by Ian McDuff
Cheers and jeers - and suggestions I may or may not take - gladly accepted at firstname.lastname@example.org. A kudos apiece to all who have written already. Warm fuzzy feelings and all that. Seriously, thanks for the egoboo, guys.
Standard Disclaimer: If descriptions of same-sex acts, feelings, &c are held to be - by any governmental entity asserting jurisdiction over you, or by your religion or moral framework - illegal, immoral, unethical, or fattening, read no further. If you are underage according to your local laws, read no further. If you have somehow managed not to notice until now that this is a gay site, read no further (and look into either corrective lenses or remedial English classes, because you've managed to miss about a dozen different warnings to get here at all). I need hardly say that the events and personalities depicted in this story are wholly figments of the author's rabid imagination, and in no wise should be taken to imply that any actual member of any boyband, or any celebrity known to mankind, or any real person, is or conceivably could be gay - least of all the members of 'N Sync and of the Backstreet Boys, all of whom are of course straight, well-dressed, intelligent, articulate, cultured, sweet-natured, and kind to their mommies. Major Lee also of course does not and cannot possibly exist - and I am certainly not he. (In fact, bits of him are borrowed from a lovably pompous writer pal of mine who has no idea he's gay....)
Equally, it should be evident that I have no contact with or knowledge of any of such musicians, pop stars, their agents, associates, staff, or families. It should also be relatively clear that this is hardly my first time writing fiction, though it is assuredly the first time I've written in this genre or for this nifty little site. Oh - a word about that. Obviously, intellectual property rights are held by me, and no cross-posting to any site that charges any fee for entrance or activity is allowed without prior written consent from the author. And two quick words about the story: first, of all the subgenres out here, Celeb/BoyBands was the least likely for my gay fiction debut. Some readers - who refuse to read it - seem to think that it's all wannabe fantasy, and that using characters made to order is all we can manage as writers.... But there are a number of superb and highly original stories in this genre, and I too wanted to tackle the challenge of breathing originality and freshness into what could so easily be formulaic. After all, the challenges are there: believability, the heightened pressure of closeted relationships for young men whose growing up has been anything but normal, often the collision of worlds and backgrounds.... The other warning is that this series is not going to move urgently into hot monkey sex - though, yes, we're getting there: patience; it will build, and it will I hope be something more than quick stroke-lit. Now enough prologue: let's get to the tale....
Sentimental Journey: Chapter Six
In Our Last Episode: Thrown together by Amtrak, the members of BSB and 'N Sync fall in with dashing young military historian and lawyer, the Virginia aristocrat Major Custis Lee. The Major pulls a few aces out of his sleeve, gets the Army to underwrite the joint 'Amtrak - VIA whistlestop tour,' introduces them to real music, settles their quarrels, and looks on approvingly as Lance and JC recommit to one another and Howie and Nick start dating. But he - and Justin - are both on the outside looking in, and that has Lance concerned. The Major has no patience with self-doubt and self-pity ... in others, at least:
'Bullshit. When you aren't pasting on that fake, public smile, when it's the special smile you have for him or the almost-as-special one you save for here with those who love James, not Lance, you are so damn cute Josh has to be the luckiest sumbitch alive, and when you aren't smiling or wearing a damn mask, you are so smolderingly sexy he ought to be on his knees giving thanks every night - and vice damn versa, because you have the unparalleled blessing of having a boyfriend, no, a lover, who's exactly as wonderful as you are and neither less nor more so. God damn it, James, do the two of you have any idea how incredibly fortunate y'all both are?'
'I do,' said Josh, softly, from the doorway. We both spun around.
'Sorry, but I heard y'all through the bathroom wall. No one else would have. James, we'll talk in a minute and I'll tell you - show you - on my, um, knees, just how worthy you are and how lucky I am. Right now, I'm more worried about Custis.' He came in and shut the door, and he and James hoisted me onto the bed and held me between them. 'Ever since you got on the train we've expected you to carry our burdens, which is a hell of a way to do someone we hardly knew yet: and you've done more for us than anyone could ever have done.... But I heard what you were saying about how it kinda hurts you to see it - no, I know what you meant, and I know you are glad for us - I bet it's about the way Just feels, except that I'm a complication there, and I worry about how he'll handle that. But right now it's your turn to be worried about.'
They hugged me tighter. I felt the tears begin to prickle, and of course forced myself not to break.
'Custis ... you deserve someone so much. Why can't you see that? Why don't you believe you'll find that?'
'Precedent,' I said grimly.
'Justin is half in love with you already...' Lance suggested, tentatively.
'God damn it, that is a No-Go, how many people do I have to tell? Kev, Justy himself, y'all.... In the first damn place, I'm already hopelessly in love with someone, and boy is that adjective the mot juste, and even if I weren't, I'd have to be fifteen years younger and fifty times better than I am to be worth Justy's time or anybody else's for that matter, and finally he and all y'all are like, you're like sons to me already, the sons I'll never have.... Shit, I'm living out a gay fantasy, surrounded by the ten top fantasy subjects in the world, and all I feel is fatherly. Jesus Christ.'
They just hugged me wordlessly.
'You and my Lansten have the same problem, don't you. I mean about, well, self-image. And you're both crazy to feel that way. I'm going to show you what I mean, right now. James?' We both turned as Josh stood, took James's hand in his, and dropped to a knee.
'Um, I can give you gentlemen some privacy,' I muttered. Josh just patted my hand before turning back to James.
'James. This isn't when and how I'd planned this and I don't have with me, well, what I wanted to, but we can do that later, you need this now, I need this now. At your own pace, when you are ready, fine, but James - you know I love you more than life and longer than it, you know I worry about being good enough for you, and want to make sure you never leave me: James Lance Bass, will you marry me?'
'Oh God yes, Josh! Yes!''
And Now, The New, Thrilling Installment of Our Serial:
'I love you.'
'Well, thank God for that. I love you.'
James was silent a moment. 'That was sweet of you to try and show Custis how even someone like me, well -'
'Hey. Hey. None of that "even" stuff. Do you still not know how much you are to me? Do you realize how much it hurts me to be told by the man I love with all my heart, soul, and mind that I'm in love with someone unworthy?'
'Oh, Josh, darling, I'm sorry, my God, my love -'
'Ssssh, darling. Shsssh.... Just hold me. Please.'
'I'm sorry, honey, I love you, I really do, I just can't manage to believe -'
'Aw, babe. My love.... I've been wanting to do that for months, and when I heard you so down on yourself I knew we both needed it. Setting an example for the Major was just a side deal. I needed to do that - I needed to, to ... propose. God, I'm still giddy you said yes....'
'But sugarpie -'
'Now don't go all Dixie on me, lover. I heard you saying you didn't think you were good enough for me, and I know damn well I don't deserve you - but I'd die if I lost you and this is to make sure I never do. We -'
'You deserve me, you deserve better'n me -'
'Shush now. That's just what I'm talking about. There is no "better than you," not on this earth. It's just exactly what I meant about us needing this. We each think we're not enough for the other, and we each think the other's wrong to think that. Well baby - I plan on us spending the rest of our lives proving each other wrong, in the nicest way possible; and I am the happiest man alive that you said you'd stick around for that.'
'For that, for ev'thing, and forever -'
'Mmm. Now I believe I said something about another way of showing my feelings, from down on my knees?'
'Oh no you don't mister,' smiled James, swinging them into a sixty-nine position there on the bed. 'I ain't nearly aiming to let you have all the fun.'
I had another miserable night, sleep-wise. And as usual, I was up and out doing PT at oh-dark-30: my internal clock is too damn hardheaded. Once again, Big John Sullivan and Jake Johnston joined me, though when we sang cadence on the run, we kept it quiet so as not to wake any civilian pukes sleeping in.
When we joined the boys for breakfast, James and Josh were trying - mostly I think for Justin's sake, and perhaps mine as well - not to look too ecstatic. They were failing miserably, partly because each was evidently exhausted, exhilarated, and sporting an evident hickey or three. Well, I'd known damned well, rooming next door as I had, that they'd had a busy night.
'- some explaining to do,' Chris was saying in mock annoyance as I walked in. Josh and James just blushed.
I wasn't about to let them off the hook either. 'Just make sure you let us know where your china and linen patterns are registered,' I said blandly as I headed for the coffee. They turned about twelve shades of red as everyone did a doubletake. As the whoops and high-fiving started when they confirmed their engagement, Justin launched himself at them and wrapped them in a flailing hug - thank Heaven, because had I been thinking earlier I'd never have said a word for fear of his reaction. I'm not at my best before coffee.
I joined in a four-way hug with an apologetic look to all three of them, and said softly, 'Justin, I'm an idiot: I never thought about -'
He hugged all three of us tighter. 'It's cool, I'm so happy for da guys, guys ya know I love ya both and I'm sooo thrilled -'
They hugged him with the renewed strength of relief as I looked an apology at them, too, for my remarks, and received a twinkle from James and a wink from Josh: absolution. About then, everyone else piled on, yelling, 'Group hug!'
As it started to break up, Chris piped up in that crazed contralto of his, 'Speakin' of peeps with explaining to do, I'm still not satisfied with the Major's short version of how he knows every legend in the music industry!'
'Yeah, spill,' grinned AJ.
'What?' The innocent look wasn't working.
'Well for starters,' Brian said, 'every time we turn around we learn something new - first that you're a better bass than Poofu there -'
'Hey! I resent that remark. I don't deny it, I just resent it!'
Everyone snickered, except Josh, who threw a conjugal liplock on James and when he came up for air said, 'Better how, exactly? 'Cause I don't buy that....'
I laughed. 'My feelings exactly. Okay, troops. I sing. I play the fiddle - nothing artsy or unsoldierly about that, so did Patrick Henry, Tom Jefferson, and the Duke of Wellington, so there. I tickle the ivories. I compose - nothing in your genre, unless you like baroque-inspired Masses and motets. I don't dance -'
'Neither does Scoop,' Joey guffawed. Josh slapped the back of his head: 'No Jello for you, young man, and you're grounded for a week.'
Joey pouted. I went on. 'And as y'all know, I am by way of being a military historian. Now part of that involves knowing the culture of the times. I've worked with the National Parks Service and various monuments and museums on documentaries, as a consulting historian. I know the folks y'all met yesterday through those, the way Flexner, in doing Liberty! for PBS, knows Sweet Baby James, or the way Ken Burns knows the voice and musical talent from Baseball and The Civil War. With that, and having used the Army band for some documentaries, I ended up the man to coordinate some morale-building stuff around the time of Desert Storm and after, and here we are.
'Which brings me to today. Listen up, troops, this is serious. Y'all know you're working with James Taylor and Ricky Skaggs on some material. You also need to get a few minor measurements from wardrobe. I am going to go ahead and explain, though I'd thought of surprising y'all....'
At Gettysburg NMP, LTC John Carpenter, AUS (Ret'd), SSG Stuart Gaines, USAF (Ret'd), and Dr Charlotte Meacham, Park Ranger - Historian, were finishing setting things up for the day. Re-enactors, SFX and armorers, medics, cameras and sound: everything was in place with military precision.
I took Kevin aside, and James and Josh, Nick, Howie, and Just. 'Men, there's going to be a few more surprises today in the shoot, and y'all especially need to be prepared for 'em. I'm not expecting acting, just honest reactions in a seemingly real situation. Kevin, about two minutes into the shoot, you're going to look over at the advance and suddenly realize that for the first time since the ANV formed, something is not going to work. I want that handsome, stunned, buffaloed, and - forgive me - slow on the uptake look you have in that photo on the splash page of your website, OK?' Kev blushed.
'Nicky, Howie, you'll be in a fairly tight shot when something happens - the re-enactors will give you the cue to look on and marvel. Nick, you're due to get "shot" - Howie, don't give away too much, but react as you would at seeing a best friend and brother wounded. Justin, shortly thereafter, you'll hit the dirt, too, at the wall, within sight of victory, and Howie is going to forget y'all are on opposite sides and rush over to you compassionately.
'Josh. As a Marylander, you could go either way (wipe that smirk off your face), but it evens things up to have you in grey. You and James will both be out in front of your units, as officers. James, you know this is doomed, but all you care about is your men and your, um, friend at the head of the next unit over. Josh, you fully expect that the next Minie ball has your name on it, but all you care about is that your men pierce the Federal line. When you drop, James is going to have to fight his instincts, with a visible struggle, and put his duty first - until he is shot down right above you. The rest of the guys I expect just to react on adrenaline in what's going to seem a very real situation, but y'all deserved a heads-up of your own given the undercurrents.
'Oh, and Justy - you're a slightly pampered young courier-aide who finds himself full of fighting madness and joins an assault you were supposed merely to observe. Gallant but stupid is the key, here.' I mussed his curls affectionately. 'So you will need to act.'
'Yeah, method acting,' said Josh, patting Justin on the ass. Justin punched his shoulder and grinned.
Lenore watched and listened in awe as the studio session finished with what would be the final takes of the music. JC, Lance, Kevin, Brian, and Justin, in Confederate tunics and their own clothes from the waist down, against a blue-screen that would allow them to appear, in the video, in ghostly head-and-shoulder shots over the roiling battle, sang their hearts out in a love song from a century and a half earlier, with Ricky Skaggs and the fiddling Major and Jake sitting in with the band and singing back-up.
The years flow slowly by,
In Union blue, against a green-screen for a similar shot, AJ, Howie, Nick, Chris, and Joey countered with a tear-jerker of their own, driven by the plangency and added vocals of James Taylor: she had to give the Major credit, these weren't mere 'war songs.'
Just before the battle, Mother...
Then all of them together, with no filming, singing purely and simply My Country, 'Tis of Thee, and Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing, led by Jake Johnston's rich, velvet bass, and ending with one of JT's most heartfelt singles, Shed A Little Light:
Let us turn our thoughts today
To Martin Luther King....
Afterwards, and after a moment of silence in the whole studio, suddenly contemplative, the sound man replayed the final cut of My Country, 'Tis of Thee, and the Major's gift for surprises was further vindicated: evidently he and Rosemary Clooney had snuck in the other day and laid down her vocals for it as well, which Sound had now mixed in. Lenore smiled. This was going to work after all.
It was late afternoon at Gettysburg. The re-enactors had performed superbly, as had the boys, all shot through filters to recapture a summer light for this Indian summer day: Pickett's Charge had gone forward as planned, and been bloodily repulsed. The shots of the boys had been everything I'd had up my sleeve.
Kevin as a brigadier, every inch the natural horseman, peering through the first few wisps of powder smoke, holding his mount steady whilst artillery thundered, a look of sick realization and disbelief crossing his face as he realizes that, incredibly, the Army of Northern Virginia was about to taste unprecedented defeat.
Justin, cantering up with written orders, dismounting, jumping out of his skin with excitement, finally tossing the reins to a corporal and attaching himself to Josh as the advance kicks off.
Josh and James, stepping out ahead of their units with grim and far-away faces.
Brian, cajoling and encouraging a battery of Napoleons, and as the assault wavers and breaks and he sees men scythed down, sinking in horror next to a gun carriage, helplessly beating a smoking barrel with a gauntleted fist.
Joey shoving men into firing positions on Cemetery Ridge, cuffing them affectionately, making them hold their fire. (He'd have made a well-loved officer in real life, that young man.)
AJ and Chris, almost unrecognizable without their trademark jewelry and with their hairdos hidden by forage caps, despatching Federal couriers right and left and nervously surveying the oncoming tide.
Howie giving his subaltern, Nick, quiet orders, only to wheel and stare in shock, as a re-enactor sergeant gasped at the sight and pointed, as the oncoming Confederate advance stopped under fire and dressed its lines as if on parade, in the classic example of inhuman courage.
And the raw emotion of the scenes I'd planned....
Josh cut down in the advance. James hesitating as his and Josh's units wavered, his hand twitching to reach down to the fallen JC, then standing straight and tall, his face a mask of tears (I knew the realism of the moment would affect them all into believing, briefly, in its realities), and starting forward with both units to lead, only to be 'hit' and fall atop Josh.
Justin stunned at that horror, then berserk, grabbing a wavering color and leading James's and Josh's men to the crest of the ridge.
Nicky, spun around and falling, as Howie leaped to support him.
Justin shot down atop the very stone wall he'd tried to reach, and Howie, still cradling Nick, rising to try and save a gallant foe, sobbing at the horror and futility of war....
It had worked better than any real performers, rehearsed to within an inch of their lives, could have made it work.
Now it was late afternoon, the filters were off the cameras, autumn was upon the land in a long slant of light, and we were gathered at the crest of Cemetery Ridge among heaped Union and Confederate 'corpses', still wreathed in lingering wisps of smoke, our 'dead' resurrected with their comrades of BSB and 'N Sync, arms linked, blue to grey to blue, James Taylor, Ricky Skaggs, myself, and Jake standing with them, the former in the civilian clothes of a Pennsylvania farmer of the day, Jake in ragged, castoff Confederate uniform, Ricky a Confederate sergeant, myself a bespattered officer of Jeb's late-arriving cavalry, once more singing the songs we'd laid down earlier, My Country, 'Tis Of Thee, Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing, and Shed A Little Light, though of course it would be the studio versions that would be overlaid, post-production.
Afterwards, the boys, subdued in the extreme, thanked and were thanked by the re-enactors, Dr Meacham, my old pals Carpenter and Gaines, James Taylor and Ricky Skaggs, and we departed.
It was a quiet ride back to Harrisburg.
As things broke up at Gettysburg, James Taylor and Ricky Skaggs solemnly shook hands. 'Those boys could actually amount to something,' Ricky observed. 'Like to hear that Howie do some Bill Monroe myself, with that range....'
'Yep. Next thing you know, Custis'll have 'em working with the Chieftains....'
'Smartypants,' Ricky laughed. 'Dr Meacham, Colonel, Sergeant Gaines, thank y'all for this. Wouldn't have missed this opportunity for the world.'
'Neither would we, gentlemen,' Dr Meacham said. 'But thank Major Lee: he's done it again. The NPS thanks you, very much. And you and your men, Stuart, John. If this doesn't promote living history, the Park System, and an appreciation of our past, nothing will.'
The boys, exhausted and emotionally drained, were sprawled in their seats: James cradling Josh as they slept, Howie, Nick, and Justin sharing a blanket, Kevin draped fluidly over a whole set of seats, Joey snoring, AJ prone, Chris huddled in a tight ball, Brian, slumped supine in a seat, awkwardly lolling against a window.
Lenore, Jake, Big John, and I sat quietly, winding down. 'Major,' she said softly, 'that was an eye-opener - and I owe you an apology. Next time you have an idea, don't even bother asking, because the answer is, "Yes."
'Now.... I'm not blind, but I can stay mute. There are some things corporate doesn't need to know, though it's my tuchas if that blows up in our faces and I didn't warn them. Am I right in seeing what I think I see as between some of my boys?'
'Major, they are my boys. I feel as if ... well, maternal, I guess. And for that reason and, and others, regardless of the professional reasons as well, I can be trusted not to out them, even if they weren't my meal ticket. Tell me if I'm wrong, but it seems Lance and JC really are lovers, and apparently not just recently....'
I thought about it, and elected to enlist her as an ally rather than make her an enemy: I wouldn't conform it but I wasn't going to put her back up, either. 'They do at least come across as a settled couple, I won't deny that much.'
She was silent a moment. 'Um, Custis? I don't want them to know that I know even a hint, at least not from you. When we get back, I want to get them to tell me themselves, and that goes for those three over there, too - which of the two of them are together? No, never mind. I'll wait.'
I was beginning to get a glimmer of just how she planned to evoke a response.
Jake, Big John, and I were the only reasonably alert people in the group. Lenore was wakeful but distracted, and the boys were stumbling half-asleep out of the bus. As we reached the hotel's private elevators, Lenore cleared her throat meaningfully.
'Guys, I know we're all tired, but I want five minutes of your time in the meeting suite when we get upstairs, before you crash.'
They muttered but were too exhausted to argue.
When they staggered off the elevators and trudged into the room, I realized it was just as well we were doing this. Yes, everyone was dragging and naturally supporting one another; but equally, with their guards down, JC and Lance were in obvious, though not blatant, Josh and James mode, clearly connected, and Howie and Nick were subtly - and I'm sure unwittingly - signaling their relationship with their body language; Justin's facade, too, was cracking, and a faint undercurrent of lonely misery could be glimpsed in his very posture.
Lenore stood, tensely, as they slumped into seats.
'Guys, couple of things. Today was incredible. I've gotten blase, taking your talent for granted in concert settings and the studio. But your studio and video work today really moved me, and I am so impressed with you guys and prouder than ever to be a part of what you do....'
They were tired, but they knew how to be sincerely grateful and gracious for that, including a slew of reminders, with which Lenore agreed, about my role in bringing this about.
'Oh, I know. From now on, I'm deferring to the Major anytime. Now. Guys, this is hard for me to say, but regardless of who signs my pay-stub and all that, I think, I hope, you consider me a friend.'
' 'Course we do,' yawned Chris.
'Good. Guys ... on the ride back ... um ....'
Justin woke up fully, panic-stricken, poised to bolt, and the couples and even the others 'came to' with considerable unease.
'At ease, gentlemen,' I snapped. They settled down, still nervous, and waited.
'Yeah,' Lenore said, 'I know you're thinking, "Busted" - busted as bad as you would be if anyone got into here past security now. You guys let the mask slip on the bus, and in here. Well, you're entitled to, in private -'
'Lenore,' Brian started to protest.
'- Bri, this is not going to be a lecture about "Ohmigod, don't you dare be, but if you are, no PDAs on pain of contractual litigation." Okay? I only noticed it today myself, and in private. Guys....' She took a deep breath. 'I'll trust you. Maybe then you'll trust me, OK? Hel-looo, wake up and smell the coffee, guys, I'm Family, OK? Lenore Williams, Official Dyke to the Stars here.'
They looked at her, openmouthed, stunned like dynamited crappie. Brian was the first to recover, jumping up and hugging her, and in an instant they were buried beneath the whole pile of a Group Hug.
As it broke off, Lenore smiled at them with a warmth no one had seen before. 'That felt good,' she said. 'It's nice, being out and proud.'
James collapsed on a sofa, dragging Josh down atop him. 'Yes ma'am it surely is. We're your new cousins, the Bass-Chasezes.'
'Um, darlin', I think that's "Chasez-Bass"?'
That broke everyone up.
Howie and Nick stood back up, yawning. 'Sis, we love you. But I need to walk Little Nicky home and tuck him in -'
'Was that "tuck" with a "T"?'
'Oh, go on, all of you,' Lenore smiled.
'Thanks - sis,' said Justin, shyly.
She patted his arm. 'Get to bed, "baby brudda." Oh, and guys - don't think this doesn't mean I won't ever be a professional bitch again!'
They laughed and staggered out to their respective beds. Lenore smiled, and sighed, and looked over to me. 'O-kaaaaay.... Takes care of that. You not bothered by it? Them? Me?'
I just looked at her. 'Bothered? About working with five gay guys and a lesbian?'
I just shook my head in disbelief. 'Your gaydar needs an overhaul, sistah.'
She did a doubletake, mouth hanging open. I just grinned.
'My Lord,' she breathed. 'I guess it does need tuning. So you knew all along.... Howie and Nick; JC and Lance - wait, though. Who's Justin got?'
I started to explain that as yet, he was the one left out, but before I could speak her eyes got big as trenchers. 'Not - not you, is it?'
I sighed wearily. What is it with that assumption? 'Nope. Not a bit. Right now, he's unattached, and we're all trying to be real easy with him.'
'So will I, then,' she said, yawning. 'I think we'd all best collapse.'
No one argued that. Yet when I got back to my bunk, intending to read a bit and then turn in (Pfanz's biography of Ewell: seemed appropriate up here), I found myself instead uneasy.
So far, every time a threat related to the boys's relations and relationships had come up, something beneficial had intervened to buoy their spirits and deflect the threat. No sensible commander would base any planning on a continuation of that sort of luck; and for all that Justin tried to be happy for the others, I feared for his emotional balance, just as I began increasingly to worry about the abilities of Josh and James, and Howie and Nick, to adjust to the pressures of discretion at the very moment their loves were deepening and naturally affecting their behavior. The idea that their most joyous moments should have to be more and more hidden was a cruel one....
For a third successive night, I slept but ill.
Join us next time for another thrilling installment of Sentimental Journey. Is the Major's sense of impending danger justified? Will someone crack under the strain? Are things a little too well to be true? Who knows what evil lurks - um, never mind. This exciting drama is brought to you courtesy of your local Hupmobile Auto Dealers. We now return you to Edward R. Murrow, reporting from London.