Once upon a time they were just five guys who knew each other and wanted to sing, and didn't bitch because they were afraid they wouldn't make it. Once upon a time there were a lot of things that they did, just to appease each other, and once upon a time, they tried so hard and everything was hard.
Once upon a time. Lance throws the book across the room.
"Lansten, Lansten, ooh. Come on, Lansten. I'm sure you can do it. Sing for us."
Chris hops around, playing the fool.
"Would you just fuck off, Chris! Jesus, grow up."
Lance fingers the arms of his sunglasses as Justin straightens up. "This is sound check, Lance, we're supposed to be cuddly and happy and make all the little girls wet with our complete cuddly exteriors and our caring interiors. Get in part."
Lance's mouth droops, and his shoulders scrunch. He adjusts his mic self-consciously. "I am in character. I'm being the safe one."
"I thought you were the one that liked Garth Brooks." Chris bounces up to them, steals Lance's hat, and then tears off again.
Lance opens his mouth to ask how Chris got standing ovations for overacting, and then realizes that's why. Justin sits on a speaker. The crew is buzzing around.
A hand falls on his shoulder, long and slender fingers. JC. "Hey man," Lance hears. "We could trade parts for a while, if you wanted."
"You really want to read contracts until four in the morning and get up at six to dance?"
JC shrugs. Lance turns around, and the hand disappears.
The crew starts yelling about the spotlights being wrong.
Two days later, Chris gives back the hat. Lance would have put it on but it feels the wrong size.
JC approaches him on the bus between Cleveland and, some place near Cleveland. People laugh when he explains earnestly about how he writes down on little post-its where he is so he won't forget. He doesn't find it funny.
Chris steals them sometimes and writes things like 'on the way to the moon' and 'I'm just a space cowboy', and Lance grinns because the Steve Miller Band doesn't seem like Chris.
It's meant to make fun of JC. Lance prefers to see it differently.
"Are you okay, Lance?"
Lance jumps. This time there's no hand.
Lance hears, 'of course'.
He snarls back, 'of course' even though Chris isn't listening. That's probably part of the problem. He sits back in the comfortable MTV chair and lets Justin and Chris upstage him.
Back stage when everyone sits down for cokes and coffee and a break, Joey ends up slouched between Chris and Lance, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. Each time Lance looks up, he imagines Joey's about to speak, but nothing ever comes of it.
JC leans against the wall, and he and Justin work on some harmonies. Three or four times Chris yells out, "That's off key."
The third night in a row he dreams about a fire tearing apart the tour bus, he asks to pull over for a minute. Joey sleeps long and heavy enough that he won't even notice the quick stop. The driver grumbles but does it because Lance has wild eyes and Lance is shaky and Lance is a star.
Third star on the right. Middle man. Older than the rest of them because he's the practical one. The sky is dark and it's week two on the road.
Lance gets into the grass and pukes -- first time he's ever been car sick in his life.
"What did you want to be when you grew up, guys?"
They ask Joey first, because MTV has figured out by now that Chris's answers will just confuse people, Justin's are the most anticipated, JC's can go on longer than required, and no one really wants to hear Lance.
Joey says, "I really wasn't sure what I wanted to do with my life. But here I am, and I wouldn't have it any other way."
JC is next --he is very earnest when talking about his love for music and how the MMC changed his life. He always wanted to be a singer.
Lance has a mental picture of him on his knees.
Justin goes next, and he says, "I love what we're doing right now, and I love the group and these guys. I think I'd love to get into producing and recording more stuff, and I expect to be doing music for a long time."
Lance says, "I'm enjoying all of my projects right now. Who knows, right?"
Chris says, "I'll let you know when I'm grown up," and gives the camera a big grin.
The interviewer goes on a break. No one mentions how *nsync didn't come up once.
One night, Lance stares down and sees a sign, 'Lance get naked!' A cute screaming girl is holding it. Chris points it out with a wink in the middle of a bounce, and instantly, the choreography feels better than it did in rehearsal.
He gets the tune stuck in his head for hours after the show, despite headphones and yelling and the quick-change of after-hours. Headache after headache keeps it there.
Lance swallows some aspirin. In the bathroom mirror, JC pats his shoulder gently while he brushes his teeth. Lance waits for the 'are you okay' but it doesn't come.
The shows must go on.
They have a contract.
"What the fuck is your fucking problem!"
"Guys, you can't just--"
"Shut the fuck up, JC. Okay?" Lance scrubs a hand through his hair. Joey is standing behind the couch; Chris is glaring. "Sometimes people have to let it out."
Chris bites his lip. "Lance, since when did you become Justin?"
There's a 'hey!' from behind him. Joey laughs nervously, not liking this, JC backs up, face sad -- not liking this more.
Before the next sound check, they have time to watch a movie and relax, and Joey waves a kung-fu flick in Lance's face. Justin nods, hanging up his phone; JC is sleeping peacefully back on the bus. Chris hops on Joey's back, screaming 'attack!' and Justin leaps on both of them.
For a few minutes Joey is at Chris and Justin's mercy, laughing helplessly as they wrestle. Lance grins, and it feels good. Lance says carelessly, "I wish JC could see us now."
A few years ago, no one would have understood what he meant. Group psychology didn't come to the uninitiated.
Chris frowns. "Hey, speaking of JC, have you seen the new interview? I didn't know he was gonna--"
Justin cuts in, "Are we really gonna let them make us do another session with them, too? It was just--"
Lance tunes them out. Joey puts the movie down, forgotten.
"Of all the places you've been on tour lately, what sticks out?"
Justin answers first this time, jumping up and crowing about mirror crowds in Orlando being the best thing in the world, since Orlando was where it all started and the crowds there always loved them and he loved the city.
Lance hates him instantly. That was the easy answer, and Justin could have said anything and been loved, why the fuck did he take the easy way out? Prick.
JC talks wistfully about one time in Barcelona where they felt connected to each other and the environment and the music, and that nothing else synched up quite like that night. Lance blinks, memory fuzzily trying to remember that show-- can't pull it out of memory.
Joey says that he always loved Europe. Lance remembers the girls flocking to their hotel, and snorts under his breath.
Chris hears it, and today, slaps his back, cutting in with, "Joey likes the scenery in Europe. He's a big one for castles and fairy tales."
"And what about you, where have you enjoyed this time?"
"Oh, I like everything. People are so great to us everywhere. As long as I have, like, cheerios and stuff, and they have those really cool golf carts, I'm happy."
Lance envies him for a minute, because when they turn to him, he stammers out, "I don't know, everywhere has been so good to us," hollowly echoing Chris's statement.
Chris bounces in his chair and licks JC's cheek between commercials. Lance feels a stab of resentment. Some day, he thinks to himself, I'd like to be the goofball.
They all take care of business, even Joey, once and a while. Lance is used to being the one who knows business, it's what he does. So when Chris starts throwing language around like 'market' and 'partners', they get into another argument.
Lance resents Chris more than the others, and him reading the Wall Street Journal makes it worse. He remembers his hat, and how Chris stretched it all out of shape, and gets angrier, starts yelling.
Stress relief. Chris's smile gets nasty.
Joey comments carelessly that he's glad he doesn't know anything. Justin leaves the room.
They do another show. Something goes wrong, and the explosions malfunction, just refuse to light off. Joey hears one of the techs say, "Even fireworks need a day off once and a while."
He grins, and makes a mental note to mention it to the guys. When the show's over, it slips his memory.
"Let's go out and drink ourselves into a stupor, guys!"
So they pile into a limo, everyone crushed against everyone else, and then they get shepherded back to the hotel where they drink from the mini bars and then order more wine, bitching about not ever being allowed out.
When the bottle's passed Lance's way, instead of shaking his head like usual, he pours a beer mug full of blushing rose wine from somewhere in southern Spain. It's a bad label, and a lousy year, and they have a photo-shoot in the morning before heading off to somewhere else.
"Lance, hand me the pizza, would you?"
They found cheap porn on the hotel tv in Joey's room, and rose wine, and Lance can feel Justin beside him on the couch and Joey sitting at his feet. Even though they have five acres in this hotel room, even though they could have had eight couches brought up on a whim...
He wants to say, 'I miss Orlando'.
JC is sitting by himself, cross-legged on the floor. Justin is drinking far too quickly. Eventually his head falls on Lance's shoulder, and then Lance can hear the regular breathing that signals sleep.
He misses it a little less.
More and more wine; stupider and stupider porn. Chris disappears for a while to jack off; Joey orders more liquor. Harder liquor. Lance sticks with the wine, its color like Justin's lips.
In the morning, management yells at all of them. Justin looks good in sunglasses, though, so they throw him to the fans and wolves first, and he pouts his way out of any real harm. Chris doesn't get hungover.
It's JC, Joey, and Lance that Johnny pulls over right before they get on the bus. "Guys, are you trying to sabotage everything? This morning you were supposed to be happy-go-lucky guys. You looked like campy-heroin-addicts."
Joey grunts. Lance squints his eyes behind the aviator glasses that the company insisted he wore, and JC says sofly, "We're sorry."
Johnny pats JC's shoulder, and looks directly at Lance. "I expected more from you."
Lance stares at Justin, and imagines the tick beneath his eye isn't real.
"If you were an animal, which animal would you be?"
Lance jumps in all crazy-like. "I love penguins. I would love to swim that well, and look that styling."
They blink, and a collective 'whoa' is released. He pouts. "Aren't I allowed to be hyper now?"
The rest of them are subdued, except for Chris who says, 'White whale, so I can swallow boats'. But it's at half his energy level.
In the break, Chris complains the lights are too bright. The techs lower them. JC looks from him to Lance and back again, and a faint frown-line appears on his forehead.
Someone steals his post-it note, and so Lance is driving blind, no idea where tonight's show is. The free-way signs pass by, unseen, and they park at the stadium with most of the bodyguards stoic and silent. Inside, the walls echo.
There's another minor argument.
Justin taps his foot against the concrete impatiently. "Come on, Lance. One line extra isn't anything, okay? You know how--"
Lance scrubs his hands over his face. "It's not-- okay, forget it. Just, whatever. I don't really care, Justin. I don't really care. You guys can do whatever you want and I can't, but it's not the point. I don't care."
Justin stands up, hovering over Lance who's bent over in an uncomfortable folding chair. He says, uncertainly, "You can have the fucking line if you're going to sulk, okay?"
Lance looks up. Justin backs up. JC ends up saying 'how y'all doing tonight!' and neither of them mention it.
Back on the bus again.
It's Lance and Joey's bus, it's Lance and Joey's copy of 'tomb raider' but just for this month, this little while, because eventually management will shake their dice and presto, they'll be on someone else's bus.
Joey has no socks on. Lance's are dirty. Time to send someone out to do laundry again.
Yesterday, Chris and Lance got into a fight. Today it was just Lance and Justin. Joey stays out of it except to yell 'I'm sick and tired of it!' which doesn't really help.
Lance has noticed lately that JC says less and less, always willing to pat Justin on the head or stroke Chris's shoulder. Joey hugs a lot, but JC pets, pulls on their shirts, pulls on their sleeves.
He's pulling them together. They're pulling back.
His sleeves are grey, and over his hands, covering nicely manicured nails and smooth, smooth skin.
Lance looks down at his wrists.
There are no scars on them.
There are very few scars on any of his body. There are even less on his hands. Soft, supple hands. It makes him sick.
JC's soft voice wakes him from another dream about the bus burning, only this time when he wakes up, they're all on the second bus, watching lazily out the window and drinking ice tea with no sugar.
Lance jumps up, breathing heavy. The curtains across the window are incredibly still. JC watches him. "Hey, Lance? We're almost there."
Lance, still half-dreaming and too disoriented to lie, answers, "We're going to hell, JC. We're not gonna make it."
As soon as he says it, he feels stupid.
JC answers, "Only Wyoming." He lays a cool hand on Lance's forehead, and adds, "Let's get some cereal."
Justin is on Joey's bus today. Chris is still asleep. There are lots of things out the window, but they leave the curtains drawn. Last night, some RV almost sideswiped a mustang while trying to photograph them.
"Who's the biggest liar?"
They all point to Lance. He drowns out a pout, and then a bright smile. Doesn't want to prove them right.
They ask who the biggest flirt is, next, and they all point at Joey. Joey beams. That's right.
In interviews, Lance feels his hands very clearly, folded neatly in his lap. There's no back to the chair, which he hates -- it meant that the slavering fans can see him from behind and he's all penned in.
He can feel the skin on his hands very clearly, the hairs. They tingle; his fingers are numb. The blood is frozen in the capillaries under his skin. Any minute now, he'll be stone, and weigh too much for the stool to support. He'll shatter on the floor.
The interviewer asks, "What's the craziest thing you've done for a girl?"
He grins and let JC or Justin answer, like they always do. Chris flirts with the guy some.
He can feel Joey beside him, fidgeting from a bit of boredom and under the hot glare of lights. Joey can never sit still, but Lance... he sits and sits and sits.
Practises his statuetory. So when he turns to stone, it won't be a difference.
These kinds of things run through his mind often, in interviews. And no one notices.
His cheeks don't quiver. He wants to cry.
Chris comes up to him one night after the show and says, "JC looks pretty beat, don't you think?"
He answers, "I think he was going to sleep early. I think he'll be fine."
And Chris looks at him oddly. Maybe some accusation. "Why do you always do that?"
Lance doesn't understand. The pronoun 'i' is second nature.
Lance gets lonely on the road, so he gets people to call him. Lance prefers the love of strangers.
His phone rings at four in the morning, and it's some girl. Joey is asleep. He talks to her about the market value of real estate, and goes back to bed.
There's a major blow-up somewhere in Texas. Lance thinks that's where they are, somewhere in Texas. Somewhere in the middle of the country. But he's not sure; the post-its have disappeared altogether.
It started in the common room, about something stupid. But Joey, for once, started digging into what was really wrong. He stood behind Chris and muttered, "Jesus, this never would have happened last year. What the hell is wrong with you two?"
Justin stands up, eyes narrow. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Chris holds his hands up. "He didn't--"
Lance is lounging on the couch. His tone is almost indifferent. "Yes, he did mean that."
Chris stares down at him, now. "Oh, you would know. Listen, Lance, I don't think you've realized this but something's changing, and it's not--"
"What's not changing? I mean, that's the point of all of this, isn't it? To change! That's what we're all doing and that's the only thing that--"
Lance trails off, realizing too late that three pairs of eyes are watching him like he'd just swallowed a bug. He swallows, uncontrollably, and finishes lamely. "I mean. I."
It seems useless to deny having said anything right now. Lance wants to be a minimalist. He doesn't know how.
Joey finally coughs. "Look. We're all a bit on edge right now."
Justin mutters softly, "Who's fault is that?"
Lance feels betrayed, somehow, since Justin's the one sitting with him on the couch, and so he should be the back-up; he levels a hurt gaze at Justin, only a foot away. Justin looks up briefly, and looks away. Lance waits for him to explain the comment away.
The pause has the air of a question. Justin was genuinely asking.
Chris shrugs. "I'm getting out of here, man. I can't stand this anymore. It's supposed to be fun with you guys, y'know?"
Joey looks sad.
JC comes in, towelling his hair dry. Everyone freezes. He smiles uncertainly, feeling sick. "What have I missed?"
Justin flops down, and throws an arm over his eyes. Lance puts a hand on his shoulder; Justin looks at him, confused. The hand's taken away.
JC drops the towel, slowly. "Tell me what I missed."
Joey replies, "You've missed a lot, C. It doesn't matter."
He knows it does. He turns to Chris. "What?"
Chris Looks at Lance. "Ask him."
Lance swivels his head. "What?" His eyes look confused; the gaze is dark. "I didn't say a thing, man!"
Chris leans over. "No, you didn't say anything. No."
"What are you--"
"You know what I'm--"
Justin leans away from them, biting his lip. Lance can't help it, he mumbles, "I could be a goofball if all I had to do was jump around and be a jackass too, Chris, so could JC, so could anyone, but hey."
Chris narrows his eyes. "Hey, I do my part, Lance, I don't back out of what I--"
Lance can't help it. He takes a swing at the face so close to his. Only Justin's intervention stops him from connecting with Chris's jaw; instead, Justin gets a swipe in the mouth. Lance says, "Sorry, Just," and leaves the room.
JC says quietly, "That wasn't the Lance I want to see."
Joey almost says, 'well, how can one Lance not be the other?' but doesn't, because he doesn't want to know whether one Lance IS the other or not. And he doesn't think Lance does either.
He says instead, "I think we should leave him alone for a while."
JC gives a non-commital, 'hmm.'
Joey thinks he's got something in his eye.
Close to one thirty in the morning, and there's a lot of clacking keyboards and solitary souls.
Some people can't sleep.
Justin leans against the counter, swaying easily with the movement of the bus, hips splayed and rattling the plates behind him. "Sure I'm kind of pissed off. The guy won't behave. It's--"
He doesn't say really upsetting.
"Are you going to say anything?"
"Nah." His hips roll against the counter. "Would you?"
JC looks down. "Maybe. I just, I think he's having a rough month."
Justin's feet scuff against the floor. The lights are off, except the one above the stove. The element is on under the tea kettle; Justin scowls. "We're all having a rough time of it. Lance is the only one that almost punched someone out."
"He's just, he's."
JC trails off. There really isn't any excuse for it, and so he stops trying to explain it away.
There are crumbs behind Justin, leading a trail into the sink and down the drain.
Chris sits, watching Lance tap his foot, then shift his luggage from one hand to the other, then finally he sits in the plastic chair and folds his hands carefully in his lap. Some people would think that Lance has accepted they're going to be in customs for fuck-all forever; some might know better, and that he's more impatient now than he when was shuffling from foot to foot.
Some people, but not Chris, might suspect Lance of being duplicitous. Chris knows it. Just the other day in an interview they were asked who was the biggest liar-- it kind of happened by accident but they all pointed to Lance. He made that cute little smile... but he didn't deny it.
It's true. They've gotten used to it.
See. Lance is either moving or angry or sad or, or. He's always impatient in these switches; he doesn't give himself enough time to get beyond waiting for the next thing to show up in his head.
As soon as he becomes something, he waits to become something else.
"Are you sure you--"
"Lance," Justin croons. "I'm sure."
Lance steps forward, uncertainly -- he thinks, this could be really good, -- and then pauses. "No, I don't think so."
Justin's lip trembles, his eyes are hard. "What? I've seen you looking!"
Lance shakes his head. "No, you're not sure. And, I."
He doesn't say, 'I'm not sure', because he is. He gets up, knowing that tomorrow he'll still have a friend and Justin won't think anything else of him, and it's better to inflict a pin-prick now than a heartache later.
Justin pulls on his sleeve. His tone is more knowing now. "Lance, you don't know."
Lance remembers Justin's fourteenth birthday. The hotel door swings shut.
Almost a week goes by without incident, except that Joey forgets to fly and one of the trailers breaks down. People are busy, and the five of them start smiling again. It drives them into complacency.
Justin disappears after the show in Baltimore, and Chris starts to worry. Lance remembers a hungry look and the lust in his eyes that one time, and seeing it again tonight, thinks he knows where he went. JC doesn't want to.
It takes them three hours to find Justin, and when they do he's jibbering in a corner of the amphitheater, trashed out on something and crying about Britney being in love with her mirror like the wicked witch.
Joey throws up his hands -- he doesn't like drugs, never has, never will. Chris puts a hand on his shoulder, trying to get him to lay off, and Joey throws his arm off again. "The brat's high, he's never going to do the show tomorrow."
"He'll do the show, okay Fatone? He'll do it better than you do, and you know it. He's Justin Timberlake. Half of America wants to fuck him."
JC crouches down, peering into Justin's face. Justin puts his head on his shoulder, and lets JC pick him up off the ground. "Help me get him back to the bus, won't you?"
"Let him sleep on the ground if he's that determined." And Joey turns away.
JC's voice is soft and gentle, and Chris grabs Justin's other side. "Be easy on the kid, Joey."
They proceed to the bus. JC answers, "It was his first time."
"How do you know?"
"Because I do." They lay him out on the bunk, and Justin sleeps like a child. He looks very young.
Lance stares down at the bunk and thinks, I could do that. If they asked me to. He gets a flash of resentment.
He thinks to himself, I should be feeling more charitable. I should, I would. Tomorrow, I will feel more guilty over more things. I will feel more things. They'll look at me and they'll see a kind heart, they'll see someone trying.
The thin, flat line of wheat fields stretches out, dark and forbidding at night, and Lance looks out the window.
"So, I've heard that this tour is bigger than anyone expected... are there any regrets about anything lately? Stardom hard on you boys?"
Justin's eyes flick down to his shoe-laces. They all know about Britney now. It gives him another pat answer to another pat question. Justin bites his lip. He does it a lot. "I think, even though we sacrifice a lot, we're all happy with the way things are here. I wouldn't want to change anything, even though we're on the road a lot and we don't see our family or our friends."
"Aww, you guys are my family!" Chris jumps on Carson Daly and beams into the camera.
In the commercial break, Lance stands up, feeling his make-up run down his face in little rivulets. He says, "I gotta piss," and dashes off to stand in the dark, away from the lights of the stage.
JC follows him, and asks the inevitable, "Are you okay, Lance?"
He nods. JC is wearing someone else's shirt. It doesn't seem to matter. Lance looks over to where Joey is talking to one of the girls who wants their autographs, and Justin is scowling at Chris over something. He asks, "You're trying to help, I know, but what do you get out of all of this, JC?"
JC answers, "It's who I am, Lance."
Lance remembers, strangely, a time in a German bar where Joey offered him a hundred bucks to try and sing falsetto on stage. He never got paid.
A crew guy motions for them; a minute until the camera's back on them. Lance has nothing to say, suddenly, and he wants to shove JC away.
JC's hands stay at his side. The director wants the lights to shine differently this time. Lance doesn't notice. Chris and Justin want to fight.
It's the last song of the evening, and Lance watches them all in the big screen by the stage. Their hips move all together, like paper dolls. Nothing's out of synch except the camera, which has a little back-beat all it's own.
"A lot of people have given you flack for being put together, for not being a real band. What do you have to say about that?"
Chris grins. "Hell, we make fun of ourselves more than y'all do. I mean," he continues, getting serious, "We know that some people say it's all image, but it's not, man! It's performance. Everyone is a performer in this business, that's what it's about. Anyone who says they aren't is a hypocrite."
Justin adds, "We love what we do and we love who we do it for."
JC has his hand on Lance's knee under the table; his eyes are half-lidded and his throat bobs uncontrollably against Chris. Lance thinks it looks like he might throw up.
Joey says next, "We have fun, and that's what it's all about, right?"
Bile rises. He wants to hit someone -- most of all, JC. He's still trying to save them.
"So it doesn't bother you?"
Justin says, "Sure it bothers us. But what can you do? We are who we are, and we can't do anything about it."
He wants to be front man, some days, to try it out like a new costume. Chris throws a pen across the studio, and watches the grips retrieve it, eyes shrewd and knowing.
Chris can count. There's five of them.
He uses himself as a business transaction. They all do, when it comes down to it.
It gets easier, as touring gets harder.
"Who's the best at sports?"
A little of the tension seeps in as Justin and Chris start arguing with each other. A few people might notice that it's a little less friendly, a little more viscious. Most of the rest will be staring at JC's smile. They won't know that his hands are folded calmly in his lap, and his jaw aches from biting his tongue.
"Who's the worst dancer?"
Lance gets defensive. No one notices. It's his part, and somewhere, deep in the bowels of their new contract, he thinks there must be a line that describes it.
The dancing the next night is tight, in rhythm; their limbs flail and sway and whip and crack and snap in the right ways. Their bodies fucking hum. They're supposed to throw everything into making sure that step is perfect. Fluid. Graceful. Felt.
Lance feels himself shrugging in the middle of 'it makes me ill'.