the grin without a cat remix by Synecdochic
Justin blamed Armani.
Not that Lance didn't look good in Armani. He did; it showed off all the nicely shaped lines that Lance had been working on for—well, a really long time; Justin had sort of lost track of how long the hiatus was until after they started making noises about getting back together. And then the next thing he knew, they'd started writing down dates, and making appointments, and all of a sudden it was a cool Wednesday in April and he was sitting in a corporate boardroom with the rest of the guys and their A&R rep talking about demographics and marketing and a lot of other things that made Justin's head hurt.
And Lance was wearing Armani. He'd turned up in the suit that morning at breakfast, looking all cool and collected, with a briefcase in one hand and a Starbucks cup (tall quad latte, extra-hot, the fucker; Justin could smell the hazelnut clear across the room, and even if it was that sugar-free crap, Lance still should have brought enough to share with the rest of the class) in the other. That made Justin's head hurt, too, and he wasn't quite sure why. He thought it had something to do with the way Lance's shoulders filled out the suit, or maybe it was just the remnants of last night's hangover.
Chris wolf-whistled, the way he did at his dyke friends when they showed up dressed for clubbing, and tossed off a sloppy salute. "So very GQ," he said. "If I ask nicely, will you take me back up to your office so we can play CEO and Mail Room Clerk later?"
"Fuck off," Lance said, but he was smiling. He dropped his briefcase on the table and went for the breakfast bar, coming back a minute later with half a grapefruit and some napkins. "In Manhattan, you gotta dress the part," he said as he sat down and reached for the briefcase. "Here, I've got copies of what I want to go over today. I did my best to translate them from Suit to English. If you guys don't understand anything, shout."
He flipped open the briefcase's locks and pulled out four manila folders, each labeled with a name. Even the inside of Lance's briefcase was organized, Justin thought sourly, glancing at it. Pens over here in this pocket. Pencils over there in that pocket. Paperback copy of whatever political science book Lance was reading over lunch tucked neatly next to sparkly Britney Spears spiral-bound notebook. Extra manila folders, in case there should be some kind of manila folder emergency during the meeting. Two-pocket folders, where all of Lance's own notes were no doubt stored, neatly filed and alphabetized. It was enough to make a guy—
Justin stopped. Blinked. Shook his head, trying to clear it. He hadn't just seen his ex-girlfriend's face staring up at him from the cover of a cheap notebook in Lance's briefcase. For one thing, Lance hadn't taken notes on paper since he'd bought his first Palm Pilot in 2000, and for another, Lance was legendary for condemning the use of anything with glitter on it to the same category of bad manners as using the wrong fork or wearing white shoes before Memorial Day—that is to say, tacky, despite everyone else doing it, and something best avoided by anyone who'd been raised by Diane Bass. Justin rubbed a hand over his face. More sleep, that was what he needed. Or maybe less vodka before bed.
"Justin?" Lance sounded amused. Justin opened his eyes to see Lance standing next to him, holding out the manila folder with "Justin" printed across the front in the neat block lettering Lance used when he wanted someone to be able to read what he'd written. "Will you be joining us this morning, or are the insides of your eyelids better company?"
Justin mumbled an apology and took the folder. When he snuck a glance back over to the inside of Lance's briefcase, it was decidedly sparkle-free.
Clearly, the Armani was doing strange things to Justin's brain. He opened the folder and tried to make himself pay attention.
The best part about being part of a group again was having Chris and Lance around to make the suit meetings more bearable. It wasn't that Justin didn't like the business end of things, because he did; it was just a blessing to be able to have an off day and not have to worry about tuning back in to find he'd just agreed to a three-month tour of the Australian outback or something.
Chris and Lance worked well together. Always had; Lance had turned himself into some kind of scary business-understanding pod-person somewhere along the line, someone who could toss off business terms like "points" and "royalties" and "advances" and "recoupables" with a straight face. And Chris, bless him, would always be the kind of guy who'd sit behind Lance and keep up a running translation of what Lance was really saying: adult contemporary won't touch it unless it gets top 40 play, fucking program directors can suck my left nut, better make the hook tapes good, don't forget to budget for the payola. Chris was the one who always called the A&R guy the Weasel, no matter what his real name was, and took delight in taking up as much of his attention as possible, so the Weasel never noticed Lance calmly writing entire clauses out of the contracts until Lance passed them back for the lawyers to commit seppuku over later.
Justin loved them both to distraction, really he did, but this morning his eyes were starting to glaze over the minute they started talking numbers. He caught JC's eye as Lance was just starting to argue down some of the percentages—and really, he was grateful to have Lance around, glad someone was sharp enough to keep them from ever getting fucked again; he knew he was perfectly capable of doing it himself, but with Lance around, he didn't have to—and JC replied, with nothing more than a tilt of the head and a twist of the mouth, yeah, I know.
Lance really was kind of scary when he got like this. Justin remembered when he'd turned up on their doorstep with a lousy haircut, two left feet, a suitcase full of outlet-mall clothes, and a voice that made all the rest of it if not irrelevant, then at least workable. He didn't recognize this smooth-voiced stranger who lifted an eyebrow and inquired, so gently you almost didn't hear the razors underneath it, whether it was really necessary to budget that much for the per-diem, since they'd come in considerably under on the last tour, and it was almost enough to make one think that one was being fleeced, wasn't it, Chris? Chris bared his teeth in an expression that people who didn't know him would probably think was a smile and started rattling off numbers from the piece of paper in front of him. Justin propped his chin up on his hand and let his eyes go soft-focus, let the voices wash over him.
It was the Armani. It had to be. Something about seeing Lance in a suit drove home the fact that the kid with the Gap habit had turned into the man with the label habit. Something about this whole process made Justin uneasy, had made him uneasy from the minute they'd started taking this idea seriously, and watching Lance shrug out of his jacket and drape it over the back of the chair without ever losing a beat made him realize what it probably was. This time around, they were adults. There would be screaming girls, and appearances on TRL, and probably enough plastic merchandise to keep a third-world factory in business for the next three years, but this time around they were going to be aiming at the adult market with more deadly precision than they'd ever tried before. Little girls who held up signs grew up to be big girls with disposable income. Little boys with bleached hair grew up to be big boys with bleached smiles and tongues that wouldn't melt butter, whose stylists came to them instead of the other way around, whose perfectly-spiked tips made one think of rumpled linen and long, hot nights.
He blinked at himself. Where had that thought come from?
He was just settling down to poke at his brain, try to figure out why it had presented him with the image of Lance out of the Armani, spread over on six-hundred-count Egyptian cotton, when the toe of Joey's boot nudged his calf. He came out of his semi-daze to find that the suits had left the room, probably to go consult with someone higher up to see just how much they were permitted to let Lance get away with, and everyone else was gathering up papers.
"You didn't hear a word of that, did you," Lance said. Justin thought he caught a hint of something in Lance's voice. Disgust, maybe. Maybe contempt. Or maybe he was just imagining it.
Justin shook himself again. "No, I'm okay. I'm here. I'm sorry. Just—weird morning." He summoned up a smile. "You manage to keep the world safe for truth, justice, and the American boyband?"
"Male vocal harmony group," Lance corrected, without a hint of irony. "Did you catch any of the details, or were you too busy outfitting your next Porsche?"
"Hey," Justin protested. "I was listening. You were arguing down the per-diem."
Lance quirked one eyebrow. "Yes, we were. Twenty minutes ago. Could you at least pretend you care?"
"Children," Chris said, mildly. "We are less fucked than we could be, Justin. And I'm going to go grab a drink, anybody want anything?"
Joey and JC had already left the room; Justin pushed back from the table and linked his hands together to stretch. "Yeah. Water for me? I think I'm, like, hung over or something."
"Gettin' old," Chris said, and glanced at Lance. "Anything for you, Mister Big Shot, sir?"
Lance was stacking up papers and sliding them into his briefcase, apparently getting ready for the second half of the meeting. Justin was paying more attention than he normally would have been, and that was the only reason he saw the bit of ragged wire peeking out from under the marked-up contract, as though the edge of a spiral-bound notebook had caught on something and started to unravel from hard use. He blinked again.
Lance closed the lid of the briefcase on the papers before Justin could quite get a second look. "I'm going to go down and pick up another latte, I think," he said. "We've got half an hour."
"I'll just," Justin muttered. "Stay here and hold down the fort, or something. Wait for them to bring in lunch."
Chris slung an arm over Lance's shoulders. He had to reach farther than he used to, Justin noted. "Come on, Bass. Let's figure out how we can squeeze some more blood out of a stone."
The conference room was quiet once everyone had emptied out, and Justin wandered over to the window, twitching aside the blinds and studying the streets of the city. Lance's briefcase was sitting on the table behind him. Justin could almost hear it whispering to him.
"Fuck it," he said, after a minute. His voice echoed back to him from against the glass. He knew himself well enough to know that it was going to drive him nuts until he figured out why Lance was carrying around merch he usually wouldn't be caught dead with. Maybe it was something he was doing to test the durability of the stuff they were printing, to see if they needed to up the quality of the products their name was associated with. That was Lance's kind of thing. That was probably it, even though the merchandising discussion was scheduled for tomorrow.
Except when Justin opened the briefcase—apologizing to Lance in his head for the invasion of privacy, since he knew better than to apologize in person, at least not without expecting a load of sarcasm he didn't really feel like dealing with—and walked his fingers through the neat piles of paper inside, the notebook had disappeared again.
If that had been it, Justin could have talked himself out of thinking something was up. Stress from thinking about the whole tour thing, or stress from trying to get back in the habit of making decision by consensus, or stress from the knowledge that they had studio time booked in two months and he hadn't managed to put four notes together he'd be willing to show to anyone else. But he caught sight of the notebook another three times in the afternoon meeting, when Lance stacked or shuffled or dealt out papers, and every time he blinked and squinted a little harder, it was gone again.
By the time they wrapped up for the night and started arguing about dinner, Justin was too distracted to pay much attention. Which he regretted later, because when JC declared he knew a perfect little sushi joint (and after Joey had backed out on the plans, saying something about Kelly and Bri and a family dinner, enduring the ensuing good-natured mockery with relative grace), Justin hadn't even thought to ask whether there would be karaoke, too, before agreeing.
"Sorry," JC said, sounding not in the least bit repentant, when they got there and Justin raised his usual objections. "The concierge said that this really is the best sushi in the neighborhood. You can just tune it out, right?"
Justin muttered rude things under his breath, made sure they got a table as far away from the stage as possible, and resolved to drink heavily until the inevitable off-key screeching ceased to bother him.
He was on his third carafe of sake when it got too painful to ignore. He figured the expression on his face was somewhat akin to the expression he got after shouting kanpai! and knocking back another cup, and that made him wonder why anyone drank something that tasted exactly like paint thinner. From there, he headed onto wondering why that was the first analogy that came to mind, and wondering what paint thinner really tasted like, and by the time he got around to wondering if paint thinner tasted anything like nail polish remover and whether or not it would be possible to test this theory without winding up in a hospital accompanied by embarrassing tabloid commentary, the round of catch-up had circled back to him and Chris was nudging him under the table, demanding to know just why he and Cam had broken it off and why Justin hadn't been willing to tell the full story when he'd called around to give the news.
Justin was just drunk enough to answer. Or maybe he was past drunk enough to answer; he squinted at Chris and tried to make his stomach stop lurching. "Kids," he said, and poked at a lump of wasabi with his chopsticks. "She wanted 'em. Now. And dude, I'm—"
"—Really not ready to start breeding," Lance said. "You'd put the kid on top of the car while you got something out of the backseat and then forget and drive away."
"I'm not that irresponsible," Justin protested, stung. "Joey lets me babysit Bri all the time."
Lance raised an eyebrow. "Well, you seem to be trying to recapture your missed frat-boy youth," he drawled, letting his eyes drop to the sake carafe.
"Oh, that's good, coming from you," Justin blurted. "Come on, you drink five times more than I do on any given night." Except not tonight; Lance was still on his first Sapporo, and Justin couldn't figure out why that seemed significant.
"Boys," Chris said, in the same tone he always used. This time, though, it dug under Justin's skin and crawled around. He wasn't a boy. Not anymore. And Lance apparently hadn't been for a long time.
Justin was about to make some kind of protest, but the karaoke started up again. Karaoke was bad enough, but when it was a fat man in his fifties screeching along to "Unchained Melody" in the wrong octave for his voice and doing really ugly things pushing right over his break, Justin really had to raise an objection. The guy was flat. Really, really flat. If Justin were a cat, his ears would have flattened against his head. "Fuck this," he mumbled, pushing his chair back from the table. "We gotta do this. Or we gotta get out of here. I can't fucking take this."
JC, who had both perfect absolute pitch and ear but somewhere along the line had learned the ability not to mind the nails-on-chalkboard sound of someone charging desperately for notes and missing them entirely, shook his head. "Come on, man. I don't feel like the hassle. You know it'll get out somehow."
Justin put his palms flat against the table and used them as leverage to haul himself to his feet. There was probably a draft in the restaurant. At least, that would be a good excuse for why he could feel himself swaying slightly in place. "I am going," he said, with as much dignity as he could muster and the precise diction he usually used to try to disguise how drunk he was, "to sing. And one of you fuckers is coming with me."
"Oh, hell," Lance said, and stood up. "Someone's got to make sure you don't topple over and kill yourself. Come on."
Justin slid his hand into the crook of Lance's elbow. "Lance loves me," he informed Chris and JC. "He can remain on my Christmas card list. You two, however, must grovel to be reinstated." He was rather proud that "reinstated" came out with all four full syllables. "What are we going to sing?"
"Not one of ours," Lance said, dryly. "Think you can see well enough to read along with the words?"
Lance smelled good. Like, really good. "I," Justin declared, "am perfectly capable of doing a better job while three-quarters drunk than he—" He stabbed his finger at the guy with the mike. "--could do if he got Ella Fitzgerald's voice box transplanted into his throat after a tragic hospital mix-up. How about Careless Whisper?"
It turned out that Justin really was too drunk to remember the words, though, and he had to drop out halfway through the first verse and let Lance take lead. Lance shot him a you're going to pay for this look, but he threw himself into I wish that we could lose this crowd / Maybe it's better this way / We'd hurt each other with the things we want to say / We could have been so good together with a smooth slide that made a shiver run down Justin's spine. There was something about Lance's voice, deep and silken and even, that made Justin think of lazy slow afternoons and that same voice rumbling dirty words into his ear. He shook himself loose of the fantasy in time to slide in on the chorus, making up the harmonies as he went along.
When they were done, they got more than the usual polite applause, and Justin thought he heard Chris doing his best impression of a squealing teenage girl. He stumbled against Lance as they made their way back to the table, and Lance's hand ghosted against the small of his back, impersonal and distant, keeping him upright. "Damn," Justin mumbled, as he dropped back down into his chair. "You're so good. I always forget how fucking good you are. You should get more solos. Why don't I write more solos for you?"
Lance snorted. "Because I don't want solos," he said. "I happen to hate singing alone in public. Remember?"
"But you're so good," Justin heard himself saying again, and reached for the sake to shut himself up before he said anything more than he should.
As Justin was reminding himself that no matter how foul sake was when it was hot, it was twice as bad when it had gone cold, JC said, very seriously, "Irony is a bitch."
Chris snorted. "And you bring this up because?"
JC shrugged. "Just saying." He glanced at Justin, though, then right at Lance, and Justin wondered what the hell JC was trying to say.
When the credit card slip arrived, the pen Lance took out of his pocket to sign it was pink and glitter-covered, with a plastic star attached to the top. Justin squinted at it and wondered whether to chalk that up to the hallucinations too, but he was too drunk to really think about it too deeply.
Thursday morning was the last details of the contract; the lawyers had apparently been burning the midnight oil, because Lance's draft came back to them with red pen marks in the margins. Lance settled himself down at the conference room table with the sheets of paper, his Starbucks cup, and a purple gel pen to go over each of the revisions one by one.
Justin closed his eyes and counted to ten. When he opened them again, Lance was holding a plain, sedate Cross pen. Black, Justin thought. Maybe blue. Certainly not purple.
"I'm just going to," he said, to nobody in particular, and made a vague hand gesture to indicate the door. He thought he caught a glimpse of the notebook, that fucking notebook, shoved underneath the contract. He most carefully did not look more closely, just stumbled out of the room and down the hall to splash some water on his face. Hung over. He was hung over, that was all, and something in the back of his head was fixated on pink and sparkles for some reason or another. He didn't get it, but his head was a weird place sometimes. Okay, most of the time.
Nobody seemed to notice when he let himself back into the room. He spent most of the argument over how many points the producers were going to get sneaking glances at Lance's open briefcase, trying to subtly crane his neck to see if there were any signs of glitter. Once or twice, he thought he caught something, but every time he looked closer, it turned out to be just a hint of sunlight on the interior straps.
He was feeling particularly surly by the time they broke for lunch. The afternoon was punctuated by discussion of what kinds of merchandising they were going for this time around—Lance was holding out for seeing what kind of response they got to the album and the initial tour, despite Backstreet's success, and the label wanted to push more heavily for the kind of merchandising blitz they'd done for Celebrity; "it's all right for them, I suppose," Lance said, during what would once upon a time have been a cigarette break and nowadays was a coffee-and-fresh-air break, "it doesn't come out of their share if it flops"—and the first tentative discussion of tour dates. The afternoon was also punctuated by four Notebook Sightings. Justin was starting to think of it like that, capital letters and all, like some sort of ominous music should be playing in the background.
He kept his mouth shut except when asked direct questions, hauled out his PDA when asked to consult his calendar, and caught himself spending a particularly boring twenty minutes trying to remember where they sent really rich, really famous people when they finally cracked under the strain. Some kind of private hospital, he was sure. Big rooms, rolling lawns, friendly people who make their living by not talking to the press.
They nailed down the last details by four, and were out of the office by four-thirty. Justin caught JC's elbow as they were filing out of the office building. "You got plans?" he asked.
"Chris was telling me about this vinyl place over on the corner of Sixth and Thirty-Second," JC said, blinking against the sunlight. Justin fished his spare pair of sunglasses out of his pocket and handed them over. JC always forgot the little details. "I was thinking of heading over, checking it out."
Knowing JC, he might mean the fabric, and not the record medium. Justin decided it was probably safer not to ask for clarification. "You got a bit of time? I wanna—"
"For you, sure thing," JC said, amiably. "You wanna talk about the lineup for the record?"
Justin supposed that was what he should want to talk about, but he had other things on his mind. "I think I'm hallucinating," he blurted out.
JC stopped on the sidewalk, halfway to hailing a cab, and lifted an eyebrow. "Have you been smoking the shit Chris gets from his friend in Nova Scotia again?" he asked.
Justin made a sharp gesture. "No. No, I don't mean like that. It's just—I've been seeing things. I keep catching sight of stuff, like, out of the corner of my eye, and when I turn my head it isn't there."
"Hmm." JC sounded thoughtful. Then he nodded. "Okay. Come on."
JC didn't say anything else until they were ensconced at a back table in one of the tiny cafes nearby. Nobody spared them a second glance; Justin was grateful at first for the privacy, then annoyed that nobody seemed to give a shit about them, and then he remembered that it was New York and people were just like that here. "Okay," JC said, once the waiter had brought them cups of cappucino and a plate of those little Italian cookies JC liked. "Start at the beginning and tell me about it."
Justin took a deep breath, sipped at his coffee, singed his tongue, and put the cup back down to let it cool. "It started yesterday morning. This is gonna sound fucking nuts. I thought I saw Lance with a notebook in his briefcase. A notebook, I might add, with Britney's face on the cover of it. But then I looked again and it wasn't there. I saw it again that afternoon, when he was packing up his shit for lunch, and I opened up his briefcase when all y'all went to take a break—"
JC winced. "You'd better not tell him that."
Justin waved it away. "Yeah, yeah, I know. But I looked in his briefcase and there wasn't any notebook. And then last night at the restaurant, there was this pen—okay, I was really fucking drunk, so I can maybe write that off, but there was another one this morning, and I keep seeing the notebook, and, I mean, I could maybe imagine something like that once, maybe twice, but like twenty times? And if I was gonna make shit up like that, why the hell would it be—"
"Hmm." JC nibbled at one of the cookies. "Lance, you said?"
Justin had been about to say "Britney on the cover", but there was something about JC's tone that made him stop. "Yeah. What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing." JC's face was carefully bland; Justin knew that expression. "Go on."
Justin leaned forward. "No, you're not saying something. You've got the I'm-not-saying-something face on. What about Lance?"
"What about Lance?" JC asked.
"Oh, no," Justin said, holding up both hands. "You're not going to pull the inscrutable-Buddha act on me. A, you suck at it, man, and I mean really suck, and B, if I wanted the annoying Buddha thing I would have gone to Chris. Which, you'll note, I didn't. Tell."
It really was kind of irritating the way JC didn't even seem to notice how hot the cappuccino was as he drank it. "It's nothing, man. Old shit."
"Which you are about to tell me. Or I will, so help me God, tell TRL the entire story of what went down with you and Eva. In graphic detail. With diagrams. And eight-by-ten color glossy photographs."
"With the circles and the arrows and the paragraphs on the back of each one explaining what each one is to be used as evidence against me, yeah, yeah, you keep threatening that." JC leaned back in his chair and sighed. "It's nothing serious. I've just had a bet with Chris since, like, 1997 that you wouldn't notice Lance until at least six months after he'd given up on his thing for you."
If Elvis himself had shown up with their coffee refills, Justin didn't think he could possibly have been more surprised. He choked on the inhale, which set off a coughing fit, which made JC thump between his shoulders and flag down the waiter for a glass of water. By the time Justin could breathe again, wiping the tears from his eyes with the napkin the cookies had come on, he still couldn't manage to say anything more deep than "Lance? Are we talking about the same Lance here?"
JC rolled his eyes. "I knew I shouldn't have said anything. Yes, we're talking about our Lance; yes, he used to have a thing for you; yes, he's way over it now and has been for a while."
Justin shook his head. "I don't—I'm not—I mean—" He stopped, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly, while fitting a full sentence together in his head before letting it out of his mouth this time. "Why didn't anyone, oh, say something to me?"
"No offense, Justin," JC said, "but you kind of used to be a shit."
That stung. The fact that JC was probably right stung even worse. "I wouldn't have freaked out about it or anything," Justin muttered into his cappucino.
JC's eyes crinkled up as he smiled. "Yeah, but it would have made things weird. You were busy taking the world by storm, anyway. You had other shit to worry about. It's okay, it's not like he was, you know, pining or anything. He was just crushing on you. He's over it now. I just thought it was weird that you were only seeing stuff with Lance."
"I'm going nuts," Justin said.
JC laughed. "You're just overtired. You haven't been sleeping enough this week, and you've been drinking a lot, and you're fucked up about not being able to write anything for the album, and your brain's playing tricks on you. Just chill. It'll all sort itself out soon. You're not going nuts, you're just, I don't know, stressed out. Go take a nap or something before dinner."
Justin sighed. "Do me a favor?" At JC's nod, he asked, "Keep an eye out, would you? If you see Lance with—" He winced at how ridiculous he was going to sound, but he chugged grimly through the rest of the sentence anyway. "--a Britney notebook, let me know. Or, like, grab it from him or something and show it to me. To prove to me that I'm not hallucinating."
JC put a hand over Justin's and patted it reassuringly. "Promise."
Justin buried his face in his hands. "Come on. Let's go get some booze. A lot of booze. Again."
Justin woke up the next morning with the third worst hangover he'd had in his entire life, and reached over to slap the alarm into nine more minutes of peace and quiet before he was ready to face the cold, cruel world. He didn't get it, though, because when he picked up the glass of water and handful of Advil some kind soul, probably JC, had left beside his bed, Britney's two-dimensional face was staring accusingly up at him.
Justin yelped and dropped the water. It splashed all over the bedside table, soaking everything in sight. Justin stared stupidly at it for a second, then swore under his breath, hurled himself from the bed at top speed to grab a towel from the bathroom before he shorted out the clock radio, and was halfway through lifting up the glass protecting the wood of the table from getting warped to dry underneath it when he realized that the fucking notebook was fucking gone again.
He stopped in mid-mop and dropped the glass sheet directly onto his knuckles. It slid off the table, corner landing directly on the arch of his foot. That prompted a fresh spate of curses, complete with hopping, and when he tangled himself up in the towel he'd dropped and ended up with his ass on the floor, he reined himself in sharply, said a number of very unprintable things he'd learned from Chris over the years, and took a deep breath.
There was a red mark on the top of his foot, but the glass had thankfully not broken skin—or broken itself. Justin took another deep breath, held it until he started seeing spots behind his eyeballs, and let it out slowly. He stood up, gingerly putting weight on his foot, and closed his eyes.
"Okay," he said to himself. "When I open my eyes, I am going to see this—" He stopped himself from saying 'fucking' at the very last second, figuring it probably wasn't wise to irritate whatever sprites he was trying to persuade. "--this notebook, or whatever it really is, sitting right here, waiting for me. Please. Okay?"
He waited for another breath, then cracked one eye open.
"Oh, fuck this," he said, and went to take a shower, since he knew he wasn't going to be able to go back to sleep.
When he got out of the shower, wrapped in nothing but a towel, the notebook was open on his dresser.
Justin stopped dead. The towel started to slide off his hips and he clutched at it with one hand, but he most carefully did not take his eyes off the notebook. It was open to a page about halfway through, and Justin didn't so much as breathe as he inched closer.
The pages were covered with neatly drawn staves, each individual note hand-lettered with an almost mechanical precision. Justin's eyes watered, but he refused to blink, just refused, until he'd gotten a good look, because who the fuck knew if the damn thing was going to pull the Heisenberg routine again or not. It only took him a few more seconds to realize—there weren't any words written in under the staves, but Justin had been reading music for about as long as he'd been reading English, and he didn't have any problem hearing it as he read along—that the music was "Gone".
Redone for five voices, not one voice with four backup singers. He watched the melody leap from JC's line to Joey's, swoop from Joey's up to Chris's, then take a brief giddy swan dive down to the bass line for one phrase before starting over again. If he didn't know the melody as well as he knew the back of his own hand, he wouldn't have even been able to tell which voice part was carrying it through any particular measure, except that he could hear it, hear the way it would all click like a puzzle piece slotting into place, coming together chord by chord until the melody was something you felt more than heard.
It was a good song. It was a better song than the one he'd written.
His eyes were really burning, and he tried to fix the lines in his head, because he knew, he just knew, that when he opened them again after blinking the notebook would be gone. It didn't disappoint him. He looked down at the bare dresser, counted to ten, counted to twenty when that didn't work, then counted backwards from fifty, yanked on a pair of sweatpants, and hit the hallway at full steam.
Lance's hair was wet and sticking up in the back when he opened the door Justin was pounding on. He wasn't wearing a shirt, and there was a smudge of shaving cream on the side of his jawline. Justin quite carefully didn't let it distract him from the temper he'd worked up; he jabbed Lance in the dead center of his chest with one finger and said, as evenly as possible, "You have thirty seconds to explain two things. One, why you're fucking with my head like this, and two, how the fuck you're doing it."
"Good morning, Justin," Lance said. "Yes, thank you, I'm fine, and you?"
Justin replaced the fingertip with the palm of his hand and shoved. Lance took a step back. Justin used his momentum to stride into Lance's hotel room and then stopped, because he didn't really know what to do next. "I'm serious," he finally said. "I know you're fucking with my head somehow. Chris is going to leap out of the closet any second cackling at me, I know he is. Or fucking Ashton Kutcher is going to show up with the video crew. What the fuck are you up to?"
Lance's eyes narrowed, and he crossed the room to open a dresser drawer and pull out a black turtleneck. He stopped just short of tugging it over her head. "I'm not doing anything to you. What the hell are you on about?"
Justin whirled around and pointed at Lance. "The notebook," he said. "You and your fucking notebook. The Britney thing was a nice touch. Make it something I'd never think you'd be caught dead with. What are you trying to say?"
"Justin," Lance said, and Justin could still recognize Lance's humor-the-crazy-person tone of voice, "I don't have any idea what you're talking about."
Lance was a good liar, they all knew that much, but he wasn't this good. He would have said the same things if he had been lying, but he wouldn't have stood there with his eyebrows drawn together, looking at Justin like he was actually starting to get worried. He would have radiated innocence, not bewilderment. Justin stopped, sat down on the edge of the bed, and frowned. "The notebook isn't yours?"
Lance's humor-the-crazy-person tone of voice was funny when it was being used on record execs, Justin thought. It was not funny when it was being used on him. "What notebook?"
Seeing shit was a sign of something, Justin thought. Something bad. "It's a cheap-ass notebook," he said, slowly. "About yea big." He traced a shape in midair. "Spiral-bound." He winced slightly, knowing what Lance's reaction would most likely be to what was coming next. "Old merchandise. Glitter on the cover, Britney's picture. You know, one of the ones they used to sell."
Lance made the little go-on gesture with one hand. "And you've been seeing it...?"
"Everywhere," Justin said. "Your briefcase, Wednesday. On the table, a few times, yesterday. My nightstand when I woke up this morning. And then the dresser when I got out of the shower. But it keeps—" He winced again. "Disappearing, as soon as I get a good look at it."
"Uh-huh." Lance studied Justin like he was some form of rare butterfly. "And you think it's mine?"
"It was in your briefcase," Justin said, weakly.
Lance looked at Justin for a minute longer, then shrugged and headed back to the bathroom. "Well, it's not mine," he called back over his shoulder. His voice echoed off the tile. "What's in it?"
Justin could still hear the music humming back behind his ears. He hadn't been able to hear it for a while. He hadn't been able to write worth shit since even before they'd started talking about recording again. He didn't want to tell Lance, though. He was sounding insane enough already, and he really didn't want to spend the morning explaining to a nice man who was far too well-paid to wear anything so unhip as a white lab coat that no, really, he'd been potty-trained just fine, thank you. "Songs," he said, and then an idea struck him. "You haven't been writing anything, have you?"
"Yeah, but it all sucked, so I tossed it and decided to leave that part of things up to you guys. I'm the suit for this one, remember? You don't really think it's mine, do you? I told you. Besides, I would never own anything that tacky." The water clicked on, ran for a minute, then clicked off again. Lance appeared in the door a minute later, shirt on, hair properly tamed and the shaving cream missing, and leaned on the doorframe.
"It has to be yours," Justin said. It had all made sense when he'd charged out of his hotel room, dammit, but with Lance standing there like that he couldn't quite put his finger on what had made sense about it.
Lance rolled his eyes. "Well, it's not. Not mine. I have no notebook. At long last, sir, have you no sense of my lack of notebook-owning. I did not have textual relations with that notebook. Are you sure you weren't just dreaming?"
It hadn't felt like a dream. But Justin was starting to feel like he wanted to crawl into a hole, and a headache was throbbing right behind his right eye. "Maybe," he muttered, and stood up. "Um. Sorry. Morning off, right? Until noon at the studio for TRL prep?"
"Yeah," Lance said, and then hesitated. "You, uh, might want to try to get a little more sleep. You look like shit."
"Thanks," Justin said, sourly, and went back to his room. Then he closed his eyes, counted to one hundred, and went to wake JC up to get the extra keycard, since his was currently in the back pocket of his pants, which were sitting on the floor next to his bed, and he would be fucked before he went back to Lance's room for help.
Lance had argued against making the announcement of their return on TRL, citing the attempt at the adult market, but Johnny had overruled him, saying there'd be plenty of time for that later but they absolutely couldn't make the teenage market think they'd been abandoned for the twenty-somethings. Justin privately thought that TRL had started to suck way back when Carson had ceded the on-air spot, because Carson was the kind of guy who would never take anything too seriously, including himself. They'd never managed to find anyone else with one-tenth of Carson's thinly veiled misanthropy, nor his sense of humor, and Justin almost missed the guy.
The new girl—Justin couldn't remember her name, but he thought it was something cutesy, probably spelled with an "i" instead of a "y" on the end—was nice enough, but she clearly wasn't yet used to celebrity. She hovered around the edges of the makeup room, ostensibly to discuss the appearance—the audience didn't know who was going to be appearing today, and MTV had been talking up the "special guest stars" with an "exciting announcement" all week. Really, though, Justin thought she was just working up her courage to ask one of them, probably him, for an autograph.
Chris was in the chair, with the makeup artist fussing over the three or four strands of grey in his hair—"you leave those alone," Chris said, "I earned them fair and square and you aren't doing a thing with them"—when Justin realized the most likely reason why she was so excited and clearly trying to hide it.
"How old are you?" he asked, smiling at her with what he privately thought of as "the distancing fan smile".
Tiffani. That was it. She dropped her eyes and said, "Nineteen. I know, I know, but the network wants VJs that the target audience can identify with."
Justin felt old. Really old. He made himself smile anyway. "Aw, so you remember the last time we did this, then, don't you. You must have been, what, thirteen?"
"Fourteen," she said. "My mom took me to see the Celebrity show for my birthday. I'm really excited to see what you guys come up with for the next one."
"You and me both," Justin muttered, but then the makeup artist called his name and he went to go get slapped with foundation and powder.
Tiffani followed him. "I was just so excited when Carson said it was going to be you guys with the special announcement today," she said. "I mean, I was kind of hoping you guys would get back together, but everybody was saying it wouldn't ever happen, because—"
She broke off and suddenly looked anywhere but at Justin. The makeup guy tsked over Justin's frown and Justin tried to smooth out his expression while he was lectured about the dark circles under his eyes. "Because of what?" he asked.
"Because everyone said you wouldn't ever want to go back to, you know, not being in the spotlight anymore, or back to dealing with a teenage audience after finally getting critical respect," she blurted. "Don't worry, I'm not going to say anything on the air, I know that's on the list of stuff we're not supposed to mention—"
Justin shook his head, slowly, earning another scowl from the makeup guy. "Who's saying that?"
She held up her hands. "It's nothing. I shouldn't have said anything. I'm going to go make sure they're running the right promos for tonight's clip, okay? I'll see you guys for the pre-show review."
The makeup guy nudged Justin's shoulder and told him to close his eyes. Justin did, his head still spinning, and when he opened them again, Lance was leaning against the makeup counter. He was already in the clothes he was going to be wearing on-air, worn jeans and faded grey t-shirt. "Reporting as ordered," Lance said to the makeup artist.
"We're really behind today," the guy said back to Lance. "The flu's running around the department and everyone's out sick. Have a seat; I'll be with you as soon as I finish up with Mr. Timberlake here."
"Justin," Justin corrected, automatically, and the makeup guy flashed him a bit of a smile.
Lance nodded. "I'll come back then," he said, and turned to go.
The makeup guy pointed a brush at Lance. "Halt," he said, and Lance froze; Justin actually thought it was almost cute, the way Lance stopped dead in his tracks at the tone of command. "You're not going anywhere. I'm not chasing you down when I'm done with Mr.—with Justin. Sit."
Justin tried not to look over at Lance, because he really thought that if he saw a sparkly notebook here, behind the scenes at MTV, which was, when you thought about it, the place where the sparkly was bottled and shipped, he might really snap. It was okay, because Lance wasn't looking at him, either. Lance hadn't been looking at him all day. What Tiffani had said nagged at him, though, and when he was finally dismissed from the chair, he nudged Lance's shoulder as Lance was getting up to take his place and asked, "Did you guys ever seriously think I wasn't going to come back?"
Lance stared at him for a minute without blinking, and then shrugged, as though the question was so far beneath him it almost wasn't worth taking notice of. "Some of us, yeah."
"Why didn't you say anything?" Justin asked, but the makeup guy was gesturing and Lance was already turning away.
There were different posters on the wall of the Green Room since the last time Justin had been at the studio, and a bunch of different faces, but other than that, not much had changed. Mayor Bloomberg had come down hard on the crowds outside the window, and the NYPD had started moving people along fairly quickly, but other than that, the sound of screaming girls was something you didn't forget all that quickly. Well, really, Justin thought, you did forget, or rather you remembered the noise but you always told yourself afterward that it wasn't as bad as you thought it had been, and then you were there again and your eardrums were reminding you that you'd promised yourself you'd wear really good earplugs the next time.
It took Tiffani a good three minutes to calm down the audience after Chris stepped forward and announced that they'd booked studio time. Justin stood between Lance and Joey and smiled at appropriate times, watching Tiffani wave her hands, and sharply missed Carson and his habit of telling all the screaming girls to just shut up and cut it out.
And then Justin caught the look in Joey's eyes, the look that said Joey hadn't quite let himself start to hope, not until just then, at that very second, and the look JC was giving Chris, the one that was nothing more than a quiet and heartfelt "oh my God", and the next thing he knew, Tiffani was holding the mike in his face and asking why they'd decided on now.
They'd all been briefed, given the usual sheets of what to say and what not to say, and looking into Tiffani's eager brown eyes, Justin couldn't remember a word of it. "It was time," he said, without even stopping to second-guess himself. "It was time a long time ago, really. And we're all so grateful that you guys were willing to wait for us—" But no, that wasn't right, and if he was going to do this, he was going to do it right. "—For me to get my act together." And all of a sudden he wasn't talking to the audience, even though he was staring right at the red light of the camera; he was talking to the four men standing next to him, and he could tell by the subtle shifts of body language, the redistributing of weight and the quick glances he could feel going on behind him, that they knew it too. "And we're going to give you guys an album you won't forget."
There were the usual hoots and hollers from the audience, but Tiffani didn't take her eyes off Justin. He thought there might very well be the heart of a reporter beating underneath the tiny baby-doll t-shirt, because he could see the exact second when she decided to throw the restricted-questions list out the window, risk her network being blackballed from the media circus surrounding the upcoming album release, and ask the question everyone was apparently dying to know the answer to. "So the rumors that you were the one who didn't want to go back to the group were true?"
Next to Justin, Lance went very still, and lifted his mike to field the question. Lance was going to be the one who handled it when the reporters overstepped their bounds, this tour, Justin thought. And then he could feel his grin getting wider, because there was going to be an album, and a tour, and he interrupted just as Lance was starting to say, "We all had other commitments—"
"I was scared," Justin said, and he was sure you could hear a fucking pin drop in the studio. He could see the light of the camera, steady and solid, but he wasn't looking at it anymore; he was looking at Tiffani, right at the fourteen-year-old girl who'd probably saved up her allowance for weeks to buy a t-shirt at one of the last shows they'd done as a group, talking to her and to every other fourteen-year-old girl and former fourteen-year-old girl who was listening. "I thought that coming back to the group, to *NSYNC, would mean going back to what it was like when I was a kid, you know? Because it's what I grew up with, and I was scared that if I came back, it would be like—like moving back in with your parents after you go away to college. And I tried to throw out everything from when I was younger, and that included the group. But a few things this week made me realize I don't have to be scared anymore."
Next to him, Joey took the half-step necessary to bump his shoulder against Justin's, not in a "shut up now" kind of way but in a "we've got your back" kind of way, and Justin thought he might have seen JC out of the corner of his eye, looking up at the ceiling like he did when he was trying not to get choked up.
There were few things more simultaneously thrilling and terrifying than having major life epiphanies on live television, but Justin was almost used to it, and he couldn't stop now. "And the one thing I'm more grateful for than I can ever say is that the guys—you guys—" He turned to look back at them; Chris was watching him, as though daring him to keep going, and Joey and JC both had the little twist of the lips that meant they were storing up something to say later, but Lance was just looking back at him, dark and contained and quiet, with something very much like approval in his eyes. "Were willing to wait for me to really grow up, instead of just thinking I was."
He ran out of steam, suddenly, and offered up a little embarrassed smile. "So yeah," he said, and Tiffani, bless her, was much less of an airhead than he'd originally pegged her for, because she turned around and looked directly into the camera and made the tiny gesture to indicate it should focus directly on her so she could introduce the number eight video.
When the red light went off, and the first hit from some up-and-coming band was playing on the video screens, Tiffani was making signals at the cameras that Justin damn well hoped meant "don't put any studio feed into the bubbles on the side of the video", because the tight knot of four people all trying to touch him at once was something that really shouldn't be aired.
"So what brought that on?" came the voice from the door. Justin jumped; he'd thought he was alone in the wardrobe room, thought that everyone else was waiting for him downstairs so they could go back to the hotel, get stupid drunk, and start trying to figure out what the hell they were going to put on the album they'd just announced. He certainly hadn't been expecting Lance, leaning on the door-frame and looking just as smooth and collected as he had while wearing a thousand-dollar suit.
"Armani," Justin said, and then bit his lip.
"This should be good," Lance said, but his voice was amused and fairly tolerant, which was something Justin hadn't heard from Lance in a while. He was starting to realize how badly he'd fucked some people over—well, okay, to be honest, he'd been realizing how badly he'd fucked some people over for a while, but he hadn't wanted to face it, because there was still that little tiny part of him that said if I leave them first then they won't have a chance to leave me.
He was starting to feel ready to kick that voice in the teeth.
He shook his head. "It's hard to explain. It was—The other day, when you came down for breakfast, and you were wearing the suit. I took one look at you and it was like—all of a sudden we were adults, you know? We were real grownups, and this was really happening, and—I don't know, it was just weird seeing you like that. Because you were always with me, right? You were one of the kids, like me, and there you were standing there in a suit and carrying a briefcase and it was like—"
"Like if I was grown up, that meant you had to be too."
Justin couldn't quite read Lance's face, so he dropped his eyes and looked down at the duffel bag he had been stuffing his shit into. "Right. And I think—I think the whole thing with the notebook and stuff, it's like, my subconscious telling me two things. That it was possible to do all of this, ride this whole crazy merry-go-round, and still be an adult. And that—"
He broke off, because he wasn't really ready to say it, but Lance just arched an eyebrow. "That what?"
"That I really was a shit the last time we did this, and if we're going to do it again, I have to cut it out." Justin studied the backs of his hands. "Not try to make it all about me."
There was a minute of silence, and then Lance said, "I lied to you, you know."
Something in his voice made Justin look up. Lance was smiling, a soft-focus curve of the lips that made Justin's heart ache a little. He thought about what JC had said about Lance and Lance's feelings, and something tugged—not unpleasant, just unfamiliar—down in the pit of his stomach. He figured he'd have time for it later, once he sorted out the rest of the inside of his head. "About what?"
"I have been writing some stuff. And it doesn't all suck. If you agree that you aren't going to start slinging around words like 'unity of purpose' again—" Justin winced, remembering the conversations they'd had during the writing of Celebrity, or really, 'arguments' was a better word—"I'll even agree to show it to you."
"It's not in a Britney notebook, is it?"
Lance laughed. "No. I have it in Sibelius on the laptop, actually. Come over to my room sometime tonight, I'll play it for you. The MIDI voices kind of suck for getting the full sense of it, but you can get the idea."
"I'd like that," Justin said, and then looked down again and bit his lip. "JC said something to me the other day. About you, and me, and the way you used to—"
Lance hissed softly. "I'm going to kill him," he said.
"Why didn't you ever say anything?"
Lance sighed. "Because you wouldn't have wanted to hear it." He looked like he was expecting some kind of explosion.
Justin winced again, but yeah, Lance was probably right. "Fair enough," he said, and one of Lance's eyebrows went back up. "But—look, I'm not promising anything, okay? Because I'm in a really fucking weird place right now—"
"I'll say, if you're hallucinating your ex-girlfriend. Or the two-dimensional representation of your ex-girlfriend."
Justin looked around for something to throw, but the room was pretty empty of anything he could toss, except for his own stuff and things that would probably knock Lance out if they impacted. He settled for flipping Lance the bird. "Anyway. I'm just saying. I'm thinking about it, okay?"
"You, thinking? Will wonders never cease," Lance drawled, but the glint in his eye made Justin think this might just work out after all, because it had been a long time since Lance had been willing to banter with him without some kind of unpleasant edge underneath it. "Who says you thinking about something is going to change anything? JC did include the part where I'm totally over you, right?"
Justin opened his mouth to say something snappy, and then closed it again. "I—"
Lance smirked. There was no other possible word for that expression, and it made Justin itch to wipe it off his face, but then Justin saw the gleam in Lance's eye that meant Lance was enjoying himself. "Come on. They're going to start suspecting I killed you and ate you to gain your freaky powers."
Justin breathed out in a rush. Okay, if that was going to be the way they were going to play it, he could play along. "Is that how you managed to pick up all that smooth? You cannibalized Cary Grant?"
"James Bond, actually. If it's fictional, it's not really cannibalism. Come on, the car's waiting."
Justin picked up his duffel bag and slung it over his shoulder. He flipped off the light in the wardrobe room as they went, and couldn't help but feel he was leaving a weight behind him.
Two months later, Justin and Lance walked into the studio. Chris was already in the booth, running through warmups; he lifted a hand in greeting as he went glissando from G up to D and then back down, then stepped up to the A flat and did it again. JC was poking at the board, looking like he hadn't slept a wink, and Joey was on the phone. Lance squeezed Justin's fingers before releasing them to return Chris's wave. Justin picked up a pair of headphones from the hook on the wall and slung them around his neck, tucking the trailing cord into his pocket and getting ready to join Chris in the booth.
And then froze, because sitting on the table in the booth, right at Chris's elbow, was a cheap spiral-bound notebook, with Howie Dorough's face staring up at him.
Justin closed his eyes, turned around, and went to get a fucking cup of coffee.