There was one thing that was very clear in Justin’s mind as the problem unfolded.
It wasn’t his fault.
It could’ve been Chris’s fault, or Lance’s fault, or Joey’s fault. Even JC’s fault. But not his fault. After all, it was the golden rule, the one his mother had taught him at a very early age. No matter what happened, it was never Justin’s fault.
After all, it wasn’t as if he knew that it was going to happen.
No one could predict what had happened.
* * *
After the MTV interview, Justin had felt somewhat relieved. Saying out loud that *N Sync was a thing of the past lifted a weight from his shoulders, a weight he had been carrying for two years since he had started the vote to decide what was going to happen with the group.
But they hadn’t told the fans, and just for that he had always felt a little guilty. Now that guilt was gone. And he could concentrate on the important stuff of his life without more worries. Important stuff like his new album, the new tour, and the next movie.
“Justin?” JC’s voice pulled him out of his thoughts. “You ok?”
“Yeah, just thinking,” Justin said, turning off the sound console. “What do you say if we take a break?”
They had been working together in JC’s song for a week now, and while Justin was very happy where the track was going, that day he didn’t seem to be able to concentrate on anything. He‘d had a meeting with Johnny to start making plans for his new tour, but it had been a short, almost unimportant meeting.
“Sure, let’s go grab something to eat,” JC smiled, taking off the earphones.
The walk to the studio cafeteria was a short one, and JC talked the whole time. Justin liked to hear JC talk, because he never picked one subject and stayed with it, he usually just jumped from one to the other with no warning. So Justin could choose not to pay attention and even so be able to pick up the conversation if JC expected an answer.
“And Chris is finally getting out of his depression, which is a lucky thing since he volunteered to take care of Briahna for the week,” JC said as they entered the cafeteria, making Justin frown.
“Chris is depressed? Since when?” Justin raised an eyebrow. He hadn’t talked to Chris since JC’s birthday party, and Chris hadn’t looked particularly depressed then. Maybe a little subdued, but Justin had guessed it was just a phase or something.
“Since Joey’s wedding, at least,” JC looked at him, confused. “You must have noticed, Justin. Chris hasn’t been himself since then. Anyway, Lance told me that when they spoke last week Chris sounded a lot better. That was when Joey asked him to babysit for him and Kelly.”
“Chris spoke to Lance last week?” Justin’s frown deepened. Chris hadn’t called him in months, and Justin had assumed that Chris was doing the hermit thing again and that JC’s party had been a fluke. “On the phone?”
“No, he went to visit him and Reichen,” JC answered, and went to get something to drink. Justin shook his head. It wasn’t that he missed Chris, but he had hoped that Chris would call him if he was depressed.
That night he went home to an empty house because Cameron’s meeting with her agent had gone too long, so he indulged himself in one of the habits he knew Cameron hated. He pulled out one of his old photograph albums, and started flipping through the pages of his memories with the group.
Chris had always been his best friend, had always looked for him back in the beginning when Justin wasn’t sure that things were going to work. As the years passed, they had somehow grown a little distant, but Justin had always been able to count on Chris to be there.
The fact that Chris was talking to JC, and Lance, and probably Joey too, instead of talking to Justin didn’t mesh with Justin’s view of the universe.
He flipped quickly through the pages of the group together, a long collection of official photoshoots and candid pictures, before stopping at the pages dedicated to the third Challenge, the last one before the hiatus that was more of a break up than a hiatus. Justin sighed. As much as he was enjoying doing his own thing, he did kind of miss those times.
He stopped at one of the pictures of the five of them together. JC and Lance were wearing the blue tank-tops, Joey, the red one with the white one under it, Chris was only wearing a white one, and Justin had been wearing a white one over a red t-shirt. They all were smiling at the camera, and why not? It was 2001, and none of them knew what was going to happen over the year. Behind them there was a sign with the Challenge logo that read Players Only.
Justin sighed, still focused on the picture. Chris didn’t look depressed them, and he had to admit that his smile was perhaps a bit brighter than the smiles Justin had seen on Chris’s face for the last year. On the other hand, back then they were on the top. Chris had reasons to smile.
Suddenly, the picture rippled and Justin blinked. It had been a split second thing, as if the picture was a pool of water and someone had thrown a stone into it, although of course, that was impossible. He shook his head and looked at it again, Chris’s smile, his own smile, frowning. He figured that he was just tired, and that was all. However, as he was watching, it happened again.
And this time it wasn’t only the picture that seemed to pulse and move away like waves on a lake. It was everything around Justin. The picture, the album, his house. In the distance, he could hear his phone ringing.
Dizzy, Justin blinked and everything stopped.
However, he wasn’t in his house anymore.
In front of him there was a white wall with a sign that read “*N Sync’s Challenge for the Children. Players Only Beyond this line.”
* * *
“O.k. This is officially weird,” Justin said, looking around. He supposed he could have been dreaming, but that made no sense since he couldn’t remember falling asleep. Of course, that was the only explanation. He had to be asleep because there was no way he was standing in the aisle to the dressing rooms of their third Challenge.
He looked down at himself, and he was still dressed in the same jeans and black wife beater he had been wearing down at the studio with JC. He felt awake, but he couldn’t be awake.
Justin glared at the Challenge sign. Either he was asleep and dreaming of the past, or he had been day-dreaming the past seven years which was the most stupid idea he could imagine. One didn’t day-dream seven years of life in detail. He hoped.
“Justin? What are you doing here? And why are you dressed like that?” Chris walked towards him, dressed in the same black shorts and white tank top from the picture, looking thinner and younger than what Justin remembered. “What happened to your face?”
“I just,” Justin shook his head. “It’s only, no. I think I’m lost.”
Chris looked at him, frowning. “You look weird, Justin. And you can’t be lost. It’s a straight aisle. Are you high?”
“No!” Justin shook his head. “I just think I’m dreaming…”
“Dreaming?” Chris raised his eyebrows, and, without warning, pinched him. “I don’t think so.”
“Ouch!” Justin recoiled away from Chris. “Woah, stop that!”
“If it hurt, you’re not dreaming. What’s wrong, Justin?”
Justin started to laugh. He couldn’t help it. Apparently, he had dreamed the last seven years of his life while standing in front of the wall. Maybe he had taken something, even if he couldn’t remember doing so. What mattered was that everything around him was real. “Nothing. I’m fine. We’re together, right? We’re still a group, and you’re not singing rock, I’m not producing songs for JC, Joey is not acting, and Lance hasn’t told us he’s gay, so, I’m fine.”
“Lance is gay?” Chris asked him, confused. Justin was going to tell him that no, that that had been part of a very complicated day dream when the world seemed to ripple around him again. It was a strange feeling, like if he had just been on the Magic Teacup ride at Disneyland for hours.
The last thing he saw before closing his eyes trying to fight the impulse to throw up was himself, dressed in his blue uniform, chatting with Lance.