he's just tired or partying too much or something, but as he stutters his way through a description of the last few... days? Weeks? Chris's face gets darker and sadder and he's nodding, and at the part with Lou and JC's crazy dream afterwards he makes a strange noise like a someone gagging and freaking out at the same time.

"What's going on?" JC says when he's finished. Chris looks at him.

"I'm not sure."

"But."

He's so tired. It's all catching up to him, all zipping right past him, and his stomach is all knotted up for some reason. Chris looks really unhappy. Somehow, that's the worst part. JC sighs.

"Tomorrow I'll show you something," Chris says, and JC nods dumbly and puts his head down on his arm.

** ** **

The next day Chris sidles up to JC right before some conference with execs from the label. Usually JC'd have a better handle on their schedule and what's going on. He still has the rumpled sheet of paper somebody shoved into his hand as he climbed into the limo outside the hotel, but he hasn't had a minute to look at it and it doesn't matter anyway. Lance is poking at his PDA, he'll know what's up, and oh. His hair is lighter today. JC wonders vaguely if he dyed it again because his feelings were hurt. That would suck.

"JC," Chris hisses. He looks around like he thinks he'll be heard, so JC looks around, too, but nobody's standing near them, only the assistants whizzing around on their way to whatever and Lance by the snack table, being serious toward his handheld.

"Apologize to him," Chris says.

"What?"

"Dude, do it! Tell him you're sorry you made fun of his movie," Chris says, turning JC's body and peeking around him at Lance.

"But I didn't," JC starts. Chris cuts him off.

"Do it! Do it!" he says, and pushes JC hard. JC stumbles across the floor, almost crashing into one of the whizzing assistants, and lands near Lance, who turns to him with a smile.

"Morning, JC," he says, lowering the PDA. "Ready to talk money?"

"Um. Always, man," JC says. He gestures helplessly. "Lance, I, um."

"Yeah?"

"I'm really sorry I, uh. Your movie? I said that about your movie. And your hair." He grimaces. Chris, drifting closer to listen, rolls his eyes.

"My what?" Lance says, glancing at Chris. Chris studies the ceiling with interest.

"Your movie. On The Line? I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings."

"JC," Lance says. "My what? What are you talking about, man? Movie." He shrugs.

"Your movie? That you made?"

"My... oh. Still not sleeping, C? You gonna be okay for this thing? We could probably manage without you if you need to take a break. We'll call if we have any questions or decisions or whatever."

"Yeah," JC mumbles. "Yeah! Call."

Chris puts his arm around JC. "I'll take him back to the hotel, Lance. He's, uh. Sick! Not too sick, of course, but he really needs to sleep, you know, and I. I'll. Um."

Lance gives Chris a steady look, like he's not even worth a roll of the eyes. "Go. Both of you need some sleep. We'll call if we need to." He turns away, blonde hair glinting under the conference room fluorescents, and suddenly JC needs to sit down.

"Sick," he says, and Chris tightens his grip and guides him from the room.

** ** **

Chris makes him down four shots of vodka in a row, until JC shudders and pushes the glass away. "I'm not sure that'll help," he gasps.

"Trust me," Chris says grimly. "It does."

"You knew, didn't you," JC says, lightheaded with the realization. "You knew that would happen, with Lance."

Chris fills the glass and drinks a shot himself, and JC notices that Chris doesn't shudder at all

"Well, no. Not really. But I thought maybe."

"Who are they," JC whispers.

Chris fills the glass again and takes it over to look out the window of the hotel room. It's raining. It looks cold out there, and JC realizes he has no idea what city they're in.

"Them, JC. They're them."

"What?"

Chris drinks again and brings the glass back over to the bottle, refills it, and hands it to JC.

"They're who they're supposed to be. We're the ones, we." He stops and takes a deep breath.

"What, Chris," JC says, clutching the glass for safety. "What are we?"

"Lost, I think," Chris says, and his face twists before he turns away. "I think we're lost."

** ** **

Lost. It's so clear to JC that he nods, but at the same time it makes no sense at all. The rushing feeling in his head expands into a blur that sounds a lot like the noisy backdrop to this whole tour, and suddenly the blur fills JC up and he feels really funny. Dimly, he can hear Chris saying, "Whoa there, JC," and he finds himself perched on the edge of the couch with his head between his knees, Chris's hand heavy on his neck.

"I'm okay," he manages.

Chris slides his hand away. "Not going to barf, are you?"

"I don't think so." JC sits up carefully. Chris pats him once and gets up from the couch.

"Lost?" JC says.

"Yeah." Chris turns his head to glance at JC across the room as he carefully refills the glass again.

"Like, in time or space or something like that? Like, another universe or something?"

Chris hands him the glass and sits down. "I don't know, JC. I wish I'd read more science fiction, but... I don't know."

"But," JC says. "Will we, are we gonna be okay?"

"JC, I don't know," Chris says, his voice rising a little, and JC knows he's not helping the situation at all.

"I'm sorry," he says. He takes a gulp of the vodka. Then something occurs to him, and he feels a kind of relief, a little glow of hope.

"Does this mean we don't have to tour anymore?"

Chris gives a surprised laugh. "What?"

JC gestures around them, but he can't think of what he meant, really, and he feels the brief flicker fading. Chris slides over next to him and puts an arm around him, clearly meaning to be comforting, and somehow that's worse than anything.

"Nevermind," he says miserably. Chris yanks him closer. They sit for a long time, just drinking and watching the rain, and JC's glad Lance doesn't call because he doesn't want to think about anything.

** ** **

It's not every day, and some days it's minor like hair and clothing, but some days it's big and weird and all they can do is hang on for the ride. JC stops asking Chris what they should do after Chris shouts at him one night, red faced and gesturing wildly with the glass in his hand, and JC notices that Chris cuts way down on his drinking at about the same time. Without discussing it they both start avoiding the other guys, spending a lot of their meager free time together, and no matter who they are or what the world is like, the guys never seem too surprised by that.

One day they wake up and the name of the group is *Nstep.

"*Nstep?" Chris says incredulously. JC shrugs. It's not the hardest thing to remember.

"Well, at least Lance doesn't have to be called Lansten here," Chris says. "That whole thing was retarded, anyway."

JC bursts out laughing, and Chris smiles. It looks strange on his face, because he doesn't smile much anymore, but it's good and JC drinks it in until Chris turns away.

The tour goes on, and on, and on.

** ** **

One afternoon they're in the Quiet Room before the show, raggedly practicing the latest unfamiliar dance steps, when Johnny comes in. It's a white Johnny as it has been a time or two recently, but he looks grave and serious, not at all calm and amused as usual.

"Chris," he says. "Guys."

He steps forward and puts his hand on Chris's shoulder. "I'm sorry, man. It's your mom. This morning. They... they did everything they could."

Chris gapes at him for a minute, then shakes his hand off.

"What?" he says. JC reaches for him automatically, but he turns and heads out of the room before JC can get there.

"The show's off for tonight, of course," Johnny says. "We'll reschedule on down the line."

JC looks at the door. "Okay, I... thanks, Johnny. I'm gonna just go see if he's okay, all right?"

"I understand," Johnny says, and JC's out the door like a shot.

But Chris is nowhere to be found. None of the busy strangers running around the venue have seen him, although they look at JC with sympathetic expressions. Big Mike shrugs and says, "Sorry, man. He got away from me," and the guys are no help, either.

"You gotta find him," Justin says, clicking his tongue stud against his bottom teeth, back and forth, back and forth, worried. "What if he gets arrested again like last time? Poor Bev. Poor Chris. JC, you gotta find him!"

"How?" JC says. He won't ask about last time. He's learned that much. Justin nods, resigned.

"Yeah," he says. "I know what you mean. God, I hope he's all right."

"Yeah," JC says.

** ** **

JC wakes up with a gasp in total darkness, and when he sits up in bed and turns on the bedside lamp, Chris is slumped in a chair near the bed looking pale and haggard and lost. JC jumps out of bed and hugs him as hard as he can, kneeling in front of the chair. Then he pulls Chris up and leads him to the bed.

Chris shakes for a long time, laying with his eyes closed while JC sits on the floor next to the bed and watches him. Finally he mumbles something in a low voice.

"What," JC says, risking a touch on his arm. Chris allows it and opens his eyes, and there's something scary in their depths.

"Big Mike found me," he says.

"He," JC begins, but Chris interrupts.

"I couldn't find my way to Orlando. Everything was different. The car, it was manual transmission, but it... and the roads. I had to call Big Mike."

JC slides his hand carefully up and down Chris's arm.

"It's different, JC. Everything is different. I saw big glass bubbles and machines walking down the highways, and I couldn't, I didn't."

He stops and shuts his eyes again. His breathing is quick and shallow and he radiates something black.

"It wasn't her," JC says, knowing he's being incoherent. But Chris makes a strange gasping noise.

JC lays his head on the pillow near Chris's. Chris has his eyes closed tightly and his face is scrunched up, and JC realizes with a shock that he's trying not to cry. Chris never cries, ever, not once, so JC hitches his body closer on the bed and puts his lips right up to Chris's ear.

"When we get back," he whispers. Chris turns his head sharply.

"No," he says, and kisses JC hard. His lips are trembling and so sweet. JC makes a noise in his throat and tries to open his mouth, but Chris breaks away and pushes himself off the bed clumsily. He goes into his room and shuts the door.

** ** **

And on and on and on, the tour, show after show after show, and it gets stranger. Pretty soon JC can barely look at the people in the audiences because he starts worrying about what he might see. But he and Chris still go out with the guys when they can, when the guys want to, because the clubs are so interesting and the music is often really cool.

Except sometimes it's hard to learn all the lyrics and choreography for the shows when the music changes so much, and JC has to fuck up a lot, regularly, almost every day. And he thinks about his family and about their Lance and Joey and Justin a lot, when he lets himself. But he tries not to talk about them, because Chris tenses up when he does, and he'll do just about anything to keep that dark look from Chris's face as much as possible.

Except Chris has that dark look most of the time, anyway. He's exhausted, clearly, and he stays in his own head a lot. Some days he barely talks at all. Then all of a sudden he'll show up one day glowing with manic energy, absolutely feverish, giving all the Justins and Lances and Joeys as much shit as he can get away with, and that's almost worse.

"JC, JC, JC," he chants, tackling JC to the ground and heaving his total weight down onto JC's body.

"What," JC says, breathless. "Chris."

"Nothing," Chris says, and jumps up to knock Justin's ugly straw hat off his puffy blonde bun.

JC lays there for a minute, until Joey nudges him with a foot. Nothing.

** ** **

Chris doesn't let him near until one night when the five of them run out of the venue, completely drained and pumped and grinning madly as screams trail them into the security enclosure, and Joey, Lance, and Justin each run off to separate idling buses. JC stops as though he's hit the edge of a cliff.

"Whoa," Lonnie rumbles behind him. "Warn a brother, C."

Chris steps up next to him and grips his wrist tightly. JC can feel the damp heat rising from his sweaty body, and he doesn't want to look at Chris because it makes him so hungry, but he can't look at the two buses left in the chainlinked enclosure, either.

"JC, Chris, c'mon," Lonnie says, laying a hand in the small of JC's back.

Chris is looking wild-eyed, shaking his head a little, and his hold on JC's arm is painful.

"Lonnie," JC begins, turning back to him.

Lonnie smiles. "Go on. It's cool," he says, and Lonnie is always the best no matter what. Big Mike herds them toward one of the buses and they board, Chris crowding in right behind JC, and the look on the driver's face would be priceless if JC weren't so fucking freaked out.

Chris crowds him all the way to the back of the bus to the big couch, and this bus that is apparently Chris's own bus is all blacked out and private. But JC only gets a second to notice that, because Chris crowds him right down onto the couch and climbs on top of him, and in between his desperate kisses JC can make out the words "never" and "not ever" and "god," and he agrees, totally.

** ** **

After that it's even more like a dream, because JC never knows where he is or what's happening, only now on top of that all he can think about is Chris. God, the way he tastes and the way he smells, and sometimes in the middle of the interviews and photo shoots and media events JC loses his train of thought, because the perfect hot feeling of the last time Chris fucked him will rise up into his mind and take over. Chris can always tell, luckily, because he elbows JC hard to bring him back, and JC is so thankful, because interviews are harder these days. He never knows what he can say anymore, never knows the rules.

This time around it's Joey with a bald head and Lance with the brown hair, which they seem to see often, and Justin is wearing... JC catches Chris's eye and tilts his head a little. Chris follows his gaze. Justin is wearing the most gorgeously done makeup JC's ever seen, red red lips and deep shadowed eyes, and he looks like he just crawled out of bed and wants to get back there as soon as possible, preferably not alone. Chris smiles suddenly and JC agrees. Maybe this'll be a fun one.

They talk about someone JC never heard of and about touring all the time, which Joey says "fucking sucks" but no producer appears suddenly to make chopping motions at the cameramen and the interviewer seems, if anything, gratified. JC allows himself to ramble on a bit about taking it to the next level and giving it their all, because he always gets away with that one, no one ever seems surprised to hear that from him. But then the interviewer changes the subject.

"Now, many have speculated that *Nsync's real success comes from the fact that music fans want to fuck Justin Timberlake."

JC thinks to himself, what?

"I'm very fuckable," Justin puts in primly.

Chris makes a quiet "meep" sound. JC is still not sure he's hearing correctly, he can't be. There are cameras, and an audience, and this is live, and not only are people saying fuck, but... no.

The interviewer goes on. "I say, let's bring this idea home. Let's put it to bed, if you will. How about you, Chris?"

Chris jumps in his chair, and JC pats him on the knee. This can't be good. Chris's knee is quivering.

"Would you fuck him?"

Chris turns a horrified look toward JC, then schools his expression into bland calm. JC holds his breath.

"I'm a virgin," Chris says at last.

"That's not what I hear through my hotel room walls," Lance says, but he seems pleased, and Joey slaps Chris on the shoulder while Justin hoots with joyful scorn. Chris rolls his eyes minutely in JC's direction and JC nods a little, because they've certainly had this kind of conversation with the guys often enough, just never with cameras and someone asking questions.

"See, that's what I'm talking about! Chris wouldn't go for Justin because he's already making JC scream every night."

Lance, oh Lance. Chris is frozen next to him, absolutely still, and when JC can't resist a quick peek at him, he sees the flush creeping up Chris's neck.

"Hey, you know what," JC begins, but the interviewer leans forward avidly.

"Is this some kind of announcement?"

Lance opens his mouth again, so JC grabs the back of his jacket. But then Chris speaks up, to JC's great surprise.

"Yes. And that's all we're saying about that. Except we'll let you know where we register and it'll be someplace really expensive, and Lance? A word with you later?"

Lance grins at him while the interviewer laughs, and Justin gets up out of his chair and hugs him and then JC. The audience is going nuts, screaming their brains out and jumping up and down, and it takes a minute for JC to realize that they're actually pleased. JC is pretty pleased himself. He stares at Chris openly because he can, and Chris smiles back at him for a second.

** ** **

That night at the venue JC feels ready for the show, all excited and pumped like he used to get at the beginning of this endless tour. He even rides his scooter around a bit, nodding at the backstage crew, some of whom seem to have greenish skin and scales but he can't tell if it's makeup or what. Lonnie gives him a thumbs up as he zooms by, and then someone says, "Pssst," and yanks him into the Quiet Room.

Justin, Joey, and Lance are in costume, ready to go, but their faces are serious and determined.

"What," JC says, feeling his stomach tighten up.

Justin steps forward a little bit, sexy Justin, and JC realizes his ears are slightly pointed but he has the same old stubborn look he gets when he thinks someone's fucking with him.

"Who are you," he says suspiciously.

Joey throws an arm around his chest and shakes him. "You know who he is, doofus, he's JC."

Justin breaks free of his hold. "Quit!" he says. " I just meant... yeah. Yeah, all right. Fine."

Lance snorts and crosses his arms over his chest. JC looks at him, and then back at Justin and Joey, and he's fucked it up big time, he must have, because this is new. They never seem to notice, the other guys. No matter how much Chris and he are out of touch, they always just think it's exhaustion or partying too much or Chris being weird or JC just not getting it. Chris is going to kill him.

"What's going on, guys," he says slowly.

"Yeah," Joey says. Lance glances at him.

"We figured it out after the interview. Our... our Chris would have been bragging about fucking you, you know. We'd have heard all the details."

"All the details," Joey says. "With sound effects."

JC blinks. That does sound like Chris, but never in front of a camera.

"And you're too, you're not... hmm." Joey looks at JC apologetically. "You would have broken his heart by now, if you were you. You know what I mean."

"But you can't take your eyes off of him. It's just too nauseatingly cute," Justin says, smirking.

"Meow," Lance says. "But he's right. JC's... hmm."

"He's my hero," Justin says, and wiggles a little. Lance rolls his eyes.

JC says, "Okay, that's," but something occurs to him and a small wild hope springs up inside.

"If you know about us, then do you know, I mean." He stops to collect himself. "What's going on?"

Justin raises his eyebrows and Joey looks blank. But Lance nods.

"I've heard of it before," Lance says. "Like, in old stories. People come unstuck and they kind of. Slide around, I guess you could say. Shut up."

Justin shrugs coyly.

"What happens to them?" JC's not sure he wants to know, but stories kind of implies someone to tell them, someone not just lost forever. Lance looks at him with sharp sympathy and Joey pats him on the shoulder.

"Usually? They settle back in, in the stories. Eventually. We hope."

JC takes a deep breath and another, and then another because he can't seem to get enough air. Justin puts an arm around him and says, "Aww." It takes a minute for the rushing to pass, but when it does he feels better, a lot better. Good, even.

"Wow," he says, but before he can go on the door to the Quiet Room slams open and Chris is there, his face tight.

"JC, what the fuck. I couldn't find you. Don't..." He stops and looks around.

"Chris," JC says, and he can't help the brilliant smile that spreads across his face. "Chris, I'd like you to meet Joey, Justin, and Lance. They're, um. You know."

Chris looks at him like he's crazy, a familiar gaze, but then his eyes narrow and he glances at them sideways before jerking his head at JC and frowning.

"JC," he says.

Joey steps forward and wacks him on the arm. "One day soon Chris Kirkpatrick is going take out his dick in a live interview and waggle it at the audience, and I'll know our Chris is back," he says.

"Oh," Chris says. "Well." He starts to turn red, for some reason, but then his mouth drops open a little and he gives JC a speculative look. JC knows he's figured it out.

"Back," he says.

JC starts to answer, tilting his head to Chris's to tell him yes, but then someone yells, "Guys! Time," and they're piling into the hallway, and Justin's practically vibrating with glee as Lance tries to tuck Joey's coattail into his pants without him realizing. They manage a beautiful hacky, and then Anthony's herding them onto the stage, bright lights and noise and always so much screaming. JC hopes he doesn't have to fuck anything up too badly, but with Chris and the guys grinning at him across the stage and home closer than he thought, maybe it'll be okay this once.

** ** **

JC tries to raise his head from the pillow, but he's so exhausted from the show, from all the shows. He can hear the suite door close and someone moving around, stumbling a little and cursing in the dark, and he smiles and turns his face on the pillow.

"Chris?"

"Yeah, baby."

The bed dips and JC grips the covers preemptively, right before Chris grabs them and yanks, hard.

"Ha," JC mumbles into the pillow. He can hear Chris smile by the change in his breathing. Then Chris slides into bed, warm and solid behind him, and rubs his face against JC's back.

JC gasps as though struck and scrambles up, out of the covers and across the bed, hitting the headboard with a thump. No. Fuck, no. He reaches out and smacks his hand against the lamp, fumbling to turn it on, but he's afraid, and he doesn't want to see.

Chris gapes at him. Then his eyes flicker and fill with horror.

"Shit! Oh, fuck. JC."

He crawls across the bed, but JC rears up stiffly.

"JC, JC, god. I'm so sorry, I didn't think," Chris says frantically, and JC lets him come closer, because it really seems like him and he's so fucking tired, so tired of it all.

"I shaved it off, I just wanted to see... I swear, JC. I swear."

Chris warily wraps himself around JC's body, moving slowly over the bed, and JC lets him, can't help melting into him a little. "Chris," he whispers.

"It's me, JC. I swear."

Chris strokes his hair and pats his back, and JC does feel better. He turns in Chris's arms, slides along his body and kisses him, Chris's strange, smooth chin sliding across his face like silk, and Chris makes an urgent sound and opens his mouth.

"I know," JC says when they part. "It'll be okay. Go to sleep."

Chris shuts his eyes.

But he doesn't sleep much, and JC lays for hours staring into the dark, too. Finally around dawn Chris heaves himself over in the bed and looks at him.

"What should we do?" he says quietly. "Should I grow it back?"

JC smiles a little at that. "You don't have to. I know you."

Chris's face twists and he shuts his eyes. "You don't, though. Not for sure. How can you be sure?"

"How can you?" JC asks him, and Chris opens his eyes and gives a surprised little laugh.

"JC, I'd know you anywhere. No one could ever be like you. Not even you." He grimaces. "Except me, apparently. I'm starting to sound like you. But you know what I mean."

JC crawls over on top of him and looks him in the eye. "We're going to find our way back, you know. Lance said. Soon we'll be home."

Chris doesn't answer, but he wraps his arms around JC and pulls him down hard.

But then someone's pounding on the door and it's another day, another crazy world, and JC drags himself out of bed, wondering what to expect. Chris whimpers and burrows down into the covers, so JC slaps him on the ass and starts looking around the hotel room for all their stuff.

October 2004