nsync in black and white

Fiction by Pen . . . . . not real, made up, purely intended for entertainment

Thirteen Years and Counting

This story owes an enormous amount to No Pseud Attached, who is a brilliant beta reader.
It was written for the Reunion Challenge.

"Their last album together was released in July 2001 and sold almost four and a half million copies. Their last concert tour together finished back in April 2002. For the past six years, they've all had solo careers in the entertainment industry. But they're back together, with a new album just about to come out and a national tour which started two weeks ago, ...and here they are—'NSync!"

* * *

It made him impatient with himself, that he could not manage to sit lazily by the pool doing nothing. Enjoying life as it was, everything in place, success, fortune, happiness. A comfortable life. Must be a character flaw... instead of relaxing without a care in the world, he was twitchy, fretting over something, an unscratchable itch, something he ought to be able to put right if only he could figure out what it was.

He was staring into the water when the disparate pieces in his mind fitted themselves together without warning. It was like watching film of a stained glass window shattering, in reverse. Or that moment when the three-D picture buried inside a pattern showed itself, and it all made sense.

Well, duh! Why had he not thought of this sooner?

And it was up to him to make sure it happened. Hell, he was Justin Timberlake. He'd make it happen.

* * *

Larry King smiled easily for the cameras and began the individual introductions. None of that Mickey Mouse Club shit this time, Justin was relieved, this time they got grown-up intros that acknowledged what they'd been doing for the past six years and didn't mention who was married to which other famous person, either.

Larry turned to them with the first question.

"So, what prompted you guys to get together again? Whose idea was it?"

Justin leaned forward. "That would be me," he began.

* * *

When JC loped off the stage for the final time, Justin was wearing his best shit-eating grin, the irresistible one, and JC was way up on performance high, and they hugged like maniacs and beamed at one another as the applause clattered and shrieked from the auditorium.

Later, they were sitting in JC's hotel room, moving from champagne to whiskey and still talking about the thrill of performing live, "because, man, movies are like, fucking amazing but so drawn out, you know? I mean, you get about a hundred chances to do it right, do it perfect, but it's nothing like the feeling when you get it perfect when you only have one chance, right?"

JC, who had no interest in making movies but who had been absolutely, incandescently On that night, preened. "You planning to tour again?"

"Yeah," Justin admitted after a tiny pause. "I needed the break, but I guess I'll get down to writing again now, put another album together." That seemed to have been a conversation-stopper. Justin got up, refilled JC's glass and topped up his own.

"Sounds like..." JC began tentatively.

Justin did his best to squash the tendrils of guilt squirming in his gut. JC had always been sensitive to changes in emotional temperature: he probably still remembered feeling frostbitten from the time when Justin had been keeping the guys way beyond arm's length. "What?" That came out more abrupt than he'd meant. He offered a friendly smile in compensation.

"No, man, it's nothing." JC slithered out of his armchair and peered at the framed print on the wall. "It's just—"

"What? JC, what?"

"You kinda sounded a bit. Like you weren't exactly. Huh. Maybe I'm just..." He sat back down.

Justin sighed. "No, I maybe was a bit."

"The lure of Hollywood?"

"No, I mean, I love doing the films, sure, but not all the time. I want to get back into the studio, I want to get back on tour, it's just." He stared into his glass. "I never imagined I could feel like this, I mean, there was a time back there when I didn't think I'd be able to sing properly again, and that was, fuck, you know what I was like back then, I nearly went crazy. And now I can sing, and it all works like it should and I swore to myself I'd be grateful every day for the rest of my life, but it feels like... I feel like I've run out of songs."

Blinking, JC struggled to sit upright. "Run out?" Not a concept that would ever occur to JC, who leaked music all the time. Even if some of it was, well.

"I haven't written anything good in months, now, months. I just, I dunno. I mean, do you ever find it all comes out sounding the same?"

"No," said JC uncertainly, focussing on Justin's face. "Maybe. Yes. No. Look, are you saying, maybe—doyouwannawritetogether?"

"Us? You and me?"

"I mean, not right now, because whiskey songs are okay at night but not very good in the morning. Better than tequila songs, 'cause they don't work at all once your eyes focus again, but still. But I only have to finish this week on tour, and then—" JC shrugged rather shyly.

"That would be... you know, I think it could work. I mean, we haven't worked together in so long, and, JC, that would be cool, we could, we should definitely..." Justin stopped, took a deep breath. Go for it. "You know, what it is, is, we should all get together."

"Well yeah, but. I mean, what?"

"'NSync. We always said we weren't finished, we always meant to get back together. We should, we totally should. We should do another album."

JC sat staring, blank-faced, and Justin was beginning to wonder if he'd actually fallen asleep, wide blue eyes notwithstanding, when that beautiful Chasez grin illuminated his face. "We totally should!"

They leaped up, hugged each other, bounced around the room—there was even, frighteningly, a hint of the Bye Bye Bye stomp in there somewhere—gibbered excitedly, and finished the whiskey. And next morning, okay, noon, when aspirin and Cameron's special recipe not-quite-disgusting vegetable smoothie had dispelled the worst of his hangover, Justin was even more convinced that this was the best idea he'd had in years. It felt right. It was time. He was free, JC would be free any day now, Joey was at home in New York doing that show, and Chris was, um... It was a little dismaying to realise he didn't really know what the guys were doing at the moment.

That definitely had to change.

A modicum of research (by Justin's PA) produced the information that Chris was doing a mini-tour with his new band, which made Justin scowl; Lance was actually out of the country at present; but Joey's show would be closing twelve days from now, which was perfect because JC would be finished by then too, and he'd have had several days' sleep, so they could go see Joey together.

Justin was a little peeved at how hard it was to get seats to Joey's final performance.

* * *

"So how did it happen? Justin called everyone and said, it's time to make another 'NSync record?"

"Ah," said JC. "No, it wasn't quite. Everybody was. We had to persuade the other three first. 'Cause we were all doing different things. It actually took some time."

* * *

JC had been a little wary of going to the theatre with Justin. After all, they were famous, and besides, it was pretty much a given that some of the people in the audience would be die-hard 'NSync fans. So he was nervous, and made Justin lurk in the limo until about a minute before curtain-up, when they hurtled inside and settled into their seats as the lights dimmed.

Turned out, though, that they were in a box, with a bunch of parents—parents of some of the kids up there on the stage—and in the interval it wasn't so much a question of fighting off autograph hunters as sitting back a bit in the shadows and wondering how they suddenly became anonymous. JC rather liked it, but he could see Justin was unsettled. Still, the show was great. These revivals had some fine music, even if it was a planet away from his kind of thing. I won't send roses was a beautiful song. And Joey was so totally the leading man. Totally.

"If this hadn't been a limited run," he whispered to Justin, "we'd never have been able to do this. He'd be there for, like, ever."

They said as much to him when they greeted him afterwards.

Joey was delighted to see them, of course he was, grinning and slapping backs and hugging the way he always did. But he was surrounded by so many people, not just the entire extended Fatone family, but a lot of faces JC didn't recognise at all, and Joey hugged and backslapped and grinned at them too, and JC had an awkward, unwelcome feeling in his gut that maybe he and Justin should have tried to get into yesterday's performance instead.

"Look, I'm sorry, guys," Joey explained, after he fought his way back to them, "not really got time to hang out right now. End of show party, y'know? I mean, I'd invite you guys, but it's really, it's just for cast, and besides, it isn't really your scene, you wouldn't know anyone, so..."

So they went back to their hotel. JC wished he couldn't see Joey's point of view, because it did rather suck, but Justin had cornered the market in rant, so JC had to settle for resigned acceptance instead. However, once they were back in the suite, they could share bitching, and did.

* * *

The urge to bitch was mostly out of their systems when they turned up chez Joey at lunchtime on the following day. Joey was alone, with hangover darkening him like a full-body bruise. Kelly had taken the kids out for the day, he informed them, wincing at his own syllables.

"Good time last night?" JC ventured.

Joey grinned like a death's head. "Incredible. Man, I'm gonna miss those guys. We had such a great buzz, y'know?"

"So... you got plans? What's next?"

"'Cause we got a great plan," Justin interrupted, as ever, not with the subtlety. JC had a feeling this was a topic that ought to be raised with a little more caution. Just because he had jumped at it...

Justin hadn't stopped talking. "All of us, you know, it's been too long, we should totally do an album together, get back on the road, it'll be great."

Joey squinted at him. "You want coffee?" He ambled into the kitchen.

JC smacked Justin on the arm.


"Don't just—you can't just—he won't wanna go for it if you don't, you know, work around to it."

"Why not?"

"Because..." JC flapped helplessly. "He just—he was right there, last night, he was doing that, he was good, he belonged there, he loves that stuff, you know, maybe he won't want to drop it and get back together."

Justin stared at him as though he had grown antlers. "Man, you gotta think positive." He bounded off the couch and into the kitchen. Ruefully, JC followed.

Joey was putting the lid back on a jar of aspirin. He shambled to the sink for water, downed his pills, and slumped at the kitchen table, looking up at them with an oddly pitying expression.

"So why are you guys here? Really?"

JC sighed, and took a seat.

Half an hour and two full pots of coffee later, Joey was beginning to look less sub-human, and more interested. He had admitted that he had been planning to take a break, play with the kids for a while, and had nothing definite lined up beyond a few days work on a TV show in a month's time, though he was very much hoping that the new Jason Robert Brown musical that was being talked about for next year would be written for him to take the lead, in which case he'd be quite busy enough, thanks very much. Plus there were some movie scripts he'd promised his agent he'd consider...

"Yeah, but Joey—'NSync!" Justin, incredibly, was still radiating excitement.

"I dunno, J, I mean, it's been six years, haven't we gotten past that now? I mean, what's the point in going back?"

JC intervened. "It wouldn't be going back, Joey. It'd be going on. We've all moved on, we can bring new stuff to this now. It'd be good."

"You think so?"

"Absolutely we can." Justin leaned forward eagerly. "Like JC said, we can bring new stuff to the mix. And won't it be great to work together again, all five of us?"

Joey huffed, a little amused sound that wasn't quite a laugh and wasn't quite a snort. "Do you really think... Okay. Okay. I guess... I guess I'm in. But—man, don't shout, brain tissues in meltdown here—you know, there's a lot to be worked out. And really, I don't think it's gonna happen. You'll never get Chris to agree."

"Sure we will."

"Not gonna happen. But if it does, you get back to me, okay? You want some eggs? I think I could eat now."

* * *

"Yeah," Justin added. "It was kinda hard work. Some of these guys were not getting the 'NSync vibe, you know?"

* * *

The pair of them showed up, discreetly camouflaged, at a club in Baltimore where Chris's new band was playing. It was still weird to see him on stage with other people. Wasn't the same when Justin or JC was performing, because for all that they had musicians and dancers on the team, they were still solo. Even in his own extended record-with-other-cool-artists phase, Justin had still been solo, really, not making the kind of bonds they'd forged as 'NSync.

Chris, now, Chris was part of a new band. That didn't seem right. Also, he seemed to be enjoying himself. A lot. And it was good. And, he was singing lead a lot of the time, which if you thought about Chris's voice and loud, angry guitars, seemed impossible, but it worked. It was Chris, so, yeah.

But it wasn't like it had been with the five of them. Couldn't be.

So Justin wasn't really prepared for Chris to veto the idea of getting back together, to veto it with an are-you-out-of-your-mind stare and an indifferent shrug, to sit peaceably with him and JC quaffing beers and listen to their arguments and yet not be convinced of the rightness of what they had to say.

"Dude, I see you guys all the time. Plus we get together at Challenge every year. We already did 'NSync. We got rich, we got famous, we moved on. It's done."

At that point JC kicked Justin rather hard on the ankle-bone, and moved the conversation along to Kelly and Briahna and little Tommy-Joe, and let the subject of an 'NSync reunion be dropped. Shelved, anyway. As JC pointed out on the plane back to LA, they'd be getting together for Challenge in less than a month's time anyway, and by then maybe it'd be four to one, five if they got Johnny back on board, and Chris would be more likely to cave with all of them on the case.

* * *

When Justin called Lance to pull him into the project, Lance laughed and hung up.

* * *

“Not getting it at all,” JC confirmed.

* * *

“Yeah, Chris is being really, I dunno, he just blanks out whenever I bring it up. Keeps saying we finished that shit six years ago and we’ve gotten past it now. Says he doesn’t want to be a boybander again.”

“Justin, we are not going to let him get away with that,” JC said firmly, adjusting the phone against his shoulder as he slid the last of his new CDs onto the shelf. “He’s just having an age crisis or something.”

“Like he’s actually old,” Justin agreed. JC could almost hear the exasperated look that must have distorted J’s face as he spoke. “He swore he was never going to sing Bye Bye Bye again.”

“There you are, then,” said JC. “He thinks we’re talking about going back in time, just because we want to get back together. Maybe we need to show him the new material.”

“Exactly!” Justin was still enthused about the songs they’d written. Well, so was JC, it had been a remarkably fertile three weeks and they really had produced some kick-ass songs together. It was incredible, when they’d not worked together for so long, but they’d found themselves really in s—no, JC clamped down firmly, he was not going to perpetrate something like that even in the privacy of his own thoughts. But it was true. He looked on it as a sign. It was time for the five of them to work together again, and Chris was just going to have to accept that.

“We ought to do it in person, though,” J’s voice continued tinnily. “I mean, I thought about emailing him some stuff, but...”

“No, we should definitely do it in person. After Challenge, when everyone else has gone. That way we’ll have Joey and Lance as well. Safety in numbers, man.”

“Yeah. Uh, JC, about that...”

* * *

Joey took up the baton. "We got together for our annual Challenge for the Children," he began.

"That's your big charity event?" Larry prompted.

"That's right, our annual fundraising thing, which, you know, we've kept up every year whether we were together as a band or not, and when it was over, we spent a bit of time together trying to figure things out."

* * *

“It’s pointless, that’s all.” Chris shrugged. “We moved on. It’s done. We—“

“It’s ludicrous. Y’all have been smoking something.” Lance lay back in his chair, legs spread, and tossed peanuts at the small vase in the middle of the coffee table.

“It’s not so stupid,” Justin objected. “I mean, we had a good time this weekend, didn’t we?”

“Sure,” said Chris, “but that’s just Challenge.”

“Absolutely,” Lance said. “Chris is right. It’s just Challenge, it’s a nice little break from our lives, but it isn’t the basis for a grand reunion.”

“We aren’t saying that,” JC responded patiently. “We just think it could be really good to get back together again, make another album, maybe even tour.”

“But why? I mean, seriously, what for?” Chris asked. “We—“

“Exactly!” said Lance, triumphantly. “There’s no reason. We don’t have to prove anything, any of us. We all have our own stuff now. Challenge is one thing, but y’all are asking us to disrupt our lives completely, for something we have no reason at all to do. Chris has a whole new musical existence these days, he doesn’t need to get back into something we only really did to get rich and famous. Well, newsflash, we all got rich, and as famous as we need to be, so there’s no point.”

“I wasn’t just with you guys to get rich and famous,” said Justin, blinking a bit. “Was that all it was to you, Chris?”

Lance laughed callously, and threw another peanut.

“No, of course not. But...” Chris floundered a bit. “I’m too old to do that stuff again.”

“That’s crazy talk, man, you know you’ve always been the youngest of us,” said Joey.

“Come on, Joey!” said Lance, impatiently. “Chris thinks it’s undignified, trying to pretend he’s a teen heart-throb now he’s nearly forty, and he’s right. Justin and JC can go on shaking their stuff in front of the crowds if they want, but some of us have more sense. Nobody wants to look at us now. It’d just be embarrassing.”

“Had a lot of people cheering us three days ago, when we sang,” Joey pointed out. He was beginning to feel uncomfortable. He’d only really gone along with Justin and JC because, well, they were so excited about all this. And he’d figured Chris would say no way. He and Lance had agreed privately that there was zero chance of Chris giving up his new high-voltage gig to go back to boyband harmonies again. Only now it looked like Lance was going to be the bad guy instead—and it wasn’t exactly surprising that Lance had better things to do these days, but his vehemence was unexpected. And getting very close to unpleasant. This wasn’t how things were supposed to go when the five of them were together. “Nobody seemed to mind us getting wet and messy and playing around like overgrown kids, so I don’t see that ‘undignified’ is a problem.”

“That’s different,” said Chris, stiffly. “We weren’t being serious.”

“And when were we ever serious on stage?” Lance shook his head in disbelief. “You do remember the costumes, don’t you? The giant space bulls?” He raised his beer to his lips, took a long drink.

“We never took ourselves seriously, Lance, but we always took our work seriously,” said JC.

“Just us, then, ‘cause nobody else ever gave a shit. I don’t blame Chris for not wanting to go back to being a boybander, he’s got something else to do now.”

“Chris isn’t the only one who’s moved on,” said Joey.

“Well, sure, Joe, you don’t really want to go back either, though, do you? I mean, you’re building up a reputation now as an actor, why throw it away? It’s not like there are thousands of people out there screaming for more ‘Nsync. It’d be humiliating, getting back together and finding nobody wants to buy what we’re selling!” And another peanut clinked against the vase. For a moment, Joey contemplated shoving the bag down Lance’s throat.

“Nobody?” said JC, surprised. “There are plenty of people out there who want us back.”

“Of course there are,” Justin was pacing, a twitchy contrast to Lance’s arrogant sprawl. "My concerts still sell out, and JC has a great following." Joey had a suspicion Justin rather coveted JC's fans. There weren't as many of them as there were of Justin's, and they certainly weren't as shrill at concerts, but they were infinitely cooler. Anyway, he was right about there being a market for ‘Nsync. Joey still got letters, and mobs at the stage door. He’d bet his house Chris did, too.

"So tour together," Lance replied coldly. "Do the MouseOdyssey. I mean, since you two have all the fans anyway, what do you want the rest of us for?"

"We aren't 'NSync without you," JC explained patiently, while Justin ground his teeth. "The point is to get back together. We always said we would. We always said we'd be together ten, twenty years down the line, didn't we?"

"And we were wrong, weren't we," Lance stated. “We’ve managed to keep Challenge going, hell, it even expanded to include the great Timberlake ego and entourage—“


“That’s not fair, Lance!”

“What do you mean, entourage?”

Three of them interrupted at once. Chris, though his eyes narrowed, said nothing.

“Because sure, it’d be a hell of a shame to see the great JT with only his, what’s the word, oh, yeah, ‘friends’. Is that what we’re calling ourselves these days?”

There was silence.

“We could be. We should be,” said JC, helplessly.

“There’s no ‘should’ about it, JC. We split up for good reasons. We all had other stuff to do. Now, we’re doing it. We don’t need each other any more. We certainly don’t need ‘Nsync.” He sounded... indifferent.

"Look, Lance." Joey was impressed with Justin, still working, still trying, even though it must feel like he was bashing his bloody forehead into a wall. "We could be better than before. We don't need 'NSync any more, it's true, none of us needs it, but that's why it would be so good. We can do it our way, absolutely on our terms, offer it to Jive as a take it or leave it, and if they say no, we can release it ourselves. Look, JC and I have been spending some time writing together since we had the idea, we've got a dozen songs—"

Lance laughed. "What's the vibe, then, rap with lesbians? How to be streetwise in sixty-nine separate positions?" It wasn't a very nice laugh. Perhaps Joey should stage an intervention. No, JC was going to have another try.

"You should at least look at what we've done. We've put a lot of work in—"

Lance wasn't interested. "How does what you've done square with where Chris is at, musically speaking? Is it something he has the slightest desire to get involved with? Does it match up in even the remotest sense with the kind of music I've always enjoyed most? Is there anything in any of those dozen songs that Joey would be interested in singing? Or are we supposed to sit back and do as we're told because hey, the superstars are on the case! Because fuck that." He sat back and poured the last of his beer into his mouth.

"Look, you—Lance, we can't be expected to put out a country-rock-funk-punk-r&b groove with a side order of musical theatre! First, it ain't possible, and anyway, that's not what we're about!" Justin's voice was edging up-register.

"If you look around you, Justin, I think you'll find that that is exactly what we're about," Lance retorted. Another peanut ricocheted off the vase.

JC sprang out of his seat, moving between Justin and Lance as he went to the refrigerator. Handed Lance another beer. Smart move, Joey acknowledged, Lance was less likely to walk out if he hadn't finished his drink. "Maybe you're right," JC said apologetically. "We shouldn't have gotten started without the rest of you guys. We were just," he waved his hands, smiling shyly, and yes, it was still endearing, "excited about the idea, you know? Wanted to have something to show you, to prove that we have something to offer. But we don't have to use those songs. We should write together, or something."

"How?" Lance was refusing to succumb to the, the JC-ness of JC. "What, you think we should lock ourselves in together with a pile of paper and a keyboard and expect songs to come out? Or do we split into random pairs and see what happens?"

"That could work," this, unexpectedly, came from Chris. Perhaps he was fed up with hearing Lance declare that Chris doesn’t want this and Chris doesn’t need that. Joey certainly was. "Maybe. We can't throw everything together and expect to get a decent song out of it, but we could, you know, share the lesbians."

"I do not write about lesbians all the time!" JC snapped pettishly. Perhaps he would stamp his foot. No, he had remembered the goal here. Go, JC, thought Joey happily. As though linked by a mysterious mental connection, JC proffered Joey another beer before he continued: "But Chris is right. We could work in different combinations. You and me, and Chris and Justin. Then Joey and Justin, and Chris and you. It'd be interesting. Stimulating. New ideas!"

Prudent, thought Joey, not to suggest that Lance work with Justin, since on present form that’d leave ‘Nsync as a quartet. Or possibly a trio. "You know, that could work," he said thoughtfully. "Like Chris says, different pairs, working together, sharing the les—the, uh, vibes. Might be worth a try. We could see what happens."

Lance shot him a baleful glare, but said nothing.

"So," said Chris, after a moment. "Do we give it a try?”

"Don't see the point," said Lance, sulkily.

"I'm up for it," said Justin at once. "Chris—you wanna start with me?" Chris shrugged acquiescence. "So 'C, you and, um—"

"Not me," said Lance, holding a hand up defensively. "I don't have time right now. I have actual work to do."

"Looks like you're stuck with me, then, 'C," said Joey, comfortably. "What say we give it a couple weeks, see what happens, then swap round?"

* * *

"Of course, Justin and JC, you've both been active in the music world, touring and making solo records. So how is it going to feel being back in the group again?"

"It's gonna feel great," said Justin instantly. "It's a huge buzz being up on stage on your own, and when you perform at your best, the feeling is incredible. But with five of us, it's even better, because we interact, we give each other energy, just like we all get energy from the crowd."

"That's right. It's been amazing, doing my own stuff, I've had a blast and I don't intend to stop doing that, but being back with these guys, that's something really special," said JC.

"And will you be performing any of your solo hits?"

"No," said Justin. "This is an 'NSync concert, it's not about JC and it's not about me."

"Besides," JC went on, "we have so much 'NSync material, with the new album and our old songs too, we don't need anything else."

"Nobody does concerts that long," said Chris.

* * *

"Impossible! This is impossible!"

Six weeks later, a surprisingly productive six weeks later, in Chris's opinion, and with all the material they'd brought to the table, they couldn't seem to agree on anything. Lance was being unreasonably vicious about every song that he hadn't been involved in writing (and several of the ones that he had); at the opposite end of the spectrum, JC was trying to say something nice about everything, even the obvious crap, and the strain was really starting to show.

They were gathered in Justin's house in Orlando (Cameron was on location somewhere in Europe), and tearing each other apart. Chris had thought it was a deeply stupid idea to try to re-form 'NSync when Justin and JC had showed up in Baltimore, enthusiastic as puppies and entirely too full of themselves. But Lance had been such a complete bitch about the whole thing, Chris's natural inclination to laugh and point had given way to a perverse desire to prove that yes, damn it, this could work.

Okay, so he was stupid. Whatever. Adversity was his natural habitat.

He'd spent two weeks with Justin, working and arguing and hanging out and, yes, in the end, enjoying the kid's constant company, and reluctantly proud all over again of how well Justin had turned out. It had been a cold, cold time, when Justin Timberlake had seemed to want to leave his former bandmates far behind him. Chris didn't think about that if he didn't have to, because if he started looking back and wondering how exactly it had happened, and why exactly it had happened, he started to feel sick to his stomach, because maybe it had been his fault, maybe he could have prevented it, maybe he should have been able to keep them together better. And he didn't like feeling sick or helpless, so. And Chris still harbored secret contempt for what he inwardly called J's I wanna be black antics, even if some of the songs had been halfway decent. Okay, most of the way decent. Good, maybe. But he had to give it to Justin: he'd gotten his head out of his ass over a year ago, and now he was really serious about getting the five of them back together, really serious about making it work.

They had produced some quite promising songs. He was particularly proud of the motorbiking one.

Then Chris had swapped with Joey, and it had been harder to figure out a style that clicked with JC and felt like 'NSync without simply reverting to what they'd been doing six years ago, until Lance showed up half-way through their fortnight, glowering and muttering about having better things to do, and occasionally tossing a rhyme or a melodic phrase into the awkward mix, and maybe he'd been the catalyst they needed because that had seemed to work. Even if JC had tried quite hard to strangle Lance when he'd needed a rhyme for 'tight' and Lance had suggested 'cellulite'.

Chris had been enchanted.

Then, hilariously—although JC had been adorably worried and fretful—Lance had gone off to try to write songs with Justin, and for that alone Chris wished he'd invested in some kick-ass James Bond-style spy kit, or just had cameras installed in all Justin's light fittings, because the footage would be worth millions one day. Still, they were neither of them visibly injured, even though Lance was still—still!—behaving like a complete tool.

And poor JC was verging on hysterical.

Time for an intervention, Chris decided. He was still the one they'd all listen to, even Lance. "This is stupid," he declared. "We can't just reject every song for no reason at all. I haven't wasted every minute of the last six weeks composing absolute shit, even if Mr I've-got-real-work-to-do doesn't agree."

Lance did look a bit ashamed, for a moment. But his jaw was set and he was well entrenched.

"What is it you want, Lance? What are you even doing here, if you're so determined to wash out everything we bring to the table? What do you want?"

JC winced at Chris's words, and looked worriedly at Lance, but Chris was pretty sure Lance wasn't going to walk out right now. After all, he was still there, even if he was being supremely uncooperative.

"What do I want?" Chris missed the Mississippi drawl. Lance was all LA, nowadays. Still beautiful, but in that hard, polished way that seemed to deny the possibility there was an actual heart under the perfect golden skin. "I want to get on with my real job. I want to know that the projects I'm supposed to be pulling together aren't going to hell. Instead, I'm here, looking at songs that say to me, Justin's solo here and JC gets this verse. I want to see something written for Joey to sing. I want Chris to get leads. I want something that actually does what y'all have been telling me we can do, something that uses what we are now and doesn't revert to what we used to be. Something grownup. So y'all show me how this," he picked up a handful of scrawled sheet music, "is supposed to say, we've moved on, look what we can do now, and I'll green-light it." He folded his arms and stood glaring at them all for a moment before he did, in fact, walk out.

"Oh, for fuck's sake!" exploded Justin. "We are never going to get anywhere like this. Why is he being such a shit?"

There were assorted angry noises round the room, until Joey spoke up: "He's scared."

"Scared?" JC was always better at controlling the rage than the other two. "Not just obnoxious?"

"He's got the most to lose," Joey stated.

"How d'you figure that? Hell, I'd say he's got the most to gain. We do this right, he can get back into the limelight again, present some more awards shows. He needs this more than we—hey!" Justin yelped as Chris's palm met his skull.

"Shut up, fucker. Go on, Joey."

"Do you pay no attention, Timberlake?" Joey was exasperated. "Don't you have any clue what Lance does these days?"

Justin rubbed his scalp resentfully. "Haven't seen much of Lance lately. He's not popping up on stupid TV shows like he used to."

"No, he's not. But do you really think he's not enough of a celebrity, still, to do quiz shows or whatever if he wanted? Geez, Justin, you've been in Hollywood, surely you of all people should have noticed. He's working, you dork. He's a producer, he's an enabler, he's always been someone who gets things done, he does that like he was born to it and he's getting a lot of respect nowadays among the people who know about the money."

"Yeah, but—"

"And taking months off to go and play with some boyband revival, sorry, with a vocal group, isn't going to do shit for his Hollywood mogul credibility. Of all of us, he's the one who could really lose by doing this."

"No, wait a minute, that's not true! 'C and I—"

"You and 'C are just doing what you've been doing all this time, only in company. It's not like a career change. Chris is on a bit more of a curve, 'cause what he's doing now musically is a lot further from 'NSync than either of you has ever got, but still. Me, I can take some time off, sing for the pop crowd again, it'll actually help me get my next acting job, they'll know I can sell tickets. But Lance gets up on that stage with us, wiggling his synchronized ass, he's not getting himself any points with the powers behind the scenes, more likely he's making himself into a joke."

There was a thoughtful silence.

"So stop giving him shit about commitment, Justin, I mean it. Because he knows that, and he's here."

"Except, not so much with the here part," said Chris, levering himself to his feet and heading for the door. "Think I'll go see where he's stomped off to."

* * *

Turned out Lance only got as far as the back yard, where he was menacing Cameron's dahlias with the green glare of death. Chris extemporized a little commentary about plants shriveling to an untimely demise, segued inconspicuously into a catalogue of his own virtues—he wasn't quite sure why now seemed a good time to do this, but it flowed easily and stopped Lance from saying anything fatal—and eventually suggested that they might, maybe, take another look at some of those songs.

"I am going to annihilate each and every reference to a 'baby girl' that doesn't mean Briahna," Lance announced belligerently.

"Oh, fuck, yeah."



"Huh. Okay then."

“Okay, then, hotstuff.” Chris had an impulse to slap Lance across the ass, but with unusual forbearance, refrained. Brat wasn’t going to welcome a full-front—er, backal assault, and the task here was to get him back inside.

There was the slightest suggestion of a smile on Lance’s face. “If you weren’t here, Kirkpatrick,” he muttered. “Oh, come on, then.”

When Chris and the still-recalcitrant Lance came back indoors, they found that the songs had been sorted into piles, rules had been established, and Joey was preparing to make the case for his first choice to take into the studio. And there was fresh coffee, and a plate of cookies on the table.

Joey hid it well, but he was a smart guy.

* * *

By two in the morning they had definitely agreed on seven songs to record, figured out the kind of arrangements they would use, and who would sing where. Chris was impressed—and, honestly, astonished—by Justin's eagerness to collaborate, and more than gratified to have been inked in for solos in two numbers already.

As they dispersed to their own houses or Justin's guest bedrooms for the night, he cornered Justin for a quiet word. "Hang in there, J, I think it's working."

Justin grinned. "Or I could murder him, and we can go albino hunting again?"

"Nah," said Chris. "Too many witnesses. Tracks to be covered. I mean, I'd give you an alibi, but who'd believe me?"

"Seriously, Chris, is he going to stop being an asshole any time soon? Because this is a hell of a lot harder than I thought it was going to be."

Chris thought about it. "It is harder," he said, "but I think it's better."

They looked at one another. Justin frowned. "Are you telling me that Lance's contribution to new, improved Back 'NSync is going to be assholiness?"

They giggled all the way upstairs.

* * *

"The album is out next week, am I right? Would you tell us a bit about it?"

“That’s right,” Joey confirmed, “it comes out on the twenty-third, so,” he waggled a finger at the camera, “don’t say we didn’t warn you!”

"We think what we've produced, the songs on the album, are really exciting," said JC. "It's still us, we have a particular sound we make when we sing together, but we've all been going in different directions lately and we've brought those experiences, those different influences, onto this album."

"And will the fans recognise your music? How would you describe your style on this album?"

There was a pause as they all looked hopefully at one another.

"Uh, eclectic?" suggested Lance.

Chris, eyes rolling, pointed out that 'eclectic' was a synonym for 'stupid', and offered instead 'cyber-reggae-thrash mix with a couple of techno-bop numbers', at which point JC smacked him.

* * *

Next day was easier. Marginally. They picked another three songs from the pile on the table, then JC got all buzzed and played them a track from an old Police album, and none of them could think of a reason why it wouldn't actually work rather well as an 'NSync number, so that went on the list too, along with covers of Dancing in the Street ("Hey, if Jagger and Bowie can do it, so can we") and What are you doing the rest of your life (Joey's lead, which put a huge smile onto his face).

But they stalled, badly, on one of the songs JC and Justin had written together (mostly JC, Chris reckoned, shying away in mock terror from the lyric sheet). It was a good song, everyone agreed on that, even Lance, but the diva twins had wildly different opinions on how it should be produced, and Chris's own suggestion of sharp, hard, spare guitar and drums just made things worse.

Even a pizza break didn't help. JC and Justin squabbled all through lunch, and had made no progress by the time the boxes had gone back to the kitchen and the stray pepperoni had been wiped from the table.

"So why don't we try it a cappella?" Joey suggested wearily.

Four pairs of eyes turned to him.

"If there's a style of instrumentation left in the world that we haven't considered and rejected, I can't think of it," he went on. "So why not forget them all and do it with just our voices?"

"It's a bit..." Chris began dubiously, but Justin looked warily interested and JC's eyes were starting to shine. By the end of the afternoon, they had All Night Shimmy worked into a rough but sublimely dirty arrangement, the lead skittering from voice to voice and the harmonies going in all sorts of unexpected directions. Even Lance looked pleased. Joey swiped affectionately at his skull and told him to smile, fucker, because an a cappella dance number was definitely something new. Though it would be a hell of a challenge to do it in concert.

"I vote we stand in line behind JC and let him wriggle," said Lance. "Lets the rest of us off the hook." Chris suppressed a grin of triumph. Looked like Lance had finally committed to the reunion without even realizing it, if he was talking so easily about what they were going to do on stage.

"We should get Robin in on this," JC decided, oblivious. "And we should do more of the numbers this way. It's cool, it's really cool."

"Yeah. How about we look at Dreams tomorrow?" said Justin.

* * *

Two days after that, JC rather apologetically brought another notebook along, explaining that he'd had a few ideas for songs that seemed to work better for five voices and maybe they could look through, there might be something... and Justin muttered about there being more stuff upstairs and left the room and came back with a notebook of his own, and Chris pulled his own secret spiral bound collection out of his bag, and Lance—Lance, for God's sake!—dropped a manila folder onto the table, folded his arms, and scowled.

They turned as one towards Joey.

"Don't look at me! I have children."

* * *

"Uh, you know, I think this is going to be a double album," said JC, eight hours later.

* * *

"Let's just say," said Chris, rubbing his arm with theatrical resentment, "that there's more of a range than we've ever had before."

* * *

As they separated on Friday night, with twenty-two songs on the ‘take to studio’ list, Chris glimpsed a self-satisfied little smirk on Lance’s face.


And he reflected on what he and Justin had said, and thought, it is better this way. And Chris wondered how he could have forgotten that Lance was the one who made plans, and he settled into Justin's guest bed with a little bit of a grin on his own face, and some long-repressed notions tickling at the edge of his mind.

* * *

"It's a double album, twenty-nine tracks, because once we got going we just kept finding more songs we really wanted to sing," JC began enthusiastically, then gave a shy grin and looked hopefully around for someone else to take the lead.

"We didn't use all the songs we wrote," Joey put in, "we recorded more than four dozen, I think, and picked the best for the CD."

"That's a lot of studio time, right?" said Larry.

"Plus a lot of time writing," Justin added.

"We all agreed we had to make it clear that we aren't trying to be a boyband any longer. I mean, I'm getting close to forty now—" said Chris.

"Still with a mental age of twelve, though," Joey interrupted.

"So we wrote almost all this stuff ourselves, except for a handful of songs we really wanted to cover," said Lance.

* * *

They broke for the weekend, escaping the hothouse for two much-needed play days. Not that Lance had much time to play, as he seemed to spend the entire forty-eight hours on the phone, but he had so much catching up to do. Thank God for competent minions. If they kept things in play the way they were shaping so far, B & E would be getting three new V-Ps when he got back.

Monday, JC came in trembling with excitement. He had found, he declared, something really different and completely perfect for them to do a capella. Brushing aside—or quite possibly failing to notice—their requests to be told what the hell it was and why they needed even more material, he made for the keyboard and pulled out some sheet music. "Lance, can you sing the melody?"

"Me?" Lance took the offered sheet, more out of reflex than any actual desire to comply.

"It's your range, right?" JC was bouncing with eagerness. Lance glanced at the paper he was holding, checked the range, noted with surprise that it would be quite a stretch, and mentally ran through the vocal line. Nice. Then JC gave him a chord, and he sang.

“Love for sale,
Appetizing young love for sale.”

Sharp, dissonant clusters of notes accompanied him from the keyboard.

As it ended, JC beamed. "Well?"

"That's brilliant!" Justin exclaimed. "Are those harmonies for us, then—can I see?"


"It's a great song," Chris admitted. "Very... edgy. It's not yours, though, it can't be. It seems like I've heard it before?"

"It's Cole Porter." Joey knew his show tunes all right. "Which is, maybe, a bit bizarre for an 'NSync album, but I say we go for it. How about it, Lance?"

Lance hesitated. "It's a really good song. Um..."

"So are we agreed on that one, then?" JC said eagerly. "I mean, we can work on the harmonies together, this is just a first try, we might do better, but I think it really works."

"But it isn't going to be me singing lead, though, I mean. It should be Joey. Or, well, Justin."

There was a chorus of protest. JC refused to consider Justin for the leading line—"Totally the wrong sound, it wouldn't work"—and Joey was equally adamant that Lance needed at least one solo on the album, he'd been so determined that Joey and Chris should be heard and fair was fair. To Lance's dismay, Justin firmly agreed with JC and Chris backed Joey.

"But," he said helplessly, and looked at the lyrics again. It really was a very good song. He could do more with it, he could do a lot with it. And JC's arrangement was already exciting. What had Chris said—edgy? It was edgy, even if it was, what, sixty years old? Seventy? "Y'all know I don't like to sing lead," he protested weakly.

"Suck it up, dude," advised Chris blithely. "It's cool. Or actually, hot.”

* * *

"Yes, according to this” (Larry waved his advance copy of the CD) “you have a song here by Cole Porter, one of my favorite composers. How did that happen?"

"We wanted to include more a cappella singing, the kind of singing we did right back when we started out," JC began, and Justin interrupted,

"Yeah, we all love doing that, so—"

"Plus it was easier to agree on songs we could sing unaccompanied than it was to figure out what kind of instrumentation we wanted on the full-production tracks," said Chris, slyly. "So we have five a cappella numbers on the album, three of them our own compositions, and two covers."

* * *

"You cunning little fuck," said Chris, affably.

Lance just looked at him for a moment, then ducked his head to hide the grin, the real grin, and just for a moment he was so like that dorky kid from way back that it took Chris's breath away.

"You did this on purpose. All this obstreperous bastard stuff was just an act, wasn't it?"

"Not all of it. I was pretty much still pissed at Justin."

"He's on your list, is he?" For a long time, Chris had assumed Lance's payback list was a joke.

"Nah. Though there's no saying but what he might get back on there again. Once we get into choreography."

Chris groaned at the thought. "Don't remind me."

"Yeah, well. We have to dance some. Fact of life."

"I couldn't believe you were the one refusing to do any dancing. Me with my rickety knees, and you all buff and fit. I mean, if I can do it—"

"Yep," said Lance, and Chris realized exactly what the smug bastard meant. If Chris, whose long-suffering knees gave him a strong bona fide case for vetoing the idea, was arguing that they really had to dance more than a couple of numbers, and Joey agreed with him, there was nowhere for Lance to stand...

"You were taking my space, weren't you," he said. "Manipulative little prick.”

Little, Kirkpatrick?” There was that eyebrow thing Lance did, and an unmistakably smug smile.

“Hah,” said Chris darkly. “You knew I'd change my mind just to prove you wrong."

“Knew you couldn’t stand to be on the sensible side of the argument, you mean.”

Chris paused as the realization hit. “You did it before, didn’t you? Put yourself so far on my side of the fence that I ended up standing with the others.”

Lance was still grinning at him. "Joey called," he said. "After 'C and Justin tried to persuade him into a reunion. ‘S why I knew what to expect when J called me. Joey reckoned you’d never go for it—so did I, come to that. He really was not happy with me when I got nasty with y’all. But I thought maybe I could make you change your mind.”

"So you weren't actually trying to get us to throw you overboard at all." Chris had never fully appreciated the Bass genius before. "You were trying to make this work."

"Or else I've just wasted a hell of a lot of my time negotiating a deal I didn't want to close."

"Lance, Lance," Chris sighed in awe. "And I was supposed to be the smart one in the group."

"Chris, Chris, there's no 'I' in 'NSync, remember?"

"And J—he took everything you threw at him. All that shit about the songs, the solos, everything."

"I figured if the diva spot was already taken, he'd be pulling for equal shares for all."

"I shoulda let him murder you," Chris grumbled. "He wanted to, when you kicked up all that fuss over the songwriting. Congratulations on how that worked out, by the way. But it would have been a hell of a lot easier on us all if we'd just dumped your body in the woods. In, you know, pieces."

"You'd never manage the cover-up without me," Lance pointed out, apparently unworried at the prospect of dismemberment by bandmates.

"Always the one with the plan, Bass."

As Lance headed for the door, Chris goosed him.

* * *

"Plus, the a cappella stuff means we can slow down a bit on stage," Joey pointed out. "We can just stand still, and sing. Don't have to have all the numbers choreographed the way we used to."

"I was going to ask about that," said Larry. "When you were billed as a 'boyband', the dancing was a big part of the image. You're calling yourselves a 'vocal group' now—"

"Actually, we've always called ourselves a vocal group," said Lance.

"That's right," Joey confirmed. "The 'boyband' label came from other people."

"No boys in the band nowadays," said Chris, blithely.

Larry King, like every interviewer who had ever met him, was wary of Chris Kirkpatrick, so he tried very hard to catch someone else's eye, and smiled hopefully at Lance Bass. "So, you're a vocal group now," he went on. "Would you say 'NSync has a whole new image, or are you essentially the same as you used to be, only older?"

Lance smiled back. "If all we could do was go back to where we were before, we wouldn't be so excited about getting back together."

* * *

"It isn't about sales, Johnny," JC said impatiently. "We're not doing this because we're down to our last dime."

"We aren't interested in having our images airbrushed for the sake of the innocent teenage girls who'll be buying our CDs," added Lance.

"Besides, I for one," Joey said, "am selling to a different market these days. And we don't know that we're going to appeal to the kids any more, even if we wax our chests and tell J-14 what our favorite colors are."

"Speak for yourself," said Chris loftily. "I'm all about the sex symbol, as always. Yet even the irresistible Kirkpatrick can see certain advantages in appealing to the adult audience this time around."

Lance cleared his throat. "So, that's absolutely clear, isn't it. We'll do promo, obviously, but we'll decide for ourselves what we're going to say and what we're not. Obviously, we aren't going to tell the truth about how we got back together—"

"Because stories about two of us trying to rip each other's throats out would bring us the wrong kind of press attention."

"Shut up, Chris. We will decide what we want to say, and the record company can live with it. All they take a risk on is whether they get any profits, and they're already salivating for this deal," Lance said. "They won't even need to put a PR exec on to us. I'll take care of the appearances. Think of the money they'll save."

"Y'all had better make sure it's clear what can and can't be said before y'all start doing interviews," Johnny told them. "I don't want to be stuck with refereeing arguments when it's too late to undo the damage."

"We'll just tell the truth, basically," said Chris. "Like, we're all grown up now. Some of us even have sex. Some of us" (he elbowed JC, hard) "have rather a lot of sex, possibly in a desperate bid to find new material for pornographic songs for our solo albums. But we won't have to volunteer information. Like, if someone asks me if I have sex with guys, I'll admit to being bisexual, but I won't bring the subject up when we're talking about writing songs, or whatever."

"You're... bisexual? Since when?"

"Aw, c'mon, J, you had to have noticed!"

"I didn't, I mean, I—not that it's a problem, or anything, I just never—"

"See, discretion really is my middle name. Christopher Discretion Kirkpatrick."

"Very Founding Fathers," said Lance. Chris stuck out his tongue. "You couldn't have mentioned this back when I was a teenager?"

"What? Let you babies in on my sordid sex life? No way!"

Joey let his curiosity get the better of him. "Were you fucking guys back in Germany?"

"Nah, well, not so much. Just once or twice.” Chris ignored the reactions, and continued. “Honestly, the hassle it would have caused, the shit I'd have been in, wasn't worth it. And there weren't so many guys, really, not while we were 'NSync, because hey, publicity, and a lot of that time there was Dani, and I don't fuck around when I'm with someone. So. But since, yeah, there's been a few.” He looked round, assessing the expressions. It had not escaped his notice that Justin seemed to be the only one who was actually surprised by his announcement. J had always been the master at interpreting Chris's mood, but this kind of detail was something he just didn't think to notice.

“But, I mean—why? Not that I’m, but, well, why?” Justin was dealing well, considering how he didn’t like surprises. Not this kind, anyway.

“Why guys, you mean?” Justin nodded. “Well, I guess you can rely on guys not to expect hearts and flowers after a one-night stand. Just a good fuck. Plus, you want to get laid, it's a sure thing with men, you can tell after five minutes whether it's gonna happen or not, where with women you have to go through the whole ritual and even then at the end of the evening you still might not get any.” Chris grinned evilly. “I mean, Timberlake here can just shake his stuff and have them lying down for him, but some of us have to work for it."

"Hey! Married man!" said Justin, defensively.

"Yeah, yeah. And straight as a four-inch ruler—"

"Hey!" Much more indignation this time. Five people sniggered. One glared.

"—but some of us have more options, is all I'm saying. So anyone asks me on national TV, I'm not gonna lie. But I got no particular plans to come out all bi and proud either."

"And if anyone asks me about my sex life, I'm telling them it's private," JC asserted crossly.

"No plans to come out, then?" Lance inquired blandly.

"No! I mean, not that there's anything, I wouldn't—if I were bi, or gay, I would, but I'm not, so."

"Too many threesomes," said Joey, knowingly. JC blushed and hurled a cushion, which hit Chris in the face: this naturally meant retribution, namely, serious tickling.

"Glad to see we're all grown up now," Lance observed, seconds before Joey hauled him into the melee.

Their erstwhile-and-rehired manager waited for the noise level to die down, and heaved a fake sigh. "Can't think why I took this gig."

"Aw, Johnny, you know you love us really," Chris assured him, in a rather muffled voice on account of having JC's thigh over his face.

"Yeah, that'd be it."

* * *

"So things will be a bit different this time round," Larry stated.

"A bit, yeah."

"Still, as I understand it, the way you dance has always been a big part of your shows. More than six years on, you're all that much older, so is the dancing still important?"

"Well, yes, we have to dance. I mean, it wouldn't be an 'NSync concert if we didn't, you know," Lance admitted.

"That's right," Chris broke in. "Another fifty years, there we'll be, up on that stage shaking our geriatric booty, me with my walking frame, Joey with a cane—"

"But there'll be a lot more emphasis on the music now, less on the visuals," Lance continued smoothly.

* * *

The others always thought of Lance as the one who planned everything.

It was perfectly true, except in the ways that really mattered. Because the most vital, the most essential decisions of his life, were all made straight from the heart. His brain just covered his tracks afterwards with logic and self-defense.

The Space Thing—anything more honest, more heartfelt than that deprecating reference was, still, too painful—the Space Thing was a lurch of longing, a sudden ecstatic feeling that maybe, maybe he could do it, maybe he could fly, could touch, in the words of the poet, the face of God. All the justifications about education came afterwards. Didn't mean they weren't real, and true, and absolutely valid, but they came afterwards in an attempt to conceal his suddenly vulnerable self. It was the same with that other huge thing in his life, the 'NSync thing, the thing that had offered itself to him like a miracle and which he'd seized because he just had to, not because it would be a chance for success, for fame and money, not because it would get him well and truly out of Clinton, Mississippi, not for any of the reasons that made sense, but because from the moment he sang with these four intense, wide-eyed, ambitious guys, he just had to.

And that other thing, that wild, stupid cast into the wide blue yonder that he had made without even knowing it, there were justifications for that one, too, even though it had been beyond stupid right from the outset, apparently there were an infinity of justifications for that one, but always long, long after the first lurch, the decision his heart had made without consulting him.

This was the same. He wanted it, wanted it so much, and all the logic was on the wrong side, and all the justifications were saying, don't be a fool, and the defenses were going to crumple any minute and leave him naked, but he wanted it so much.

That's why it had to be done right. It had to be. And even if he was the only one of the five of them fighting to get it right, he'd fight for it, because he wanted it and needed it more than any of them. He wanted the music back.

Not that it had been part of his game plan to stand up and sing a song about being a male prostitute. That was... damn, that was uncomfortable and a lot too close to home, to the way he felt sometimes. Only slightly soiled. He'd meant it when he said he didn't want to sing lead, but all the same, it was kinda gratifying. And it was a fabulous song, and he could absolutely put it across. But, hell.

Chris asking him if he took credit cards... didn't exactly help.

* * *

"We know we aren't going to be playing to stadiums full of screaming girls this time round—"

"Wanna bet?" muttered Justin.

"—because we aren't playing stadiums this tour," Lance went on. "Like Chris said before, we're all that much older now. We hope that some of those girls who used to come to our concerts when they were in junior high are buying tickets now that they're in college because they want to hear the music we can make today. Because that's what it's all about, really."

"Of course, that doesn't mean that the concerts are boring. We’re having a lot of fun doing the shows, and we like to think our audiences have a great time," said JC.

* * *

JC had begged and pleaded to be allowed to produce some of the tracks himself, at least, until he realized nobody had the slightest desire to stop him.

It was rather hard to believe that no rumors about the five of them getting back together had yet emerged, but then, Joey had gone back to New York for that TV gig, and Lance had spent what time he could in LA, and Justin had flown over to Prague to see Cameron and had his picture taken there, so maybe nobody had yet cottoned on to how much they had all seen of one another lately. Intent on making use of what quiet time they had, it was decided that they'd start recording in JC's own studio, get a feeling for whether the songs they had, the ideas they had, would really work out.

Meanwhile they'd called in reinforcements to work on the songs that definitely needed help. It was so great to be working with Kevin again. And Robin was really excited about the a cappella numbers.

* * *

"Your previous albums sold millions, broke records," said Larry. "Are you expecting this one to do the same?"

"Honestly, we have no idea," said Joey. "It has been more than six years, after all. I mean, our tour is selling amazingly well, we've added a number of dates to our itinerary already."

"So, you know, somebody out there still remembers us," said Chris.

* * *

"Chris, maybe you can calm him down a bit?" It was a measure of JC's frustration that he would suggest something so patently absurd. Chris was not about the calming down of skittish boyband members. He was about the revving up and inciting to madness. However, desperate measures were clearly called for, and since Joey was at home with Kelly and the kids right now, he trudged out to JC's back yard to see whether Lance had found some more dahlias to annihilate.

No dahlias, it turned out. Just a pool and a lot of green stuff with really huge leaves —like, a jungle, only round the edges instead of everywhere. Lance didn't seem to be trying to murder the plants, perhaps he was just keeping them at bay with the power of his gaze. Some of them looked too fat and self-satisfied to flourish on a meat-free diet.

"You gonna come inside and show the world a good time?" Chris enquired casually. He couldn't help it. The combination of that song and Lance, who just seemed to look more unreasonably gorgeous with every passing month, was having a serious effect on Chris's libido. Not that Lance actually needed to be singing Follow me and climb the stairs to have Chris thinking along those lines, but it really didn't help.

"You know me, all about the money," Lance said agreeably, but didn't move.

"You don't need to keep up the asshole act any longer, you know," Chris pointed out. "We're all working off the same song sheet now."

"Yeah, and some of us actually didn't want solos."

"Crap, Lance. You know the fans will love it. You know there'll be people out there who want to hear you. Hell, there'll be 'How much do you charge?' signs at every show."

“I am so not singing this on stage.”

“Aw, c’mon, you gotta advertise. I told you, it’s hot. Panties will melt.”

Chris’s hand found its way to Lance’s shoulder. So much tension, Lance was strung tighter than Chris's guitar, and Chris really wished he could understand why, because whatever Joey said, he couldn't quite believe Lance's fear was for his job. Which, as far as Chris could tell, Lance had been doing, calmly and efficiently, for the few hours every day when he hadn't been in the studio or squabbling with Justin. Just like old times, really.

So yeah, if they were going to go back to the old times, Chris was always the crazy one. And he’d have to be a hell of a lot crazier than he’d ever been to pass up this chance he wanted so very much, and needed actually rather a lot, and he was very nearly sure he hadn't misread the signs, so he leaned closer and pressed his mouth gently onto Lance's lips.

Lance's lips were not tight. They were soft and yielding, and it was so easy for Chris to open their mouths together and kiss Lance in the way, in almost the way he wanted to. Soft and silk-wet and slightly citrus, he could kiss this mouth forever. His hands came up to Lance's face, his thumbs smoothed over Lance's jaw as he kissed, tasted. And Lance's hands came up between them now, onto Chris's chest, Lance was touching him, so right, so right, why had he never done this before?

"Chris, please..." Lance murmured, pushing gently, "...don't."

Chris froze.

Lance moved away, carefully not looking at him. Chris remembered, after a few moments, to inhale. His chest hurt, where Lance had been touching him a moment before. Lance just stood, eyes shut, face closed.

Chris got the hell out of there.

* * *

"And Dreams is getting a lot of airplay," said Justin.

* * *

Moments later, Justin stormed out and grabbed Lance furiously. "What the hell did you do to Chris, you fucker? What did you do?"

Lance didn't respond.

"He just walked out—but oh yeah, he practically tore JC's head off before he went. So what did you do?"

"I didn't do anything to Chris. I really didn't."

The blank weariness on Lance's face pulled Justin up short. It wasn't what he had been expecting to see. He'd thought Lance would be gleeful, or smug, or sneering in that godawful fake Hollywood style he'd been putting on for weeks now. He didn't look at all gleeful, or smug. He looked... he looked empty. Snarky, always-gets-you-back Lance, looked empty. And about sixteen.

Justin felt a sudden, bewildering urge to put his arms round Lance. He quelled it without difficulty, but his anger was gone. "So... he's just being Chris, then," he ventured.

"I guess." Lance heaved in a breath. "I ought to go back in and, um, sing."

"You should," said Justin. "Honestly, it sounds... really good." Which opinion he repeated, later, on the phone, to an unusually subdued and apologetic Chris. Chris agreed.

* * *

"But like Lance said," JC broke in, "it's about the music. We made a CD we're really proud of, like we did with 'Celebrity', and it really doesn't matter if it breaks records or not."

"Though it would be best if we did sell a few," said Chris. "You know, there's good stuff on there. Besides which, my new band—which really is a band, with instruments and everything—will mock me for, like, ever if nobody wants an 'NSync CD any more."

"So this is what the new album looks like," Larry King held up his copy to the camera. The close-up showed five figures clad in black pants and T-shirts, against a black background and facing away from the camera, their arms linked in trellis behind their backs, starkly pale. The legend JUST GOOD FRIENDS was written in silver capitals across the bottom of the picture.

"I gotta tell you, this is not really my kind of music," Larry continued, and paused to admit that it had had his feet tapping nonetheless. "But your version of that Cole Porter number I mentioned a moment ago, is absolutely the best rendition of the song that I've ever heard."

"Well, thank you, Larry," said Joey, grinning at him. "You wouldn't by any chance like to hear us sing it now, would you?"

"I'd like that very much," Larry said.

“Cool,” said Chris. “I have a thing for that song.”

* * *

When Chris heard the track on the following day, he revised his opinion. Not really good. Unbelievably good. All the hairs on the back of his neck stood up and saluted, and he was simultaneously turned on and deeply uncomfortable. And, later, when he listened to the final cut, he was frightened by the amount of self-disgust he could hear in Lance's fucking brilliant solo, and wondered if it was there because he put it there, because he put it into Lance's mouth when he kissed him.

* * *

There was a lot of necessary business to be got through after that. The fun of laying down tracks turned into the plain, simple work of refining them until they were as perfect as they could be. The wackiness of thinking about what to do in concert turned into the detail of where, when, how, and how much everything was going to cost, and tracking down their precious musicians and persuading their tour team to come back to them again. There was the mundane work of getting photos taken for the CD, of getting diaries coordinated and promotion lined up. Deciding when and how to break the news of their reunion.

And choreography.

* * *

Larry, obviously delighted, took a moment to congratulate them on sounding better than ever, then got on with the interview. "One thing I have to ask is, how did your families feel about you re-forming the group? Six years on, your personal situations have changed a lot—two of you are married—"

"Not to each other," said Chris.

* * *

The end of another exhausting day, but Chris had kept himself in reasonable trim, it was Joey who was suffering most. So Chris had enough strength left to hold Lance's shoulder when everyone else staggered out, and keep him back for a moment to say what had to be said.

"Lance," he said stiffly, "look, Lance, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have—I'm sorry."

Lance didn't appear to be on the same wavelength. "For which of your many, many sins are you apologizing right now, Kirkpatrick?" Lance, inexplicably, didn't seem to be struggling too hard with the dancing. Of course, he wasn't thirty yet. And fit. Very fit. Looking good in the mesh T-shirt. Chris kept noticing that.

"For... I made you feel—the way you sang, I've never heard, huh." Chris took a breath, started again. "I made you feel dirty, didn't I."

"You made me feel dirty," Lance repeated. "That's... huh. Possibly the stupidest thing I've ever heard you say, though I admit there's a lot of competition. How could you possibly make me feel dirty?"

“I kissed you.”

“Um. Yeah.” Lance looked at him, frowning slightly. “So, why—“

“Look—that song, Love for Sale, you know? When you sang it—“

“It’s quite simple, Chris,” Lance interrupted. “I didn’t want what you were offering.”

“Oh.” That hurt. It wasn’t like he didn’t already know that, what with the pushing away and all, but shit, here he was trying to apologise for being, whatever, inappropriate, macking on a bandmate who wasn’t interested, and Lance couldn’t even take two seconds to say Thanks, but No Thanks in a way that didn’t leave Chris feeling like the white trash kid in the Goodwill sweatshirt trying to get a date. Didn’t want what you were offering... So fuck him. Fuck him and his perfect body and his designer T-shirt and his attitude. Chris’s defensive reflexes took over, and he lashed out. “So you’ve, what, turned picky now? ‘Cause I thought you were fucking anything these days.”

“I don’t—I don’t fuck anything.”

“Well, no, obviously. Just superficial twinks who want to make it in showbiz. Don’t have the stamina for more, do you.”

“I have relationships,” Lance said coldly, “I’m just discriminating about who—“

“Discriminating, right, I mean there was that actor guy whatsisname. Oh, and let’s not forget Freddy.”

“What do you mean, Freddy?”

“Come on, Lance, you remember Freddy. Semi-evolved man-toy you took to Russia to keep you warm at nights. Assistant my ass, we all knew why he was there.”

"Then y'all are fucking crazy,” Lance snapped. “Nobody's gay in Russia. I'd have had no chance, none, of getting through training if they'd known—besides, I mean, Freddy? Jeez. Give me some credit here.”

“Credit for what? Not sleeping with that creep?” Chris rolled his eyes. “Fine. But since you’ve apparently slept with every other slut in LA, not fucking Freddy isn’t much to boast about.”

“And yet strangely, you wanted to join the long list of my one-night stands.” Lance smiled unpleasantly. “Or were you offering me hand and heart?”

“Oh, no, no, Bass, not going there.” Yes, he wanted to say, I want you mine, but that would be beyond humiliating when Lance had made it so painfully clear he wasn’t interested. “Besides, I thought Jesse offered you that, or was he really just doing your filing and answering the phones after all?”

“Why, no, Chris, Jesse was my lover. And very far from being a twink, as I think you know.”

“Didn’t keep him around, though, did you?”

“In the end being in love didn’t help. He knew there was always someone else who was more important to me.”

“What do you mean, someone else?” No. No. “You had someone else while you were with Jesse?” That did not make sense. They’d seemed so happy together. Fuckers.

“That’s right. I’ve been hopelessly in love with someone for thirteen years,” Lance snarled. “Didn’t imagine I could have that kind of stamina, did you? So you’ll get why I’m not interested in leftovers.”

Was he serious? Was he serious? This had to be Lance jerking his chain, didn’t it? Thirteen years? No way. “Who?”

“In the circumstances, I don’t think that’s any of your fucking business, do you?” The green eyes glittered with hostility. “Console yourself with the thought that you kissing me didn’t make me feel,” he laughed briefly, “dirty.” And he left, closing the studio door carefully behind him.

Chris sank down, rested his back against the mirror, closed his eyes. Fuck, he was stupid. He was a stupid, romantic sap and he should have been smart enough to realise that a kiss from him wasn’t going to warp Lance’s anything-but-fragile psyche. And he should have been smart enough not to get into a pissing-off contest with Lance, who when provoked was capable of more viciousness than anyone else Chris knew. And hell. He should have known Lance was... how was that possible? How was that in any way possible? Lance had had a secret, what, a secret crush for thirteen years? Or had he been lying, to wind Chris up?

Chris didn’t think it had been a lie. In his experience, anything that devastating always turned out to be true.

Thirteen years too late.

Chris wanted to go back to that moment, that perfect moment between please and don't, when he'd had everything in the world that mattered.

Ten minutes later, he forced himself to his feet, and went home.

* * *

"I mean, it sounded like you were saying, you know, that two of us were married. To each other."

"No, I think—"

"Not that that would be bad," Chris went on, ruthlessly, "I mean, we're all really cute, so it wouldn't be so bad to be married to one of these guys. Well, not Joey, obviously. And Justin is too high-maintenance, but Lance and JC are cool."

"Also, married," Justin mentioned, without any expectation of diverting Chris from his chosen subject.

* * *

Final pose. Five voices, two keyboards and Ruben's guitar held the last note while the bass spiralled down until Billy crashed the final cymbal. Pyro. Lights off. Run.

"And... that's it. That's it."



Last day of hell week, final dress, all done. Ready to go. Good to go.

Fantastic to go.

* * *

It was great to be opening in Orlando: no bus tonight, no soundcheck tomorrow. So—champagne at his place and a quick dissection of tonight's rehearsal while the adrenalin was still outvoting the exhaustion, then bed bed bed. Heading out of the dressing room in JC's wake, Justin heard his name and turned, surprised. Lance was the only one left, and Lance was standing two paces from him, looking at him with an indecipherable expression on his face. A moment later, Lance had both his arms round Justin and was hugging him tight. A voice, low, in his ear: "Thank you. Thank you."

Startled but pleased, Justin hugged tentatively back. "Uh—what for?"

"Making it happen. Wouldn't have happened without you."

"Hey, you know, we all made it happen. I just got the ball rolling."

"Yeah, you did. Thanks, J. You know—you know I love you, right?"

Justin hugged harder. "You too, man, I love you too."

“I’m sorry I was, you know. A shit. Before.”

“It’s okay. Forget it. I mean, I was a shit too, and everything’s cool now.”

“Well, anyway. Thanks.”

Justin gave him another squeeze before they broke the hug. Then there was fumbling for minor possessions, checking for keys in pockets, etcetera, before stepping into the hall. Justin paused in the doorway.

"This is going to be the best tour yet, man, you know?" He strode off down the corridor.

* * *

"We actually have a ménage a trois," Chris continued helpfully. His four bandmates were all looking elsewhere in carefully simulated indifference, so Larry was on his own. "Except we don't live together, because JC is a pain to live with." JC put his head into his hands, and started to shake. "He's really tidy, unnaturally tidy, I think he has a phobia or something, and he makes weird chewing noises while he sleeps and he has a thing about melons. What? No, I'm fine, thanks JC, I have another arm. Sheesh. So anyway, hmmmffrg."

Lance, with his hand firmly over Chris's mouth, smiled at Larry King.

* * *

"And I thought it was Joey."

Lance jumped. When he turned, Chris was standing by the door, staring at him with eyes like stones.

"What was Joey?"

"Your great unspoken passion. The one you've been in love with all this time. Jesus fucking Christ, Lance—Justin?"

"Wait, what are you—you thought I was in love with Joey? Are you ins—no, forget I asked. Of course you're insane."

"No, 'cause you haven't spent practically every waking moment with Joey since you auditioned for us. You didn't drag him off to fucking Canada to make that damn movie, you weren't best man at his wedding, you haven't seen every show he's ever been in like, a hundred times, you didn't step in to bail out that film last year to make sure it didn't go down the tubes—of course I thought you were in love with him!" Chris hissed.

"You are fucking nuts, you know that? Do you seriously think I could have been his best man, and Bri's godfather, come to that, if I wanted him for myself? Am I a complete masochist, Chris? No! Jesus! And Joey would never have asked me, either, he wouldn't treat me like that."

"No. Well. Of course. Joey's a good guy. But you fall for J, and you're gonna get hurt, you just know... why couldn't you have, huh." Chris flailed angrily around the dressing room.

"For the record, I am not now and nor have I ever been in love with Justin."

"Then what the hell was that? That—that love scene right there!"

"That was—that—I needed to—Chris, are you... are you jealous? Because you know, Justin, straight. Completely. Sad loss to queers everywhere, but not going to swing this way. So if you’ve been hoping—“

"Jealous?" Was Chris's voice just a bit higher than usual? Was there something defensive about the way he was standing there, almost as if he was about to run? "No! It's just, Justin, man, he's like my baby brother, which he practically was a baby back when we started, and you know he's never going to love you like that, why the hell couldn't it have been someone else you fell for? Thirteen fucking years in love with someone who doesn't know how to love you back?"

"Chris?" Hope, sudden hope, was a terrifying thing.

"Why the hell Justin, is all I'm saying."

"And I'm saying, not Justin. Hell's teeth, Chris, he was my kid brother too, fourteen going on forty and a pain in the butt and fucking perfect at everything, but no. Really, no."

"So, what, are you planning a secret rendezvous with everyone, now? Hugs and kisses all round, is it?" Lance had never seen Chris quite so furious, all caged energy and sparks. It was beautiful.

"You want what he just got, do you, Chris? Is that it? You want me to put my arms round you and tell you I love you?"

"Fuck you, Bass."

"Yeah, in my dreams."

"Ye—whuh? What?"

Deep breath. Up to the plate. Lance stepped up to Chris, put a tentative hand to his arm. "Because you know, you never said anything. I knew you slept with men since No Strings, but you never,” he cleared his throat, “there was never any sign that you, you never looked at me or anything, and I thought, I thought you never would want me."

Chris frowned. “And me kissing you wasn’t, you know, a sign?”

“Not, um. Not when you’d been drooling every time I sang that damned song, and looking like you wanted to get your wallet out and. I thought. I didn’t think you were serious and I, I wanted you to be. Serious.”

"Is that why you said don't? When I kissed you—you said—"

“I didn’t mean,” Lance muttered into Chris’s neck, “I just thought, all that stuff you said, about guys being good for c-casual sex, and did I take credit cards, and it was like you never thought of me as somebody worth keeping, and I couldn't—"

Chris stared, obviously confused, and enfolded an armful of Lance more or less automatically. "You want me? You want me? But—how? Why?"

"Because you're you, I guess. Possibly I'm defective. I don't think I know how to love anyone who isn't you. I thought you understood that. I mean, all this time... I thought you knew and you just didn’t, uh.”

"Moron," said Chris, and kissed him, quite thoroughly.

* * *

"What Chris meant to say," Lance explained kindly, "was that he hasn't found anyone outside of us four who'll put up with him. And since Justin is too high-maintenance and JC chews in his sleep and Joey is obviously impossible, I'm stuck with—er, I'm the lucky one." He rolled his eyes. "Oh, I'm single too, by the way."

"And I do not have a thing about melons," added JC. "I have a thing about grapefruit. Chris knows this."

"Mmmrph!" said Chris. Larry King smiled at that nice Lance Bass, who still had a hand firmly over Kirkpatrick's mouth.

"There you go," said Joey, grinning, "Lance and Chris are going to live happily ever after. Either that or Lance is about to lose a finger."

* * *

"What happened to you guys last night? You missed the tape, and we drank all the champagne," Joey said when Chris and Lance arrived next day.

Chris gave a slightly bewildered smile. "Uh, better things to do," he said. Joey eyed him thoughtfully. Chris looked, hmm. As though he’d had his bones melted in the night, or something.

"Don't mind him," said Lance, throwing an arm over Chris's shoulder. "He's happy. He's just not sure how to deal with it." And grinned like someone who could melt bones.

* * *

"So to sum it up," said Larry, sounding far too pleased with himself, "you're back in synch."

"Yeah," said Justin. "We're back."


Partial song listing for ‘JUST GOOD FRIENDS’

'Outrun the Lightning' Kirkpatrick/Timberlake
‘Just Good Friends’ Bass/Chasez/Kirkpatrick
'Dreams' Bass/Chasez/Fatone/Kirkpatrick/Timberlake
'All Night Shimmy' Chasez/Timberlake
'Canary in a Coalmine' Sting
'Dancing in the Street' Stevenson/Hunter/Gaye
'What are you doing the rest of your life?' Legrand/Bergman
'Love for Sale' Porter


Back to Popslash Index
Back to Alternative Popslash Index