Different

Author's Note: I can't remember exactly when I wrote this story, but I know it was after No Strings Attached and before Celebrity, so according to Wikipedia that puts it in the late 2000-early 2001 timeframe. Lance Bass did in fact come out in 2006, though he didn't to my knowledge make any "Behind the Music" jokes or kiss any bandmates in the process.

They had been on that night, totally on, hitting all the marks, getting all the moves, the choreography hot, the harmonies tight and pure. It had been the best show they'd done in weeks, and they were flying high on it.

They were all hanging out in the greenroom, waiting for the crowd to die down a little so they could leave, when JC's pager went off. Then Joey's cell phone rang. Then Lance's. Then Justin's. Chris had left his back at the hotel.

The messages were all from Theresa, and they all said the same thing: "Call me NOW. 911. Do not leave the building. DO NOT TALK TO PRESS."

Justin called her back on his cell.

"Get to a room with a speakerphone and a TV then call me," she said, and hung up.

They ended up in some management office, little more than a closet with a computer, a phone, and a TV. They all crowded around the phone, the show-sweat clammy on their skin. Chris had that "something bad is gonna happen" sickness in his gut.

Theresa picked up on the first ring.

"Turn on MTV," she said, and it was on, it was the music news, Gideon Yago was in the middle of the screen, saying, "…that he was involved in a homosexual relationship with N'Sync heartthrob Lance Bass."

"Motherfucker," said Justin.

"Shhh," said JC.

"…claims to have been romantically involved with Bass until he was threatened by N'Sync security."

"Michael," Joey said. "That bastard. I'm going to kill him."

"…members of N'Sync were unavailable for comment."

"That's all," said Theresa over the speakerphone. "You can turn it off now."

"Oh God." Lance's voice was very quiet. He had gone a terrible sickly pale color. Chris moved over beside him and started rubbing his back. He wanted to throw up.

"So Michael Perkins gets his revenge," Theresa said. "I told you you shouldn't have broken his nose, Fatone."

"He was an abusive asshole," Joey said. "He tried to hit Lance."

"Better to have bought him off."

"We did," said JC, in a tight voice.

"Not enough, obviously, or we wouldn't be leading at eleven."

"What are we gonna do?" Justin looked like he was about to cry. "Theresa? They can't do this, can they? We can stop them, right?"

And then Justin and Joey and JC were crowding around the speakerphone, all talking at once about libel and slander and lawsuits, but Lance was shaking under Chris' hands and he couldn't move, couldn't talk, couldn't do anything but stand quiet behind him, rubbing his back like he had on Lance’s 21st birthday when he'd gotten drunk and thrown up in the hotel bathroom for half an hour.

"All right," Theresa was saying, "so we call the lawyers--"

"No," Lance said, and his voice was low and strong and ragged around the edges.

"What?"

JC put a hand on his shoulder. "We can't just ignore it, Lance," he said, his eyes gentle.

"I don't want to ignore it," Lance said. "I'm going to have a press conference."

The room was silent. Chris' hand stopped moving.

"Lance," said Theresa, and they hadn't ever heard her talk like that before, like she was being careful with their feelings. "Are you sure you want to do this? You know what will happen."

"I know," he said. "I'm sure.” He took a deep breath. “It's time."

Everyone was quiet. The open connection hummed over the speakerphone.

"I'll set it up," said Theresa at last. "Don't talk to anyone beforehand. I'll call you back in a minute." They heard a click, and then the dial tone.

"Lance," said Chris. "I--" he stopped.

"You know you don't have to," Joey said. "We can keep on like we've been, it's not a problem for us."

Lance smiled a little. "I know," he said. "It's just-- I-- this is something I need to do."

Justin hugged him, his new maturity falling away from his face. He looked young and scared. "You know we're behind you," he whispered.

Lance rocked him a little. "I know," he said. "It'll be OK, it will. You'll see."

The phone rang. It was Theresa.

"Twelve-thirty in the hotel conference room," she said. "Lance. You're sure."

"I'm sure."

"I'll be there by ten. Don't talk to anyone but me. Fuck. I need a cigarette." She hung up the phone.

One of the security guys knocked on the door. They took them out some kind of weird underground tunnel exit that came out in the parking garage, and took them back to the hotel in mid-nineties sedans with very dark tinted windows.

Chris ate an entire roll of Tums, but it didn't help him get to sleep that night.

They all met in JC's room at ten-thirty to go over it with Theresa. Justin's eyes and nose were red, and JC looked blotchy. Joey still looked like he was about to go postal. The skin under Lance's eyes was oddly transparent-looking, and he kept taking deep breaths, like he was going to start meditating or something. Chris hadn't looked at himself in the mirror that day.

"I've done the best I could," Theresa was saying, "but there's going to be some people who ask things that'll piss you off. Don't react to them. Just ignore them or quietly say 'no comment.' And Fatone, no amount of money will buy off a roomful of press, so don't maim anyone this time. This is supposed to be helping Lance's reputation."

Joey nodded.

"Right." Theresa looked at Lance. "Your statement's good. You'll make a good impression."

"Thanks, Theresa."

She patted him briefly on the shoulder. "I'm proud of you, kid," she said. "God, I have to go smoke." She left. They all hugged Lance and then went to the makeup people, who had to use a lot more concealer than normal.

The press conference shouldn't have been such a big deal; they were on camera all the time, they were interviewed five times a week, it seemed like. But this was different, these people weren't there to be friendly, to make nice with the celebrities and gain a share of the teenie market; they were out for blood, after a scandal. They wanted the big headlines and the boost in circulation, and Lance's pain would only make for a more dramatic photo above the fold on the entertainment pages. Chris could feel it in the air, blood-lust barely civilized. He hoped he could keep from throwing up until the cameras had all gone.

Lance's statement really was good, and he read it in a strong, clear voice. He sounded confident and classy and he made Michael look vengeful and sleazy without seeming to bash him. Chris felt a little bit better.

Then the question-and-answer period began.

They were all yelling on top of one another, lunging in Lance's direction. Chris was reminded of the time he'd watched sharks in a feeding frenzy on the Discovery Channel. He’d thought it looked cool, then.

He was shocked by the intensity, the viciousness of the questioning. No entertainment-section reporters, no celebrity-beat columnists hoping to ingratiate their way into the star's good graces; these were hungry hard-eyed people who worshipped at the altars of Woodward and Bernstein. Lance seemed slightly stunned by the onslaught, shrinking back a little from the bank of mikes, his accent deepening as he flicked his eyes back towards the others, as though making sure they were still there.

They had all agreed that Lance would go first, and that they'd each make a brief statement of support at the end. They were there mostly for moral support, Theresa said, and to present a united front. They were certainly united enough, Chris thought; they all looked like shit. JC, jaw clenched and hands trembling, was tearing strips in the paper coaster his water glass had been on; Joey was glaring at the reporters and photographers as though fitting each one for concrete boots. Justin, who had never met a camera he couldn't seduce, was sitting hunched over his own crossed arms and refusing to raise his eyes. His lashes were wet, Chris noticed. He knew from the makeup lady's mirrors that he himself looked just as bad, bleary and frighteningly old.

Lance, ironically, looked better than any of them. He was pulled tighter than normal, his voice and movements more carefully considered, but he seemed to have drawn a measure of strength from somewhere. There was probably something freeing in having your worst nightmare come true, Chris thought. You'd have nothing left to fear.

Theresa had shown up that morning with clothes for them to wear. They'd accepted her choices meekly, but when Lance had appeared in gray slacks and a gray-green silk shirt, she'd just nodded at him and said, "You'll do." Chris recognized the outfit; the last time Lance had tried to wear it, he'd been told to change into something "more Gap." Chris understood why. There was something indescribably not-Gap in the drape of the pants, in the soft almost-shimmer of the shirt under the television lights. Lately, after Michael, they'd been careful to avoid anything that might cause speculation. Chris almost laughed. No such worries now.

They’d never warned Chris to keep his relationships quiet, never made him change into straighter clothes. Chris hadn’t needed a censor since he was seventeen years old, when he’d learned it was easier all around just to ignore the feelings when they came.

Some of the questions they asked Lance weren't too bad, really. When did he realize he was gay? What did the other guys think? Was he in a relationship now? But some of them-- God, they had no business asking those things, he wouldn't tell his best friend that kind of stuff about himself. Which was pretty damn obvious, now. His face burned.

"Do you think the other members of the band are sexually attractive?"

Lance smiled. "Ma'am, we're in a band. It's our job to be attractive."

"So you're not having an affair with any of the members of N'Sync?"

"Hey, I watch 'Behind The Music,'" Lance said easily. "I know what happens when you start doing that kind of thing."

Some of the reporters laughed.

"That was really good," Justin said, afterward. "That thing about 'Behind The Music.' How did you think of that so fast?"

"I was up late, on the phone with Theresa," Lance said. "We tried to think of all the things they'd ask, and she helped me come up with answers. I made note cards."

"I tied up an airphone from Vancouver to Atlanta," Theresa said. "The daytrader in the next seat got really pissed."

"Thanks," Lance said, quietly. Theresa patted his shoulder. "The worst is over," she said. "It'll just get better from here."

That night, there were picketers outside the stadium.

They all knew that the show sucked, but there really wasn't much that they could do about it. Everyone was tense and miserable, and the dancing looked forced and the notes sounded strained. Their smiles felt like they'd been attached with spirit gum. There was extra security everywhere, just in case.

They decided not to go back to the hotel, afterward. They sent people back to get their stuff, showered in the locker rooms of the stadium, and all piled onto one bus, huddled quietly together, not talking, rubbing backs and patting arms and pretending not to notice Justin's tears, even when they made a big dark wet patch on Joey's shirt. Finally, wrung out and exhausted, they stumbled back to bed, Lance taking the outside of JC's bunk and Justin curling up with Joey.

Chris woke after a short, restless hour. The others' soft breathing was comforting, but he couldn't go back to sleep. He managed to get to the front of the bus without tripping over anything in the dark. Lance was already there, looking out the window, silhouetted by the occasional flash of headlights. He turned.

"Hey," he whispered, holding out a hand. "You OK?"

Chris tried to laugh, but it caught in his throat. "I'm fine," he said. "I'm absolutely peachy. I'm not the one who had to smile and make nice while my life was torn apart on CNN." He crossed his arms, staring at Lance's feet. He had gone to bed in boxers and a t-shirt, and the bus felt suddenly cold.

"Oh, man." Lance's feet moved, and then Chris felt a warm hand on his shoulder. "Chris, it's not that bad."

"Not that bad?" He was so shocked he looked up. Lance was a solid, familiar shape in front of him, much closer than he'd thought. He had to tilt his head back to see his face, barely visible. "How can you say that? You, you had to stand there and answer them, you were nice to them, they hated you and you had to just stand there and take whatever they said--" his voice broke, and he could feel the tears that had been pressing at his throat for two days escaping his control. He swiped at them with a fist. "Fuck."

"Chris," Lance said, "God, c'mere," and then he was knotting his fists in Lance's too-big sweatshirt and shaking while his eyes burned and Lance rubbed his back in long, smooth strokes and talked to him, his voice soft and slow.

"I know this wasn't the best way for this to happen," he said, "but it was going to happen. We couldn't keep it a secret forever."

"We could have," said Chris fiercely. "We were doing fine before, we could have protected you--"

"You did all you could--"

"I didn't." He pushed away, turned his back to Lance. His voice was raw. "I'm such a fucking coward. You were there answering all their questions like they had a right to ask them, you called that woman 'ma'am' after she asked if you really seduced a sixteen-year-old fan, you looked so-- you were so brave. And I was sitting there behind you and I wanted to, I wanted to tell them that everything they said to you they had to say to me too, I wanted to tell them I lo--" he cut himself off.

"Chris." That hand again, in the middle of his back, hot through the cotton. "You can say it."

"I can't."

"Tell me."

He was choking, oh God, he couldn't breathe. "I love you."

"I love you too."

"No, I mean--"

"I know what you mean, Chris."

"I'm sorry," Chris said, as Lance pulled him back into his arms. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," and he kissed Lance's neck, helplessly, tasting salt. "I'm sorry."

"Shhh," said Lance. "It's OK." He pulled Chris over to the couch, wedging him between his own body and the back of it. Chris buried his face in his shoulder.

"You and the other guys, you've always been there for me," Lance said, stroking his hair. "But I wasn't willing to do what it would have taken to keep it secret forever, you know that. I wouldn't have fake girlfriends, I wouldn't stop seeing guys. I knew I'd have to come out eventually. Theresa and I talked about it a long time ago."

"You never said anything."

"I should have, but I didn't want to worry you guys. And it wasn't an issue then, I was fine with the way things were."

"You--" Chris cleared his throat. "You haven't dated anyone in a while. That we saw, anyway."

"No," Lance said. "I haven't."

"I thought maybe Michael..."

"He had something to do with it. It was more a last-straw kind of thing, though. I'd already pretty much decided when that happened."

They were quiet for a while. Chris noticed that he was matching his breathing to Lance's. He made himself breathe out of synch.

"Why did you stop dating?"

Chris pulled back, trying to see Lance's face. A car passed them, going the other way, and Lance's eyes glittered like a cat's in the headlights. Chris raised a hand and touched his face, feeling beard stubble and the slight residue of cold cream. Under his fingers, Lance smiled; when he moved to kiss him, Chris met him halfway.

When he'd thought about it, before, he'd always imagined that kissing Lance would be pretty much like kissing Dani had been, only without the breasts. He'd never realized, just looking, that Lance's mouth was wide and soft and silky, that he would lick into his mouth, gently implacable, that he would find sensitive places behind Chris' teeth and stroke them with a deft, strong tongue. He heard a tiny, greedy noise that he realized, distantly, had come from his own throat, and pressed himself harder against Lance, worming one arm underneath him for better leverage. Lance's body was warm, fuzzy over-washed sweats giving way to smooth skin, and his mouth was hot and wet. Chris captured his bottom lip, sucking on it, and pictured the way Lance would look when he was done, flushed, swollen-mouthed, with bright eyes. He found the hem of Lance's shirt and slipped his hands underneath, cupping the sleek flesh of Lance's shoulders. Lance made a startled noise, and broke the kiss.

"Your hands are cold," he said.

"Sorry," said Chris. His mouth felt oddly deserted now that Lance's tongue had gone.

"It's OK," said Lance, and squirmed around until they were twisted together, Chris' head on his shoulder with his arms under Lance's shirt and his bare legs tucked underneath him. He lay still, feeling the gentle press of Lance's chest as he breathed. "So...is this why you stopped dating?" he asked, not lifting his mouth from Lance’s soft skin.

"I wanted something different," Lance said, his breath a tickle on Chris' cheek.

Chris twisted his neck, pushing back into the couch to put a little distance between them. Lance’s eyes were wide and shining in the dim, and his lips, still wet, reflected an errant gleam of light. “I’m different,” Chris whispered. Now, he thought, now he could be brave.

Lance's arms tightened around him, coaxing Chris’ head back into the hollow of his shoulder. "Yes," he said. "You are."

 

END

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