nsync in black and white

Disclaimer: this is fiction. We made it up.

the message

by bethann, written for kaelie

JC's experienced--he's done the prematch press conference thing far too many times to count--but despite all that, today's is trying his patience. Since this is a bigger tournament, not quite a grand slam event, but the money's awesome and it's been gaining in respect each year, there are journalists here whose main job isn't to cover tennis, people who know neither the subtleties nor the obvious things about the game. Their job is to get the big story, to find anything that might possibly be construed as sensational or epic and spread it to the people. And right now, there's one very sensational thing going on in tennis--the debut of Justin Timberlake, fresh off the junior tour and now accompanied by a well-crafted marketing campaign from Nike that includes special clothing, a series of artfully done commercials, and even a slogan: Rise Up. Never mind that Justin's yet to win a tournament; never mind that until now, he's never even made it out of the early rounds of one. Justin's hype has been going on all year, and the teenage girls chasing him from tournament to tournament have made the matches he's played seem more like rock concerts than sporting events. The "Rise Up" jingle has been caught in JC's head for days now, playing obsessively and momentously and alternating with the echoes of the screaming girls outside of the hotel (they cry out each time any player leaves the hotel, but their signs are for Justin). And now, JC can't even escape Justin at his own press conference.

It's not like JC needs outfits from Nike or screaming girls: he's had both, too many times and in too many ways to count. It's just that he's one of the best players in the world, and he's seeded to win this tournament. And as far as JC's concerned, he could care less about who’s rising when or why or where. He has no intention whatsoever of losing in a semifinal match in a midlevel tournament to a marketing strategy.

He's dying for a question that would allow him to say a polite version of that, but all the press seems to care about is the fact that Justin and JC spent six years together at the same training facility--Wright Tennis Academy. This is hardly a newsflash, but it's never been fully explored before by the media--and now that Justin and JC are set to meet tomorrow, they seem to want to go into it in depth.

My first-serve percentage has been rising all year, JC thinks. I've been working on reconfiguring my backhand--slowly. I hit more winners in the last match against Carter than I've had all year. I'm playing the best tennis of my life.

Suddenly, he's angry. It's not Justin's fault, of course, it never is, nothing ever is, but not being the star of his very own party is pretty damn embarrassing, and not exactly fun for his ego.

"What was Justin like at Wright?" asks a young female reporter with bangs cut severe and straight across her forehead. "How have you seen him grow over the past year?"

It's not like he can be rude outright--that's just not his style--so JC smiles patiently, then begins to tell her the story of his life with Justin. Sort of.


"God damn it, Justin!" Chris yells. "Concentrate!" He hates it when Justin hits the ball too far or too wide, disrupting the flow of their hitting sessions.

"Sorry," Justin mumbles, immensely thankful yet again that his mother threw out the film crew earlier. This is definitely not the kind of hitting session he wants memorialized in Rise Up: Year One in the Life of a Superstar, the documentary Nike is putting together about him.

But really, one shitty day aside, he's had such a great year, and he's got so much to look forward to. If he can manage to win this match tomorrow, his life will change forever.

"Justin!" Chris yells again; Justin's put too much topspin on the ball and it sails over his head. "I have a doubles match tomorrow, Timberlake. If your lame-ass hitting jeopardizes my well-being . . ."

The threat fades away as Chris chases the ball to the edge of the court. Justin sighs and trots over to where his mother and his coach are sitting.

"I'm really stinking the place up," Justin says, operating on the theory that it's always best to deliver the worst blow to oneself.

For a moment, Johnny just looks at him. His black eyes are unreadable, but he doesn't seem angry or even ruffled.

"From here on, your challenges are going to be mostly mental."

Has the man seen JC's serve? Justin wonders, but decides to nod.

"And I know you can do this; I know you're tough enough."

Johnny is the only man in the world who delivers pep talks as calmly as tongue thrashings. Usually, Justin likes that about him.

"I've seen you grow up--I've seen you get readier and readier for this every year. Now, all you have to do is take it--concentrate, be consistent, and take it, Justin. Just play your game."

To his surprise, Justin's angered by this, the sameness of it, the meaninglessness of it all. In general, he tries not to let the sports clichés get to him: hell, he sometimes thinks in them himself, and he certainly brings them out for the reporters. But what he does on the court and how he feels about it register at an unconscious level for him--he can't come up with words of his own to describe what he does because there simply aren't any--it's beyond language. Slogans and catchphrases simply aren't going to do the job.

It's actually kind of like how he feels about JC, Justin realizes. There simply aren't words for what went on between them, or for what's not going on now, and the entire thing makes him angry, panicky, and adrift, exactly the kind of feelings he does not at all want to have on the eve of a big tennis match.

It's been months since he talked to JC, really talked to him, and although it's killing him, there just doesn't seem to be a fix for the situation. When JC had left Wright Tennis Academy to become pro, he'd made an effort to call every now and then, to keep in touch, but it had hardly been enough--and when Justin himself had gone pro, taking the guru who'd shaped both of them out on the road as his coach, the friendly phone calls had slowed, then stopped altogether.

"You're in competition now," Johnny had said. "There's no need not to be friendly, but at this point, you definitely have to be aware that JC's going to be mostly interested in figuring out your weaknesses. It's his job to do that."

Justin hadn't bothered to say that if there were anyone on the earth more aware of his weaknesses than JC (and his mother), he hadn't met them yet. To this day, he's pretty sure he never will. No one knows him like JC does. JC knows how he thinks, how he plays, how he wins and how he loses, what he does when he feels cornered, how he strategizes, how he sets up winners, and what he sounds like when he comes. By the end of their time at Wright, Justin was pretty sure there wasn't anything about himself JC didn't either discover or create.

Which brings him to the problem at hand. How do you beat someone who practically made you? And even more important, how do you get to the point where you even want to?

Okay. Okay. That's creepy, Justin realizes, and not even true. There's stuff--lots of stuff lately--JC hasn't been involved in, stuff about him JC doesn't know. And anyway, again, if there's an absolute worst time in the world to think about all of this, it's most certainly now, while he's supposed to be getting pep-talked into beating JC in the match of his life. Justin looks carefully at Johnny, who's still talking, to see if he's noticed that Justin hasn't really been there for most of the disquisition, then turns his head sharply when he hears Chris yelling at him again to come back.

Johnny smiles and gestures for Justin to go back out on the court, and so he does.


Everyone has different pregame ritual. Sometimes it almost feels like a competition to see who can claim to do that weirdest thing. For his part, JC's always felt that there's no substitute for a good meal, good company, and lots of sleep, so he and his chef, trainer, manager, hitting partner, coach, and the rest of his entourage all sit down to pasta and wine at 7 in JC's spacious suite and spend the next two hours laughing, trading war stories, and speculating about the other players left in the tournament. If Justin's referred to at all, it's briefly, and he seems to be going by the name of "Nike boy" among JC's friends. JC knows that his friends are trying to diminish any anxiety he might have about his opponent by simply not mentioning him at all, and thus implying that he's not even worthy of mention--a longtime psychological trick he's seen play out many times in his career. JC appreciates their care, and them, but part of him, he finds as he carefully rips apart one of the beautiful baguettes Tyler picked up from the bakery nearby, wants almost desperately to bring up Justin, to reminisce about their time together at Wright; to talk about all the wonderful times they'd had, and to explain to everyone what exactly had gone on between them, why it had been so important, and why he misses it so much. But more than that, even, JC realizes with a start, he wants to tell everyone exactly how proud he is of Justin. Despite everything that's happened--or, more sadly and more accurately, everything that's failed to happen--JC's delighted for Justin, so glad to have seen him come this far, from an annoying little squirt in a Polo shirt to a legitimate contending player in his own right. JC knows how happy and excited he must be, and he nearly loses himself and smiles like a fool for no apparent reason at the dining table as he remembers what it's like to be around Justin when he's happy like this. Justin's happiness is like a physical presence--it envelops everyone around him and makes the whole world feel like a better place. More than once, JC's (rather formidable, he had to admit) attacks of moodiness have dissipated in the light of Justin's . . . light, JC thinks, because there's no other way to describe it. Justin's light.

And now he's on the verge of frowning at the entire dinner table for no apparent reason, because how much of an idiot is he? What on god's earth possesses him to get all sentimental and stupid about someone who probably couldn't care less about him other than as a stepping stone to a future level of career success? Shocked and annoyed by his willful and almost self-destructive need to ruin a ritual intended to be calming, JC forces himself to ask a question he knows will provoke heated discussion, then participates heatedly in the debate.

After dinner's over and everyone's filing out of the suite, JC spends a few moments alone with Joey, his motivation consultant, the one employee from Wright Academy that JC rather than Justin had managed to spirit away.

"You were distracted tonight." Joey's voice is measured and nonjudgmental.

"Yeah," JC admits. "This could be strange."

Joey pauses. "When was the last time the two of you actually talked?"

"I don't know. Probably since he went pro."

When Joey's not officially on duty, he's a ham, one of JC's favorite people to joke around with, but in his capacity as JC's employee, he's usually the model of discretion. But not even the usually steady Joey can hide his shock at that revelation.

"I'm sorry," he says, and JC waves a hand to show him it's okay.

"But it's just--I had thought the two of you--at Wright--we all thought--"

"We were close, yeah." That's all JC's going to say about that. "But people change. Things fall apart."

Joey looks steadily at him. "Some things do and some things don't."

JC sighs and changes the topic. "I think it's the opponent thing. Maybe."

"Maybe," Joey agrees. "But there's no way to know for sure unless you talk to him."

JC doesn't like where this is going. "Look, Joe, I don't wanna be rude or anything, but I have to tell you, this isn't very motivational."

That makes Joey laugh, which could make JC mad on some days--but it doesn't this evening.

Joey must sense this, because he says, "Look, C, I'm pretty sure you don't need all that much motivation for this one anyway."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means that you're going to beat him, and probably in straight sets."

Finally, someone's said it, but even as he hears the words he thinks he wants, JC can't shake his uncertainty.

"I could always get hurt."

"That's a possibility," Joey admits. "But you really haven't been hurt at all this year, have you?"

"My god, shut up," JC hisses, superstitious, but he's starting to relax now.

"He's not quite ready yet," he tells Joey. "He's come really far really fast, and it's amazing; he's been so great, and part of me hates the thought of--but it's not the time. It won't happen for him yet."

"No," Joey agrees. "And it's okay to beat him, you know."

"I should hope so," JC says tartly. "I need the fucking prize money."

"It's also okay to miss him."

"Okay, again with the veering into the not-motivational."

Joey stands up, half-shaking JC's hand and half-hugging him, then says, "I'm gonna take off now."

JC blinks. "Did you hear what I said?"

Joey smiles. "You know, I bet Justin's still up too, and I know he's probably still got that damn phone attached to his hip all the time. He can't have changed that much."

"Why are you even--"

"You know why--a clean slate. It's always easier to write something new if the slate is clean."

JC frowns. Joey spits out too many stupid goddamned clichés.

"I pay someone to do my cleaning, Joey," he says to derail it, ruin Joey's little planned moment, but no one can stop the slogan-master when he's in form.

"And that right there?" Joey says softly. "That is exactly your problem. Probably Justin's, too, now that I think about it."

"You know, when I do not sleep at all tonight because you came in here and said a lot of stupid stuff and I lose the match tomorrow as a result?" JC begins. "I will totally, Joey, totally place the blame at your feet, the only motivational consultant in the world who not only doesn't even understand the basic rules of tennis--"

"That deuce and advantage stuff does get confusing," Joey mildly says.

"--but who takes it as his job to actively depress his clients rather than motivate them!" JC finishes rather grandly, but Joey's already at the door, already turning around to wave goodbye.

"See you tomorrow," he says.

"Bye," JC answers, and resolves to himself that he will not remember where his phone is, not at all.


The next evening, JC extracts himself from everyone as soon as he can without being rude, then collapses onto the couch in his suite. Tomorrow, he'll have to take some therapy; he's not hurt, but he aches, and he knows his body will appreciate the extra attention on top of the treatment he got today. Then, he'll meet with his coach to plan a strategy for the next match, and then, then--

JC fishes almost frantically in his pocket until his fingers slide around the warm metal of his cell phone, then draws it out and flips it open, quickly dialing voice mail. One more time, he tells himself for the sixtieth time that day. Just one more time.

"Um, it's Justin," the message begins. The time stamp tells JC that he left it during the match--something JC can hardly fathom or even begin to fathom, not only because it's not something you're supposed to do, but because Justin had seemed so solemn and pale, so composed and focused and emotionless during the match. JC's not sure whether Justin's ability to put away his game face and make a phone call during a supposed restroom break in the middle of a tennis match is a strength or a weakness, but he's awfully glad Justin did it.

"I, uh, wanted to do this earlier, but I was too busy throwing up." A short, humorless laugh, and then Justin goes on. "Anyway, I just wanted to say . . . thanks, and me too. Me too a lot, actually." More laughter, this time more genuine. "Anyway, your idea is great. You and me meet alone, no one and nothing to bother us." A pause, and here comes JC's favorite part: "It's been along time since we were alone, JC. I miss it. I miss you." Justin breaks off here and coughs--he's embarrassed himself a bit, which JC finds perfectly charming. "Uh, so yeah. Call me after you win the tournament--or I'll call you when I do." This is delivered as a perfectly reasonable option, as if there might actually be an equal chance of either of them winning, even though JC knows now that Justin was down two sets to love when he left the message. JC shakes his head every time he hears it. Justin really will be a champion one day.

"Anyway," Justin says, finishing up the message, "thanks again JC, and talk to you soon. Real soon, I hope."

Real soon, JC agrees. Two more matches, and then he'll focus on something really important.


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