One Dark Night

by Rob

Standard Disclaimer: This story is a complete work of fiction. The author does not know the members of *Nsync or any other celebrities who may just happen to appear in the following fictitious account, and certainly does not have the slightest clue as to their sexual orientation. Quite frankly, the author does not care, although one does always love to speculate! Again, the scenes that follow are taken solely from the author's overactive imagination, are most definitely not true, and do not make any implications about the sexuality of the persons named. On another note, if reading such stories that depict relationships between men is illegal in your area, you are under the age of 18, or viewing such stories is against any beliefs you may have, stop reading and go do something else. Last, but certainly not least, if you are looking for a story with tons of steamy sex scenes, stop reading. You won't find a lot of that here either. Now with that said, enjoy the show!!

Last time...

Johnny was about to say something else when Josh happened to notice us having what appeared to be an unpleasant conversation with Johnny. Josh came over and said, "Hey guys! Did you enjoy the concert?"

I smiled at Josh and said, "We did indeed. We were just coming to congratulate you all on a job well done." I glared at Johnny, thought better about what I wanted to say, and then said politely, "We didn't mean to interrupt your party, so we will catch up with you later. We apparently have overstayed our welcome as it is. Tom? Ladies? Shall we go?"

I had just turned when Josh said, "What are you talking about? You know you all are welcome here anytime! Right Johnny?"

"Well, actually..." Johnny started to say, but Josh cut him off.

"If they're not welcome, then neither are we," Josh said defiantly.

"Josh, it's okay. Really. I'm sure Johnny has his reasons," I said, staring pointedly at the man. "Hopefully he won't mind if we say good-bye to the others, since you'll be leaving soon?"

Johnny sighed. I had him over a barrel and he knew it. "Whatever. Knock yourselves out." He then wandered off to the other side of the room.

I stared at Josh, dumbfounded by what he had just done. "Josh, I... I don't know what to say. I can't believe you said that!"

"It's true, you know. Whether we would have done it or not remains to be seen, but Johnny doesn't know that, and the way things have been these days, I don't think he wants to push it."

"Well, let's go say au revoir to the others before we head out," I said as we followed Josh across the room.

We caught up with the other four and said our good-byes. Friendly hugs were traded among the group until we decided to excuse ourselves for the night. The five of us trudged back to our hotel, exhausted from the day we'd had. Tomorrow was looming on the horizon, and it was going to be a grueling day of learning songs, of learning dance steps, and all around being beaten into a pulp by M.F.

We all sat up until about midnight when my cell phone rang. I was surprised to see it was Joey calling. I answered the phone quickly and was thrilled to hear his melodic baritone voice on the other end. We spoke briefly, and then the phone circled around as the others said hello to various people. The call was short because they were about to drive into the mountains as they headed for Charleston, West Virginia, but Joey requested cell phone numbers from everyone and he had asked that I give out theirs to Tom and the girls. At last, when the phone had made its way back to me, Joey whispered a couple of things that I would rather not repeat for I would be blushing for a week and then we said our good-byes. Everyone then dispersed to their rooms while Tom and I climbed into our respective beds. It was a strange notion, to be honest, as I hadn't been alone in my bed for quite some time now. It was a rather lonely feeling, actually. I had grown so accustomed to having another body there with me that the bed now felt empty. This was going to be a long separation, at least in my mind, even though the physical time was only two weeks. I just hoped I could get through it without going nuts. Such a sad case I am, I know, but many people get kind of weird when they fall in love; I just happen to be weirder than most.

Chapter Twenty-Two: Let's Put on a Show!

The next two weeks passed rather slowly. As a matter of fact, each day seemed to have forty-eight hours in it instead of the normal twenty-four. I don't know if it was because of the anticipation of seeing Joey again that made the days seem so long, the fact that we had to suffer long and hard every day with M.F., or a combination of the two. No matter, how you looked at the situation, in the end, I couldn't wait to pass out and fall asleep. To be perfectly honest, sleep was about all I could manage to do after the twelve-plus hour days we were putting in with M.F.

All right. Stop. Let me back up a second. First, I know you're probably wondering why I'm not detailing every second of every day in these two weeks like I did the past two weeks, right? Well, truth be told, I did warn you way back in the beginning that I have no life and am incredibly boring. Having *Nsync literally fall in my lap was the most exciting thing to happen in my entire life. Once they had left, I was back to plain old me again, and plain old me isn't very interesting. That's not to say interesting things didn't happen during that time, but they were fewer and far between. Primarily my schedule was dance, sing, sleep, and repeat, with the occasional eat and use the bathroom thrown in for good measure.

We relocated our rehearsals from York to a different dance studio in Timonium, Maryland. For one thing, it was much closer for the rest of us to get to, which meant getting a couple extra minutes of sleep each day that wasn't going to be spent on the road. M.F. had a friend who owned the facility, and we were guaranteed space without the possibility of interruption, which wasn't something we could always count on in York. M.F. said she didn't really care which space we used, as she lived halfway between the two in Shrewsbury, Pennsylvania. "Twenty-five minutes one way or twenty-five the other. Makes no difference to me," she had said after setting things up for us.

Since we were going to be closer and the guys were now gone, we decided to shuffle people around in our homes to better space ourselves out. Tom, who the day after the concert got into an argument with his boss and quit, took up temporary residence at my house in the bedroom across from mine after deciding he was tired of living alone. Raya and Shana took the room down the hall, since I figured it would be best if they stayed with me. Of the four women, they were the most introverted and shy, and I thought they would be more comfortable staying with someone they've known for years than someone they just met. Aja and Kimber, on the other hand, were easygoing and much more carefree, so they went to stay with Mandy. Jerrica, who was getting a little annoyed with Mandy for some unknown reason that only Jerrica could possibly figure out, decided to change things up and go stay with Karri. When I had told Joey about this arrangement he became silent for a couple of moments before he acknowledged the situation and voiced his approval. I was a bit hard pressed to say for certain, but if I didn't know any better, I could have sworn that there was a touch of jealousy in his voice. Jealous of whom? Tom? That's ridiculous! I thought, but was it really? Every so often I would catch Tom watching me, and I had to wonder what it was all about. Was he watching me because he was interested in me, or was it because he was waiting for me to self-destruct, or something different? I mean, the idea that he could even be remotely interested in me in any way other than as a friend was completely absurd. Besides, it's not like he didn't know I was involved with Joey, and he was sort of making headway with Josh. I'm just being stupid, I chastised myself. I have to stop reading so much into things that aren't there.

The problem was that the signals seemed to be there all the time and they weren't going away. Some might say I was jumping to some seriously wrong conclusions, and I have stated before that even with being empathic, I'm often wrong, but there were moments that were just a little too weird for me to ignore. For example, friendly hugs that went on a few seconds longer than normal, continued compliments about my physical appearance that were not solicited, and other small things that just seemed out of place. I always chalked it up to Tom just being overly friendly while trying to establish himself in a group that already seemed to have established itself without him, and I know at times he felt a bit like an outsider when someone would tell a joke or story that the rest knew the punch line to. I finally decided that unless he did something blatantly obvious, I would take his actions at face value only. No interpretation, no reading between the lines, nothing. If he gave me a hug, it was just a hug. If he said I looked nice, it was just a compliment. I then wondered why I was trying so hard to convince myself of something I knew didn't exist. Yeah, we're back to square one again. I'm just nuts.

Since none of us had a job to go to due to Karri, Mandy, and I getting leave and Jerrica and Tom not being employed at all, rehearsals frequently ran late, and I don't mean by just a few minutes. One night we ran four hours over because M.F. refused to let us leave until we had gotten something down perfectly. All five of us were worn out, frustrated, and in many ways beside ourselves. It seemed that no matter what we did, it just wasn't good enough. No one smiled. No one laughed. No one did much of anything but work. Kimber, Shana, Raya, and Aja did their best to keep our spirits up, but as each day progressed, their resolve began to weaken. They too had a ton of work to do, and there didn't seem to be enough hours in the day to do everything.

For starters, we still had not yet acquired a keyboardist, and it was becoming critical that we did in a hurry. Raya and Aja were learning their sheet music as quickly as possible, but by the time someone was located, they already had a three day head start. Her name was Rebecca Fremont, or Becki for short. She was a sweet girl, probably somewhere around thirty, but she barely looked any older than us. I took an instant liking to her, as she struck me as the type of person who was very laidback and went with the flow. I needed more people like that around me as I was starting to get to be a bit too high-strung as it was. The girls were a bit cool to her at first, but next thing you knew they were chatting and gossiping like old friends. Yeah, we were all family in the Charm camp, but things over in *Nsync land weren't nearly so rosy.

The guys had arrived into Charleston, West Virginia sometime in the middle of the night and couldn't get into bed fast enough. Suddenly, it was morning and Eric was rousing them out of bed. After a quick breakfast that for some, like Chris, consisted of nothing more than coffee, they were downstairs in a meeting room with a very annoyed Johnny.

"I am not amused by that stunt you pulled last night. The after-show party is supposed to be exclusive, and it loses any value if we let just anyone in."

Lance, who was sitting next to Joey, put his hand on his arm and gripped hard—not hard enough to hurt him, but hard enough to drive home a point that this was not an argument he should get involved in. Had Joey not been so surprised by Lance's action he would have burst out laughing, considering that I had done the same thing in the past. Then, thoughts of me flooded his mind and his whole body went from being rigid with anger and annoyance to slack with depression and melancholy. Lance felt the change in Joey's body and gave him a sympathetic look. In the meantime, while Lance was focusing on Joey, the person he probably should have been more concerned with was the one who voiced his opinion—Josh.

"Just anyone? Will and the others are not 'just anyone' you know," he said with venom in his voice. "I still don't get you Johnny. You wanted him so badly, and now that you've got him, you act like you want nothing to do with him."

Johnny remained silent for a moment. He knew all too well now that I was an extremely touchy subject with this group, and he was already treading on some incredibly thin ice. He also knew that there was almost no way out of this and whatever escape he had wasn't an easy one. "Don't get me wrong, JC," Johnny began. "I have nothing against Will or any of the others, but I think they are becoming too much of a distraction right now. You fellows did a fine job last night, all things considered, but there is obviously much room for improvement. Some of your dance work was a little sloppy, and there was at least one song where I had to wonder if you had ever sung it before in your life!"

"We're doing the best we can," Chris said quietly.

"Are you? Are you really? Or are you not focusing on the important stuff here because you are too busy mooning over your missing loves?" Johnny said loudly. "GET WITH THE PROGRAM!"

"Johnny, we're fine. You can't expect us to be at one hundred percent our first night back from an impromptu hiatus. We'll get it together, okay?"

Johnny sighed. "I know you will, or there will be hell to pay! Eric," he continued, motioning to the other man, "take care of these boys." He then turned on his heel and stormed out of the room.

"Well, isn't he a ball of sunshine," Joey muttered.

"You five have got some work to do," Eric said. "Now get up and get moving!"

"I'm so tired I don't think I can move another inch," Mandy moaned as she collapsed into a heap.

The rest of us were already on the ground, groaning about the same thing. It was nearly eight o'clock at night and M.F. had given us a small break. Granted, we should have been home by now, but there was no changing M.F.'s mind once she was determined. We all were incredibly sore, and if I didn't know any better I would have sworn I sprained my ankle due to a misstep that caused me to fall over myself. However, after a night off of it, it felt better the next day, so it was back to the regular grind.

We no longer had time to go out and get food, so we had it brought in. The food we had was good, although it wasn't up to Celia's cuisine, but we managed to gulp it down during our thirty minutes or less lunches and went right back to where we were. These days seemed to be getting longer by the minute, and if we weren't dancing our rear ends off we were singing until our voices gave out.

The only break in the activity I had was when J.B. wanted me to come out to Los Angeles for an overnight trip. She didn't say what it was about nor did she give me time to ask questions. When I queried Kimber on it she just smiled and said I would have to wait until I got there. Curiosity was one of my many downfalls. I hate not knowing things, especially when it concerns me. Of course, I eventually found out what the deal was, but I'll tell you about that later. In the meantime, let us return to five heaps on the floor bemoaning their miserable lives.

"What do you say we go to her house tonight and remove all the spark plugs from her car?" Jerrica suggested with a small smile.

"She'd probably just get the broom out of her closet and fly here, so what good would that do us?" Karri said from the other side of Jerrica.

"Who knew there could be so much evil stored inside such a small woman?" Mandy quipped.

"As much as I would like to say 'It's not that bad,' doing so would make me a liar, so I'm going to shut up now and wait for the feeling to come back to my legs," Tom muttered.

After a few moments, the others noticed I had remained silent on the subject. "So Will, what's your complaint?" Mandy asked.

"Can' Too much...pain. Whole world...going black," I said, closing my eyes and wishing the world would swallow me whole.

"Well thank you Captain Kirk," Karri said before laughing. "Hey! Don't make me laugh. It hurts!"

"Jerrica started it," I said.

"I did not," Jerrica muttered.

"Oh, knock it off you two. I'm too tired to referee," Mandy said.

"What do you all think you're doing?" M.F. said as she marched over to us. "I don't remember saying anything about lying down! Now get up and get moving!"

Other than rehearsal, my remaining time was mostly filled with sleep, which some days I seemed to get more of than others. Joey always called me after each concert to let me know how it went, that he was thinking of me, and that he missed me. Sometimes the others would take a minute to say hello, and sometimes Joey would keep the phone to himself. I would often wait up for him to call, but occasionally, especially if M.F. put us through a grueling day, I would fall asleep before he called. One night the phone rang at about its usual time and woke me up. I had fallen asleep on the couch, for I hadn't made it any further in the house than that, so the phone was fortunately next to my head. If I had been in most other parts of the house, save the kitchen or my bedroom, I never would have heard it.

"Hey you," Joey said excitedly before I could even get a word out. "Comment ça va?" I had been teaching him French here and there—just the important phrases for now—and he was always happy when he was able to use something he had learned, especially when he knew he was saying and using it right.

I smiled and chuckled a little. "Je vais bien. I'm doing fine," I replied. "I hurt like hell thanks to M.F., but otherwise, I can't complain too terribly." My voice softened a little as I continued. "Granted, things would be a little nicer if someone was here to give me a back rub, but I'll take what I can get."

"You're telling me," Joey said. "I could use one too."

"So where are you again?" I asked.

"Lexington," Joey stated after a minute. "After a while, a lot of these cities blur together."

I giggled. "Joe, it's only been three days. Surely you haven't been lulled into the 'passing America' syndrome already?"

"Guilty as charged," Joey replied. "As far as I'm concerned right now, the further I get from Baltimore, the more life just plain sucks."

"You're sweet," I said with a big smile. "A little off sometimes, but I like that in you."

"Are you saying I'm weird?" Joey asked suspiciously.

"Guilty as charged," I said, mimicking Joey's earlier comment. "However, I find that to be one of your more attractive qualities."

"You always know how to charm me," Joey said, and then after a second, he added, "No pun intended."

"Ugh," I groaned. "What drug was I on when I agreed to that name?"

"It's not that bad. It could always be worse."

"How could it be worse?"

"You don't want to know. Just trust me when I tell you that it could be worse."

"Point taken. So what else is new?"

"Well," Joey began, "something big is up, and I don't know what it is. All I can tell you is that I heard some yelling and screaming after the concert, but I don't know who and I don't know why."

I shrugged, and then realized how silly that was, since he couldn't see me. "Beats the heck out of me. Now tell Justin that if he wants to talk to me, he can just knock on the partition door and ask instead of eavesdropping." I didn't even know that those words had left my mouth. In fact, I didn't realize what I said until Joey repeated it back to me.

"Say what?" Joey asked incredulously as he moved toward the door. "What about the partition door?" He opened it, and lo and behold there was Justin stumbling into the room. "Justin, were you listening to my conversation with Will?"

"What's going on?" I asked.

"How did you know that?" Joey inquired.

"How did I know what?" I queried back.

"That Justin was listening at the door," he stated, shooting Justin an evil look. "You just said so yourself."

"I did?" I was confused for a moment. It was a bit strange actually, as I had just been having a dream about the same exact thing happening right before Joey called me. This was too weird, even for me. "It was, uh, just a guess, and the fact that I happened to be right just means I'm good at guessing!"

"Not buying it, Jamesy," Joey said, slightly bemused, "but we can discuss that later. In the meantime, there is someone here who I think would like to speak with you."

There was a sound of muffled voices, of which I could make out none of the words. I didn't have the slightest idea what the relationship was like between Joey and Justin at the moment, and I was hoping that Joey wasn't being too hard on the guy for listening in. In a moment, Justin came on the line and seemed to be as chipper as ever.

"Hi Will!" Justin exclaimed happily. "How's it going?"

"If I have to see that woman one more time, I'm going to scream," I said ruefully. "M.F. is nuts!"

"Our choreographer Wade is just as bad," Justin said, and then after a quick moment, he corrected himself. "Actually, M.F. is worse, but I was just trying to make you feel better."

"Thanks for trying," I said.

We talked for a couple more minutes about this and that, and then Justin said good night and handed the phone back to Joey. "So now that he's gone..." Joey began.


"Care to fill me in on what that was all about?"

"Heck if I know," I replied nonchalantly. "Apparently the words were out of my mouth before I even knew it had happened, and I don't know where they came from. To be honest, right before you called I was having a dream about the exact same thing. It's just a pure coincidence though." I was starting to babble, hoping to drive this conversation away from the current subject. I didn't want to delve very far into it because I had no idea what it meant. Furthermore, I didn't want to accept that I might be weirder than I already knew myself to be. Being empathic is bad enough. There was no need to take it any further than that.

"If you say so," Joey interjected, even though his tone told me he wasn't buying it at all.

"Okay JoJo, you've got a point. I have no explanation and, quite honestly, don't intend to go looking for one. I'd just like to be normal, thank you very much."

"You know there's a difference between normal for others and normal for you."

"Not helping!"

"I'm just saying."

"I know that. I'd just like normal for me to be as close to normal for others as I can possibly get."

"That may be a bit of a long stretch, you know."

"Again, point taken." I was getting tired of this subject, so I changed it. "So, what else is new?"

"Not much. I heard from my brother the other day. I've told you about Steve."

"Good! What's going on with him?"

"Not much. He has some projects of sorts that he's working on. We didn't talk long. He had to go meet his girlfriend for lunch and I had to get ready for a sound check."

"I see," I said softly. I wondered if Joey had said anything about me to Steve and then immediately knocked that idea right out of my head. Of course he didn't, I thought, and if he had his way, he probably never would.

"Will?" Joey asked, causing me to jump. I guess I had been silent a little too long.


"You don't think I'm ashamed or embarrassed by you because I haven't told my family yet?"

"Joe, we've had this conversation before. You'll tell then when you tell them. It's not like I'm going to get a leash and drag you to New York just to tell them. It'll happen when it happens."

"You didn't answer my question."

"I didn't because you don't want to hear the answer that you already know to be true."

"That's because I want you to say it."

"Why? It's just going to make you upset."

"Because maybe hearing it will prompt me to actually do it."

I sighed. I hated being cornered like this. "Joe, it's not that I think I embarrass you or that you're ashamed of me. I think it's that you're ashamed of yourself, and you're embarrassed at what you're family will think or say when you tell them. The problem is that I serve as a constant, daily reminder of that which scares you, since it's obvious that your family knows nothing about your sexuality."

Joey was silent for a moment. "No. I've been pretty good at covering everything, as you already know. My family is a bit straight-laced. Except for your grandmother, the rest of your family was pretty easy to deal with. They're supportive. I don't think mine will be."

"Well, we won't know until that bridge has been crossed, and I don't foresee that happening any time in the near future. So, my recommendation to you is to stop thinking about it, stop worrying about it, and when the time comes to act, you'll know what to do." At least I hope you will, I thought.

"I should probably go. It's going to be an early morning," Joey said. "Tu me manques beaucoup."

I couldn't help but laugh. He was a quick learner. I had to wonder how long he had to practice it to remember what it meant. His accent needed a lot of work, but what could I expect from a native English speaker? Besides, I have been ridiculed for my accent as well by Québécois because it is regarded as "too American sounding." Either way, I was impressed by the fact that he was at least trying for my sake. "I miss you too," I replied, "and I will see you soon."

We said a couple more pleasantries and hung up. Considering the conversation I just went through, it was a bit surprising that I had fallen back asleep so quickly. It wasn't meant to last though, for about two hours later my phone rang again.

"Allô?" I answered groggily. "J'écoute." I figured the only ones who would be calling me at this time of the morning would have to be Jerrica, Joey, or Mom, so it wouldn't matter much how I answered the phone. Besides, I wasn't exactly awake. However, I sat bolt upright when I heard sniffling on the other end of the phone. "Hello? Who's there?"

"Hi, uh, Will?" I heard a familiar, yet petite sounding voice on the other end say. "Is that you?"

"Um, yes?" I answered warily.

The person on the end sniffled again. "I'm sorry, Will. Joey gave me your number. He figured if anyone would have a good suggestion right now, it would be you."

Suddenly things fell into place. The voice I was hearing was normally bubbling with enthusiasm, which is why I couldn't place it before. "Vee, is that you?"

Vee sniffled again. "Oh, yes! I'm sorry!" She laughed for a brief second before falling back into her sad state. "I'm dreadfully sorry to bother you, but I didn't know who else to talk to."

"Please, don't apologize. What's going on?"

I could hear Vee blow her nose and try to compose her breathing. "I just can't believe this, Will. I've worked for Johnny for years, and I knew he could be a bit difficult at times, but I never thought he would do this! Not in a million years!"

Now, I had no idea what Vee was talking about, but for some reason, I had a sneaking suspicion I could guess. It was the only logical conclusion I could come to in my mind to justify this telephone call. "Vee, Joe said something to me earlier about some people yelling and screaming after the concert today. Was that you and Johnny?"


"Did he fire you?"

"In a manner of speaking," Vee said in a hushed tone.

"What does that mean?"

"He was ranting and raving about how he heard I was involved in that little stunt with Chris a few days ago, and then someone told him that I was stealing things from the tour. Will, it's not true! I mean, the first part is, and don't worry. I didn't tell him anything about you being involved."

"It wouldn't matter if you had, Vee. I'm a big boy and I can handle my own with Johnny. Besides, the brat deserved what he got."

Vee burst out laughing. "Thanks Will. I needed that."

"Well, he did! Besides, Johnny's an idiot, and he's a bigger idiot for letting you go."

"You're sweet to say that. He was starting to say, 'Veronica, I think that you should pack your bags and leave the...' when I jumped in and said, 'To hell with you Johnny. I quit!' Then, I turned around and walked out the door."

"Wow." I said after a moment. "I bet it felt good yet terrible at the same time."

"It did," Vee admitted. "I don't know what to do now. The rest of the tour is leaving tomorrow and I'm stuck in... What city is this again? Lexington, Kentucky?" Vee paused for a moment as she confirmed this information. "Oh God! I'm stuck in Kentucky!"

"Vee, don't freak out yet. Where do you live? I mean, when you aren't on tour?"

Vee sniffled some more and sighed. "I sort of have two places. I was doing so much work for Johnny that I have an apartment in Orlando, but the rest of my family lives in Boston."

I laughed. "You don't sound like you're from Boston."

"It takes a lot of time and training to kick that accent," she began, "but I can drop my rs with the best of them."

"Listen, do me a favor," I said, changing the subject. "Pack your things together and see if you can get to the airport. Go to the Northern Skies ticket counter and give them your name. I have an idea that I think will make things better."

"What are you talking about?" Vee asked.

"Vee, do you trust me?"

"I hardly know you," Vee said with a laugh.

"Fair point. Do you trust Joe and the rest of *Nsync?"

"On most days."

"Then trust that they wouldn't have told you to call me unless they had a good reason. Now I'm asking you to do this one thing without asking too many questions. I promise it will be worthwhile."

"If you say so," Vee said at last. "You know, Will, I knew there was something I liked about you from the moment we met. I kept listening to Joey gush on and on about how wonderful you were, but it never occurred to me that he could actually be right."

"I'm sure Joe was embellishing just a little," I said modestly.

"He wasn't. Not one bit. So where am I going?" she asked. "Can you at least tell me that?"

"You're coming here to Baltimore. I think I may have a job for you."

In the very, very early morning, I called Mandy's house and talked to Kimber. At first, she was a bit upset with me for offering Vee a job on an already cash-strapped tour, but after I explained the whole story she agreed that I had done the right thing. "Besides," I continued, "if Tony Sanderson is helping cover some of the costs for the tour, then this is just one more cost he will have to chip in for."

"Do you think he'll go for this?" Kimber asked.

"If he wants another book out of me he will," I replied with a grin.

"Outrageous!" Kimber shrieked. "Robért-James, you are the coolest kid I have ever had the pleasure to know."

"Uh, Kimber, do we have to go into the 'full name' discussion again?" I asked, rolling my eyes. "Second, I'm hardly a kid anymore."

Kimber laughed. "True enough. It's hard for me to think of you as an adult. When I think of you, I think of the three year old who used to run around my apartment with no clothes..."

"WHOA!" I yelped. "That's more than anyone needs to hear, Kimber."

"You're not embarrassed by me, are you?"

"Only moments like this."

"All right. Anyway, are you ready to go to Los Angeles tomorrow?"

"Yeah, but why? You still haven't told me why."

"You'll see when you get there. Now, the flight leaves at about seven, I believe, from Washington Dulles. Is that very far away?"

"It's a little over an hour from my house."

"Then I guess we better make sure M.F. lets you go early enough that you can get a decent night's sleep."

"We'll see about that," I remarked before exchanging good-byes with Kimber. I then called the Northern Skies employee travel line and had the agent list Vee for the flight to Baltimore. Thank goodness I had remembered to ask her for her last name, Sawyer, before hanging up, as I realized I had never gotten it to begin with.

I then got dressed and roused Raya and Shana from their slumber. I figured they would take some time getting ready, so there was no need to get Tom up just yet. Besides, I kind of liked having the house to myself for a moment.

I went downstairs and fed the cats. Tigger, Princess, and Little Boo were ducking between my legs trying to get nearest to the food bowls first. This was standard practice every morning with them, and over time I had figured out how not to step on tails nor fall down when trying to give them their morning meal. I wondered why it was they felt the need to do this every morning and night when they didn't have to fight each other for their food. They each had their own bowl and got their own share. Cats, I thought to myself, make absolutely no sense. Then again, most people don't either.

At about quarter to four, I went back upstairs and knocked on Tom's door. After the third round of knocking with no response I slowly opened the door and let myself in. It took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the little amount of light in the bedroom, but once my eyes adjusted I was in for a momentary surprise. Tom apparently slept in only his underwear, and I probably could have handled that with no problem were they boxers or even regular briefs, but no. Tom was wearing what I would call bikini briefs that left almost nothing to the imagination. It had been a warm night, so I didn't blame Tom one bit for throwing the sheets off of him, but I was now in a slightly awkward position. I knew that at some point in time Tom and I might see each other in various, though hopefully not complete, stages of undress, but I was unprepared for this quite so quickly. That's not to say that I'm that much of a prude, but I do respect people's privacy, and Tom didn't even know I was there.

Nevertheless, we needed to go soon, and that meant that Tom needed to haul his derrière out of bed. I walked over to the bed and shook him lightly, hoping I wouldn't scare him awake. "Tom!" I whispered. "Tom, wake up!" Tom mumbled something inaudibly and shifted in his sleep. We were running on a deadline so I bent over and lightly patted his cheek. "Tom! Wake up!" I said more loudly. "We have to go soon!"

Tom groaned and started to sit up. "Good morning to you too," Tom said sleepily. Then, before I knew what happened, he grabbed my head and kissed me on the lips. I immediately wrenched myself out of his grasp and jumped back about five feet.

"Uh, Tom? What are you doing?" I asked, a bit stunned by this set of events.

"Michael, come back to bed," Tom replied as he tried to lie back down again.

Whew, I thought to myself. He's not fully awake and thinks I'm Michael. That's a good thing. That means it wasn't deliberate. Good kisser though, but Joey's better. I grinned as that thought flashed across my mind. Turning back to the bed, I grabbed Tom by the shoulders and started shaking him until his eyes popped open.

"What?" Tom whined.

"Get up. We have to go soon," I said. As I started to walk out the door, I said, "You know, I like good morning kisses as much as the next guy, but I really do prefer to get them from Joe."

Tom shot out of bed and cut me off. "What did you just say?"

"Tom, before you flip out..."

"Too late! What are you talking about?"

I sighed. "I was trying to wake you up and you kissed me, okay?"

Tom's face turned a deathly shade of pale. "I didn't."

"You did, but don't worry. You were asleep and didn't really realize what you were doing. Besides, you thought I was someone else."

"Oh really?" Tom asked, intrigued.

"Yes, so don't worry your pretty little head over it. Now get ready. We have to go."

"Who did I think you were?" Tom inquired.

"That's not important," I said. "All that matters is that it wasn't me. Get a move on."

"No, tell me!" Tom asked again. "Was it...Josh?"

I debated for a split second as to whether or not I should tell him the truth. He seemed so hopeful that it would be Josh I couldn't help but lie. I was also a bit afraid that things might go south if I told him the truth. He was not handling this whole Michael incident very well anyway, and I was in no mood to make it any worse.

"Yeah, but like I said, don't stress over the fact that it was me in real life. I know that wasn't your intent."

Tom giggled. "And I can't even say I know what it's like to kiss you because I don't remember it."

"Trust me when I tell you that you didn't miss out on much."

"I'm certain that's not true, boyo," Tom said teasingly. "Um, are you going to tell Joey about this?"

"Yes," I said without hesitation. "I don't keep things from him unless I either have no choice or promised someone I wouldn't. I prefer to have our relationship open and honest. It's only right. Besides, let me worry about Joe. He'll understand, and if he doesn't, then I'll make him understand. I'm pretty good at making people see things my way most of the time."

"So I've noticed," Tom stated. "Jerrica says..."

"Okay, two things," I interrupted. "One, the last thing I need to hear in the morning is anything that starts with 'Jerrica says.' Second, if you don't get dressed now, I will take you to rehearsal in your underwear." I had been trying my hardest to keep my eyes at face level only, but I was finding it increasingly difficult.

"Oh! Sorry! I'll get dressed now!" Tom said as he started rummaging through his stuff.

I left the room and started downstairs. My head was swimming a little as I contemplated how exactly I was going to handle this. It had become apparent that Joey was showing major signs of jealousy toward Tom, and I didn't want to make things any worse than they were, but I couldn't just let this go, could I? No, that would be a lie, I thought to myself. I'll just have to handle the fallout when it comes. I sighed as I wondered how I had let my life get so complicated. As I continued down the stairs I laughed quietly to myself. A couple of weeks ago I was alone and the prospects of me finding anyone seemed small. Now I had a boyfriend, had been pursued by another, and was in a bit of an awkward friendship with a third. All I know is that when life comes rushing fast, it moves at light speed.

Raya and Shana were in the kitchen making some breakfast. I threw a bagel in the toaster and grabbed a glass of orange juice. Raya shot me an odd look but didn't say anything. I always gave Raya credit for knowing more than anyone thought she did, but I was hoping that she wasn't going to get on my case about what I was eating. I had curbed my food intake quite a bit over the last week, and it wasn't very easy to hide. As a matter of fact, Jerrica and Karri both had made comments in passing but I ignored them. I knew what I was doing...I think.

I was in the middle of spreading cream cheese on my bagel when Tom came down and grabbed an apple. Since we didn't have much time, we decided to take what food was portable and head out. We were a tad early, but better that than late. Once we arrived at the studio, Tom headed off toward the locker room to put stuff away and Raya and Shana cornered me in the dance hall.

"Robért-James..." Raya began, but my exasperated sigh caused her to correct herself. "Will. I'm sorry. It still takes some getting used to." As usual, I just waved my hand dismissively and continued to try to do what I was doing before so I could pretend that I knew that something she was going to say I wasn't going to like. "Anyway, is there something you want to tell us?"

"Yeah, we're a little worried about you," Shana said quietly. "Are you sick?"

"No, I'm fine," I said with a shrug. "A little tired, but I think that's going to be a constant for a while. Besides, it's been a long time since I've had to physically work quite this hard, so it'll take some time for my body to get used to it."

"Well, what I was referring to was..." At that moment, Jerrica came in with the other girls in tow not far behind and I cut her off.

"I apologize for having to cut you off, but I have some things I need to talk to Jerrica about. Can we catch up later? Thanks!" Before I could give them a chance to reply, I dashed off.

"He's going to make himself really sick, or worse," Shana said with a sigh. "What do you think we should do?"

"I don't know," Raya said. "He knows what we're going to say and he doesn't want to hear it. We may only have one of three choices."

"What are those?" Shana asked.

"One: we corner him in a place he can't leave until he has no choice but to listen; two: we tell his mother, who will read him the riot act; or three, we tell Joey, who will probably do the same," Raya finished.

"He's going to be really mad, no matter which route we go. Why don't we try this—we'll try to talk to him again, and if we don't get anywhere, we'll tell Joey. We'll go to Anne-Marie as a last resort."

I ended up getting bombarded from all different directions on this subject, but I'll delve into that a little bit later. It was time for practice to begin, and we had a lot to do and not a lot of time to do it.

Vee had arrived that afternoon and Kimber and I went to pick her up. As soon as she saw me in the baggage claim area she practically flung herself on me as she gave me a bone-crunching hug. "Thank you so much for everything you're doing for me. I mean, you barely know me and still you're doing all this!" Vee babbled excitedly.

"Whoa! Slow down!" I said with a laugh. Her hazel eyes were sparkling and her long, waist-length jet black hair swayed to and fro. She reminded me a little bit of Cher, but not quite as tall and not quite as thin. It was obvious she enjoyed the sun and had probably been working on her tan as soon as it was warm enough to stay outside. I was curious if she was single—not for any personal interest, mind you, as we've already established this through the last twenty-one chapters I've gone into great detail over, but for the fact that someone as beautiful and outgoing as Vee shouldn't have any trouble finding someone. "Anyway, welcome back to Baltimore. How were the flights?"

"Confusing, at first. I didn't know that I was traveling standby, so I was a little concerned, but everything went smoothly as long as they didn't lose my bags."

"Why don't I see if I can find them while you and Kimber talk? Let me have your claim checks and tell me what your bags look like."

"Can't miss them. They're bright orange! They clash with everything, but they're easy to find amongst everyone else's," Vee said as she handed me her two claim checks. I went off to find her bags while she and Kimber talked business.

One of the reasons Kimber had been upset with me was because Shana had been expected to be our wardrobe and makeup person. However, Shana was more forward-thinking than Kimber was. Designing a whole new wardrobe and keeping tabs on us during performances was going to be a lot of work for one person, so it was decided that Vee would be Shana's assistant. Upon the two meeting, they clicked immediately and went right to work. Shana said later that she couldn't have picked a better assistant if she tried. I just took it as one more notch in my success belt.

I was in a bad mood the rest of the day because as soon as we had come back from picking up Vee at the airport, everyone seemed to lay into me about how much—or little—I had been eating recently. Karri and Jerrica had made little comments from time to time, but I had ignored them. This time, Jerrica, Karri, and Mandy confronted me head on, which led to Jerrica and I getting into an argument; not the usual kind where we feel better afterward. This was a nasty, bitter argument where I was really getting mad, to the point where Jerrica backed off. Having known me as long as she has, she knows how far to push me and when to stop. She had steered Mandy and Karri away so I could seethe in peace.

Not more than an hour later, I was ambushed by Aja, Shana, and Raya. It was harder for me to yell and scream at them like I could with Jerrica and the others, but I was still annoyed by this intrusion into my life. I understood that they cared about me and I appreciated that, but there was also the other issue that they didn't know about: Johnny Wright and his stupid agreement. I was a little confused though, as I had assumed that Kimber had filled these three in on everything, but I suppose I was wrong. I finally told them that I wasn't going to discuss it any further and that if they wanted to know more, to ask Kimber.

If that wasn't enough, someone—Jerrica I'm assuming—had decided to call Joey and fill him in on what was going on. That was one conversation I don't want to relive, for more than one reason. It went a little something like this:

"Hi Will! How's it going today?" Joey had asked as soon as my voice answered the line. I had a migraine the size of Wyoming at the time and it was threatening to eat the surrounding states. I had already taken some Tylenol, but it didn't seem to be helping much.

"Like someone has run me over with a Mack truck. If the brutal sessions with M.F. weren't enough, I had everyone on my case today. Enough about that though. What's going on with you?"

"Jamesy, they're just concerned about you," Joey stated. "I know that you agreed to drop weight to pacify Johnny, but you can't do it at the expense of your health."

"Oh no, not you too!" I complained. "Joe, you're right. You know what is going on, but I also have to ask you to trust that I know what I'm doing."

"And up until now, I have never really questioned you, but I am now. Are you sure you're doing the right thing? I was told that you've hardly eaten a thing all week."

"Who told you that?" I inquired.

"Not important. Look Will, nothing and no one are worth hurting yourself over. I..."

"Joe, I really don't want to talk about this right now. I already have a headache and I think it's getting worse."

"Will, I don't care if you want to talk about it because we're going to talk about it. You've avoided everyone else, and now you're going to have to confront me. Besides, I know that you would never hang up on me, so you're just going to have to deal with it."

"Don't tempt me," I said bitterly.

The line was silent for a second when Joey said, "You really are in a bad mood. Maybe eating something would help."

I started to say something and then bit my tongue. I sighed and said, "You've said your piece and I have acknowledged it. It doesn't mean anything is going to change, but I have heard and understand what you have said."

"You're trying to pacify me, and I'm not letting you off that easily."

"What do you want me to do? Write down everything I've eaten and give it to Jerrica so she can tell you so you'll believe it?"

Joey laughed. I came up with some outlandish ideas at times. "No. I just want you to be sensible. You are when it comes to everyone else but yourself most of the time. I just don't want to have to rush back to Baltimore because you ended up in the hospital due to malnourishment."

"D'accord. Je comprends," I said. "Okay, I understand. I'm sorry if I scared you."

"I'm sorry I have to be such a bastard about it, but if the roles were reversed, I expect that you'd do the same."

"And then some," I said with a laugh, and realized that my headache was starting to subside. Either the pills were kicking in or laughter is the best medicine.

"Now that that's settled, I expect I won't have to discuss it further. So what else happened today?" Joey asked.

"Not much," I replied. "We had rehearsal, and we picked Vee up from the airport, and..." I drifted off for a moment as I recalled the events of earlier that morning.

"And what?"

"Well, I had a rather odd thing happen this morning that I need to tell you about. I'm just trying to find the right way to do it."

"Will, we've already had our argument for today. What else could be so bad that you have to lead in like that? I mean, it's not like you're going to tell me you're seeing someone else," he said with a chuckle. I must have hesitated too long because Joey instantly got nervous. "Will, talk to me," he said in a panicked voice.

"JoJo, stop panicking," I said soothingly. "You know me better than that."

"Well, what is it then? Did something happen between you and Tom?"

Why would he immediately jump to that? I wondered. "Yes, but I just want to state for the record that he kissed me, not the other way around, that he was asleep at the time, and he thought I was Michael," I said hurriedly. I wanted to get it all out so as not to leave any room for Joey to misinterpret something or start to spout off without all the information.

"HE DID WHAT??" Joey yelled. "I knew it. I just knew it."

"Whoa!" I said loudly. "Stop and come back here a second. You did hear everything I said, didn't you?"

"I heard you say Tom kissed you. Who cares about the rest?"

"Jealous much?" I asked. "Besides, if you had taken the moment to finish listening to me, I also said that he was asleep at the time and thought I was his boyfriend Michael."

"Oh," Joey said, a bit deflated. "Well, there's nothing harmful in that."

"Why? Were you looking for something?"

"No, not really, although I did have my suspicions about him being so overly friendly with you."

"He's just a guy who is trying to find his place and fit in. He also has some issues that he's trying to deal with, so I'm trying to be a good friend. Besides, you know who he's really after."

"Yeah, but wait? I thought you just said he had a boyfriend?" Joey asked.

ACK! I thought. Now what do I do? "I misspoke. They are no longer together, but I don't know much more than that and Tom seems remiss into going into details." I hated lying to Joey about that, but I had promised Tom I wouldn't say anything, and that seemed the most likely way to keep Joey from asking more questions.

"I see. Well, I apologize for not listening, but I admit that I have a deep jealous streak, so the fact that you're around Tom so much will be hard for me to work through. I would just as soon get him hooked up with anyone that makes him happy. It will make me feel better and I will have done a good deed in the process."

I had no idea how to answer that, for the logic was absolutely berserk, so I said, "Joe, I hate to do this, but my head is still pounding and I have to get up early to head for the airport. I still have no idea why, and something tells me I'm not going to like it."

"All right Jamesy. You have a good night. Je t'aime," he said softly.

"Je t'aime aussi. Love you too," I replied before hanging up the phone. My head was still pounding and that conversation was hell. All I wanted to do was fall asleep and pretend that today didn't happen.

Tomorrow got off to a slow start. I woke up and quickly packed what I would need for a one day trip. Basically I tossed a change of clothes into a backpack and left it at that. We were taking a nonstop flight from Washington Dulles to Los Angeles positive space, so there was no need to worry about the dress code issues flying standby as an employee raised. Shana took Kimber and me to the airport to catch our flight. We were silent for the entire trip, in part because we were all tired and in part because I was still annoyed with everyone for their participation in yesterday's stunts. I had no desire to talk to anyone until I reached California. Once we were on the plane, I fully intended to pass out for the duration of the flight. If that didn't work, I was going to dive headfirst into continuing my writing. I still had to have something to show Tony eventually on my new book, and Tony hates to be kept waiting. That's why I take pride in procrastinating as long as possible to drive him nuts.

I did manage to sleep through most of the flight, and awoke only about thirty minutes from landing. Kimber and I were in the last row in coach, which was fine with me. I never cared where I sat on the plane, and since there was an empty seat between us, it just gave us that much more room. Kimber didn't say much to me in that last portion of the flight, including why we were going. I could only ponder what lay in store for me when I got to Starlight Music.

After landing, we deplaned and headed straight for the exit from Terminal Four at Los Angeles International, or LAX. J.B. was there to pick us up and took us to the Starlight Music building. I didn't ask any questions along the way because I knew my chances of getting answers were about zero. Once we were in J.B.'s office, I finally could keep my questions at bay no longer. "So why am I here?" I asked at last.

J.B. and Kimber exchanged a look. "You didn't tell him?" J.B. asked her sister.

"No. I thought it would be more exciting this way."

"Really? I'm surprised you could keep a secret like this for this long!"

"Would someone just tell me already?!" I shouted in exasperation.

"Oh. Sorry about that," Kimber said guiltily. "The reason we needed you here is so that you can record your first tracks of your solo album."

I sat quietly for a second, processing what she just said. "You want me to do what?"

"Sing, Will. Sing," J.B. stated. "We want to start recording your music so it can be released to radio stations and be set up for producing CDs."

"Oh. Yeah. That," I said quietly. My nerves were already starting to get the better of me.

"Don't be nervous," Kimber said. "We've already had the music recorded, so it'll just be you, us, and the microphone."

"I know. I can do this. It just takes some time to work myself up to it."

"Do you think you can do that in five minutes?" J.B. asked. "I'd like to get started as soon as possible, especially since as soon as you're done with the first track, I need to have it completed and fine-tuned so that I can send it over to the video director."

"Video director?" I asked.

"Yes, silly!" Kimber exclaimed. "For your music video!"

"M-music video?" My eyes nearly bugged out of my head. I knew that all of this was part of the game, but it was a little different when it was happening. "Uh, yeah. I'll be there in five minutes. I need to get a drink of water and make a phone call. Is that all right?"

"Sure. Go ahead. We'll see you in a couple of minutes," J.B. said. As I exited the room, she said to Kimber, "Who do you think he's calling?"

The two exchanged a knowing glance and said in unison, "Joey!" They were right of course. No sooner had I walked out the door that I grabbed my cell phone and had it calling Joey.

"Hey you! We're about to go into an interview in ten minutes, so I can't talk long. What's up?"

"Were you really nervous when you recorded your first song at a studio?"

"Me? Not really, but I had already been performing publicly for a while. Is that what this whole trip to Los Angeles was all about? To record tracks for an album?"

"Yeah, for the solo album they want to put out. I know it's silly to be jittery about it, but I am. I have no idea what shape my voice is in today, and I'm afraid that I might disappoint people."

"You're going to do fine. You know that Kimber and J.B. would never let you come away sounding bad."

"True, but we don't have a lot of time to kill either. Plus they are setting up plans to shoot a music video, and I don't know about that."

"Already? That's awesome! I love doing videos. They're a lot of work, but they look so great afterward."

"I'm just worried that I'll look and/or sound stupid."

"One of these days you'll find some self-confidence Will," Joey said firmly, "and when you do, the world had better watch out. In the meantime, just do the best you can. That's all anyone can ask of you."

"I know. Anyway, good luck on your interview, to you and the guys. I know you won't need it, but I'll say it anyway."

"Thanks. I appreciate it and so do they. Je t'aime."

"Je t'aime aussi. I'll talk to you later." I hung up, feeling a little bit better and a little surer of myself. I would just do the best that I could, and whatever happened would happen.

I made my way down to the recording studio and walked in with my head held high. "Did Joey give you a good pep talk?" Kimber asked with a sly smile.

"He did, and I'm ready to go!" I said with bravado.

"Well, let's get started then!" J.B. said with excitement as she steered me toward the studio.

By the end of the day I was exhausted and I thought my voice was going to give out. I had completed the three songs that the Benton sisters had wanted me to get done today and it had taken all day and partway into the night. Why did it take so long to record three four minute songs? Well, that's because the three of us are terrible perfectionists, and if any of us thought something was amiss, we'd do it again until it was perfect. Nevertheless, by the time all was said and done and we listened to the songs on playback, we all agreed, even me, that they sounded fantastic. Kimber and I rushed out as soon as we were finished to catch the eleven o'clock flight back to Washington Dulles. We were both exhausted but felt good about what we had accomplished that day. I laughed as I stowed my backpack, for nothing I had brought had become of any use whatsoever.

Kimber said that we were in the planning stages for shooting the video for one of the songs within the next couple of days as soon as they had picked a suitable location. The director in the meantime was in the process of compiling the storyboard for what would happen on screen during the music. It never really occurred to me how much work went into this whole industry up until now. For some reason I had the notion that it was all quite easy. Boy was I wrong one hundred percent.

I slept okay during the return flight. The second I was in my seat by the window I fell asleep. I was awoken by the aircraft landing in Washington the following morning. By the time we had gotten off the plane, gotten to the car, and gotten back to the Baltimore area it was already a little after seven-thirty. Kimber said that I could go take a nap and would have to be at rehearsal at noon. Since none of us had anywhere to be these days, M.F. decided it would be better to wait for me, so everyone got the morning off. Instead, practice would be extended late, as usual.

After my catnap I got up, took a shower, and got dressed. As I was about to walk out the door I noticed the mail sitting on the kitchen counter. There were a few assorted envelopes and the usual box from Sanderson House. I debated about opening the box, considering what happened the last time, and then decided it could wait until later. If there was anything in there I didn't want to see, I didn't want it to spoil my mood before I went to rehearsal. I could deal with it when I came home and was already grumpy.

The songs were coming along nicely. In fact, most of us had started to pretty well memorize our music. The choreography was coming along at a slower pace, but it too was improving. M.F. had confidence that by the time we had to go to Charlotte, we would be a lean, mean, well-oiled machine...or something like that. We had finalized our program for the first show and started to block the entrances and exits from the stage or the shift between songs. We decided that even though it was more complicated, the songs were divided in a rotating pattern of sorts. Instead of having all of the Charm songs in the beginning, my solos in the middle, and then the combined song with me and *Nsync at the end, instead we would mix up my and Charm's songs so that way there would be some continued variety. It took a while to hash out, but in the end I think everyone was satisfied.

The next day brought more exciting news. My first single had been selected by J.B. and the director of the music video had finalized the plans for the production shoot. It would begin that afternoon. Everyone was going to be in the video, according to Kimber, as backup dancers and extras. Everyone jumped at the chance to be in a music video, although I reminded them that they would undoubtedly have the same ability once we did the first one for Charm. No one cared, however, so it was decided. This would prove to be an interesting afternoon.

We arrived at our set, which was in fact a local school. We were going to stage the video this afternoon and shoot some portions today, and actually shoot the bulk of it the next day. Since it was after three o'clock, the school was empty. All the after-school activities for the day had been cancelled so that we would be able to conduct ourselves in private without interruption. Tomorrow was going to be trickier as school would be in session. The director wanted a large audience in the background watching the "events" unfold. The school district had been paid a good sum of money for the usage of their facility, and this was agreed to provided that no less than half went to the fine arts department.

The director, whose name was Joel Blake, greeted us warmly and ushered us into a small classroom which he had dedicated as his base of operation. He was about thirty-ish with blond hair, blue eyes, and a dazzling white smile. "Hello everyone! Come on in and take a seat."

We all sat and looked around. There was an air of excitement as we looked toward the making of a music video! For some reason, I wasn't nervous, which was a little surprising. Now that the singing part was past me, this I could handle a little more easily. I had already been dancing in public for a while now, and as I thought about it, I understood what Joey had been talking about earlier. Once you've been doing something for some time, then it's easier to do.

"So how exactly is this going to work?" I asked once we had all gotten settled.

"To answer that, let me show you the storyboard. This basically depicts the action from start to finish," Joel said. "Some directors like to have the artists just dance a little and sing to the camera throughout the whole video, but I like my videos to tell a story. We've got the viewers attention for three to four minutes, so we want them to be engaged, not only aurally but visually as well."

"Yeah!" I said excitedly. "My favorite videos to watch are ones that have a real beginning, middle, and end, especially ones where the lyrics correlate to some degree with what is on the screen."

"Exactly!" Joel exclaimed. "So here's where it starts. There is going to be a little bit of dialogue in the beginning before the music intros in. So what will happen is that one girl—you, I think will be best," he said, pointing at Karri, "will be running tryouts for a new school play. The scene opens with a camera montage from the outside of the school to the school corridor, showing the auditions for the play. We'll then go inside where the remaining four of you will each be auditioning. You'll get about two words out and... I'm sorry, miss, but what is your name?"

"Um, I'm Karri," she said a bit shyly.

"Yes, Karri. Good. Anyway, Karri here will call, 'Next!' and each of you will exit the stage in a different fashion: sad, angry, bewildered, and annoyed. Robbie will be the last to go on, and after he is booted out, he will leave and go to his locker where the rest of you will be waiting. You will all start complaining about how unfair the tryouts are, et cetera. Robbie will then open his locker which will start the music playing. The music intro will continue to play while the rest are still talking around Robbie to each other. Right after the drum beat comes in and the music progression changes, Robbie will slam his locker and step away from the group. At that point you will go into a small dance number until the lyrics begin. At that point all of you will kind of strut down the hallways in step with each other following him toward the auditorium. The second verse will start as you enter the auditorium as you make your way to the stage. Then the four of you will break into a dance number which will leave, um, Karri, with her mouth open, for she didn't know all of you had such talent. After the chorus has ended, you'll all "dash" for the outside courtyard, including Karri, but don't worry! It'll be a scene change, so no need to worry about doing wind sprints!

"You'll be out in the courtyard gathered in a circle around Robbie who will be doing a solo dance with a group of people around him. As you enter into the next verse before the chorus, the five of you will then head for the gymnasium because you're going to show everyone what you're made of as Karri continues to shake her head in disbelief. Then the four of you with some others who will back you up will go into a dance number with everyone cheering you on. At the point where we get to the break everyone will stop while Robbie goes solo. At the end of the break Karri will throw her hands up in the air as a sign of giving up and come out and join you all. You'll dance to the end of the music and the gym will go into a wild uproar. The four of you will wave and then turn to face Karri who will have this big grin on her face. Robbie will say, 'So, did we get the part?' Karri will then say, 'Oh, why not, after a show like that? I'll see you on Monday.' She'll then walk off camera while you three kind of jump around in celebration. Robbie will then turn toward the camera, smile, and wink as the picture fades out." Joel took a breath and then said, "Does everyone understand?"

All five of us looked at each other and shook our heads. "I only sort of understand, only because I know what the lyrics are and can place them in my head, but even with that, I'm still a bit lost," I said after a moment.

"Good. I'd have been surprised if you had followed it all the first shot. That's what scripts are for. Besides, it will make much more sense once we've blocked it."

"Blocked?" Mandy inquired.

"Blocking means staging; kind of like a walk-through of what's going to happen before we actually do it," Tom said. "Like when M.F. tells us where to stand, where to move, and when for a performance."

"Oh, I get it. Now my next question is when are we going to hear this song that we're doing all of this for?"

"Why not right now?" Joel asked. "I have the track right here in the audio system ready to go."

I groaned. "May I be excused? I feel a sick moment coming."

The girls rolled their eyes. This was starting to get a little old and I couldn't blame them for being annoyed. Tom smiled, handed me a trash can, and said, "Here you go, boyo. If you need to heave, have a go in there."

I shot him an evil look. "Thanks ever so much for your hospitality."

"My pleasure," Tom said with a grin. I knew he was forcing me to face my fear, and I was thankful for him doing so yet hated him for it at the same time.

"Well, if everyone is set then, let's cue the track," Joel said with grandeur.

The music started to play and I stuck my head in the trashcan. At least, I figured, if I couldn't see anyone, then I wouldn't have to worry so much. Besides, there was always the off chance that I might get lucky and suffocate myself. No such luck, unfortunately, for Jerrica swiped it out of my hands and glared at me.

I glared back at her and then began to sulk as I heard my voice start to come out of the speakers.

This time, for real, tired of playin' it safe.
Inside I feel I've got what it takes
To prove to the world who I really can be.
I know for sure there's no stoppin' me!

No time to wait on the side, watchin' it all pass me by
I'm gonna be in the game. Watch me play it!
I'm comin' with it you know. Let's get to startin' the show.
Turn up the lights of this stage. No more waitin'!

It's my turn now and you know that I'm ready!
It's my turn now, yeah I'm strong and I'm steady!
Break down the walls, gonna go for it all.
It's my time, gonna shine, show you how,
Because it's my turn now.

I'm in my groove, now I'm havin' some fun.
I know what to do and how to get it done.
Doin' things double time and there's no holdin' back.
Make it good, make it right, hear the crowd react!

No time to wait on the side, watchin' it all pass me by
I'm gonna be in the game. Watch me play it!
I'm comin' with it you know. Let's get to startin' the show.
Turn up the lights of this stage. No more waitin'!

It's my turn now and you know that I'm ready!
It's my turn now, yeah I'm strong and I'm steady!
Break down the walls, gonna go for it all.
It's my time, gonna shine, show you how,
Because it's my turn now.

It's my turn now. In my heart I believe it!
If I can see how, I can live while I'm dreamin' (I'm ready, yeah)
I understand, now I know who I am
It's my chance, gonna dance,
Play it loud, because it's my turn now! (What?)
My turn now! (Oh, oh, whoa-o-oa. My turn!)

One, two, now I'll do just what I've always wanted to
Three, four, do some more. Everything I've ever wanted and been waiting for.

It's my turn now and you know that I'm ready!
It's my turn now, yeah I'm strong and I'm steady!
Break down the walls gonna go for it all
It's my time gonna shine show you how
Because it's my turn now.

It's my turn now. In my heart I believe it.
If I can see how, I can live what I'm dreamin'.
I understand, now I know who I am.
It's my chance, gonna dance
Play it loud, because it's my turn now!

During the song I could see the wheels turning in some of my friends' heads. Karri was obviously visualizing the choreography, as I figured she would. Jerrica was, well, who knew what Jerrica was thinking? She was likely thinking about what she was going to eat for dinner, for all I knew. I wasn't even sure she was listening, which for me was a good thing. She tended to be my best and worst critic, aside from myself, and her opinion mattered a lot to me. If she hated it, I don't know how well I would handle the rejection.

As for Mandy and Tom, I assumed they would probably like it, or at least fake it to try to instill some confidence into me. That was the type of people they were, and I was glad to count them among my friends. As the song ended, I waited for the comments to roll. At first, everyone was silent and wouldn't look at me. I was beginning to really wish that Jerrica hadn't swiped that trash can away from me, because I was starting to believe that I might actually need it.

Kimber was the first to speak. "That almost sounded better than when you did it in the studio!"

Tom seemed impressed. "Wow, Will. I think you covered a great deal of your range on that song. That was great!"

However, the person I wanted to hear from wasn't even looking at me. I finally got her attention by saying, "Jerrica? What did you think?"

She slowly turned to me and said, "It'll work."

"'It'll work?' What do you mean by that?"

"Exactly what I said. It'll work."

I was starting to get frustrated by her blasé attitude. It was then that I realized that there was something else going on in that head of hers, and that we weren't going to get anywhere until she and I had addressed it. I grabbed her by the arm and, with much protesting, dragged her out of the room and into the classroom next door.

"Will you let go of me!" Jerrica grumbled, but I noticed that she wasn't fighting as much as she could have been.

"All right, out with it," I said.

"Out with what?" Jerrica asked innocently.

"What is with that attitude? Furthermore, what are you jealous of?"

"I'm not jealous of anything," Jerrica said unconvincingly, knowing that she had already been busted.

"Try again, and with the truth this time."

"You know, there are times I really hate you."

"You tell me that on a daily basis," I replied. "Now get on with it."

"Fine. Look, it was great. It really was. It just bugs me that I know that I will never have that."

"Have what? The perfect opportunity to make a fool out of yourself? Trust me when I tell you that you will have plenty of those moments for the rest of your life."

"No, I was talking about having a solo career. I mean, I know I sound okay, and I know I blend well with the others, but I'm not you. I don't have 'the golden voice' that will make everyone want a piece of me. I'm just 'okay.' Do you know how many people dream of having their name up in lights; to be recognized everywhere they go?"

"You mean everyone besides me? No, that's not true. I enjoy my writing and having people know my name, although I'm less optimistic about this particular venture. Besides, you have a great voice. If you didn't, Kimber and J.B. wouldn't have asked you to be a part of the group."

"Being your best friend didn't hurt either, I shall remind you."

"I'm sure it didn't. Anyway, you don't give yourself enough credit for your ability or for many other things as well."

"Now isn't that the pot calling the kettle black?" Jerrica asked smugly. "You know you're amazing and yet you still deprecate yourself into thinking your below average."

"I..." I found myself speechless for one of the few moments in my life. I hated admitting she was right, but she was right, especially now that I heard myself played back. It was one of those times where if I hadn't known for a fact it was me singing, I would have sworn it was someone else. "You're right, Jerrica."

"How I love to hear those words. 'You're right, Jerrica.' How sweet the sound."

"Care to turn down some of the drama? Come on, we have work to do, and you know they already think we're nuts. Let's not give them any more ammunition."

Work is exactly what we did, and well into the night. We finally wrapped for the day around two o'clock in the morning, and we were all beat. Joel had gotten a little annoyed with us in the beginning until Mandy casually reminded him that we were all amateurs who had never done this sort of thing before. After that, he visibly relaxed and we had as much fun with it as we could.

I found out some interesting things in the making of the video. First was that the video was not shot in chronological order. I, for some reason, figured we'd shoot everything in sequence, but just like motion pictures, music videos are often shot out of sequence as well. That night we filmed the dialogue scenes first, followed by the auditorium scenes, and then finished with the hallway sequences. The next day we would film the gymnasium scenes and end with the courtyard. I also found out that I don't have to actually sing anything during the filming. I would be lip synching instead, which bothered me for some reason. Joel pointed out to me that a) if I actually sang, by the time all was said and done, my voice would probably give out, and b) the audio track, except for the dialogue scenes, would be dubbed in during editing. The audio track would be blasted through speakers so that way I could make sure my mouth and the lyrics matched up during the time where I was supposed to be seen singing. It was all very new to me, and I just prayed that by the time all was said and done, it would turn out as well as everyone hoped.

We all went home to try to get some sleep, but it was short-lived. We were back at it by eight-thirty the next morning. I was trying as hard as I could to not look like the walking dead as were the rest of the group, but we were all having difficulty. I had stopped by a corner store and picked up a two liter of Diet Coke, and I had been busily chugging away at it. Even if its caffeine content wasn't as high as other drinks, I had probably convinced my body by this point that it was the only thing that would help wake me up. By the time we started working at a little after nine, I felt much more awake and ready to go.

It took some time to get ready because we had to go through makeup and wardrobe. Our outfits for the video had been laundered and pressed, and Shana and Vee were ready to get us into makeup and do our hair. Everyone laughed at me because Vee had decided that—much to my grandmother's chagrin were she to ever see it—since the spiked hair look was so popular that I should do it too. I argued with her at first, but eventually I relented, and in the end admitted that I looked good. The others looked great as well, so after giving ourselves a little pep talk, we proceeded to the gymnasium. We waited outside for a minute and eavesdropped through the door. The principal of the school was giving the students instructions on behavior and so forth. I wondered how many people were going to be sitting in the stands. After all, we only needed enough to make it look like there were a lot of people. We were in for a shock when we finally walked in and saw that the gym was packed with people. The entire gym exploded into a wall of sound. They had no idea who any of us were, and yet you'd think that, well, *Nsync had just walked in. There were kids everywhere screaming my name, and for the first time in many a year, I actually started to feel like maybe I could do this.

There were a few handmade "We love Robbie" signs, and I cast my eyes over at Joel, who grinned at me before he burst out laughing. Obviously this had been staged by him, since none of these people had ever heard me sing. Joel grabbed a microphone and waited for the crowd to settle down.

"Good morning, everyone!" he said at last. He was greeted with a huge roar. I wish I had that type of energy this time of the morning, I thought to myself as Joel continued. "Wow, that was great. Well, I first wanted to thank you for your participation in our production this morning. As your principal already told you, we have a couple of ground rules, and I just want to go over them again. First, please do not interfere with either the production crew or the performers. We know that this is very exciting, but we want to make sure we get everything done in a timely fashion. Second, if you need to get up and leave, we ask that you do so quietly and preferably not while there is actual filming happening. I'm going to forewarn you that this can be a long process, and we apologize in advance if you get bored. However, when the cameras are rolling we need you to be as excited as possible. You are welcome to get up and dance in the stands, if you'd like and make as much noise as you want. The actual audio for the video will be dubbed in later, so make all the noise you want, but when I yell "Cut!" then I will need everyone to be quiet. Does everyone understand?"

"Yes!" the crowd yelled.

"Great!" Joel continued. "Now, one last thing before we get started today. We wanted to let you know that once this single is released, you each will be getting a free copy!" The crowd roared in excitement. "Wow! You all are fired up and ready to go! In that case, let me bring out the man you are going to be hearing a lot about. Ladies and gentlemen, I would like you to meet Robbie Williamson!" Joel motioned for me to come over to where he was standing, and as I stood, the audience got louder.

I waved at everyone as I headed over to Joel's table. He handed me the microphone, and after I gave him a blank look that obviously said, 'So what the hell do you want me to do now?' he motioned for me to address the crowd. "Uh, good morning all!" The kids replied back in kind with such enthusiasm it about knocked me over. "All I can say is 'Wow!' You all have a lot of energy, enthusiasm, and I can certainly use that this morning. Does anyone know if we can bottle it up because I could use some extra, personally." Everyone laughed and the butterflies in my stomach seemed to be quieting down.

"Wrap it up!" Joel hissed to me. "We need to get started!"

"Oh, right. Anyway, I just wanted to say thanks in advance for being such a great group. I hope you like the video when it's all done and the CD as well. Mostly, I hope you won't be sick of hearing it by the end of the day." Everyone laughed, and I started to feel that maybe this would be a good day. "So, without further ado, I think my director would like us to get started, so let's have some fun, shall we?"

I handed the microphone back and ran back over to the others. "See, that wasn't so bad," Tom said.

"You're right, it wasn't. Maybe I can manage to do this after all," I said with a smile.

"It's about time you finally got it through that thick head of yours," Jerrica said. "Let's get this over with, okay?"

It took the better part of the day to complete everything. We had to reshoot the gym scenes a number of times due to either one of us flubbing up royally or because the students were getting a bit out of control. Eventually we got it all done, including the dialogue lines at the end of the gym scene. The courtyard scene went much faster because there were fewer people. Joel had picked twenty or so people at random to form the crowd while the rest went to lunch which was provided by Starlight Music. The kids picked for the courtyard scene got to have a special lunch with the rest of us after we broke for the day. They were mostly girls, though there were a couple of guys as well, and they all seemed giddy and nervous at the same time. They didn't say much in the beginning, but by the end of the hour before the students had to return to classes, they were chattering away with us and amongst themselves like we were all close friends. The one constant that I had heard was how much they loved the song that we had shot the video for, how great I sounded, and how they couldn't wait until it was released on CD as well as Charm's CD when it came out as well. By the time the last student walked out the door, I turned to the others and saw each of them grinning from ear to ear.

"So this is why Joey and the others do this," Mandy said. "I could get used to this."

"Don't forget about the hard work that comes with it," I cautioned her, but she just waved dismissively at me.

"Yeah, yeah, whatever. It's worth it."

"I think we can all agree it's going to be an interesting few months, that's for sure," Tom said. He then looked over at me and my plate, which still had about a quarter of the prepared lunch on it. He rolled his eyes and sighed, but he did have to admit that it was more than I had eaten in quite a while. Besides, I had weighed myself that morning before leaving and I was down about nine pounds. Obviously something was working. I would have the rest off in no time.

I wasn't exactly sure how it happened, but the remainder of our time between when Joey and the others left until we would meet up with them in Charlotte passed quickly. The next thing we knew, it was the sixth of June, and we were making final preparations to head for North Carolina. We had finally gotten our stuff packed when Kimber came in with some less than pleasant news.

Pulling me to the side, she said in a low tone, "We have a problem."

"What kind of problem?" I asked.

"We received the money from Tony, but Johnny is holding out until we get there. Needless to say, at the moment there isn't enough to cover the cost of two busses, and the bus company doesn't like to hear 'Pay me later," if you catch my drift."

"Caught," I said. "So, what you're saying is..."

"There's enough room for all of our stuff, the five of you, me, Aja, and Shana. That doesn't include Becki, Raya, Vee, or anyone else."

"Then we need another solution," I said. "Have you talked to J.B.? Is there anything she can do?"

"She said the budget is already a bit stretched, and she's not sure if she can finagle the funds the bus company wants for the second bus," Kimber said, shaking her head.

"All right. Give me a few minutes. I'll come up with an idea. Maybe we could, I don't know, fly down or something?"

"If you're talking about your standby thing, no way. We can't afford for you to get stuck in Des Moines or something."

"I think you mean Detroit, and it was just a thought, but I happen to agree with you. Besides, we could get into trouble if Northern Skies found out we were using passes for a business related endeavor."

"Then I hope you have some other ideas, and fast!" Kimber said.

This led to a round of thinking when it came to me. A little while later, I was the proud owner of a new SUV, with plenty of space for the five of us. At first, Kimber wasn't gung ho on this idea either, but it was this or nothing. Besides, we had plenty of room to spread out, and secondly it had a killer sound system. Thanks to my last royalty check from my books, I was able to pay for it without any difficulty in full. No financing, no worries. I was going to miss my little Saturn that I had traded in, but it was a necessity, and I certainly didn't need two cars.

Kimber was even more astonished when I told her that the five of us would ride in the SUV instead of the bus. It was completely unheard of in this industry, but I didn't care. Besides, there were a number of bunks in the bus, and there was room for two people if someone wanted to go in there and sleep. Jerrica volunteered to go on the bus ('How gracious of her to volunteer,' I had muttered at the time) along with Karri, so Mandy, Tom, and I stayed in the SUV. After some last-minute wrangling to get everyone and everything ready, we were soon on our way. Mama Celia had graciously offered to watch over our animals while we were gone, which was an extraordinarily kind gesture on her part, but we were all relieved at the same time. None of us really wanted to kennel the animals for that long, and we trusted Mama Celia. My only concern is that they would be overfed while we were gone. True to fashion, Celia had packed us a lot of food for our trip down, and we tearfully said good-bye before leaving. It was like leaving home, and I guess we really were, at least for a while. However, I had one thing to look forward to: Joey and the others.

We pulled into Charlotte sometime on the morning of the seventh. I was rather tired from driving and all I wanted to do was fall into bed. We checked in and started to drag ourselves and our stuff upstairs. I went to reach for my bag when someone else grabbed it and said, "Let me get that for you."

"No, that's okay," I said with a yawn. "I got it."

"It's okay Will. I got it."

I looked up and saw Joey grinning at me. I almost jumped into his arms but restrained myself. "Well, thank you sir. That's very kind of you."

The others all said hello to Joey before wandering over to the elevator. Joey said hi back and then asked, "What room are you in?"

"Um, 613. You?"

"We're in 1005," Joey said in a low voice as he moved me away from the front desk, "but I might be able to sneak down to 613, if you catch my drift."

"I wouldn't say no if you did," I replied.

"Mr. Williamson? Uh, Mr. Fatone?" the desk clerk called from behind us. "Wouldn't you rather have us take your bags for you?"

I glanced at Joey and said, "No, that's all right. We have it. Besides, my friend and I here have some catching up to do anyway. Besides, he doesn't get enough exercise to begin with."

Joey stared at me in mock horror. "Hey! No fair!"

"Come on! Let's go," I said, pushing him toward the elevator. I then muttered to him, "The less we say in public, the less likely we are to be overheard saying something we wouldn't want repeated."

"Good point." Joey followed me to the elevator, where we got in and went up to the sixth floor. As we walked toward my room, Joey asked, "Are you, uh, sharing a room with Tom?"

"Yes," I said. "You're going to have to get used to it, Joe. It's going to be like this for probably forever. However, just because I share a room with him means nothing."

"Well, I..."

"Hold that thought until we're inside," I said as I unlocked the door and pushed it in. I ushered Joey in and closed the door.

"Will, I know I shouldn't be jealous, but it's hard for me."

"Do I look like I'm going anywhere?" I asked. "Look, I know you care a lot about me, but I assure you that I have no intention of running to any other man, including Tom."

"That's good, because I'm not interested in you," Tom called from his bed.

"See. There you go." I paused for a second and then said, "Wait! What is that supposed to mean?"

"You're a great guy Will, but my heart belongs to another."

Joey and I laughed. "Lovesickness is grand, isn't it?" I asked rhetorically.

"It is indeed. Listen, I have to go back upstairs before you-know-who gets wind that I'm missing, but I'll catch up with you later tomorrow, okay?" Joey said.

"I guess," I said with a pout. Joey leaned over and kissed me and I thought I would melt right there on the floor. I had almost forgotten what it was like. "Good night."

I let Joey out and shut the door, my heart fluttering. I stood there for a minute and sighed before Tom called out, "Would you stop drooling over there and get into bed so I can turn out the light?"

"Oh! Right!" I exclaimed, a bit startled. "No problem." I got myself ready for bed and jumped in. It was going to be a long day.

We had arrived the night before around midnight, so we were told to meet everyone downstairs at nine-thirty. There were some last minute things to go over, and then I had to report to the *Nsync camp to learn the blocking for our joint song. I found out later that there wasn't a lot for me to do except stand there most of the time. I had to join them for some dance steps, but apparently they were doing most of the moving. By early evening we broke for dinner and I had pretty much the whole routine down. It was at dinner, though, that Joey and Karri both presented something exciting that they wanted to discuss with both groups, in private. We just had to find a way to separate ourselves from Kimber and Johnny long enough to do it.

It was after dinner that opportunity presented itself. There was about an hour before *Nsync had some promotional doodad that they had to do, so we didn't have long. We asked the front desk if there was a room that we could use, and they let us into a small room that was probably used for small group meetings. My guess is that it probably was designed for meetings of about thirty or fewer. The room was almost completely empty, save for a few chairs that were pushed up against the walls. The girls took seats first, followed by Justin, Josh, and Lance. Joey, Tom, Chris, and I stood as there were no more chairs available unless we started sitting in laps. My guess is that Joey wouldn't have minded one bit.

"So what did you have for us?" I asked.

Joey and Karri both started to speak at the same time, and then the two started laughing, coaxing the other to go first. Finally Karri spoke up and said, "Well, we wrote a song. That is, Jerrica, Mandy, and I."

"Really?" Joey asked. "So did I!"

"And it's for all of us to sing!" Karri continued.

"So is mine! Uh, sort of," Joey continued in kind.

"Sort of?" I inquired.

"Well, I wrote it mostly with us in mind," Joey said, motioning at his fellow bandmates, "but I thought of a way to incorporate you in as well."

"But we already sing a song together," I said. "Wouldn't that seem a little much?"

"I was kind of thinking we could incorporate Tom as well, and..." Joey trailed off, lost in his thought.

"You know," Karri said, musing over the propositions, "we could do it like this. The end of our section has all five of us together, right? So then what we could do is this..." Karri ran over her ideas which we all seemed to agree with. We then agreed that after I sang with *Nsync, Tom would join in and sing Joey's song, and then the rest would join in and sing Mandy's. Now came the hard part: how were we going to learn two new songs in twenty-four hours? We had a lot of work to do and almost no time to do it.

"I don't know how we're going to manage this for a concert that's only a day away," I said. "Besides, it took us most of the day to incorporate me into one song, and I don't even do much other than sing."

"We don't have to do a lot on stage. In fact, I think it'll be more fun if we just wing most of it, and only choreograph small parts of it. 'Organized chaos' is what my mother would call it," Mandy said.

"I think that's the story of my life," Jerrica muttered. "Organized chaos sounds about right."

I reached into my bag and pulled out a day planner that I had picked up as soon as I realized how tightly scheduled my life was about to become. What I didn't know was that I was soon to become... You know, maybe I should delve into that later. Let's just say for now that the day planner, or 'The Book' as it became affectionately known by all, would play an integral part in the day to day running of all our lives.

Anyway, so I flipped through the pages and started writing things in. I added in *Nsync's doodad thing, which I was later corrected on—it was a promotional spot at a local radio station—and the whole schedule for the next day for both groups, and found that the best time for all of us: between ten and two in the morning. That would give us enough time to get some rest before getting up the next morning. Why we couldn't leave well enough alone is beyond me, but I think we were excited about the fact that we were going to do something that wasn't in the original plan. I think even more exciting was the fact that it wasn't in Johnny's plan, and that made it all the sweeter. All I had to do now was get the sheet music for both songs to Kimber and Raya and pray that they didn't kill me in the process.

After much fussing the band agreed to do it, although they weren't thrilled about the short notice addition. However, they did like both songs immensely and said that the music wasn't very difficult. As a matter of fact, Becki said that if we wanted, she could actually program just about the entire score into her keyboard, including the various instrumental sounds. Electronic keyboards are great, no? However, after a mini powwow, it was decided that it wouldn't be necessary. They would just get some practice in tonight and see what happened. Becki said she would program the keyboard anyway, just in case it was deemed needed.

*Nsync had gone to their promotional spot at the radio station while Charm stayed in the room and practiced our parts of the girls' song, and Tom and I even found time to practice our parts of Joey's song. As I reviewed Joey's song, I had to wonder if Joey just made it up or had some sort of inspiration, like he was trying to tell me something, but then again, maybe not. Maybe I was being too selfish in my interpretation. After all, not everything in Joey's life revolved around me.

Around ten, the guys came back and we got to work. Raya, Aja, and the rest of the band came down and watched us rehearse, trying to get a feel for the lyrics to go along with the music. By two-thirty when we finally broke for the night, we had made excellent progress and felt we might be ready. Besides, I had a plan to make things not look quite so bad if we flubbed onstage.

Onstage! I thought. Oh my God. I'm actually going to perform onstage tomorrow! The video wasn't so bad because all I really did was dance, and I had grown comfortable enough with that through my classes with M.F. that I wasn't as freaked about it anymore, but actually having to sing in front of so many people was still intimidating me. However, I was going to have to face my fear whether I liked it or not, or flame out in the process. I went to bed with a troubled mind, but managed to get some sleep. Jerrica kindly told me that I looked like hell the following morning, but after giving me some time to wake up, I thought I looked decent enough. We briefly ran into *Nsync throughout the day, but it wasn't often nor was it for very long. Next thing I knew, we were headed to the arena to get ready for the show that evening. The concert started at seven-thirty that evening, and it was already approaching five o'clock.

"I can't do this. I can't do this. I can't do this," I kept saying as I paced back and forth in the dressing room that I shared with Tom.

Tom came over, grabbed my shoulders, and then smacked me across the face lightly. "Get a grip, boyo. It's not going to be that bad. Besides, you've now had other people hear you sing and they liked it! Granted, it wasn't live, but that doesn't mean anything."

"I hear what you're saying Tom, and I'm trying really hard to believe it, but for some reason I can't get myself past this," I said.

"Take a deep breath and suck it up," Tom said. "You're out of time to fret about it."

"No, it can't be!" I shouted as I looked at the clock, but Tom was right. It was already ten minutes after seven. Where had the last two hours gone?

"Will, I'm going to say this because I care about you. If you don't get it together now, we're all going to look stupid, and if you make me look stupid, I am going to hurt you. Do you understand me?"

I stared at Tom for a minute before bursting into laughter. "Thanks, Jerrica, I needed that," I said sarcastically.

Tom grinned. "Think I'm funny, do you?"

"Absolutely. Might as well get over this before my stomach interjects its opinion."

We headed upstairs and met with the girls. They looked absolutely fabulous, and truth be told, we didn't look too bad either. Vee and Shana were geniuses, pure and simple.

"Is everyone ready, aside from Will?" Mandy asked.

"Hey! I'm managing over here," I shot back.

"We'll see if you can set foot on that stage. Five bucks says it doesn't happen," Jerrica kidded.

"Screw you," I shot back. "I can and will do it, thank you very much. Si, se puede!"

"What's that?" Karri asked.

Mandy laughed. "It's Spanish. It means, 'Yes, I can!' Nice choice, Will."

I bowed in jest. "Thank you. Thank you very much."

Kimber rushed up to us, breathless, and said, "You go on in five minutes! Are you ready?"

"As ready as we'll ever be!" I said with as much of a smile as I could muster. I could hear the crowd out in the auditorium and I was starting to panic.

"Rob! It's going to be just fine!" Jerrica said, coming over to me and giving me a hug. There were days when she drove me bonkers, but there were also days when I was glad she was my best friend. "I don't give a damn what anyone ever told you in the past, especially that bitch Allison, so push it from your head. You are a fantastic person and you are going to perform beautifully."

"Thank you, my friend, for the vote of confidence."

"And I've been saying this for how long?" Tom asked incredulously. "Why is it different when it comes from Jerrica?"

I looked at Jerrica and then over at Tom. "I can't explain it. It just is. Don't feel bad Tom. I thank you for everything, although I may curse all of you before the night is over. Be forewarned, and I apologize in advance."

"You all are the best," Kimber said excitedly. "This is so outrageous!"

Two of the people who assisted with sound came over and miked us. "These are going to be live in one minute, so whatever you want to say that you don't want everyone else to hear, say it now. When you want to turn them off when you go offstage, slide this red switch here down," she said, pointing to the side of the transmitter box. "Wait a minute and you'll be okay. It sends a signal to the audio booth to switch off your mike. We'll turn it back on when you're ready to go back on. You'll hear three beeps in your ear before the mike goes live. Can't miss it, and if you do, then you're pretty darn dumb."

"Wow. Wasn't that special?" Jerrica said as the woman walked away.

"Kind of reminds me of you, actually," I said with a grin.

"Knock it off!" Jerrica shot back, lightly punching me in the arm.

"Places everyone!" I heard someone call through my headset. Instructions were able to be relayed through the earpiece in the headset, and I watched as Kimber put on a headset with a mike that was only able to talk to us while ours were, of course, live to the sound system.

"Are we all ready to go?" Mandy asked.

"Uh..." I stammered as I started to peek around the curtain at the masses in the audience.

"Let's go!" Jerrica hissed, covering her mike with her hand in case it had been turned on.

At that point, I had to make a decision. Either go out and do my best or run in fear and make everyone look stupid. There was option number three as well, which was faint and pass out, but I didn't think I would get away with that one either. Therefore, I took a deep breath and held it. Exhaling, I resigned myself to what was about to come. My biggest fear, faced head on.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we are proud to present a fantastic up and coming new group that is making their debut tonight right here in Charlotte. Please put your hands together for Charm!"

The intro music to the first song began to play; I took another deep breath, mentally chided myself not to pass out right then and there, and made my way out onto the stage. Our first performance had officially begun.

So what did you think? Can Will survive his fear of singing onstage in front of an audience? Will it go well, or will he fall flat on his face? How far does Joey's jealous streak run? Will it cause more problems for he and Will later on? Does Tom really have no interest in Will whatsoever? What will happen to Will and crew next? Please, drop me a line and let me know your thoughts.

Another chapter done! Isn't it great? I wish to apologize to all for it taking me so incredibly long to post this chapter. With two jobs, finding spare time to write is difficult, but I am plodding along as best I can. I appreciate the e-mails of support and the knowledge that you all have not forgotten me. For those that may have wondered, I have not, nor will I ever give up on my stories. I will see them to completion. Also, for those that are interested, I have started a second story, called The Glamorous Life, which I am co-writing with a very talented author and can also be found on my website.

Thanks to everyone who has written to me!! A special thanks goes out to my editor, Dreamy, who keeps me in line.

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The characters Kimber Benton, Jerrica Benton, Aja Leith, Shana Elmsford, and Raya Alonso are creations of Hasbro. Song lyrics used in this chapter are protected under copyright by the original authors and their recording labels. No attempt to infringe on these copyrights should be assumed or implied.