Scrutiny: 5

by Miss Kitty E

We retreat into our minds for a bit, nothing more needs to be said, and since we're both a bit lost on what one is even supposed to say in a situation like this, we keep quiet. When I look up again there's a sense of reconciliation in the air, a heavy sense of relief and newfound obligation, the kind that all but forces you to hug, or kiss, to somehow seal the agreement before anything more can be screwed up, because at least you'll have this. We meet this only with unease, I stay in my seat and he in his, and I'm not sure that this will ever change. Has it really only been a month? Just under a month and suddenly we're out of practice being friends, no longer knowing what to say, or how to interact. Pressing my lips together, I search for something to say, but he beats me to it.

"Hey, Lance," there's nothing foreboding in the way he says my name, so whatever he wants to say must be harmless. "About that offer to eat, does it still stand? Because I've only had two bags of peanuts since breakfast... one on the flight to New Orleans, and one on the flight here."

I smile, good move, Joe, this I can deal with. I shrug, "I don't have anything real fancy but we could order out."

He considers it, but shakes his head. "I'm sure the pizza's really bad around here, it always is down south. I don't even want to think about what you people do to Chinese." He gets up and wanders into the kitchen, but I wait a moment before following him, breathing and being thankful. When I catch up with him, he's inspecting the freezer critically. He glances over at me, and smiles sheepishly, as if suddenly aware he was intruding. I wave my hand dismissively, I've spent years now in cramped quarters with four other guys, I'm used to having my space invaded. "You know you've got a frozen one right here," he tells me.

He looks to me for permission, and I shrug, "Knock yourself out."

Pulling it out, he sets it upside down on the counter, putting his hand on his hip as he reads the instructions, as if posing. I wonder if it's intentional, or just ingrained in us after a thousand or more photo shoots. He looks up suddenly, and then around the kitchen, I pretend I wasn't staring. "Baking sheet?"

"I have a special drawer for that." And I do, the whole kitchen is walled in with custom cabinets. Black tile countertops, every appliance with a computer chip, freaking spotless because all I ever seem to do is boil water to hydrate some "food products" with it. Still, it's hard not to brag about this kitchen, this house, my kitchen, my house. I've needed this for way too long, a place where I could be an adult and a child, where every last falsity is left at the door. I pull out the cookie sheet for him and he proceeds to rip open the cardboard packaging. The oven goes on three-fifty and the pizza goes in, and now we have twenty-five minutes to stare at the shiny, black tiles.

I'm not the only one who realizes this, but even though the most random, pointless comment would have been more welcome than this silence, nothing that we come up with is said. A wall of glass stands between us, too thick to shatter, but so clear we can only sense its presence. We can't even look at each other, and for a minute I worry that, whatever our intentions, the friendship will always be this strained. Swallowing, I force out, "You been keeping yourself busy, Joey?"

He nods, "Yeah, looking at scripts again," he trails off, looking for more to say. "I'm really interested in one."

It's such a minor victory, I don't even know why I'm celebrating, but still I smile. Crossing my arms, I settle in for the long haul, because Joey always has a lot to say on this subject, and I've always had an interest. "Really?"

He smiles quickly, nodding. I don't even think he realizes that he must have launched into the same pitch given to him as he explains the story to me. "Oh yeah, it's like Lethal Weapon only grittier. Black comedy is really in, you know? The two cops are trying to catch this guy who keeps trying to be the ultimate evil genius but keeps fucking up. When he tries to blow something up, kidnap somebody, or, you know, kill the cops, he screws up and, like he'll put four hours instead of four minutes on a bomb-timer. He just flips out every time, its so funny. The role I'm hoping for is that guy's unwilling sidekick. I don't know if it'll all work out, but I really think this will help people take a good look at me."

How could anyone ever overlook him? Underestimate him, yes, I'm guilty of that myself, but completely miss that there's something extraordinary there is hard to believe. "That's great, Joe. I know it's gonna work out."

He seems embarrassed suddenly, not in modesty or self-doubt, but simply uneasy, as if the mere fact that I really believed in him was just too much. There are insecurities, no, flaws that he is much too aware of, the flashy smile and easy laugh are all ways to keep people from looking too closely. Well, I have, many times, and whereas I used to think him a bit shallow- not that there is anything wrong with being the kind of guy to let others to do the thinking -I know better now. I wouldn't say he's particularly deep either, but there's something under the charming, upbeat surface, and I think it's been a long time since anybody took note of that. Maybe even him.

The time left on the oven clock passes easily after that as we talk of movies we've seen, acting we want to do, and the aspects of Hollywood we want to be a part of or avoid. When we sit down to eat, however, it's serious discussion time again. I don't begrudge him his curiosity, it's like we're getting to know each other all over again, and he's just testing to see how much has changed about the man he thought he knew everything about. If it were anyone else I think I'd be glad to talk about it, it's not often I can dust off this part of me to see if it still fits.

"Why didn't you tell anybody?" he asks me suddenly, wiping off a bit of sauce from the corner of his mouth with his thumb.

I shrug, and begin picking off the toppings I don't care for, "I had barely gotten comfortable with the idea myself when I met you guys. I was already the lame ass from Mississippi, being bi as well would have been a little too much ammo for you all."

He nods, after all Chris and I did not get along when we first met, and that was bad enough. Gay jokes would have sent me running home to Mama. "And after?"

It takes me a second to shake myself free from a sort of stupor. I've seen Joey eat before, a lot in fact, I don't know why I'm marking it as if it were the first, matching the actions to the personality. "It got to be even scarier than telling you when I first met you guys. It took me a long to be sure you even liked me. 'All-Around-American-Boy Lance' was a big hit, but I didn't know if I could say the same for 'Threatens Your Sexuality Lance.'"

"It's all part of the same whole," he says, leaning in one elbow. "You joined the band pretty young, had you even dated a guy before you came to Orlando?"

I shook my head, "Made out once... behind a church but-"

"Perv," he snickers.

I laugh, "Don't I know it, but other than that I had been to chicken-shit to do anything."

"So you've never had a boyfriend?"

Suddenly things begin to feel uncomfortable for me, this is the part where I admit to having lied, not omitted, not answered ambiguously, but lied. "I have. We hooked up just before that second tour in Germany."

He frowns, as if confused, "Weren't you dating that girl, Baby, then?"

Ah, yes, Baby. Just a random picture sent to me in the fan mail, and a fake name- Susanna, I think it was -nothing more than that to keep them being suspicious. In my long, yearning phone calls, I had only ever named the listener as Baby. I shrug, "Yes and no." I look up so I can see his reaction when I tell him, "Baby's real name was Andy. I had met him during the break."

Blessedly, he only seems genuinely amused. "Andy, huh? Damn, I didn't know you had it in you to keep a secret like that. Didn't I talk to her once?"

I laughed, remembering vividly panic attack I'd had that day. "No, you grabbed the phone and shouted 'Don't worry, Baby, he's gotten over that nasty case of mono!' and then I grabbed the phone and beat you with it."

He rubs his head as if feeling a bump, "That's funny, I don't remember that part at all." His brow creases, and his voice is much more sober when he asks, "Did he still cheat on you?"

I don't answer until the smile is completely gone from my lips, "Yeah. Didn't lie about that, or that it was with my cousin. I just left so soon after we got together, I don't know why I was so damn caught off guard."

"You didn't deserve that," he says quietly, he was there for the fallout. They all were.

And he's right, no one deserves that, to think they've found the answer in someone only to have the glaring error in their calculations shoved in their faces, a huge, red 'F' on all their plans, their ideas. "It's ancient history," I say, hoping to drop the subject.

"Yeah, but with a new twist," he says, sitting back with the crust of his pizza, chewing thoughtfully. When he speaks again I find that Andy has thankfully been forgotten, but this whole "so Lance is a little bit queer" thing is still horribly interesting. "Was Andy the last?"

I nod, "Too dangerous to get involved with another guy right now, really. I never was much of a risk taker."

He cuts another slice of pizza, this time eating the crust first. "But if you've only dated one guy, how do you know it wasn't a fluke? You know, experimentation and all that?"

This whole line of conversation seems odd to me now, I didn't have any reason to question myself at this point. I wanted to tell him it was more than one guy, it had been Chris{1}, Gregor, Andy, Miles, and Zack- and Joey if you wanted to be particular -more than enough to say, "My name is Lance, and I like guys" without any kind of doubt. I'm still puzzling out a response, when I realize what Joey's doing. It's that old 'my friend has this problem' trick, he's not concerned about my assertions of my sexuality, he's concerned about his.

"Joe," I say, shaking my head. "Joe, one kiss doesn't make you gay or whatever. Even if you-" I can't even believe I'm saying this, "-Liked it, it doesn't mean anything." I laugh weakly, "I just kiss really well." I flash a stupid grin to cover up my stupid words and wait for the rebuttal, the outrage.

"Yeah," he says quietly. "You're right." He hasn't even convinced himself of this.

Oh, Joe, don't do this to me. Don't fucking do this to me, you were supposed to laugh this off, you were supposed to go right back to being so straight it verges on rubbing off. I look away from him quickly, inwardly seething and trying to shut down everything inside me before the memory can be stored, but it's too late.


It's been two days since Joe left, I swear to God reluctantly, and I can't stop thinking about him and what might be. Only it's worse than before because now it hurts. The doubt eats away slowly at my heart, and the holes left there hurt even more. Two days after everything has been made right I'm falling out of the universe, so lost in thought I can't keep up with passage of time. I'm a second behind everyone else, and I can only watch as things happen. I couldn't reach out and interact, to affect what's going on around me, if I tried. But it's late at night now, and I can't even call my mother because that'd just be beyond pathetic. Besides I never outright told her I dated guys, and I don't think I have the heart to skirt the issue right now.

I've been through this enough to know that if I don't talk to someone soon, I'll let slip further and further behind the rest of the reality until it leaves me behind, and I can't afford that right now. I need to call someone, because, even though I want to be able to fix myself without anyone being the wiser, I can never seem to get a grip on myself until there's someone telling me to, watching to see if I'll fail. I guess it's pride, but the minute I tell someone my problems I'm desperate to prove I can handle them, that I'm strong, even if I think I know better. It's late though, and even later where I'm calling. Fuck it, I'm too tired of this shit to wait. The phone rings four times before someone picks up, and JC answers with a sleepy grunt.

I'm not sure he's even listening when I say his name, "Josh?"

"Mm?" I really did wake him up, didn't I? I can hear him roll over on the bed. It's clear his eyes aren't even open when he yawns my name, "Lance? That you?"

"Yeah. I'm sorry I woke you up..." I feel guilty and stupid now. I'm being melodramatic, a late night call to a friend about a boy, how fucking high school is that?

He sounds a little more awake as he speaks, "No man, it's alright. What is it?"

I open my mouth to speak, but it occurs to me I don't want to tell him for fear of sounding as dumb as I feel. Now I'm struggling to decide which is less bizarre, calling a friend in the middle of the night for no apparent reason, or being all of twenty-one years old and acting like I've never had a romance not work out. Maybe I can pretend this is serious because it involves the group, and I should get this over before I actually turn into a girl. "Can we talk? You said-"

He cuts me off, anxious now, "The offer still stands, man. What's wrong?"

And now I can only struggle on how to put it into words. Dammit, I can't even put my finger on what's making me so unhappy. "Not wrong, really, just..." I start, and then become lost again. Sighing, "I met up with Joey."

He doesn't respond immediately, and when he does it's with nervous levity, "You make it sound like a fist fight."

"No. Far from it." I try again to explain, "We're all right again, I guess. But... that's kind of the problem."

He makes his "old man noise" which I guess means he's sitting up, "How could that be a problem? If you guys have worked it out, what's wrong?"

"I don't know, but it's like this is harder on me, being friends again. Because, I don't- I don't know how he feels, what he wants anymore. Before it was easy, he was pissed at me, and didn't want to see me. Now... now I'm thinking maybe... maybe... Fuck, JC, I don't know what's going on now." I stop myself when I realize how angry I sound, how angry I actually am. After all, I was honest. Stupid, yes, but honest. I admitted I was attracted to him, but I could have lied, fuck, I probably should have. Still, the pattern of honesty had been established, and he should have had the decency to follow it and tell me what that kiss had meant to him. I don't think I can endure never knowing.

"Lance," the very tone of his voice tells me I'm not going to like what I hear. "Don't take this the wrong way, but does it even matter? Yeah, Joey might be thinking about it, and even if you two hook up that may not exactly be the best outcome, you know? I want you to be happy, dude, but there's got to be less risky ways to find it."

I was right, I didn't like what I heard. I know all this, I know that Joey's bad for me, how farfetched anything I come up with is, but so fucking what? This is my heart and if it wants to pine over Joey, so be it, I just need someone to make it hurt less. "Well what do I do then? I don't even know why I'm doing this to myself."

He sighs, "Because you still want him, and there's nothing wrong with that. You can't tell yourself to move on. If it were that easy everybody would do it. Don't try to solve it with another person, don't be too hard on yourself, just ride it out and take care of yourself." He laughs softly, and speaks in one of Justin's favorite inflections, "Spend some time on Lance."

"Yeah." Once more with feeling, "Yeah."

He seems to remember he's tired and tries to wrap up the conversation, "You gonna be okay?"

"Yeah. Eventually, anyway." And it's the truth, things have been put into perspective again. Everything seems smaller now, easier to handle, I should just start carrying a card that says 'You are not the center of the universe' and let people sleep. "I'm sorry about this."

"For what?" How can I hear him rolling his eyes, it's not possible, but I know he's make that face. "I asked you to come to me when you needed someone to talk. I know the guys wouldn't really understand. Lance-" he pauses, the breath he'd taken for the next word just rushing out from his lips, over the reciever.

In the quiet I can hear the hiss of the phone line, and try to help him out. "Yes?"

"Nothing. I just want you to know you can come to me for anything."

"I already know that." I don't like the somber tone that's suddenly fallen the conversation.

"Yeah," he says it as if I've missed the point completely. Again, he tries to exit, "It's there anything else?"

I think about asking, of returning the favor and giving him a chance to talk about what's bothering him, but I don't, too afraid it involves me. "No, I'll let you get back to sleep."

He yawns again, "Okay, then. Good-bye."

"Good-night, JC."

So that's it, huh, just ride this out? Shit, I don't know if I can do that. I should try though for my sake, for Joey's sake, even for JC. Peacemaker, compromiser, my happiness doesn't hinge on this night or the next year, I can let him go.

Part Six - Fic Index - Main