Justin woke up to the gentle rocking motion of the bus and the sound of Lance shouting at him to "stop fucking snoring already, you loudmouthed bastard".
"What did you call me?" he said, but no one answered, not directly, though Joey murmured "Sh'up," in his sleep, in his Joey way that was nearly as loud as if he'd been awake. In fact, no one was awake to answer him.
And Lance was snoring lightly, which made Justin feel at least a little vindicated, even if Lance would never remember sleep-accusing him.
"Stop fucking snoring yourself," he muttered, and got out of his bunk and shoved Lance's shoulder. Hard. But not so hard that he didn't have plausible deniability when Lance eventually awoke. Lance always did.
"What?" Lance snapped, and lashed out blindly with one arm, catching Justin on the nose with his fingernail.
"Oh my God, did you just scar me?" he said, clapping his hand over his nose. "Did you just scar me the day before we open for Janet Jackson?"
"You complete freak you complete vain selfish freak."
Lance tried to put his pillow over his head but Justin snatched it away from him. "You think you can call me a freak and I'll let you get away with it?"
"I did not call you a freak, you freak," said Lance, snatching the pillow back again. "even though you quite clearly are. What's wrong with you anyway? Did Chris look at you cross-eyed or something?"
Justin did what Justin did best -- he pouted and looked pretty about it. "That's not funny," he said.
"No, none of this is funny," agreed Lance. "Especially not the fact that you woke me up in the middle of the night to complain about how Chris never notices you. Go back to sleep."
"I don't want to sleep now," said Justin. "This is your fault."
"Freak, freak, go back to sleep goddammit before I do scar you."
"God," said Justin. "Do you have to keep calling me names? You're the one who woke me up!"
"Sh'up!" said Joey again, even louder, and since Lance wasn't answering at all and Justin didn't want to wake everyone else, he threw himself into his bunk again and squeezed his eyes shut and willed himself to sleep.
"There's food, right?" said Joey. "Was that Justin's shoe I just stepped on? Better just kick it under the bench."
"If there isn't food," said Lance dryly, "someone is going to die for waking me before we arrived. Since I was already woken up once last night."
"Pish, you're all talk," said Chris lightly. "You've never had anyone killed."
"Prove it," said Lance.
"Wait, wait," interrupted Justin, pushing his way up to the front of the bus. "Let's get back to my shoes for a minute..."
"Your what?" said JC. "Justin needs more sleep, he's losing it."
"My shoes," said Justin, "my shoes that Joey just mutilated."
"I didn't mutilate your shoes," said Joey, but he couldn't help looking guilty, Joey never could. "How did he know? He couldn't have seen."
"I know because you said you did," said Justin, giving JC a light shove on his way by. "And why are you all being so mean to me? You're talking about me like I'm not even here."
"Nobody's talking about you, Justin," said Chris. "If Justin's ego gets any bigger we're going to need another bunk."
"You are!" cried Justin. "You just did!"
"Uh, maybe you should get some more sleep, man," said JC.
"My God, that kid is a freak," said Lance. Except Justin was looking right at him, and Lance's lips hadn't moved a bit.
Justin moped on his bed. Or at least he tried to look like he was moping, since everyone seemed to be expecting him to be, and honestly he wasn't that moody, just because he didn't like the way JC was looking at him and spent half an hour getting the Joey-scuff off his shoe and scowled at them all for the rest of the ride.
If he looked like he was moping, then nobody would know that he was listening to them. If listening was really the right word for it when it had become increasingly clear over the course of the day that he was listening to what was inside their heads. Or some of it, anyway, like the moments when you're tuning the radio and suddenly something comes through loud and clear, only to vanish into static again.
Chris and his mother were talking quietly near the door, quiet enough that Justin couldn't really hear them and he probably didn't want to since Chris and his mother mostly only talked about boring things. Except Justin kind of wanted to know anyway because it was Chris and... oh god, what if Chris could read his thoughts.
A moment later it was obvious he couldn't, though, because the moment Justin thought that the image of Chris stark naked, stepping out of the shower came into his head and if Chris had read that in Justin's thoughts, surely he would have looked over and wouldn't have been able to laugh so casually at Justin's mother's probably-lame joke.
"I should make sure Justin packed his blue shirt," his mother said, and it sounded just like her only inside Justin's head, and he was starting to be able to tell the difference. He'd packed the shirt, and almost said so until he realized he didn't really want his mother looking at him like a freak like the other guys had been all day.
It took forever, till the end of their conversation, but finally Chris looked over at him, and Justin tried to casually look somewhere else, and Chris thought, "Justin looks sad I should come back early and do something with him he looks good in that sweater."
Justin tried not to smile, but as soon as the two of them left the room he didn't hold back. This was great.
"I think Chris likes me," said Justin, right when he knew Lance was on the cusp of falling asleep. He always got that look on his face, open-mouthed, slack-muscled, eyelashes twitching. It wasn't particularly flattering, especially when he had his head lolling on the back of the chair. Really, he should thank Justin for not leaving him like that.
Motherfucker, thought Lance, and struggled to sit up. "You what?"
"I think Chris likes me back," repeated Justin, twitching a little. "And I can hear your thoughts."
The little Mama's Boy freak woke me up for this bullshit? Lance rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. He had a little eyeliner on; it smudged. "Justin," he said firmly. "I am going to bed."
"No, no, I'm serious," insisted Justin, jumping up and grabbing Lance's arm. "I can hear your thoughts."
"If you can hear my thoughts," said Lance, yanking his arm back and rubbing it like Justin had actually hurt him or something, "what am I thinking right now?
Justin frowning. Nothing. "Well, I don't know," he admitted. "But sometimes I can, I can tell, like earlier today."
Someone needs to keep this idiot on a leash until he's at least eighteen no twenty.
"Like that!" said Justin triumphantly. "You just thought that I'm an idiot!"
"You don't need to be a mind-reader to know that," said Lance, and slammed the bathroom door.
Justin shovelled another spoonful of cereal into his mouth and wiped a drip of milk off his bottom lip with his thumb and tried not to think about how even Joey thought he was a real asshole in the morning.
JC said "Good Morning, Justin" and thought I wonder how fast I can get away from him without looking like a jerk and he was the nicest of them all. Justin was glad his mother wasn't there. He didn't think he could bear to know what she really thought of him.
"Morning, Chris," said Joey, and Justin looked up hopefully.
"Hey, Joe-man." God I hope Timberlake is still in bed and damn there he is better say something quick before he gets all twitchy. "Morning Justin. Anything good for breakfast?"
Justin stared at him, speechless, then shovelled another mouthful of cereal in so he wouldn't have to answer. Clearly no one really expected him to anyway. So much for Chris liking him back. He probably just wanted Justin to lend him the sweater.
Typical, Chris thought, before Joey answered him and they were on to other things. Justin didn't catch a stray thought from any of them. Not one.
"Oh my God," he blurted out, right as the thought occurred to him. "It's about me!"
Oh, for fuck's sake."Justin, we are not taking about you," said Chris. And they weren't thinking about him, either, and that, apparently, made all the difference.
"Exactly," said Justin, and he stood up and left, before they did again.
"Justin, you need to stop looking completely miserable," said Lance. He might've also thought something about being worried about him, but what Justin heard loud and clear was I hope make-up can do something about this.
"I still look better than you," Justin snapped back at him, and lunged for the mirror. He didn't. "Stop thinking about me."
"What?" What's up with Justin now? It always has to be something with him.
"I said stop!" said Justin. "It hurts my head when you think about me."
"I thought it hurt your ego when we didn't," said Lance. At least he said it out loud, even if he was being a jerk about it.
"I was wrong," Justin blurted out. "About Chris. He doesn't like me after all."
"Justin," said Lance. Lord, give me patience, Justin is too young to die. "Chris is your best friend. He doesn't hate you."
"Well, he doesn't like me, that's for sure," said Justin. "None of you like me."
"What, why would you even think that? Have you been eavesdropping on people, again, Timberlake? You know no good ever comes of that. They probably weren't even talking about you."
"No, you were," said Justin, and sniffed, and refused to come even close to crying. "Well, you were thinking about me, anyway."
Lance rolled his eyes, but there was no accompanying mental commentary for once. "Justin, you can't read people's thoughts, okay? I know you think you can tell by looking at them, but you can't. And convincing yourself you know all this stuff is driving you crazy. Crazier."
Justin could, he knew he could, even if Lance didn't believe him. "And we meet Janet Jackson in an hour," he went on, shifting the subject with the subtlety of a bulldozer, "and I look terrible. And even if he hates me, Chris still has a really nice ass when he wears those pants with the hole in the pocket. It's probably going to make me hard, and then he'll know and everyone will know. I'm going to get a stiffie in front of Janet Jackson, and then she'll know too and the whole world will know that I'm in love with a guy who thinks I'm an asshole in the morning."
"You are an asshole in the morning," said Lance. But you're our asshole Justin and you think we don't got your back? "Besides, it's Janet Jackson. Every guy on the crew's got a hard-on for Janet, it's not like you're gonna stand out."
"Oh," said Justin. For the first time in, like, ever, maybe Lance was a little smarter than him. "And I don't look that terrible."
You look like the ghost of a two-days-dead heroin addict. "No, not that bad," Lance agreed. "Go on, get ready, already."
Justin liked the heat of the lights on his face, liked the sweat trickling down his back as they danced hard and loud and got everyone going. It was Janet Jackson's show, but there were people there for them, too. Signs and painted faces and even a couple of bared breasts, maybe, though those were probably for Joey. And even if JC thought Justin's flat again after the last number, there was a wave of Omigod Justin's so hot that almost made up for it. Almost. The Where's Janet already seemed to come from further away, at least. It made it easier to ignore. Almost.
Justin wasn't moping this time, even if Lance said he was and closed the curtain to his bunk in a huff. He was just being quiet. That wasn't so strange, no matter what they said. Thought. Whatever.
What's wrong with Justin? JC poured a tall glass of apple juice and wandered away.
Was Justin always that pale? Joey got on his cell phone to his girlfriend and ignored everyone else.
Justin looks tired. Chris searched for the book that Justin now had hidden under his pillow.
"Can't sleep yet," he murmured, loud enough for Chris to hear. If he wanted to hear. "Still too wired."
Chris nodded sympathetically and thought, He doesn't look too wired though. Chris didn't know everything. "Hell being herded back onto the bus right after," he said, sitting down across from him. "Especially since we won't be getting into Chicago until tomorrow."
"At least JC showered," said Justin, and gave Chris a tiny smile.
"Yes, thank God for small favors," agreed Chris. "What's up, J? You feeling all right? You want me to get your mom to switch buses over here?"
"No!" Justin said, too quickly. "No, I don't want my mom. I'm just winding down, Chris, can't you see that?"
"You look like you're already wound."
Justin snorted. "You want to just stay with me a little while?"
"Well, I kind of wanted to..."
"And I have to call my family to make plans for my birthday--"
"Just for a little while?" said Justin, and all but batted his eyes at him. He knew he was going to get his way, even before he heard Justin needs me right now, and Chris got comfortable.
"Sure, I got some time," he said. Justin might like that book. I should tell him about it when he finally lets me finish.
Justin chewed on his lip and tried to think of something to say now that he had Chris's undivided attention, but there wasn't really anything. He just wanted him there, and not somewhere else that he wouldn't be thinking about Justin at all.
Even if they were annoyed, impatient thoughts, as Justin had learned they often were. Including now.
"You really haven't been yourself since we started this tour," said JC, putting a brotherly arm around Justin's shoulders and steering him away from everyone else and toward an empty couch in the hallway. It looked ornate and uncomfortable, the kind put there for decoration and not for general use. JC didn't seem to notice.
"What do you mean?" protested Justin. "I've been myself! What have I done that's not like myself?"
JC squirmed uncomfortably. "We're just a little worried is all. You've been quiet. Have you been getting enough sleep? Is Lou giving you any trouble?"
"I haven't even seen Lou since we started the tour," said Justin, "and if I'm quiet maybe it's because you all want me to be quiet."
"Who ever said they wanted you to be quiet?" said JC. "It's kind of weird, to be honest. Are you feeling sick?"
"I'm not sick!" said Justin, leaping to his feet again. "And maybe you haven't asked me to be quiet and go away but you've sure thought it!" Chris should be the one doing this, he's the only one who can handle Justin when he gets like this. "And I'm not being like anything, I just know what you all really think of me now."
JC looked almost sorry for him. "What, and you've never thought you wished we'd go away sometimes?" he said. Justin was sure he hadn't. Well, only sometimes. "No one wants you to be anything other than what you are, Justin. We know you're young--"
"--and there's always been enough stuff making you have to act older than you are. Haven't we told you that before?"
"But I'm seventeen now. I'll be eighteen soon."
"Yes," said JC. "Yes, you are."
Justin sat back down. "Chris wishes I was older."
JC almost smirked. "Yes, well Chris wishes a lot of things about you, and he's just going to have to wait." Don't be in a hurry, Justin. Just remember we're all here.
Go to sleep already and stop making those awful noises and oh god you aren't jerking off are you with me right here?
"Obviously not." Lance groaned softly and sat up in bed, so Justin could see him. "What is it?"
"I really can hear your thoughts, you know."
"But, uh, only when you're thinking about me."
Silence hung in the room for a moment, then Lance started laughing. Loud. "You're serious," he finally got out. "You're really serious. It's like... it's like a massive black hole of teenage ego. Sucking in everything around you until it's all about you."
"You know, you're not that much older than me," complained Justin.
"Maybe," said Lance, "but it's enough."
"And you know that's not what I meant." But Lance was still laughing, even as he threw the covers off and joined Justin on the edge of his bed. "I just... I don't know why it's happening."
"Look, I'm sorry if I've been a bit of an ass about this," said Lance. " But you've got to admit, it's pretty funny."
"It's not! It's awful! I want it to stop!"
"I'm sure it is," said Lance, finally serious, though Justin was sure he could still hear the faint wheeze of suppressed laughter. "We've all been overworked, Justin. We're all kind of tired and cranky and out of it. Just take it easy, especially when we have some down time, and I'm sure all this... paranoia, or whatever... will pass."
"It's not--" Justin began, but it was no use. He'd probably be laughing his ass off too, if it had been Lance who'd come to him. "I think maybe it's a sign, or something."
"That... that I should be a better person, or something," admitted Justin. "So you'll all stop thinking nasty things about me."
Lance started laughing again, but quickly stopped himself. Which was lucky for him, Justin thought darkly. "Honestly, Justin, what people actually think is the craziest stuff. If you really could hear what they were thinking, it would probably all be garbage that you couldn't make any sense of. Like 'pretty purple raincoat tree beeping'."
"But I can!" Justin burst out. "Something's making it so that I can hear what you all think of me very clearly! And I think it's, like, trying to make me change who I am."
"Behaviour modification through mind control," muttered Lance. "I take back everything I ever said about Lou Pearlman. The man's a misunderstood genius."
Justin was starting to get that perfect-show high, the one he got when everything came together and nothing went wrong. He needed it, too, after his last couple days when nothing he did ever seemed to be right. The crowd was so into it, it was like there wasn't a body in the house impatient for the opening act to be over. Perfect.
JC's verse and Justin didn't try to outshine him, fading comfortably into the background. He caught Justin sounds great tonight from Chris and beamed and he didn't have to show anyone up to shine. His momma always taught him better than that, but she also always taught him he was special.
The thing of it was, so was everyone else.
"Joey don't even think about sneaking up on me, you know I can always hear you." Chris flung his extra pillow out behind him blindly. "If I find anything in, on or around my bed that shouldn't be there..."
"Even breakfast?" Justin interrupted him from just outside striking distance.
Chris dropped the pillow. Justin? But I have bedhead!
"Uh, Happy Birthday?" Justin offered as Chris started to drag himself up. "You'll probably want to eat it while it's hot. And besides, I've seen you" --naked-- "in the morning tons of times."
"I wasn't worried about that," lied Chris. "You brought me breakfast?"
"Well, uh, really room service brought the breakfast and I just picked it up and brought it over to the bed, but I think that should still count for something. I mean, it's morning."
Chris shoved the blankets back finally and sprawled there sleep-rumpled in his Scooby Doo boxers. "Gimme presents!" he said, his arms outstretched toward Justin, who brought the meal closer.
"I, uh, I'm sorry I've been so weird the last couple of days," he offered. "I know it's been annoying."
"No more than usual," Chris said, biting into the toast. His hair was everywhere; Justin was equally appalled and delighted.
"So I'm usually annoying?"
Chris grinned at him, toast stuck in his teeth. "No more than I am," he said. "This is... I really didn't expect you to do anything for my birthday. I mean, except the huge party that you all had better be throwing me later..."
"You mean you didn't expect me to do anything for your birthday," said Justin quietly.
Chris seemed to catch on that Justin wasn't quite as gleeful as he ought to be. "Not like this," he said, and it sounded honest. "I mean, we all know you're a big ol' romantic, but this seems more like the thing you'd do for your girlfriend. I wasn't even sure you'd remember my birthday."
"How could I forget?" said Justin, but he couldn't stop the blush.
"Oh," said Chris, not once looking away. "Oh."
"Yeah," admitted Justin softly. "So eat, already, you wouldn't want to let your present go to waste, would you?"
"Well, if this is all I'm getting, I'd better," said Chris, finishing off the toast.
"You could have more," Justin added. "If you wanted."
Chris stopped chewing and just stared at him for a moment, then grabbed his juice to wash it down and wouldn't quite meet Justin's eyes.
"Are you thinking about me right now?" Justin asked him.
Chris smiled slowly. "Probably more than I should be."
But Justin couldn't hear a thing. He smiled back.