Join the Club, Version 3
by Julad

A long long time coming, a PicProv that grew. This is the long version. Finished with Synchronik's relentless nagging, for which I am always grateful.

You don't know when you figured out that they were all gay. All four of them.

Now, of course, it seems like you always knew, but a part of your mind insists that you couldn't have believed it until you had the proof. You might have believed it about Lance, certainly, about JC, probably, about Chris, maybe, about Joey, possibly... but not all of them, surely? And you don't know when the evidence crossed over from suggestion into a cold, hard fact-- when Lance emerged after Joey from a backstage bathroom, wiping his mouth? When JC was in Chris' room when you banged for breakfast? When JC and Lance slouched two hours late into a party, with their hair messed and their skin glowing? Or perhaps you were really as surprised as you didn't act when you rode your new bike over to Chris' place, and he and Joey were sprawled naked on the living room rug, watching porn and drinking.

"It's not what it looks like," Joey says, fumbling for clothes which are, as you point out, mostly on the kitchen floor. You don't laugh, because it isn't funny. You keep your eyes fixed on your new shoes--Adidas, blue with silver stripes.

"You're too young to know about this," Chris says, looking wastedly disconcerted.

"Lance isn't too young," you blurt, and the look they both direct at you is one of surprise.

"JC's gonna freak," Joey says, finally getting his pants on. Chris hits him, and Joey starts, and then cringes.

"JC is, too," you say, barely a question, and they look at you and, slowly, nod.

"Okay, shit, this is bad." Chris vanishes around the kitchen corner, but his voice drifts back-- "Are you gonna be okay, Jus? 'Cause C has this thing about not wanting you to know until you're ready..." he trails off and you hear clothes sliding over skin, rough jerks of denim, and see the shadow of Chris hopping on one foot.

"Ready how?" you say, wishing somebody would press stop on the damn movie, with its cocks and asses and loud noises and disgusting slimy bodies.

"Not ready like that," Joey says quickly, and you don't know what "that" is, you really don't, but he rushes on. "Just, like. With Lance, he already knew, and you maybe, y'know, um, don't know, like, for yourself, not that I'm saying there is anything to know and probably there isn't, but if there's anything you don't know yet then it could be, um. It could make you make the wrong decision."

"Uh, what?" you say, and finally walk over to the couch and take the remote and turn the damn tv off.

Chris rushes back out, dressed, and slaps Joey on the back of the head. "God, shut up, Fatone." He turns to you, hands shoved deep in his pockets. "JC thinks you're impressionable, and that if you know we're all gay then you'll try to be gay too."

"Which would be a bad thing," Joey adds. "If you're not."

"Well, it wouldn't have to be a bad thing," Chris says, "but the older you were, the less likely that you'd do something that would mess with your head, you know?"

"And it would be less likely to mess with your head if you did do something," Joey continues.

Chris sighs and scratches his nose. "And even if you were... if you weren't ready, then it would be a bad thing."

"Because you're better off coming to it on your own terms," Joey says, and apparently they're finished, because they stand there and look at you expectantly. They're both barefoot, and you know they're commando under their pants because you can see their boxers on the floor, and Joey's chest is still bare, and Chris' neck has faint bite marks on it.

There's a smell in the room, and you don't know how to describe it, but you've smelled it before, lots of times, and now you think it smells like sex.

You think you want to leave.
"I'm cool," you say, backing towards the door. "I just--"

"Time," Chris says, nodding fervently. "Absolutely. You got it."

You can hear them both squeaking "shit. shit. shit!" as you pull the door closed behind you.

You're not cool, you are so not cool, and maybe you'd wondered about them before and maybe you already had a clue, but your clue bus didn't have a naked Joey with a naked Chris sprawled between his legs with his head on Joey's chest, and technicolour porn, and that smell on it. Well, actually your bus did have that smell on it, salty and tangy and a little musty, and you'd kind of associated that smell with four big noisy brothers and junk food rotting under the couch, and Joey pouring a whole can of beer into Chris' bunk, and having your hair pulled and staying up all night, which is kind of the problem.

You'd thought that was about you, about all five of you, but it turns out that it was four of them and one of you, and you weren't in the centre of something and you're pretty sure that shouldn't bother you as much as it does.

And your bike is so new that you can't find the brakes in time when a dog runs in front of you and a trashcan is in the way when you swerve and the wheels are a little bigger than you're used to and there's that sudden sick feeling as the world tilts and collides with you, and now your knees are bleeding like you're ten years old. That's how old you feel, right now.

The dog barks at you, and it's pretty obvious that it's not wishing you a happy birthday.

When you finally get home, your Mom is there looking worried, and she wails when she sees your legs and gets out the kit and sits you on the kitchen bench and stains two old towels, cleaning up the mess. You feel sick from the pain of riding home with blood pulsing out of you with every pedal, and the room swims wanly to the tune of her crooned reassurances.

"Mom, what do you think about gay people?" you ask, your stomach churning.

She studies you carefully, and looks nearly as disconcerted as Chris, and she's not drunk but her answer is very long and makes even less sense than whatever Joey and Chris were saying. She talks a lot about different kinds of love, and mentions Jesus but doesn't say anything about hell, and she knew you were going to Chris' place, so you guess she means that she knew, and she's cool, and that she wants you to try to be cool, too.

"I'm cool," you tell her, but you're glad anyway when she hugs you.

Your party is that night, even though you're not really in the mood anymore. If you hear "sweet fifteen and never been kissed" one more time, you're gonna hit somebody, not just because you've been hearing it since you were sweet fucking thirteen, but especially now that never-been-kissed has taken on a whole new... gender, one that suddenly makes it true. But you're good at smiling when you don't want to, and everybody seems to be having a great time.

JC and Joey and Lance and Chris all show up together, and you smile and hug and they smile and hug back and make jokes and at least you're not excluded from this, the unspoken understanding which amounts to "perform now, deal with shit later". You're a team of professionals, you realise with a great deal of pride, and that makes the laughter flow from your throat much more easily.

Your cousin brought two of her friends to the party, and one is really pretty, but she doesn't want to go into the garden with you, and you wonder if it's your fault, and if it's because you were trying too hard or not trying hard enough.

Later in the night, JC, very drunk, comes up and hugs you and says, "we love you", and you're now very drunk too, in spite of your mother's best efforts, and you say, "I love you too", and mean it. He hugs you for a long time, like something terrible has happened, like you might break if he lets you go. You feel his ribs slide under your hands as he breathes in and out, and his breath flutters on your neck, until your uncle comes up to say his goodbyes.

After you wave two more cars off, Lance, relatively sober, takes you aside and says,

"My pastor is really good. You know, to talk about anything."

"No, I'm cool," you say breezily, and pluck the beer from his hand. But as you drink, you decide to remember Lance's pastor, because you know Lance knows you well, and if he thinks you might need to talk about it, then he could be right.

Chris and Joey have obviously been drinking all afternoon, and have reached the state of long-term wastedness where tiredness balances their complete lack of inhibition, so they're functioning with a weird semblance of normalcy. You thought your mother would disapprove, but she's laughing at their jokes, and threating to kill them if they puke on her carpet, and you've hardly spoken to them but hardly anyone else is left, so you don't really have any excuse not to go over.

"JuJu!" Chris cries, and grabs you and kisses your cheek. "MMMMWAH!" The crazy glint in his eye made you expect it, because it's pretty normal for Chris, but you didn't anticipate how hot his lips would feel against your skin, and how shockingly lithe his body would feel where it pressed against yours. You laugh and push him off you, propelling yourself back into Joey. Joey slides his arms around you and his lips are amazingly soft on your other cheek, and it's so tender and warm and enveloping that you shiver and pull away.

Your mother is standing right there, and all you can think is what it must have been like, earlier--Chris wild like a firecracker and Joey stealing warmly over him like the late summer sun. And now you know you've never thought about it before, not really, because it feels like a switch has been thrown, and all you can think is, oh, shit, JC was right. I'm not ready.

Lance is there, though, blessedly calm and sober, and he takes you upstairs and puts you to bed and is careful not to touch you, and the fact that you're disappointed, that you want to know how he feels, too, is enough to scare you so badly that you scream at him to go away and leave you alone.

He leaves a half-bottle of bourbon on your nightstand, so you take his unspoken suggestion and drink as much of it as you can. You finally fall asleep on the bathroom floor, waiting to throw up.

You don't say anything the next day, because all you're willing to think about is work, work, work. They don't say anything, because they're waiting for you to talk first.

They don't touch you, but they don't touch one another, either. At least, not in front of you, and you don't think they're doing it when you're not there. You realise, after a few days of this, that you're liking the way you're the centre of things, and that it's hurting the group, so at lunch you nudge Chris for no reason, like you used to. He nudges you back automatically, and you open your mouth to say something like "I'm cool, so just do your thing already," but what comes out is, "sorry."

"We're sorry," JC says, looking earnestly at you.

"You're much too young for this," Chris tells you, looking suddenly his age, and alien. Lance looks sad and wise, and even though he's only got two years on you, he reminds you of school and how mature the seniors seemed, because they'd done their SAT's and driven cars and elected school presidents, and you hadn't.

Joey, on the other side of you, puts an arm around your shoulders, and somehow you always knew Joey was more than four years older than you, because he's nineteen in New York years. And JC's been to LA and been fucked over and come back, and that aged him a century, three years ago, when he was seventeen.

So you lost your virginity when you were twelve, and have fended off passes from women twice your age since you were thirteen. You smoked pot when you were nine and quit smoking when you were eleven. You're a pretty jaded fifteen, you know that, and think maybe it should be a good thing to feel as young as you really are.

You wish the feeling would go away, though.

You have so many damn questions; your head buzzes with them night and day. You almost call Lance's pastor, but he doesn't know the answers to any of them, so one night when the others are out clubbing, you knock on Lance's door, and ask if you can talk.

"Sure," he says, and clears some of his books off his bed and throws them onto Joey's, and you close the door and sit down when he pulls his legs up. It's obviously not just Lance's bed, though, and the other bed obviously isn't Joey's, because you've been in Stuttgart two days now, and the other bed is so completely covered with their crap from the bus that it couldn't possibly have been slept in.

The domesticity of this arrangement slams into you-- you've had plenty of sex but you've never had somebody come home and slide tiredly or drunkenly or hungrily into the sheets next to you, without any need for preamble. It's like Lance is married, you realise dizzily, because he doesn't even notice what the other bed implies. Lance is taking it for granted that his bed is also somebody else's, serenely unaware of his assumption that Joey will be right beside him when he wakes up.

It could just as easily be Chris or JC beside him in the morning, though. You've seen enough by now to know that these four only need two beds between them, and it doesn't matter to them who sleeps in which, or if somebody sleeps somewhere else for a night or two. You remember how it was when your parents were still married, and the screaming which happened when your father wasn't in your mother's bed all night, and the screaming which ended with your father sleeping on the couch, and you're struck by the calm civility of this arrangement. Chris might yell at Lance for squeezing his toothpaste in the middle, and Lance might throw all of Joey's laundry into the hotel hallway because his socks reek like the devil pissed on them, and they may all hate JC for a week because he's a whiny girl when he has a cold, but nobody is ever without somebody else to sleep with, if they don't want to sleep alone.

"How is it possible," you ask Lance, because it seems as good an opening question as any, "that you all. that you're all..."

Lance tilts his head to the side, and you know he's already thought over his answers to these questions. "It's not as surprising when you look at it as a cause rather than an effect." He grins, and gestures to his science textbook. "As a causal factor. Joey and Chris were already, you know, and so were Joey and JC. And Chris and JC hit it off, and there it was."

"And Jason?" you say, a little incredulously, because you'd always thought none of them liked Jason much, even though they never said it aloud, and he was friendly to you, and a good singer. It was a surprise to you when Jason quit, because Jason was even more ambitious than Chris, and had believed in Lou's power to make it happen for them.

Lance shakes his head. "Jason was... not cool, apparently." You laugh, maybe at yourself for being as uncool as you are right now, and maybe at Jason for failing where you've mostly succeeded. "And Chris pushed it--"

"as Chris does."


You've seen Chris decide to get rid of people before, and he's good at it. Chris is sweetness and light, unless he makes up his mind to be vicious. You have no idea what it took to make Jason quit, but you know whatever it was, Chris is capable of it.

"And then there was you."

You remember the auditions for the new bass singer, and how three guys were rejected, but only one was because he couldn't sing well enough. You can't even remember their names, but you remember the shared looks as they'd sung with them, and the guy with freckles and red dreadlocks who was a good rapper too, and so dorkishly funny that it came off as hip. Simon, you remember suddenly, because he also had the missing "n". Lou had said he was in, and you'd shrugged and nodded and thought that was going to be the end of it, until JC and Chris and Joey had all flatly refused to take him. "Bad vibe," JC had said, and Chris had folded his arms and raised an insolent eyebrow which promised the guy wouldn't last. You'd been confused by their sudden and mysterious solidarity. Lou had been really, really pissed.

And then Lance had come along, so tanned and pretty, a palette of summery browns, and screwed up his audition. You'd felt sorry for him but didn't object when Lou crossed his name off the list. The other three had protested, inexplicably, and demanded Lou give him more time. "Not my time," Lou had said, so Lance had come with you all to Joey's house, and swum in the pool and played records in the basement, and Chris had teased him and JC had given him the last sandwich, and he'd looked apologetic when he beat you in a swimming race, and Joey had bounced the ball at him in the driveway and said, "you're in". And as you warmed up with him for the second audition, the sound of him underneath Joey and JC and Chris was flawless, and you knew Lou wouldn't say no again.

"And then there was me," Lance agrees, nodding.

"But did they know?" This is another thing you can't figure out--they'd known Lance for ten minutes, and made up their minds. "Did you know?"

"Oh, yeah," he says, and shrugs. "After a while you get an instinct for these things."

You want to ask more--how long until, and how did it, and why isn't, and what if, and for God's sake, Lance, what about me? That last is the most important question, and you don't ask it because you already know that Lance is going to tell you that it's something you have to figure out for yourself.

The frantic buzzing in your head settles, though. You're not uncool, because the others have instinct, and Chris invited you and never tried to get rid of you, and Lance helps you with your homework, and Joey asks you over to swim, and JC makes your sandwiches just the way you like them.

"Thanks," you say to Lance, who looks surprised.

"No problem," he tells you. "But stop worrying, okay? You're cool."

And finally, you are.

"Is Lou cool?" you ask.

"Hell, no! Are you kidding me?"

You laugh, because you can see the irony--the group is unstoppable because you're five fingers of the one hand, and if four of the fingers are shockingly close together, then all the better to seize the world with. You've had success brewing in your collective palm since Lance's audition, and Lou is no fool, and knows it.

"What about Johnny?"

"He thinks it's 'unfortunate', but he's mostly cool."

"What about your moms?" you ask, and Lance grimaces.

"They're trying," he says, rubbing his forehead, "but who can blame them for thinking it's fucked up? It probably is."

You look down at the narrow bed you're both sitting on. Joey and Lance are big guys, and they could only fit if they were wrapped around one another all night.

It's not fucked up, you think wistfully. It's really... something.

So, it turns out, as the months hurtle by, that things become commonplace. It's not just Lance with Joey's beard burn on his cheek, and not just JC and Chris laughing inside the tiny bus shower. You realise one night when you bypass JC's room that you've absorbed the unspoken roster they have for picking up girls. That's another thing you've asked Lance about, and he said,

"it's part of the job."

"and besides," Joey added from the couch, "friction is friction, baby!"

"Yeah, well. There are worse jobs," Lance said, smirking.

You couldn't say how the system goes, but you know Lance picked up tonight, too, and Chris should have done it two days ago, but didn't. He'll make up for it by the weekend, though, you could bet your life savings on it.

The easy trading of partners doesn't seem so improbable once you realise that they're two steady couples and an array of casual flings. Soon you can guess when Lance and Joey will need space away from one another, and when JC and Chris are about to start a fight over something random and inconsequential. There's a rhythm to who sleeps where, and when JC tells Chris to "just please shut up for one fucking second," a breeze of realignment drifts over the room, and you can sniff it and know that it'll be Chris with Joey and Lance with JC, tonight. It's a nimble and neverending dance of accomodation, and they do it so unconsciously that you wonder if they're aware of its patterns at all.

At a party in Vegas, you point to a tall blond guy and whisper to JC, "he's hot for you." JC stares at you, and you look around the room with suddenly brighter eyes. You've got an instinct for things now, you notice with some surprise, and test yourself with Joey and Chris.

"Dude, you are good," Chris says, slapping your back, after you get eight out of ten right, and can also guess which one Joey likes best.

One day you walk into a room, and Joey and Chris are hitting one another with pillows, and shouting.

"I am!"

"No, I am!"

"No, I am!"

"No, fuckwit, I am!"

"No, fuckwits," Lance interrupts. "I am."

"Wrong again. I am," JC says, sounding bored.

"Are what?" you ask.

Chris hesitates, but Joey grins wickedly. "The best cocksucker."

"Oh," you say, opening the fridge and grabbing an apple. "You're all wrong. I am."

Nobody says anything and you think maybe that's settled the argument, but then Chris drops his pillow and folds his arms and says, "you are not."

"You couldn't know," you tell him, taking a huge, crunchy bite, and chewing it right in his face, "because you've never had the pleasure."

Chris looks stunned, and then laughs out loud.

"Ladies, we have a winner," Lance drawls, and JC applauds desultorily. Joey's grinning at you. You feel pretty cool.

Your sixteenth birthday, and there are butterflies in your stomach for the first time in years. Sweet sixteen and never been kissed--it's going to be horrible, but at least it's the last time you'll have to hear it. And maybe it's still half-true, if you count guys as well as girls, but you're determined to take care of the still-true half before the party.

You've thought about this a lot. You've planned it, even. You've decided on Joey, because he's the most likely to do it, and the least likely to laugh, and he has a beard, which is something you want to feel on your face. You figure the best approach with him is just plain asking, so when you're dressed and your hair is styled, you say, "hey, come here," and Joey gets up and follows you into your room. You close the door and lean back against it and take a deep breath, and are glad you chose honesty, because you don't have to hide your nervousness.

"What's up?" he asks, looking worried.

"Could you kiss me?" you say, looking straight at him.

His eyes look so soft, so liquid. "Why?" Chris would have joked, at this point.

"I'm sixteen now. I want to try it."

He watches your face, and you see it on his when he realises there's no reason to say no. JC would have come up with an excuse.

"Okay," he says, and places his huge, warm hands on your cheeks, and you feel his breath, cool as gel toothpaste on your lips for a moment before the kiss happens. Your eyes drift shut and your hands flutter to his hips as his mouth opens over yours and moves gently, beard tickling the corner of your mouth. Lance would have left it there, but Joey is never condescending, and his tongue flickers over your lips until you part them.

Then it's a real kiss, and you're kissing back, and you feel the blood in your veins throbbing, and the breath catching in your throat, and he thrusts deeply into your mouth and you meet that and match it, tugging on his body until it presses all along you into the door. There's a roughness to it that you like, and a boldness that turns you on, and an assuredness that you could learn to crave. He pulls away for a quick breath and dives in again, kissing you harder, sliding his hands down your face and across your chest and then around your waist to pull you closer to him. You're not hard yet but your hips want to thrust against his, and when they do he thrusts back, once, and sucks hard on your tongue, briefly, and then gently draws away.

You look at him, at his lips, at his mouth, and you know your eyes are glittering.

"Okay?" he asks, his hands still on your waist.

"Yeah," you say, and it surprises you that you're so breathless.

There's a hammering on the door that makes you both jump. "Justin," Chris hollers. "Are you ready?"

You and Joey step back and you yank the door open, catching Chris with his fist in mid-air.

"I'm ready," you tell him, and behind you, Joey laughs.

Your party is in some Paris record exec's mansion, with a glass-walled ballroom transformed into a dancefloor, and obsequious penguin-staff handing you drinks every five minutes. The light from the ballroom refracts all through the pool and gardens, turning it into a bright, dizzy wonderland.

You know maybe twenty of the two hundred people here, and couldn't care less, because tonight there are only four people who matter to you. After the speeches, Joey takes you by a fountain and kisses you again, slipping lightly into your mouth like champagne, and like champagne it tingles your lips and bubbles in your veins and wraps you up in warm, shivery bliss. Fortified by it, you take Lance's hands and lead him behind a hedge, touch his face with steady fingers, and kiss him long and slow and deep.

"Justin," he says, gently disentangling you, but you shake your head.

"Joey already kissed me twice," you tell him, and slide your arms around his neck. A smile steals lightly over his face, and he tilts his head to the side and leans in with parted lips. You stand there a long time, the two of you, and you drink deeply of him, drugged by the heavy, hypnotic grind of his mouth against yours as silver lights whirl past and you slow-dance together to the distant throbbing of the bass.

You find Chris on the dancefloor, and flirt with him first because you know he can't stop himself flirting back. He feeds you olives from his martinis, sliding his fingers over your lips as you swallow. You shake your hips against his, and not care that you're both turning heads, because Chris was doing it to two blondes when you arrived, and everyone can see that you're both wasted. Eventually the dance leads you into a corridor, and around the corner, and into an alcove, and to you climbing onto him and him swinging you around and slamming you against the filigreed wall and kissing you wet and dark and nasty until your whole body is numb with it, until all you can feel is your bitten lip, bleeding delightfully.

A giggling couple staggers into your seclusion and you both laugh, Chris a slow-motion blur of white teeth and grinning lips and glittering eyes. He takes your hand and leads you back to the party, where you're swallowed up by the crowd of jewelled women and suited men. Next time you catch a glimpse of him, he's found a blonde and a redhead, and you feel the glorious smugness of knowing it's not them he made out with, tonight.

JC wanders over to you, and you don't know what time it is but it's late, and he has his 'freshly-fucked' face on, mild and luminous, with a Mona Lisa smile sliding all over it. Lance, you guess, and when he puts an arm around your shoulders, the lingering scent of Armani cologne confirms it. You probably, you realise distractedly, smell of it yourself.

"C'mon," he whispers, and licks your neck lazily. You find the nearest bathroom and press him up against the basin, and you insinuate your thighs between his legs and he leans back against the mirror and lets you kiss him. He's boneless and pliable and doesn't do much more than open his mouth and accept your invasion into it. You make the most of his passivity, kissing him hard, and then soft, and then carelessly, licking his mouth wherever your tongue falls, just because you can.

Sweet sixteen and you have been kissed and kissed and then kissed some more, and you love it. You're walking on shimmering, silky air because of it, floating upwards in a blizzard of champagne and spinning lights and kisses, and you kiss them in the limo, all of them, clambering from one lap to another and turning your face up expectantly until a laughing mouth covers yours, and by the time you're in the elevator your eyes won't stay open but you've learned them by taste, Joey's rich warmth, and Lance woodsy and smoky, and the spice that is Chris and the undercurrent of electricity thrumming below JC's sweet mildness.

In the hallway by your room door, you reach for them again, Lance's coolness on your neck and JC lazily offering his tongue to your greedy mouth, and Joey's stubble roughing at your ear, and then Chris has you, and you're lost in a whirl of crackling explosions and sharp teeth. When he drifts out of your reach, you open your eyes, and your room door is standing open. This doesn't make sense, you think distractedly, because your mother is in there, sleeping, and when she left the party she said she'd see you in the morning. They know that, you're sure of it.

Your vision shifts across an oblique angle until it falls on Joey, with his arms around Lance's waist. Lance is leaning back into his chest, smiling fondly at you. Chris has JC against the wall, and is savaging his throat as JC's head falls back in abandon.

"Night," Joey says, stepping backwards, taking Lance with him. Lance waves and says,

"sweet dreams, JuJu,"

and you look at the door again, and the blackness beyond it, and you can't feel your feet. JC shoves Chris off him, and they both laugh to one another, low and full of promise.

"Night, birthday boy," they chorus, and JC has his hand on Chris' ass, casually possessive.

"Night," you say, automatically, with the world tilting and sliding out from underneath you. The blackness through your open door seems suddenly more welcoming than the bright hallway with its retreating couples, carelessly entwined and not looking back.

You walk inside and you don't understand, and you don't switch the light on but you can see the outline of your bed, and you thought you were cool and you thought they knew you were ready, and your mother is asleep and now that you're sixteen she won't be coming on any more tours with you, and what, will you always come home to an empty room once she's gone? Every single fucking night, cold and vacant because five is an odd number and the others already have their room-sharing arranged to their satisfaction?

You sit on the bed and pull your shoes off, and your stomach suddenly doesn't feel so good and your eyes are stinging and your lips feel raw, abused, and you thought you were cool, and you don't fucking, fucking, fucking understand.

"Honey?" your mother asks sleepily, struggling to sit up, and you try to think of the words which will put her to sleep again, but no words come. "Justin?"

"'mtired," you mumble, and your voice is too thick. She'll just think you're wasted, you pray, yanking furiously at your socks until they peel off, reluctantly. Your throat is tight and scratchy and you tell yourself you need water, because-- because you're thirsty, and you don't want a hangover, tomorrow.

The bathroom door divides the two beds, and you negotiate to it carefully. Inside, you turn the light on and blink until your vision clears and then you're looking at yourself. Shit, you think, seeing a curly-haired boy with swollen lips who looks devastated. You look like you got into something over your head with some older men. But it's not like that, you almost say aloud; it's the opposite--you didn't want them to stop. Now your reflection has tears running down its face, and disappointment writ large and childish, and embarrassment and shame are staining it a furious pink, and fuck them, you think, with an emotion so strong that bitterness pales beside it. Fuck them and their disgusting little clique of intimacy and adultery and sleeping in shared beds, FUCK THEM ALL, because you never wanted to be a part of that anyway. You don't want it, you don't, and you never did.

You start crying for real now. You sit down on the floor so you don't have to look at yourself doing it, that pathetic baby, and cry until your chest hurts. You push your mother's arms away when she tries to gather you up, and you ignore her when she sits down on the cold hard tile and places a box of kleenex and a glass of water by your knee.

"I hate them," you choke, eventually, because the words were so jagged in your throat you had to get them out.

"Who do you hate?" She puts her arms around you. "What happened, hmmm?" You remember being rocked like this as a baby. The thought of explaining it makes you feel sick, but you're sicker still of feeling so alone, so excluded, that you say,

"them. The others."

"Why, honey?" She waits patiently, stroking your hair. You'll miss how she smells, once she's gone.

You hate them because they have an impenetrable wall around them, an invisible one which their one night stands pass through without knowing it's there, but you, who want to live inside it, you're not invited in.

"I just want to be part of it," you confess, trembling a little at your audacity, "and they don't want me." Your words are slurred, and you realise that you're blurting this to your mother because you're still very, very drunk.

"Oh," she says, and kisses your forehead, and seems to be thinking about what she's going to say. You're almost asleep, your face buried in her neck, when she sighs. "Justin, you don't have to be like them, honey. Be your own person."

"I am my own person," you insist, because even though you hate them right now, you hate worse that somebody would think they have... brainwashed you, or something. "Nobody made me. I decided myself."

"I know you decided," she says, "and I know nobody made you. But I think you decided for the wrong reasons."

You decided because it was them over there and you still over here, and you wanted to bridge the gap. There's nothing wrong with that, you think, but it's all too complicated to explain out loud the distance which makes you feel like you might drop off their edge.

You wipe your nose and drink the water, and stand up and help your mother up, and for once don't bother brushing your teeth before you go to bed. You don't know why, though, because they were just humouring you, and all you can taste now is salt and bitterness.

In the morning you refuse to talk to your mother about it. You're not a baby anymore, and you were dumb to cry when the other kids wouldn't let you play their game. It's a stupid game anyway, and you're still the best singer and the best dancer, so you don't need to play it.

You get dressed in your favourite clothes, and check your eyes for traces of red, and scrub your face until it glows, and head out for breakfast. Joey's up, and Chris, sitting crosslegged on the carpet, eating eggs and sausages and watching cartoons. "Hey," you say, and they turn around and grin up at you.

"Heyyyyyy," Chris says, and leaps up and runs over and kisses you quick and hard on the mouth. Joey laughs, throatily, and gestures to the table where trays of juice and coffee and food are scattered. There's a bowl of cereal already poured for you, and to avoid having to react to Chris--Chris kissed you, what the fuck?--you add milk and pour sugar thickly over it, and find a spoon and sit down on the carpet next to Joey, exactly as close as you used to. He slings an arm around your neck and kisses your cheek, ticklish brush of his goatee against your clean skin.

"Have fun last night?" he asks, and Chris flops back down next to him.

"You were going off, wild thing."

"I was fucking blitzed," you say, and shove a huge spoonful into your mouth so you don't have to elaborate. The cartoon is some French one, a man with a flower cart and a woman walking past him, hips swinging, but you watch it, collecting the few phrases you understand and assembling them into a plot which may or may not be the right one. Joey's arm is still around you, and he's eating with his other hand, and eventually you lean against him and put your head on his shoulder.

"Did you see my redhead?" he asks you. "Dude, legs up to there."

"Hey, she was my redhead first," Chris tells him, mouth full of toast.

You watch them, and shovel cereal into your mouth like your life depends on it.

"Who was she?"

"Dunno. Somebody's wife, I think. Maybe a singer."

"Nah, model, if anything," Joey says, reaching behind you for his coffee. "Was she French?"

Chris shrugs. "Can't remember."

"She gave head like a French chick," Joey tells him, and the look on Chris' face is one of complete indifference.

You don't like the sound of this conversation, even though you've heard a hundred like it. Because the people who drift in and out of their... in your mind it's a tiny stone castle, with two bedrooms and a moat around it, and they are callously unconcerned by the people who breeze across one of the four bridges. What was I? you think, when you were kissing me? You see yourself like a prince in a fairy tale, approaching one bridge and then another, and being feasted and toasted and having parties thrown in your honour, and only when the parties are over do you notice that you never made it across the moat.

Lance comes in, yawning, and kisses the top of your head.

"Eggs and tomatoes over there," Joey tells him, but Lance ignores him and the food, and pours himself a coffee.

"Go wake up JC," Chris says, "or he'll sleep all fucking day." Meaning, you translate automatically, JC was on top last night, and Chris really got off on it, and now he needs to reassert his dominance by pretending he doesn't care.

Lance ignores him, too, and curls up on the couch and sips from his mug. Black, unsweetened--this is also one of the signs you recognise. Lance has overdosed on closeness, and retreated into his own head for a few days.

The breeze blows, and Joey stands up. "I'll get him."

"Why don't you get him?" you ask Chris suddenly, and Chris looks at you weirdly.

"Because I'm sitting down, Poptart."

"So was Joey."

"But I'm done with breakfast," Joey says, as if that's the reason. There's still half-eaten toast on his plate, and his coffee mug is nearly full.

They have no idea, you think. None at all. But all the eddies and swirls in the room say JC's in the mood to fuck, and Joey's gonna let him do it until Chris makes a pass at Lance and is rejected, and then the breeze will blow again, and they'll drift back into their usual shape.

So, you realise, it's no accident that you can't get over their bridges. Like a wall that thickens wherever the most pressure is applied, like a bird that flies off as soon as you reach for it, they rearrange unconsiously at the first sign of threat. And you're a threat, that's obvious, because otherwise the magic castle would let you in. And Lance is right, you realise, about cause and effect. The magic castle isn't something that evolved to protect them. It's where they evolved; it's the reason for their existence.

Lance is the reason they don't do threesomes or foursomes or watch, and with a sudden jolt of guilt, or maybe power, you know you're the reason Lance's too-much trigger has been tripped.

"You're thinking deep thoughts," JC says, and you notice him sitting on a chair beside you. He's definitely in a fucking mood, he reeks of wanting to fuck, and he leans over and kisses you with intent, but the breeze blows Lance a little further away, and JC stops.

Okay, you think, plans sliding into place. Okay. It's the castle rejecting you, not them. And unlike all the others who've tried to get close, you know the castle exists, and you've seen how it works, and you'll keep trying until you find your way in.

So, you try it with them one at a time, and that works fine. You sneak up on Lance in wardrobe and let him kiss you in his serenely intense way until your bones melt and Tracey yells "ten minutes" over the loudspeakers. You sit in Joey's lap when he's staying back with a cold, and he smooches your neck contentedly. You make out with Chris for half an hour in the quiet room, and you can feel him get hard against your hip, and his nips to your jaw get frantic, and you know he's turned on because he grabs your shoulders and snarls "oh, honey" against your neck. You slide your hands under his shirt, touching hummingly overheated skin, and he stops and pulls away. You try to yank him back, but he brushes you off, hands shaking.

"You're just too much temptation, Poptart," he says ruefully, running his hand through his hair. After that, he won't kiss you again.

It happens with all of them-- they'll kiss you, for as long as you want, but when your fingers toy with JC's fly, he wants to talk about a new song, and when your hands grip Lance's ass, he's got paperwork to do, and when you hump against Joey's hard-on in a nightclub, he needs another beer.

You corner JC about it, because you know the block is coming from him. "Why won't you let them fuck me?" you ask, angry by now, because you're further on the outside than ever before, and the walls are thick and hard wherever you press up against them.

"What are you talking about?" he demands, but JC's never been a good liar.

"Don't you try to bullshit me. I'm not a child anymore, and I want to know what your fucking problem is."

His eyes flash, truly angry. "You are a child," he sneers.

"I'm not! I'm a year older than Lance was!"

"You're not ready."

"I am. I want it. You're the one who's not ready!"

"Is that so?" he says, sounding bored, like he's not changing his mind. You forge ahead anyway.

"You're too used to me being the baby. You don't want me to grow up and be my own person."

"And if I still see you as a baby," JC says, icily, "I should fuck you anyway?"

"It might help you see me as I am now," you suggest, feeling victory near enough that your fingers could almost close around it.

"You want me to use you."

"Yes," you say, tightening your fingers slowly.

"God," he says flatly, and your hand closes on emptiness. "That is so wrong."

"It's not!" you shout, getting desperate. "I want you to use me, and there's nothing wrong with you doing what I want!"

"Don't you see," he asks, closing his eyes, desperate in his own way, "that's exactly what I'm saying no to? Do you have any idea what a bad vibe that gives off?"

And the stomach drops out of your world, because maybe you were uncool and maybe you weren't ready, but you never gave off bad vibes until now, and you're further from what you want than you ever have been, since you realised you wanted it.

You try Joey, because he's the one most willing to let you make your own mistakes.

"No," he says, looking sad.

"Because JC doesn't want you to?" you demand.

"Yup." He shrugs, and that's the end of the conversation.

And you hate them, you hate their close, four-fingered, perfect, unbreakable solidarity while you remain the very distant, very sore, and very opposing thumb.

You're a superstar now, so fuck them. You're the most famous of the famous, the most popular of the popular, the star of all the stars, so fuck them all. You go out and sleep with girls, dozens of them. You're allowed to drink here, so you do, and people offer you all sorts of other things, pills and powders and mysterious liquids, and you take them and ask for more. You don't listen to the others when they try to stop you, because who do they think they are, anyway? Not Justin Fucking Timberlake, that's for sure.

You won't tell them what you're on, but you hold out the foil and tell them to find out for themselves. You won't tell them if you're using protection or not, because what is to them when they're not going to sleep with you? They get madder and madder and you're glad; you tell them what you think of them and scream like a banshee when you want something, because you learn quickly that it works.

And at least you're the centre of it now, and they're thinking about you and not about each other. You can't make them give you what you want, but you have the power to make them regret it. They may be able to exclude you from their little world but you can lay seige to them, rain fire and fury until they start wishing they'd just let you inside.

"Justin," JC pleads, "stop it. You're just making it worse."

"I think you need to talk to somebody," Lance says, and you tell him to go fuck himself.

"Grow the fuck up, you little shit!" Joey shouts, and throws you over the couch and spanks you until you cry.

"Fuck you!" you scream with every strike, "FUCK YOU!" It's twenty fuck-you's before he's done.

He turns you over and grabs your chin and gets right into your face. "I'll do it again," he says, looking a lot like his father, "and again. And again. Until you stop acting like a fucking five-year-old." His contempt shames you, because you know you've disappointed him, but you scream at him until your voice is raw. Joey is impervious to your insults, but call you Lance a whore and a faggot, and mock Lance's stilted dancing, and this time Joey beats your ass until you can't sit down, and you've never hated anything so much as you hate the sight of Lance in Joey's lap, held tightly, while Joey glares balefully at you and you eat your lunch standing.

In the end, though, it's Chris who stops you, because Chris just keeps looking at you with narrow eyes, as if he's calculating just how vicious he'll need to be. "Justin," he says eventually, eyebrow quirked and his lips in a tightened oblique line, "that's enough."

You stop it. You nurse your pride for a few days, until your stomach stops hurting and your hands stop shaking, and then start smiling again. You're not ready to smile, but you're lonelier than you are proud, out here on the road with nobody else your age. JC is relieved, and smiles back immediately. Chris carries on as if nothing has happened, but Lance is skittish, and Joey is still surly, and nobody's kissing you, and you're still further from what you want than ever.

You go to Lance and apologise, and Lance is tired and thin and drawn and looks at you with pale, sad eyes.

"I didn't mean it," you promise, touching his face. "I love you."

"There's something wrong with you," Lance says, pushing your hand away. "I think you should admit it."

"There's nothing wrong," you say, getting pissed at his self-righteousness, "that isn't caused by you."

Lance just looks tired. "Justin," he says, very gently. "You're not gay."

"Who says I'm not?" you shout, unable to believe that after all this time you're still not penetrating the castle. "I want you. I want all of you. And if you don't want me then you should have the balls to admit it, not give me this bullshit when you have no idea how I feel inside."

"It's not how you feel," Lance says. "It's everything else."

You kiss, you grope, you want to touch them. You want them to touch you. "Like what? Like what the hell else is there?"

"You've never kissed any men besides us." He stares at the wall, unable to look you in the eye. "You never look at any other men. You've never tried to pick up another man. You are so obviously," he turns to face you, "so obviously not interested in any men besides us--"

"So what, so fucking what, so fucking, fucking, fucking what about that?" But your gut clenches because you've screwed up, god have you screwed up, you have fucked it up big-time for not realising, for not noticing, for not being fucking observant enough to realise--

"Justin!" Lance shouts, desperate. You don't wait to hear it.

That night you scan the after-show party for somebody to fuck. You don't even know what country it is anymore, you don't know what language everyone is speaking, but this boy has long lashes and smiling lips and looks like a nice person. Lance and Joey see you dancing with him. You take him back to the hotel and let him touch you, and you do the things to him that he wants you to do.

You don't really enjoy yourself, but he seems to. You try to kiss him afterwards, and he turns away, telling you something in that language you don't understand. He gets up and starts dressing, and you pout and pat the bed and hold out your arms, inviting him to sleep alongside you, but he shakes his head in confusion and leaves.

In the morning you wake up and spend a long time in the shower, ice cold and unable to feel warm or clean. You let hot water pour thickly over your skin and imagine it's a lover holding you. As soon as you turn it off you're cold and alone again, and still feel that way once you're dressed. You go into the suite lounge and look at the sausages and eggs and Prince Charles on the newspapers and the cannisters of tea, and realise you're in England. JC has his face buried in Chris' stomach, laughing, and Chris is making beep-beep noises which could be a spaceship or a woman or a song or anything. You can't tell what it is.

Joey's hungover and seems angry with Lance. You don't know why.

Lance comes over and puts his arm around you. "Are you okay," he asks softly, and you feel like somebody is finally speaking your language. You shake your head.

"Please," you say, butting your head into his chest, getting your arms around his waist, and almost sob with relief when he gathers you up in his lap and holds you tight. "I just don't want anybody else," you whisper, and Lance kisses away your tears. On the back of your neck, you feel a breeze blow, and it's soft and warm and welcoming.

JC loves being marked up; he's always got 'possession' written on his body somewhere, in their secret language of fingerprints and teethmarks and scratches. You bite his shoulder and he moans, and you feel more adult than you ever have. Chris shows signs of use, faint scars and pink half-moons and the occasional bruise. Joey doesn't mark at all, but it's a lot of fun trying.

Lance, though.

Lance is perfectly clean, smooth pale skin, all unblemished and milky. You stare at the flawless expanse of his neck and grin wickedly, and lean in with a sucking bite.

He shoves you off him, violently. "What have you done?" Eyes wide, shallow breaths, he's clutching his neck, panicked.

"It's nothing," you reassure him. "I can hardly see anything."

"You fucking tool," he says, vehemently, and looks scared and furious and ice cold, and walks out.

When you follow him into the games room, Joey sees it. There's not a breeze, there's a tornado. Joey doesn't say anything, just continues to channel surf, but his castle door slams shut with a ominous clang, and Lance sits down and picks up a Sports Illustrated, but flees deep, deep into his own head. Chris and JC oscillate anxiously, pulled toward both of them and being rebuffed at every angle. It's like you're the eye of this tornado, a blind spot in it, because nobody seems to notice that you did it.

Guilt makes you sick, and ignorance makes you ashamed. So nobody ever, ever marks Lance, you've got that now. It doesn't make it any easier to take when you hear Joey shouting later that night, Chris yelling back, slamming doors and the thud of something--fist or book or bottle-- hitting a wall. JC hovers nervously beside Lance at breakfast and Lance knocks his hands away with sullen viciousness. Lance mocks Joey's waistline in an interview. Joey tells another reporter that Lance is such an embarrassment that they can't let him dress himself. You take your cue from JC and Chris, and laugh merrily.

At the next hotel, an interviewer walks in on them in the common room kitchenette, having a screaming showdown about whether the butter goes in the fridge or the cupboard. Joey is in a towering rage, red in the face, eyes wild, cornering Lance by the tiny sink. Lance is a mean and spiteful little sprite, hissing up at him, claws out, lips tightly drawn around bared teeth. Joey has scratches on his face and neck. Lance's eyes are red and swollen.

"They've been cooped up on the bus," you try to explain, looking around frantically for JC.

"I fucking hate you!" Lance roars, directly at you, at the top of his thundering voice. You can't help but flinch away from it.

"Hey!" Joey shouts at Lance, but then his face softens. "Hey. Come on."

"Fuck you," Lance says brokenly, wiping his nose. Joey touches his shoulder and Lance shrugs him off coldly.

Chris appears in the doorway, alarmed and breathless. "Lance left the butter out," you tell him, before he can ask.

"Ah," Chris says, nodding in perfect understanding.

"Why don't you just have two tubs of butter?" the journalist suggests, clearly amused. His eyes are lighting up with two-inch headlines and guest appearances on ET.

"Please," you say, tugging on the stranger's sleeve. "They need to be alone." You and Chris take the man down to the hotel gym and let him watch you work out for an hour, talking the whole time about Joey and Lance and how wonderful their friendship is, and how rarely they even disagree, let alone fight. Chris is right there beside you, adding to your tales of stress and fatigue and claustrophobia until it peaks, and then easing it back down again to demonstrate that you're all really okay with it.

You can't eat any dinner that night, even though Joey and Lance are suddenly in make-up mode, all snuggles and adoring smiles, Lance melting into the possessive arm around his shoulder.

You're starving, but every mouthful sticks in your throat.

You take a deep breath and wipe your sticky palms on your jeans. "I'm sorry. I'm not going to do it anymore."

"What?" Chris says, looking up from JC like he's just noticed that you're in the room.

"The whole... thing." You look at JC. "You were right. I just wanted to be like you and I keep fucking it up, so. I'm gonna stop."

"Aw, baby. C'mere," Chris says, and hugs you. JC ruffles your hair. "We love you," they say, almost in unison. You don't want to be near them, so you hide out in your room alone.

You expect that to be the end of it, to have the fading strains of the song you've been trying to sing dissipate into silence. You start to listen when producers approach you about solo work; you pocket the business cards which are slipped to you by reps at industry functions. You make a secret appointment with a lawyer.

You decide to write some solo stuff, but end up with a great five-part harmony. You go, palms sweating, to show it to JC. Lance is sprawled on his stomach on the bed, laptop humming, as JC naps. Lance likes the song, though, and starts singing "fuck" instead of "love", and "goat" instead of "girl". You add a verse about milking the goat and making cheese, and Lance laughs until he chokes. JC wakes up and listens, confused.

"We can't sing about goats," he mumbles, scratching his head. "But the chorus would sound cool with some muted trumpet or something."

You've got it almost finished when Joey and Chris stagger in from a strip club, too drunk to walk upright, but not too drunk to put on Sade and demonstrate just how sexy their favourite stripper's dance was. You and JC and Lance think it's a very, very funny dance, so they sulk noisily and pick up their clothes and stagger off to Joey's room together.

When you get back to your room, you realise that you missed your lawyer's meeting. You shrug and get into bed. You resolve to throw out those business cards, but in the morning you can't even remember where you put them. The five of you record a demo of the goat song, and Chris does the trumpet. Lou turns the song down. Lance gets sick, and you're so worried and angry snd fretful that you lose ten pounds. The album takes off, and you learn a whole new meaning of frantically busy. Chris decides to get a new apartment. You all start spending a lot of time with lawyers.

Weeks flash by like seconds.

You visit your mother for Christmas, and then your father the next week. After you've finally made it back to Orlando, you flop on the couch in Joey's living room and sigh. Your father thinks your mother should take more responsibility for what happened with Transcon. Your mother thinks your father should have taken more interest back then, not now that it's too late. Keeping them on good terms has always been tiring. Nobody else has divorced parents, but they nod sympathetically and sigh tiredly along with you.

JC is putting tiny braids into Chris' hair while Chris sings a song about having his hair braided; Joey and Lance are watching Phantom Menace for the hundredth time since they got it, and you realise this is your family now. You have two sets of happily married caretakers with you at every stop, every show, every morning and every evening. You love the security of it, the reassurance of having people around you who are in love and who make it work --it gives you hope that you'll find the same thing for yourself one day. You wonder what kind of relationship you want; Joey and Lance are soft and steady and welcoming as sun-warmed sand beneath your feet, JC and Chris wild and chaotic and restless as the ocean which laps against it. You'd like a little bit of both, you decide, curling up with Chris' lap as a pillow, listening to the world turn.

Your eighteenth birthday party is wild. You've never met so many cool people. They seem to like you, and want to talk to you, and say with what you're fairly sure is sincerity that you're astonishingly mature for your age. Then Chris gets you wasted and the five of you dance around the room in a conga line with your pants around your ankles.

You vaguely remember that the Jive president was there, and had his mouth open in horror as Joey and JC blew him kisses when you danced by. Then Lance trips over his own pants and you're all on the floor in heap, blowing kisses to everyone, everywhere. You've never had so much fun.

At the end of the tour, three weeks before the next one, Britney writes you a really sweet letter. You write back and say you have some personal issues to work out. Jive arranges for you to spend a day together, just the two of you, and it turns out to be a lot of fun. You and Brit get burritos from a suburban restaurant and sit on the crest of a hill on the outskirts of Orlando, watching the sun go down. She takes your hand and smiles, and you smile back. In the distance, you imagine you can see a little stone castle, silhouetted in red and gold light, with four turrets and four little flags fluttering merrily. You close your eyes, and feel soft lips press tentatively against yours. She smells sweet and tastes spicy, and her hair caresses your arm as she leans in, and her waist under your hand is small and curvy.

When you tell them, JC and Chris and Joey and Lance are genuinely happy for you.

After a while you learn to enjoy the feel of breezes blowing. They stir gently against your skin, reminding you of where and who and why you are. They don't move you, but they gust Joey into your room to stay up all night and play music, or Chris onto the court for a brawling game which drags on for hours, leaving you sweaty and exhausted and Chris less angry. Your room becomes the refuge room and the party room, hosting whatever disaffected partner has had enough of sex and intimacy and "fucking relationships," and just wants to chill the fuck out. When everybody's happy, the luxury of solitude is bliss.

On a balcony in Miami, a sticky summer night, you feel the gentle flow as Lance sends JC back to Chris two days after a gruesome Dani-fight, and Chris kisses JC with more tenderness than you've seen between them in months. They whisper softly for a few minutes and then retreat, JC kissing Lance's cheek before he follows Chris inside.

Joey's off with a girl, but Lance sits back beside you with a freshly-opened Corona. You taste the languid air around him and realise you could gesture him over to your lap and he'd come; he stretches with feline sensuality, like he's in the mood for lazy fooling around on white muslin sheets. You consider it, but on consideration, you're not really in the mood.

So, you could gesture him over, but you don't. You rest your feet up on the railing and sip your beer, and the two of you chat peaceably about nothing, enjoying the company and the night.