Across the Universe
(“Limitless undying love, it shines around me like a million suns
And calls me on and on, across the universe…” --The Beatles)
The cake was white with thick pink icing, flowers decorating the border, a single candle shaped like an astronaut perched in the corner. Soft creamy wax dripped from the bottom of the wick onto the rest of the candle, creating thin spidery lines that bled down onto the smooth surface of pink.
Lance’s eyes sparkled in the flicker of the candle’s glow, and for a moment Chris thought they seemed wistful, morose. He blinked and a second later the look was gone, replaced with serene happiness.
“Happy birthday, kid,” Chris said cheerfully, and Lance smiled, a doleful, pretty smile that gleamed in the low light.
“We ain’t gonna sing, so get that out of your head…” Joey said, only half-kidding, and Lance shrugged.
“You don’t have to. Not if you don’t want to.”
They didn’t. The cake was cut neatly into ten squares and passed around dutifully until everyone had eaten their fill…three pieces a piece…except for Lance, who only had two. The last piece of cake sat untouched on the serving platter.
“He wanted to come, y’know,” Chris said softly, and Lance merely shrugged. The far-off, sad look was back in his eyes, and his smile melted, wax on a candle, leaving nothing but a quivering puddle of what once was.
“It’s no big deal,” Lance whispered, but he wasn’t fooling anyone.
The restaurant wasn’t crowded, not really, and so JC could very easily see Lance’s table from across the room where he sat in the corner, seated across from the youngest member in their group.
“Do you really think this was such a good idea, C?” Justin asked, and JC tore his eyes away from Lance’s table to rest upon Justin’s.
“Sure it was,” He said evenly. “He asked me not to come.”
“No…” Justin said slowly, precisely. “He asked you not to come if you were going to throw another tantrum about this whole ‘space thing.’”
“’Space thing?’” JC echoed, bristling. “This isn’t about a ‘space thing.’ You can’t even call it a ‘space thing.’ He’s getting on a goddamned fucking rocket ship with people who don’t even speak English and probably can’t afford to land the fucking thing when they’re done with whatever little mission they go on. You guys aren’t taking this seriously!”
“Keep your voice down, C,” Justin whispered calmly, “people are starting to stare.”
“They’ve been staring,” JC spat bitterly. “Where have YOU been?”
Justin sighed, folding his napkin in his lap and taking a slow sip of his wine. “Do you think that cutting off contact from him completely before he goes up in that ‘goddamned fucking rocket ship’ is the brightest idea you’ve had?”
“Why? So that when it explodes I’ll hurt more remembering our last conversation? No thank you…” He stopped, his eyes widening at the bitterness in his voice and the brutality in his words. “I didn’t mean that…I’m sorry…”
“Don’t apologize to me,” Justin said softly.
JC looked again at the table across the way, where three of his best friends sat drinking and having a good time. He smiled wanly, knowing Joey was probably making some obnoxious joke and Chris was trying to get the waitress’s number. Lance…he sighed. Lance was no doubt thanking them for coming and enjoying their company and…god. He wondered if Lance was thinking of him…
The last piece of cake seemed smaller than the rest. Lance wondered if it was because it was all alone, without another piece of cake to keep it company, or compare it to, or do whatever it was pieces of cake did when they got together. Idly he reached out a finger to trace smooth lines and curves into the icing’s surface. He brought the tip of his finger to his mouth and absently licked the sweet pink substance off, then sighed again, heavily.
“You planning on giving that piece to him? Or are you just gonna keep it for yourself? Because I sure as hell don’t want a piece of cake that says ‘JC,’” Joey cracked, giving him a pointed look.
“Huh?” Lance said blankly. “Oh…”
The awkward silence lasted a few minutes, until Chris couldn’t take it any more. “C’mon, Bass. Let’s dance…” He said, but Lance demurred, gesturing to his unfinished beer and smiling shyly as the two older men tried to coax him onto the dance floor.
“I’d just like to sit for a bit,” Lance said quietly. “Y’all go and have some fun. No big deal.”
JC’s heart tugged just a little harder at the scene before him. Lance sat alone, idly pushing cake crumbs from one side of his china plate to the other.
“Do you think I should?...” JC trailed off hopefully.
Justin tried to hide his smile. “I don’t think he’d mind. I think he’d want to see you…”
“Okay…” JC said uncertainly, and, straightening his tie, began to walk across the restaurant.
Lance remembered the first time he had ever had a birthday with *NSYNC. It had been years ago, back when Chris was the only one who could get alcohol and he and Justin couldn’t even get cigarettes. Hell, Justin couldn’t even technically get into a rated-R movie. But the rest of the boys showed up with all three…cigarettes, alcohol, and rated-R movies…well…porn, actually, and plopped them all at Lance’s feet with identical Cheshire-cat grins.
“Happy eighteen, Lance,” They chorused, and he had blushed to the roots of his hair.
That evening of debauchery was one for the record books. He never remembered getting so drunk…or being so happy…or so damned aroused by another male.
“Whaddaya think, Lance? Ya like being an adult?” JC slurred, and Lance smiled, low rumbling laugh spilling from his lips.
“Eh. So far, so good. I still can’t believe y’all brought me porn.”
JC giggled, taking another gulp from the bottle of JD that lay nestled between them. “Whatsamatta, Lance? Didn’t it turn you on?”
Lance said nothing, just shrugged enigmatically, and JC’s eyes widened and then crinkled as he laughed some more. “C’mon! Tell me! What turned you out? Were ya hard Lance? Were you?”
The younger man said nothing, just pushed the cigarette between his lips and pulled, eyes focused on the ceiling, mouth curled in a playful grin.
JC took the bait. “I’ll bet you were!” And before either one of them knew what he was doing, JC had stuck his hand in Lance’s boxers and closed around the hot length of flesh nestled inside.
For a moment, neither of them spoke, eyes locked, lips parted, breathing paused. Then JC’s hand began to move, and Lance’s hips followed, and speech was forgotten entirely.
“You remember, don’t you?” JC whispered softly, and Lance looked up, startled. The dim lighting of the restaurant illuminated JC’s silhouette, obscuring his face, but Lance could read his eyes without even looking.
“I thought you said you weren’t coming,” Lance whispered in a small voice.
JC swallowed, shrugging his shoulders and shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “I wasn’t…but…y’know?”
Silence suspended the air between them, and JC coughed
awkwardly. “May I sit down?”
Lance shrugged his shoulders and looked away, and gingerly JC took the chair beside him. “Happy birthday,” He whispered softly. His right hand traveled to Lance’s knee, just resting on the bony surface, and JC saw his breathing hitch.
“I’m sorry, y’know,” JC whispered, just as Lance said, “you hurt me.”
Their eyes met, and softened, and carefully JC traced Lance’s jaw with one slender finger. “I know I hurt you. But I was scared. So scared. I mean…it’s a rocket ship, Lance. You don’t even like planes…”
“You think I wasn’t scared JC? You think I’m not scared now? Of course I am,” He paused, sighing, rubbing his face roughly. “But I want to do this. I have to do this. And you aren’t making it any easier.”
JC swallowed, feeling ashamed, and cleared his throat awkwardly.
“This is for you,” He said finally, and placed a small wrapped box on the table, right next to Lance’s hand.
Lance stared at the box for one long moment, fear and excitement and wanton curiosity making his blood pound relentlessly. “Wh…what’s this?” He asked in a small voice.
“Open it,” JC whispered, azure eyes intense.
Carefully Lance removed the scarlet paper, revealing a plain white box bereft of any identifying logo. Removing the top, he pulled away soft cotton padding to reveal a shiny rectangle with evenly spaced square holes and smooth ridges.
“A…harmonica?” He said, confused.
JC blushed deeply.
“Um…well…you always said you wanted to be more musical…and…I thought
that since you probably couldn’t take a guitar on the ship…and…uh…I thought you
might keep it in your pocket and think of me…I mean…you don’t have to…it’s…this
was dumb…forget it…” Hasty fingers
reached out to take the shiny silver object away, but Lance’s hand grabbed his
wrist, stilling his actions before they could be completed.
”Jace,” He whispered softly, and the older man looked away, lower lip trembling, eyes welling up with tears. “JC,” He said again, gently, and this time Lance grabbed his chin, carefully turning his face.
“I don’t want you to go,” JC said, so quietly. “I know you have to, but…I…”
“Shhhhhh…” Lance murmured. “I’m gonna be just fine…”
JC nodded, wiping his eyes, trying a smile and failing miserably, aching to grab onto Lance and never let go. He resisted when the younger man grabbed his fingers and placed them on his cheek.
“Don’t…” JC whispered weakly.
“Because,” He swallowed, shuddering. “Just…because…”
“Because you’re afraid? Or because you don’t like how it feels?...”
“Because I don’t want to get used to how it feels…I…shouldn’t…I mean…” JC shrugged helplessly, leaning into Lance’s touch despite his words.
“I’m gonna be fine,” Lance repeated, and weakly JC nodded and looked away.
He jumped a second later at a high-pitched sound right next to his ear. Lance had the harmonica pressed to his lips and was blowing very gently, producing a single note.
“Look!” He said gleefully, gently trying to ease the tension. “I can be a soprano!”
JC giggled through his tears, feeling full and achy and intimately connected to the man seated to his right.
“Thanks for the harmonica, C,” Lance said warmly, stroking JC’s hand with the tips of his fingers. “I’ll take it with me.”
JC blushed, glowing. “Really?”
“You bet. Our music will float across the universe.” The line was cheesy, but appreciated, and Lance gently wiped away the traces of tears on JC’s face.
“Love you,” JC breathed quietly. The smile on his face was cake icing, warm and thick and sweet and syrupy, pink on a white canvas. Perfect.
“Would y’all quit blubbering? You’re making me sick!” Justin announced, swaggering over to their table with a smarmy grin, breaking the spell as the two men straightened in their chairs and exhaled identical shaky sighs.
“Shut up,” JC said quietly, and to his surprise both Lance and Justin broke into bawdy laughter. The secret look that passed between the younger men was lost on JC, and he blinked, bewildered.
“Have some cake, C,” Lance laughed, gesturing to the final slice sitting on the platter in front of them.
JC hesitated then eagerly dove into the convection, the entire piece of cake disappearing in the time it took Justin to say, “how come he gets the last piece?”
“It’s no big deal, J,” Lance said off-handedly, but JC just smiled. He knew it was a big deal. It was a very big deal. And it felt good.
As JC contentedly chewed away, Lance smiled at Justin and whispered, very quietly, “thank you…y’know…for getting him here.”
“Wouldn’t have it any other way,” He replied, smiling as JC pressed his fingers into the crumbs of cake still sticking to the dish and brought them to his mouth, oblivious.
“Me either,” Lance sighed softly, happily. “Me either.”
© 2002 ~A.