It started in a living room with bad acoustics, in Orlando. Well, no, it started in a cramped audition room, a few years earlier and a few miles away. No, no, where it really started was in the back seat of a car when Justin was a toddler, the first time he sang along with the radio and got impromptu applause from his parents, up front.
He remembered how that felt, remembered how it made him want to be better, want to make them smile wider, clap harder. Not just because it made him feel good, but because it made them feel good, too.
Then came the audition, then the group, then the big success of the group, the bigger success of the group, and so many changes in his life that it would take longer to list them than to live them. But one thing, at least, one thing never changed.
Backstage is backstage is backstage, and Justin still thought if you'd seen one, you'd seen them all. Stadium concert. Broadway show. It was all rushing bodies and clothes flying and hushed, harried voices. But it never got old, never got tired. It gave him that same rush every time.
"Timberlake," said Joey and hugged Justin against his sweaty body. He smiled from ear to ear and no one could make that expression seem quite so literal as Joey.
"God, Joey," he said, snorting and pushing him away. "Have some respect for the suede."
"You wear suede into my backstage, you take your chances," laughed Joey, tugging him back again, and Justin could have jerked away but he didn't. It was Joey. It was... Joey. That was all. "It's good to see you."
"Good show," said Justin. It was, if a little dull. But it was Joey's first non-musical and so of course he made time to see it. "I went by your place this afternoon. Saw Kelly and Briahna."
"Oh yeah?" said Joey, and when he pulled away he tugged Justin toward his changeroom. Justin just went along; seeing Joey in varying states of undress was nothing unusual. "Did she invite you to her birthday party? She's been inviting everyone. I think she even invited the building maintenance man when he came up to fix the bathroom sink."
She had, holding out her whole hand, all five chubby fingers outstretched, to tell Justin how old she was going to be. Justin had told her he would try to be there, and even though he was pretty fully booked for the next week, he would. Some moments you just didn't want to miss, and some faces you couldn't bear to disappoint.
"As long as he brings a present, I think that's okay," Justin said, and shut the door behind them as Joey stripped off his undershirt, his costume shirt already stowed safely away, to either be washed or fumigated, whichever did the most good. "She still in her Barbie phase?"
"No, no," said Joey. "She's into racecars now. They grow up so fast, man, girls, they do. They change their minds so fast, about what they want. So racecars, racecar stuff. You gonna make it?"
"Maybe," said Justin, and he meant it as much telling it to Joey as he had telling it to Briahna.
"So...how are things?" he asked.
"Things," repeated Justin, bobbing his head and contemplating the exact sense in which the word was meant. "Things are good. Studio's done, renovations done, so I'm, you know, home more. It's good."
"Is good," said Justin promptly. Lance was a part of things, and things were good. "Glad I'm home more. But I'm sure he's told you that."
Joey grunted and that was a 'yes but I'm not going to say so', which Justin didn't push. It didn't matter, wasn't his business. Lance and Joey's friendship was separate from his and Lance's relationship and that was good. That was okay.
"I gotta hop in the shower," said Joey, sniffing at himself for no good reason. "We'll...there'll be people outside, we gotta stop for a while, but after? We'll get food?" Of course they would stop, both of them, even though it would be Joey's crowd. It would mean something to them, that they took the time, and it meant something to Justin that they waited.
"Yeah," said Justin. "Thanks, Joe."
They rattled around the house sometimes like the last two nuts in a jar, sometimes bumping into each other, always repelling immediately after. There was plenty of space to fill and plenty of other places to be. But always, in the end, no matter how much things had been shaken up, they ended up right next to each other again.
Justin had almost forgotten what it was this time. He'd probably said something wrong, when there were other people around, and Lance had waited until now, until the house was empty, to do something about it. The house hadn't been empty in a couple days.
They always talked about making the group anniversary parties just the five of them but they never did. Partly because five wasn't much of a party but mostly because it was more than just the five of them that got them where they are, and they all remembered that. People came and people went but there were always people, and some familiar faces every time they went on the road, and they liked it like that.
So twelve years now, which Chris insisted was some kind of important number necessitating a big bash. But then, Chris insisted that every number was an important number, and somehow his big bashes were never at his own home. Twelve years. And suddenly, when Justin really thought about it, twelve did seem like a big and important number.
And fighting with Lance seemed like something he should just get over with, so they could get on with their day.
Justin finally found him downstairs playing pool, at the table right next to Justin's studio -- their studio, but Justin's studio, really -- and Justin thought that was maybe the point. Lance calmly pocketed the last two balls on the table before even acknowledging that Justin was there.
"Cleaners gone?" he asked calmly as he set the balls up again.
"Yeah, gone," said Justin. They'd been gone for a while. It wasn't the best way to start a conversation if Lance didn't want it to be awkward, and Justin wasn't sure that Lance didn't want him to be uncomfortable. "You can practice all you want but you know you're still not going to beat me at this."
Lance grunted and set the bottom of his pool cue against the floor with a crack, leaning his weight on it. "I heard you talking to JC," he said. "About, you know. Things. New songs."
"Yeah," said Justin, and licked his lower lip, biting at a dry patch. "I've got some new stuff." Lance nodded and there was an awkward silence.
"We're just getting settled in," he said finally. "Here. You and me. Finally some time to ourselves."
"That's what the studio's about, Lance. Being able to work and still be here. Right?"
"The studio's about you wanting a studio in your house," insisted Lance. "Because everyone has one--"
"--and because I like that I can wake up at four in the morning and come down here and work on something if like," interrupted Justin. "Where are we going with this, Lance?"
Lance sighed and racked the cue before answering. "You're gonna do another one, aren't you?"
Justin didn't have to see him staring at the studio and not him to know what he was talking about. "Yeah," he said honestly. "Yeah, I'm gonna do another one."
"You really want to that much?"
"I really want to that much," he said. "You know that, Lance. You've always known that. We can...we'll talk about it this time, though. Things are different now, I know that, it's not going to be like it was last time." Except it was, only different.
"Love you, Justin," said Lance, and he sounded tired. Things weren't easy between them, sometimes, but they worked. "Come on, let's go out for dinner."
Justin had JC's CD in his Discman as he bounced up the stairs to meet him. Bounced because he could, because he felt good, was feeling groovy, even. The CD made him feel good, even though he got the occasional twinge when he recognized a phrase or a lyric, recognized what it meant and who it was about.
The twinges were few and far between, though, because most of the CD he knew he just really didn't get. Half of JC's CD was about Chris, and half was about himself, and that was all Justin knew about it. They were an on-again, off-again, sometimes kind of thing and they didn't share details with him. It was a private sort of CD made in a public way and it worked, for what it was. But JC had no plans to make another.
Justin was seated with JC within moments, the maitre d' as solicitous as they always were when he was in the spotlight. When they were in the spotlight. There was no commotion, like there might've been once, but he still felt like a star. He smiled winningly at him, and then at JC in turn.
JC's new favorite sunglasses were firmly in place and he was basking, just basking, in the mid-day sun. He didn't say anything at all.
"I've got some great ideas for the new tour," Justin said, filling the silence. The new album was at number two, and that was pretty good, and before they knew it they would be on the road again. "Did you order yet?"
"Just drinks," said JC, holding up his own as if it was a toast. "You're getting the same thing you had last night, that...what did you call it? I described it to them and they seemed to know what I was talking about."
Justin momentarily worried just what he would be getting to drink, but whatever, not important. "I promised Chris no descending from the ceiling this time," he said, "so okay, that's out. But you know, I kinda wanted to go non-gimmick. No pyro to start out with, nothing like that. Just us and some mikes and just hit it, straight off, give people what they came to hear, you know?"
"Yeah," said JC. "Yeah. You got more? Man, you should be telling this stuff to Joey, he's getting all worked up about it, too. He got some ideas from some show he was in, how to stage it. Or actually...he was talking about it last night, were you there then?"
Justin might've been, but he didn't remember well enough to know what Joey might've been talking about. "But okay, my ideas first, okay?"
"Of course," said JC, and Justin really was into it. Really was excited about this tour, and every tour, and every time. There was just something about it, that brought everything around, made the whole experience complete. He gestured broadly as he described the stage, described some of the dance moves he wanted them to try that he'd seen somewhere and thought were cool, even some costume ideas for the new numbers.
"I mean, we're a bunch of twenty-something guys, right?" he said. "We should be able to take some chances like that."
"Oh," said Justin. "Well, but you know what I mean."
"I do," said JC. "I do. Those are some good ideas, I think we should try them."
"Well, you know, try not to be so enthusiastic about it."
JC grinned at him sheepishly. "No, I am, I really am, there are just...things. Other things. On my mind. Nothing you need to worry about."
Justin may have doubted that, but he wasn't going to push the issue. So obviously not his business. "It'll be good to be on the road with all of you again," he said instead. "Be with everyone."
"You really ready to start having us throwing socks at your head again every time you and Lance smooch? Ready to have people screaming your name so loud you almost go deaf? Ready to barely be able to get a bite to eat without someone interrupting you?"
"Ready?" repeated Justin with a broad grin. "I'm looking forward to it. I love it. It's great."
"Even the socks?"
"Especially the socks."
"So thanks," Chris was saying, looking away from the tinted window of the limo and back at Justin. "For doing this with me. It's no fun going on the radio without someone to poke and prod and tease and hide behind when the DJ gets mean."
"You've never hid behind anyone in your life," said Justin, and Chris hadn't. He was always right out front, when it was his choice. Like now, working with a charity for disadvantaged kids and Chris was right out there, making sure everyone saw his face and heard his voice and knew all about it.
"Hard to see from behind," he said, and slapped Justin's knee. "Hey, you remember that thing we used to do when we were on radio shows, with the mikes and the headset goggles?"
"That was cool," said Chris, and let out a contented sigh. "We should do that again."
"What?" laughed Justin. "What are you, five? They'll tack you up to the wall if you try something like that." Chris was grinning like a loon, though, and Justin wouldn't put it past him to try it.
"Look," said Chris, pointing at the window, and it was like that old gag where you looked away and someone did something behind your back, but Justin looked anyway. "There are people waiting."
There were. Not the kind of crowd the used to get, but still, people waiting outside the doors of the radio station as they pulled up, and Justin hoped they had time to stop and chat.
He took a picture with everyone who wanted one, and goofed off with Chris until security told them to knock it off before someone got hurt, and it still didn't take all that long but it was good.
He was mostly just there to keep Chris company, since he was the one of them in the area at the time, and so Chris talked about his charity, and he talked about the group, and when the DJ asked him about solo work he said no, he'd leave that to JC and Justin.
Justin knew that wasn't true, that Chris had recorded a full album's worth of tracks. Justin had listened to them all, every one of them, but Chris didn't plan to release any of it. It was enough that he'd done it, and he liked it, and Justin understood that and didn't understand it at the same time.
When they cut for a commercial break, Chris moved his headset around so it was like huge pair of goggles and grabbed hold of the swiveling mike like it was a gearshift and started making vroom vroom noises.
Justin snorted and watched him for a minute, and thought about the webcam that was catching every move they made. Then he just giggled and twisted his own headset around and joined him.
Justin thought maybe the screams tasted even sweeter at thirty than they had at twenty, if that was even possible.
On stage and the noise was deafening and everyone was there, just everyone, the fans--the real fans, the ones who've stuck with them all these years--and his family and the crew--Anthony, they got Anthony back and it was great--and his best friends in the world right there on stage with him and it filled him right up, the enormity of it.
There was a pause between numbers and Chris had mischief in his eyes and a grin on his face and Justin knew, he just knew, what was coming next.
"Justin here, he won't want me to tell y'all, but he just turned thirty," said Chris, and Justin tried to glare but it didn't quite come off that way. The crowd roared. "What, you think I don't remember you laughing at me, man?"
It was two days ago, really, his birthday, and he celebrated in New York before crossing coasts and celebrating again with only a wink and a half of sleep. Lance and him only celebrated together the day before.
"Guys, guys. Please." Justin held his hands up, and the crowd actually got louder. "There's no need to rub it in."
But apparently they thought there was, and each of them, the other four, they'd been in this moment. And it was a celebration. Because they'd made it, they were there, they were all there. And they were still the same as ever, Chris staring at him with a smirk and Lance shoving him for it and Joey and JC shoulder to shoulder, snapping a picture for some fans on the other side of the stage.
Chris was the one to start the song, a version of Happy Birthday that started out solo and ended up shaking the very rafters of the arena. He could hear the song in at least six different keys but it didn't matter, it just didn't matter, and Justin had to turn away before the song got the better of him.
After they finished, he turned back to face the crowd, and the other four guys were staring him in the face, from center stage. All the faces, a sea of faces clapping and shouting and still, each of them had a face he could see and they were all happy, and he put a hand over his eyes. He brought the mike back to his lips. "Thank-- just. Thanks. Thank you."
He's said 'thank you' to the crowd after every number since he was fourteen years old. Thirty now, thirty and staring out to cheers. Over half his life giving thanks to the crowd, for the continual crowds, and he meant every fucking word, he means it every time.