Second Toughest in the Infants
By Kai Wailbone
Before we get started, I'd like to talk to you. Just for a minute. This is the first story I'm posting, and I'm a little nervous.
Okay, if I did this right, this should be in the "boy-bands" section of the Nifty Archive. Now, I know there is a plethora of stories here about the Backstreet Boys, N'Sync, 98 degrees, etc. etc. etc. I tried to write one of those, but I just couldn't get into it. I'm not an N'Sync fan (please don't shoot me!), and as much as I love the BSB, I just couldn't get inspired by their characters. Then, for some odd and unknown reason, I started watching "Making the Band" on TV. You know, the one about making the new boy-band O-Town. Yeah, a lot of Backstreet and N'fans don't think they're a "real" boy-band, or that they're just spin-offs, that they have no talent, and stuff like that. But just think: people once said BSB was just another New Kids on the Block, that they were spin-offs, and had no talent, and so on. Now look where they are. I like O-Town, so I'm writing about O-Town. Please remember that I DO like the Backstreet Boys, and, to a lesser extent, N'Sync, so please don't write to me about how much better they are. Who knows, even if you don't like O-Town, you might like the story.
The beginning's a bit rocky. It'll get better, promise.
And, incidentally, I'm hoping one day to be an actual-factual author, so fan-fantasy-fiction aside, let me know what you think of my writing.
And really quick -- to Jason, the only person who knows I'm writing this. Thanks for your help and encouragement.
THE DISCLAIMER FOR CHAPTER ONE
Okay... first off, if you are under the legal age to be viewing sexually explicit material in your governmental and/or geographic region, you're not supposed to be here.
Second, this is fiction. I don't know if any member of O-Town is gay, I don't know if ANY musician, actor, or celebrity that I might write about later is gay. Hell, I don't know if they're straight/bi/gay/or neutered.
The original title of this story was called "Loving Jacob," but there are already so many stories called "Loving Nick," "Loving Lance," "Loving Brian," etc. and I didn't want any confusion. Of course, now no one will read it, thinking it's about Underworld or something...
The band O-Town is real, as was featured on the real the television show "Making the band." If you need a refresher or a first look at what they look like, you can try www.otownband.com -- it should bounce you to their official web site, which will have pictures of them. In fact, I would say do it, since I don't describe them in the story.
I focus on the member Jacob Underwood, but will also visit people outside the band. Why? Because I think it's more realistic that way. Intra-band relationships are important, but there are other people in the world. Cool?
This story is going to move rather slowly and won't have sex in every chapter. In fact, there's no sex in THIS chapter. If you want a quick fuck-story, you'll probably want to go somewhere else. Might I recommend "Adventures-in-O-town"?
The title is from the Underworld album "Second Toughest in the Infants." The chapter headings are from lyrics found in the songs.
p.s. -- i like e-mail and encouragement. email@example.com
Second Toughest in the Infants -- Chapter One
"It's still getting worse after everything I've tried."
- Nine Inch Nails, "Sanctified"
Jacob sighed and sat down heavily. Even though it was the day after their concert, they had another appearance in a week and a half, so they were practicing. It was two hours into the dance practice, one hour to go, and for some reason Jacob just couldn't get into his groove. He was landing wrong, stepping on toes and the backs of feet, generally being a clutz. A born perfectionist, taking pride in his hard work and skill, to be acting in such an undisciplined manner drove him crazy. Especially when he was the one doing it.
Finally, they took a break.
"Are you okay, bro?" Erik asked as he came up and sat down beside him.
"No. Trust me, I wouldn't be acting like this if I was okay." Even to himself, Jacob sounded frustrated and arrogant.
He shrugged. "I don't know... I'm just off today."
Erik grinned, never one to take Jacob too seriously. "Too much work and no play..."
"Makes Jake a dull boy, yeah, I know." Jacob took a drink from his water bottle. "I'm really sorry about this..."
"Hey, we've all got our off days. Even you can't be perfect all the time." Erik had a sense of humor about everyone, keeping things light, which was simultaneously one of his best and worst traits. "Tell you what. Tonight, you and me, we'll hit the town. Our last night here, might as well. Dr. Erik will take good care of you, make you all better."
For Jacob, Erik's suggestion was nothing unusual: his solution to almost every problem involved going out with loud music, some moderate to heavy drinking, and lots of girls. He usually went along, but today he hesitated.
"I dunno, man..."
"Oh, c'mon, man. All you need is some pussy and you'll be loose as a goose. It'll make you fly for the next week. Guaranteed." He also had a wonderfully eloquent way of putting things that always made Jacob laugh.
"So that's your advice, Dr. Erik? Get laid?"
Jacob considered refusing, but knew Erik would pester him until he agreed. "Yeah, okay."
In retrospect, Jacob always wondered if things would have been better or worse if he had told Erik that day what was really bothering him.
It was quite simple really. He was falling apart inside.
Simple. Just not easy to deal with.
Over the past couple of years he had built a protective cocoon around himself, a cocoon of denial and pretense. He projected the illusion of being in control, ambitious, and aggressive, which occasionally made him look like a jerk or incredibly conceited. But he had been safe behind this image, most importantly from himself, and had been able to lead a relatively normal life. He was even able to fuel himself into fulfilling his life's dream: being part of a band, making music, with a shot at being "on top," whatever that was.
But now, cracks were appearing everywhere, and his fragile cocoon of illusion was crumbling.
Jacob looked at himself in the mirror. He looked the same as he always did, curly blond hair straightened with gel, blue eyes, silver rings dangling from each ear. He smiled. Same smile as always. Nothing different. Except recently his eyes were looking a bit tired, as if he hadn't been getting enough sleep. His smile seemed strained, stressed, and certainly not happy. And as much as he tried, he couldn't even fool himself into thinking everything was okay anymore. The denial was tearing him up inside. He was twenty years old now. He had to look inside and face the truth.
Shit, did he say it out loud? He looked behind him. He was in the bathroom of the hotel room Dan and Ashley were sharing, because he was borrowing Dan's hair gel. Dan had gone out to find some soda, and Ashley hadn't returned yet. He was alone.
Breathing a sigh of relief, he looked at himself in the mirror again. As he often did, he tried searching for any "gay" characteristics. But there were none. He was the same Jacob he had seen in the mirror every day of his life. The same Jacob who, at age thirteen, had a huge crush on a girl. He could remember her full name. Michelle Hanley. She had blond hair, blue eyes, and wore braces. She even checked the "Yes" box on the note he wrote her asking if she liked him. He remembered blushing as he read it...
But it was also the same Jacob who, a year later, started staring at the other guys in the shower room at school. The same Jacob who, his face burning with shame, flipped through web page after web page on his computer featuring gay porn. And, in the end, the same Jacob who had somehow convinced himself he would "get better," that these feelings would go away, and he would live a normal life.
Six years. Six years of believing, of hoping, of denial. He'd read endless entries in out-of-date psychology books about kids thinking they were gay when younger, and in adolescence, then changing as they grew up. He listened to preachers and Bible school teachers talking about the evils of homosexuality. He wanted to live a good, moral life, which he had been taught did not include "deviants" from the norm. And so he held onto that hope, that it would all just go away.
And when it didn't, he just pretended it did.
Which had worked with surprising success. The passion he denied himself came out in other ways, allowing him to excel in his schoolwork and become skilled at many things, among them music. He was positive that was what gave him the extra edge in the O-Town auditions, and it allowed him to push ahead with an energy that the other guys found irritating and, at times, exasperating. But now it was slowly coming unraveled, coming apart at the edges and working its way deeper. And the living, breathing reason for the very real end of his denial just walked through the door.
Ashley came up behind him, smiling slightly, and looked at him in the mirror. "Lookin' good tonight, Jake. Going out with Erik?"
Jacob smiled but forced himself not to look directly at Ashley. Keeping an eye on himself in the mirror, he said, "Yeah," keeping to the least amount of words he had to say. Not that he didn't want to talk to Ashley. He did... and that was the problem.
"You know this is our last night here."
"That's the point."
Ashley nodded and ran a hand through his own hair. "Just don't come back too late. You know Dan's gonna wait for you two."
Jacob just nodded, so Ashley shrugged and left.
As soon as he was gone, Jacob had to lean forward and grab hold of the sink. He felt weak in the knees, and all fluttery inside. Ashley... he was so perfect. So cute. He had these beautiful deep blue eyes, straw-blond hair, and always had an almost innocent look on his face. So perfect... and so straight.
He briefly wondered what Ashley thought of him. He knew there were times when he seemed very close to Ash, sitting down and writing songs, spending hours together, like best friends. He loved those times. But then there were times when he virtually ignored Ashley. He just didn't want to slip up and give everything away. And when he did slip and tried to cover it up, he just ended up saying or doing something stupid.
Looking back up at the mirror, he considered staying in tonight. Maybe he could get himself under control and talk to Ashley, hang out a bit. He was sure he would enjoy it more than going out to a club, and dealing with...
"Jacob! You ready?"
Jacob jumped slightly at the sudden sound.
Erik leaned into the bathroom, dressed completely in Tommy Hilfiger with a gold chain around his neck -- his "Pimp-Daddy Erik" look.
"Yeah." Jacob took one last look at himself in the mirror. Ready? As close as he was getting tonight. "Yeah," he said again, and followed Erik out.
It was still a bit early when Jacob left, shortly past midnight. The door of the club closed behind him, abruptly cutting off the loud music. Relieved, Jacob took a deep breath of fresh air.
It had been as bad as he'd thought it would be, and ended as it always ended. He'd gotten a little tipsy while Erik got completely sloshed. He was content to dance and enjoy the music, while Erik had to find a pretty girl "with a cute friend" for him. And, in the end, Erik would be making out in some dark corner while Jacob, uncomfortable and apologetic, left whatever girls had been dragged over to him and exit.
Jacob started to walk down the street, wishing he had brought his jacket with him. He liked to just walk and think sometimes, and tonight, he really needed to think. But the bitter Canadian autumn was a change from his Californian home, and the cold was a distraction, especially after a couple of hours on the hot dance floor. The wind bit through his silk shirt instantly, finding all the wet and sweaty skin. Jacob tried valiantly to ignore it, because he had a lot on his mind.
The girl Erik had brought over was nice. Cute even. She had medium-length brown hair, greenish-blue eyes, and a wonderful smile. She was a student, quiet, intelligent, and funny. There really was no reason why he should have left her in the club.
Except there was.
Jacob shoved his hands into his pockets, trying to sort out his feelings. He really did feel sorry for that girl... what was her name? Amy or Annie... he really wasn't paying attention. He felt sorry for her, not because he thought she was missing out on anything by his leaving, but because he hated deceiving people. He felt embarrassed at the half-mumbled excuse about being tired, and wished Erik hadn't brought her over. Of course, Erik certainly had good intentions when he led her over to him. And she really was a nice girl. He just wasn't interested.
Nor could he blame Erik for trying. And boy did he try. Every time they went out, Erik had to find a girl for him. Thinking he knew Jacob's "type," he would scour the dance floor, often making a big production out of finding someone he could dance with and talk to. And Jacob never tried to stop him. After all, he was the one who kept up the great show, joking about how girls found him unattractive, making people feel sorry for him and his lack of a real love life. He had grown into playing the "ugly duckling" of the group, looking jealously at the other guys as they picked up and "got close" to various girls along the way.
So, in sympathy or pity, the guys would try to set him up. And what could he say? He had no other relationship to claim he was getting over. Nothing was cluttering his life that wasn't cluttering the lives of them all. No excuses and no believable lies, except for his pitifully vague high standards and unknown "type." So he just put up with it, letting them drag girl after girl over to him, and he always ended up leaving the clubs early, sitting at parties quiet, and in general looking either very pathetic or coldly arrogant.
With a sigh, Jacob gave up trying to ignore the cold and hailed a passing taxi. The cold depressed him, anyway.
It was a quiet ride back to the hotel. He kept quiet, staring out the window, as the taxi rolled along the almost deserted late-night streets. There was no snow on the ground yet, but he wouldn't have been surprised if there was. It was times like these when he missed California.
The hotel lobby was brightly lit, and the bored-looking attendant at the desk was reading a magazine. Jacob didn't bother trying to be friendly, and just pressed the button for the elevator.
As usual he was sharing a hotel room with Erik. Clothes were scattered all over, their bags and suitcases standing by the wall, waiting to be packed in the morning. Since they requested no maid service, he had to make his bed every morning. Erik, of course, didn't bother.
He had hardly entered the room when he heard the knock on the door that joined their room to the adjacent one. He knew who it was, and opened the door without looking.
"Listening at the door again, Dan?"
Dan wasn't surprised that Jacob was back early, and without Erik. "No fun tonight?"
"It was alright, I guess. Erik tried to set me up with a girl."
"She was cute. She just wasn't my type." Jacob kicked off his shoes. Same old line, every time.
Dan watched him. Jacob looked a little down, tonight. But then, he had been acting out of it for a while, now. Trying to joke, he said, "I simply love the way you decorated your room." He gestured around at the clothes on the floor, the scattered shoes, and general mayhem of the hotel room. "It's no wonder the maids run screaming."
Jacob just smiled tiredly. "Asking the maids to stay away is easier than yelling at him."
"You are a saint with that boy, I swear. One of the reasons you're always paired with him." Dan shook his head. "Are you going to be able to pack all this? We're leaving tomorrow."
"I know." Jacob threw himself onto his bed. "We'll do it in the morning. Right now, I'm beat."
Dan's gaze lingered on Jacob for a moment. He knew Jacob sometimes resented Dan's attempts at leadership, if only because Jacob was the oldest, but their fights about that were usually more calm and restricted to subtle power struggles. Tonight, he seemed to have something else on his mind. He was probably just tired.
"Okay, Jake," he said softly. "See ya' in the morning, then."
Dan went back through the door and closed it carefully.
"Was it Jacob?"
"What a surprise."
Ashley lay back down in his bed. He had been trying to sleep on-and-off for the past couple of hours. Even though he was normally roomed with Dan, he preferred to room with Trevor. But Trevor usually won the toss and got a room to himself. Ashley liked Dan, he was a nice guy and all, but these damned check-ins drove him up the wall. Dan, taking the responsibility no one else (except their road manager) thought was necessary, insisted upon knowing when everyone came back, and often stayed up until late at night waiting.
Covering his eyes with his arm, he contemplated several different ways of killing Dan. Smiling at his mock-sadism, he tried to sleep again.
Meanwhile, back in his room, Jacob stared at the ceiling. He couldn't keep doing this. And even if he could, he didn't feel like it. It felt bad. It felt like there was a squirming animal inside his gut, gnawing away at his insides. This secret, this denial, this truth that sought the light of day... He had to tell someone, even if it wasn't the band. In fact, it would be better if it wasn't any of the guys. He didn't think he could handle it if any of them found out. What would it do? Would they start hating him? It would certainly mean the end of O-Town. The band had to go on, stay together. It was his first priority.
And what was best for the band was for him to talk to someone. He briefly considered a professional therapist, but quickly changed his mind. All he needed was for that to get out one day. And when would he see him, anyway? They traveled so much and had such busy schedules, it would be nearly impossible. No, he needed someone he could just talk to, not in the band, not even associated with the band, that he could trust and call up whenever he needed advice.
An idea tickled at the back of his mind, but he ignored it for the moment, taking everything into consideration.
Family? Jacob quailed at the very thought of calling home and telling them this. Over the past couple of months, he had noticed he and his family growing steadily more distant. Oh, he'd been told it would happen. In fact, he was warned that it would happen. But he didn't believe it until he called home and realized, after ten minutes on the phone, that there was nothing left to say. Uncomfortable silences filled up more space than talking. No arguments, no tears, nothing except for news of what was going on, talk about the weather, and the exchange of I-love-you's. He couldn't think of anyone in his family he still felt close enough to that he could tell.
That and he didn't want to imagine his family's reaction to his news.
So family was out. Friends? What friends? He only had a few friends anyway, and now that he was part of the band, even fewer. They rarely got the chance to meet people outside of their group, and most of those were managers and trainers, party to the whole boy-band image, working for Lou Pearlman or in cahoots with Lou to make them succeed on the industry level. Dance choreographers, voice coaches, producers and engineers... they were all on the Pearlman payroll.
Except for one.
The tickle got stronger, and so he finally turned to the one possibility he'd known he would come back to, and the plan that was already half-formed in his head. The only reason he was reluctant was because it meant he could do it so soon, with no excuse to delay it and change his mind. But it was the right choice, he knew that deep down, even though he knew their road manager would hate it. He knew Lou would hate it. He knew it would aggravate a lot of people, but he also knew it was something he couldn't afford to wait any longer on.
Their next appearance was in Toronto for the Much Music station. Nothing fancy, just performing two songs and an interview. They had been practicing all week, were leaving tomorrow for Toronto, and just waiting the weekend in town before their appearance Monday. That gave him three days to make it to Montreal and back in time for practice. Okay, he had a plan. Now, he had to figure out a way to explain it to Dan.
"So I hear you came back early again last night."
"Yeah." Jacob, reclining on Ashley's bed, seemed lost in thought. "Erik tried to set me up again."
"Really? Cute girl?"
"Okay. Not really my type."
Ashley nodded. He was carefully packing his things, glad that today seemed to be one of the days when Jacob was talking to him. He never really understood Jacob. Sometimes they would talk about everything under the sun, while other times Jacob seemed almost afraid of him. He couldn't figure out why, but he guessed there was a reason. He wished Jacob would talk to him about it, but he wasn't going to push.
"So when are you going to finally come out with us?" Jacob asked.
"Not for a while. Shelli says we can talk things over during Thanksgiving break."
Jacob nodded, not saying anything. He didn't like Shelli, for a number of reasons. Shelli was Ashley's ex-girlfriend, and she seemed intent on making Ashley choose between her and the band. Even though Ash made it clear the band was a top priority, she seemed to keep coming back into his life, and Jacob thought she was intentionally keeping him dangling. He hated seeing Ashley all broken up over a girl who wouldn't let him fulfill his dream. He tried not to think it was jealousy that made him dislike Shelli. After all, there were other, very legitimate reasons for not liking her. Like... the girl was too old for Ash, she was too needy and relationship-minded... and had a tendency to be a real bitch.
Well, that and he thought he could make Ashley so much happier...
"So when are you packing?" Ashley broke Jacob out of his thoughts.
"Huh? Oh... in a sec."
Jacob sat watching Ashley pack. He loved watching the way he did it. He had this system of carefully rolling all of his shirts and jeans into tight bundles to economize space that just seemed so... organized. Jacob knew when he started his own packing it wouldn't be nearly so thought out. But they still had a few hours before they left, and he was confident he would be able to get things together before then.
Dan wandered in from the bathroom. "Ashley, did you buy two tooth-brushes?"
"Because there are three unopened in the bathroom."
"Oh... I bought two new ones, then found my old one."
"And the other one?"
"I bought that last time I lost my old one."
"And you had to put them all in the bathroom? Okay..." Dan turned back to the bathroom.
"I think he thinks you're weird," Jacob said, chuckling.
"Yeah, at least I don't stay up late waiting for everyone to come back." Ashley shoved another shirt into his bag. "Fucking den-mother," he muttered.
Jacob was about to say something, but Dan chose that moment to walk back in. "Ashley?"
Ashley sighed. "Yes, Mom?"
"Which one is yours?" Dan held up two plastic floss dispensers.
Ashley looked at them, then at Dan. "They're identical, Dan. If you can't tell, what makes you think I can?"
"I thought you might have kept yours in a different place."
"How would you know now that you brought them both in here?" Ashley had to struggle to keep a straight face. "It's just floss, Dan."
"Yeah, but still..."
"Dan..." Jacob pretended to be overly concerned. "Are you feeling well? Maybe you need to rest a while, check into a nice hospital..."
"Yeah, fuck you." Dan laughed and tossed both flosses into his bag. "Just for that, they're both mine, now."
"Oooh." Ashley waved his arms around in mock-anxiety. "You're taking my floss! Please, Mr. Dan! Anything but my floss! Take my money, my diamonds, my balls, but please, not my floss!"
Dan raised an eyebrow. "Your balls? Maybe then you can hit those high notes..."
"Hah! Funny." Ashley pretended to laugh, then went back to packing.
Jacob giggled, more from giddiness of being so close to Ashley than the lame jokes. Quickly gaining control, he remembered his plan for the day. Checking his watch, he jumped up. "Gotta go make a phone call. See you guys later."
"Yup, later," Ashley called back.
"And start packing!" Dan called after him.
Jacob went back into his room. Erik, not surprisingly, was still asleep. He'd come back shortly after four in the morning, and unless they had something planned, he tended to sleep until at least one in the afternoon. Today he couldn't, since they were leaving at two thirty, but Jacob needed to make a quick call before Erik was awake enough to hear.
Jacob had it all worked out in his head. He had called the airlines last night, and scheduled tickets for himself from Toronto to Montreal. Now, he would call to Jeremy to make sure he could come over. Only after all of that was taken care of would he break it to Dan that he was leaving. It was a bit mean to give him no choice about it, but really, they had nothing planned. No dance or voice practice until Monday morning, a choice they had decided on, opting instead to work all this week. That kept their weekend free to do whatever they wanted to do. Jacob was just choosing to do it elsewhere.
He quickly dialed the long-distance number from memory, and soon the other end was ringing.
"Hello?" The voice on the other end was out of breath, and Jacob knew he had interrupted, because Jeremy was usually more formal when answering.
"Did I interrupt anything?
"No, no... just a little... uh... pillow fight."
"Ah... I see... well, I won't keep you long, I was just calling to ask if I could come over this weekend."
"Really? Oh, uh..." something happened on the other end, and Jacob thought he heard someone say, "Not the feet! Not the feet!" Then Jeremy came back. "Um... Jacob, still there?"
"Yeah. Is this not a good time?"
"No, no, this is fine. This weekend is cool. Are you sure you're coming or are you just asking?"
"I definitely want to come."
"The whole weekend?"
"Yeah, is that okay?'
"Splendid! Wonderful! I am warm and fuzzy... ecstatic with joy of the news of your..." something happened on the other line, then, "I'm happy to hear it. That's great."
"Are you sure this is a good time? I can call back..." Jacob wasn't sure whether he should to laugh or hang up.
"Yes, I was just... hmph!"
Jacob waited as the sounds of a scuffle came over the phone. He heard muffled voices shouting "Bitch!" "Slut!" and other such insults before Jeremy came back, giggling.
"Sorry about that, kiddo. I was attacked by a flying... I... whoops!" The phone obviously fell to the ground, and soon another voice came on.
"Hello, Jacob? It's Ben. Jeremy's unavailable... ahem..." On the other end there were sounds of struggle and laughter, then, "Jeremy's not able to come to the phone right now. Is there a message?"
Jacob, now trying hard to keep from laughing himself, said, "Yeah, ah... can you let him know I'm going to be in Montreal this Friday around noon?"
Instantly Jeremy came back on the phone. "What? Who? Jacob? What did you say?"
"I was just calling to let you know we're flying into Toronto today and are scheduled to stay in town until the Much Music thing Monday. We've got the weekend free, so I called the airlines, and I can get a ticket that will take me to Montreal this Friday. I should arrive around noon, if you could give me a ride."
"A ride? What about the Metro, Grasshopper? Montreal is famous for it."
Jacob chuckled. "Jeremy..."
"What? What makes you think you're so special?"
"Jeremy, c'mon..." Jacob pretended to whine like a small child.
"Sheesh, spoiled little white kids... okay, fine. I'll pick you up."
"Yay!" More child-like noises.
"But... you have to tell me what this is all about. Coming up for two days when you have a show to do? Sounds serious."
"Um..." Jacob looked up at Erik. He was pretty sure he was still sleeping, but wasn't sure enough. "I'd rather tell you in person."
"It's that important?"
"Kinda? No, kinda will get you a phone call. Kinda will get you an I'm-in-town-anyway-so-let's-talk. Kinda won't get you a five hour bus trip! From Toronto!"
"I'm flying, remember?"
"It's an expensive flight!"
"I can afford it."
"Hmmm..." Jeremy was silent for a moment. "Any of the other guys coming?"
"Nope, they're staying in Toronto."
"For the weekend? In Toronto? My dear boy, that's cruel and unusual punishment. Why not drag them all up here? I'm sure I can find some straight clubs to send them off to while we talk."
"They all have things to do."
"Uh-huh... right, you probably told them not to come."
"Me? I would never..."
"Of course not. I'm getting the distinct impression you want to come up alone."
"There's something you're not telling me, isn't there?"
"Isn't there always?"
"Okay... fine. I'll pick you up Friday. Just look for the two bozos with a cool car."
"So you'll pick me up yourself?"
"Sure. Just make sure you're there."
"I'll be there."
"Okay, thanks G. Later."
Jacob hung up the phone, and made sure to make a note of the call. Jay would need to know he made a long-distance call.
"So you're going to Montreal?"
Jacob already suspected Erik was awake, so wasn't so surprised when the sleepy voice came from the other bed.
"Can I come with you?"
Jacob laughed at the way Erik said it. They had just rented the video "Screamers," and Erik knew Jacob was a little freaked out by the boy-robot who had always repeated that same line. "No, Erik. You can't. I'm just going to talk to Jeremy."
"Is Ben gonna be there?" Erik turned around and faced Jacob.
"And you don't mind?"
"Why should I?"
Erik shrugged. "You don't get bothered when they start... you know... kissing and stuff? A guy kissing another guy..." he shuddered. "Don't like it."
"Well, then, don't be so insistent to come with me next time." Jacob smiled thinly, trying to sound like he was joking.
"Yeah, but it's Jeremy, man. It's G! He's... cool, I guess."
"In spite of being gay?"
"Yeah, in spite of being a fag." Erik threw the covers off. "I call the bathroom for the next eternity and a half," he said and made his way sleepily to the shower.
Jacob could never figure Erik out. Erik joked about "homos" all the time, his harsh laughter making it seemingly clear that he couldn't stand them. But at the same time, he was big on tolerance and accepting other people's differences. He was proud of his Puerto Rican heritage, and went literally berserk when anyone slighted him for it. To hear him use words like "fag" and "queer" was distressing. It wouldn't be so bad if he was always joking, but sometimes Erik said it meaning every negative implication.
Jacob knew better than to confront Erik. Erik didn't take arguments well. He could be as stubborn as he was kind, as mean as he could be fun, and every bit as evilly calculating as he was generous. And so frustrated hopelessness washed over Jacob. He hated that Erik could be so insulting and intolerant, but Erik was his best friend in the band. They loved the same kind of music, wrote the same kind of songs, and usually liked the same clubs. They hung out all the time. Yet he knew he could never ask Erik to stop joking and using words like "fag." Because that would lead to questions, questions that would need answers. And while he wanted to give those answers, he wanted it to be on his terms, and only when he was comfortable with it.
And that sure as hell wasn't now.
"For how long?"
"Just for the weekend. I'll be in Toronto in time for our performance. You know me, Dan. I'm not going to blow you guys off." Jacob hated doing this, talking to Dan about his plans as if asking for permission. But he preferred it to asking Jay, who was stressed and pulling double-duty as PR and road manager while Marc was away. He knew Jay would have a thousand questions and twice as many reasons for not letting him go.
And everyone knew Dan could get Jay to say yes to just about anything.
Dan zipped up his bag. "Are you done packing yet?"
"Almost..." he actually wasn't anywhere near done, but since he never really unpacked, he wasn't really lying when he said he was almost done.
"Okay, fine. If you can get Erik downstairs in time by the van all packed, I'll talk to Jay." Dan hoisted his bag over his shoulder and walked out of the room.
Jacob took a deep breath in relief and lay back on Ashley's bed again. "Thank God. I don't think I can deal with Jay right now."
Ashley, putting the last few things into his bag, grinned. "So you're willing to make Erik hate you forever by making him on time for the first time in his life. Wow. Is this trip that important to you?"
"I need to talk to Jeremy."
"Oh? You're visiting Jeremy?"
"Can I go?"
Jacob stared at Ashley. "You want to come with me, too?"
"Why, who else asked?"
"Is he going?"
Jacob hesitated. He really wanted to talk to Jeremy alone. But to spend some time with Ashley... would it be worth it?
Very reluctantly, he said, "I think it would be better if I went alone. Normally, I would love your company. But... not this time."
"You sure?" Ashley seemed to sense his hesitancy.
"Yes, I'm sure. We're just talking, not going out and stuff. You'd be bored out of your mind."
Ashley sighed. "Well, okay. Just make sure you tell him I said hi, and that it was your idea about me not going."
"I will. He won't be mad, I promise."
Just then, Trevor walked in. "Hey, Jake. I hear you're going to Montreal?"
"How'd you know?"
"Erik said. You going to see Jeremy?"
Ashley grinned. "If you're looking to go with him, you're out of luck. He wants to be alone with him."
Trevor grinned back. "Oh, really? Does Ben know about that?"
Ashley looked down at Jacob. "Yeah, does Ben know you're going to be alone with him? I think he might have a few things to say about that."
Jacob laughed and, in his Southern-belle voice, said, "No, me and Mr. Jeremiah are going truant together, to romp in the fields of Montreal, and Mr. Benjamin is none the wiser."
Trevor laughed. "Okay, man, that's okay, I couldn't come anyway. I was just wondering if you could give this to Jeremy?" He held out a CD case with a gold CD recordable disk. "I want him to see what he can do with this. Nothing fancy, but I want there to be an edge to the beat, maybe a few extra sounds if he thinks it'll sound good. There are four songs here for him, and two that I want Trent to look at."
Jacob took the CD. "Okay, I'll give it to him, but remember, he didn't promise anything about Trent."
"Yeah, I know. But if he can, I'd like him to."
Ashley smiled as he watched Trevor leave. "You know, I think I have a few songs of my own I want Jeremy to mix..."
"Forget it, Ash. You're not coming."
Ashley laughed. "Okay. But if this had been our break instead of a weekend, there's no way you could have stopped me. I would have taken a different flight, and ended up there whether you wanted me or not."
"Oh, I know." Jacob leaned back on Ashley's bed. "But it's not our break, and I can and have stopped you."
"And you really should start packing."
"Oh, stop being my mother." Jacob picked up a t-shirt lying beside him and threw it at Ashley.
And damn, Ashley just had to smile at him.
Jacob could almost feel his head about to explode. His breath was suddenly stolen, and his blood started pounding in his ears. He knew he was staring, but he couldn't look away. That smile, those lips... he could almost imagine how they would feel against his own, soft and gentle, kissing his cheek, his neck... he could imagine running his hand through Ashley's hair, down his back...
Ashley looked up, and caught Jacob's eye. For a moment, their eyes met. Ashley thought he saw something different in Jacob's eyes today. He seemed to be staring at him, and there was a brightness in them that wasn't tears...
Uncomfortable, they both looked away at the same time. Ashley felt his face getting red, and Jacob felt tingly all over. A sure sign it was time to leave.
"Uh... you know what? I really should go pack." Jacob leapt up from the bed. "See ya' later, Ash?"
"Uh... yeah," Ashley turned away and pretended to fold the t-shirt Jacob had thrown at him. "Later, man."
Jacob rushed to his room and closed the door behind him. Did he see it? Did he figure it out? And what was that look? Had he felt something? Was it possible that, maybe, possibly...?
"No! No, no, no! Stupid, stupid stupid!" he hissed at himself, and slapped his face hard before taking a deep breath and turning into the room.
And found Erik staring at him.
"You okay, Jake?"
"Yeah, yeah. Just..." Jacob's mind raced for possible explanations. "I took the stairs."
"Ah. Hit yourself again. Stairs are evil." Picking up a pile of socks, he dumped them into his bag. "That's what God created elevators for." If Erik thought Jacob was lying, he didn't show it.
That didn't matter, though. Jacob remembered his deal with Dan.
"Oh, shit, I almost forgot to tell you!" Jacob had to fight to keep from smiling.
"We need to be downstairs in, like ten minutes! The vans are coming early!"
"What? Shit, why didn't Dan tell us sooner?" Erik started packing faster.
Jacob smiled to himself as he finished packing. It probably would have made more sense if he had made the "message" the reason he ran up the stairs, but he never had been a very good liar. He hated lying to Erik, if only because there were times when he was so gullible, and trusted Jacob. But this was a means to an end, and he figured he'd resolve it in his mind, later. He was sure Erik would forgive him. After all, he was doing this for the band.
Besides, even lying to Erik wasn't going to get him there early. He knew that even if Erik was told he had to be there a day ahead of time, he would still arrive five minutes late.
Jacob walked into the house and put his bag down by the door.
"Jeremy! Where'd you go?"
Jeremy had picked him up at the airport and driven him to the large mock-Victorian-style house he lived in just outside the city of Montreal. Then he had disappeared into the house, leaving Jacob to find his own way in. Not that it was a big deal -- Jacob had been here so many times before that he had a spare key.
A muffled voice came from inside that sounded like "...living room!"
Carefully he closed the door and locked it. His sneakers making almost no noise on the thick oriental carpets, he walked through the sunlit rooms. The living room was at the corner of the house, with floor-to-ceiling windows covered in delicate, translucent white curtains that allowed all the bright sunlight to stream in. A large screen television sat along one wall, and overstuffed couches and chairs lined the other walls. And in one of the couches reclined Jeremy, his boyfriend Ben snuggled against him.
Jeremy looked up and smiled at Jacob.
"Grasshopper! Made it from the car okay, I see."
Jacob slapped Jeremy's extended hand, clasping it for a moment. "Yeah... hi, Ben."
Ben smiled at him. "Hi, Jacob. How was the flight?"
Ben turned and pouted at Jeremy. "Why can't we ever take first class to Toronto?"
Jeremy laughed. "Because it's too close to risk flaming death when we can drive."
"The way you drive?"
"Or the way you drive?"
Ben just looked back at Jeremy coyly for a moment, then got up. "Well, stimulating as this argument always is, I should go meet Jason at the Zinc." Smiling at Jacob, he said, "Good to see you again, Jake. I'll see you later tonight, okay?"
Jeremy pulled Ben back and they kissed for a long moment. Jeremy whispered something to Ben, who whispered something back, then walked off. Jeremy watched him go.
"Hmm? Oh, Jacob. Yes." Jeremy smiled at him and motioned for Jacob to sit. "So, you come rushing in here for two days just to talk to me, something so important it had to wait until we got home. Alone. Part of me is happy to see you, the other part is wondering what's up. So sit. Speak."
Jeremy's voice, though light, left no room for argument. Jacob sank down into his favorite chair, an old leather recliner, and leaned back, wondering how he should start.
They had met Jeremy a year ago in California. Twenty-three years old and a native of Malibu, Jeremy had been called on as a consultant to help mix their first single. He was skilled at mixing and programming, and even had his own small band that had a cult-like following. But due to his public image it was clear he would never get credit for his work with the band. Jeremy was cool with that. It wasn't the first time his work went anonymous.
He was a sort of chameleon in the studio, well known for working with a great number of varied artists, and as a result had access to many studios and had connections with lots of people in the music business. Yet in spite of his exposure in the business, he never based his opinions on what was popular. He worked with and admired people on their own merits. Jacob loved that, since it was so close to his own personal beliefs. But what endeared him to Jacob was his love of music. To both of them, music and the artists who brought it to life were sacred, and if it didn't come from the heart, it was meaningless drivel.
Jeremy often verbally bashed boy-bands and teen divas in general, calling them "little more than whores" and the managements who hyped them "high-class pimps." He admired the talent, but hated the method of marketing. Privately, he told Jacob his predictions about O-Town, that it would be the last boy-band, and that they would need to be radically different if they hoped they would survive.
"People won't always be as stupid as they are now," he always said.
But Jeremy's strong opinions tended to coincide with Jacob's own, and as a result they became very close friends. Jeremy's openness and honesty were infectious, and soon Jeremy knew everything about Jacob.
Except for one... little... thing.
"Can we talk for a sec'?"
Jeremy raised one eyebrow, but straightened his position.
Jacob looked around the room, trying to gather his thoughts. The blank large-screen television stared at him from across the room, offering no support.
"It is. Kinda."
Jacob knew that Jeremy would give him his full attention, and would wait as long as he needed.
"Okay, I'm listening."
Jacob hesitated. He felt strangely unsure of himself. He had lived with this thing inside of him for almost six years now, and had been dying to tell someone. Anyone. And of all the people he'd met outside the band in the past year, Jeremy was the only one he felt comfortable with and trusted. Besides being gay himself, Jeremy already knew all about his family, his friends, he had heard Jacob's venting about the band, about Lou, about life in general. It had been a logical choice, the only choice as he saw it. Jacob had even felt a great weight lift off of his shoulders at the decision to finally tell someone.
But now, with the words at the tip of his tongue, he felt terrified.
Jeremy sat patiently, watching him with a look of concern and rapt attention. He never pushed, pried, or forced him into anything, and this was no exception.
Jacob, on the other hand, felt the need to get it over with. Closing his eyes, he told himself it was okay, he was safe. He needed to do this. For the band, for his career, and for his sanity, he needed to do this. So, taking a deep breath, he just said it.
"Jeremy... I think I might be gay."
There. Done. Like pulling out a splinter, he felt almost silly that he'd made such a big deal about it in his head.
He felt out of breath, as if he'd spoken for hours instead of just one sentence. And Jeremy didn't rage at him and throw him out. He didn't laugh. He didn't pretend to congratulate him. He took the words seriously, but he also didn't ask any stupid questions like, "What do you mean `I think,'" or "How do you know?"
He also didn't look in the least bit surprised. Jacob was sure Jeremy didn't know before. He was sure no one even suspected. But then, Jeremy hung out with gay people all the time. Being told this was no big deal. Of course, Jeremy didn't know that no one else knew. He probably thought he was just one in many that was being told, and so he just nodded and waited for Jacob to continue.
But Jacob wasn't sure where to go on from there. He hadn't told anyone else, and the burden of actually saying it out loud had been so great, he hadn't been able to see around it. Now... it was out there, and he had nothing else to say.
After a moment, Jeremy seemed to sense this, because he said, "That took a lot out of you, I guess?"
"Well, that takes a lot of courage. I don't want to be condescending, but I'm proud of you. I was almost two years older than you before I could say what you just said." Jeremy smiled sadly. "I'm almost inclined to be sorry for you. You're in the wrong business to be gay, old son." He pulled his legs up and crossed them. "I'm also guessing that I'm the first person you told?"
Jacob nodded again.
"So the rest of the guys don't know?"
He just shook his head.
Why? Jacob stared at Jeremy, finally finding his voice. "Are you kidding? Do you know what that would do to the band? It could... well, our reputations... and all our fans..."
Jeremy waved Jacob quiet. "Fuck the fans. Forget your reputation. What about the band? What about the guys who will be at your side, stand or fall, for the next few years? Your family will never be as close to you again as you will be to your band. Don't you think they have a right to know what path your life may take in its pursuit of happiness?"
Jacob looked at the floor. He felt like a kid again, looking for the right answer to give a strict teacher. "I guess I should tell them." He said it almost like a question.
"Don't do that to me, Grasshopper." Jeremy didn't sound angry as he said it. He sounded almost tired. "I never said you should tell them. In fact, I don't think you should tell them. You guys aren't nearly ready for that. I was just trying to figure out where you are. Mentally, I mean." He took a deep breath. "So do you or don't you think they have a right to know?"
Jacob didn't answer.
"Okay, more pertinent question. Do you want to tell them?"
Jacob shook his head, frustrated. "As if you don't know. Hell, no, I don't want to tell them!"
Jeremy settled back into the couch. He knew he was getting ahead of himself, and pushing hard, but as far as he was concerned Jacob was in a precarious position and needed to know that. On the other hand, he cared for Jacob a lot, and to a degree he understood what he was feeling, so he softened his tone. "But you're afraid they'll find out." It wasn't a question.
"Fuck yeah, I'm afraid!" Jacob looked up, angry. "Wouldn't you be?"
"I never said it was a bad thing to be afraid." Jeremy took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "I was in the closet for twenty-one years, and in severe homophobic denial for five of those years. Coming out to anyone, even my therapist, took a great deal of courage and acceptance. Trust me, I know afraid very well." He looked with unfocused eyes at Jacob. "But it taught me that fear, whether justified or not, must be faced."
"Yeah, that's easy for you to say. You don't..." but he didn't know what to say. Don't what? Don't have friends who could reject him? Don't have an image that could be ruined? These things were universal, and in spite of being in more or less the same business, Jeremy had somehow gotten past all that. "It's hard. You make it look easy, but... it's hard." Jacob looked at the ceiling, feeling the heaviness of tears in his eyes.
Jeremy, not noticing Jacob's reaction, rolled his eyes. "I make it look easy? Yeah, right. Okay, it's easy for me to say this now. Now that everyone who matters has accepted it. But..." Jeremy thought for a moment, lost in memory. "I remember the fear. I remember the rejection of some people, and the pain that came with it. But you get over that, eventually."
"Yeah, I guess."
Jeremy snapped out of his reverie, and grinned. "Guessing's for the SAT's, Grasshopper. This isn't some after-school special on TV, you know."
"`After-school special'?" Jacob found himself smiling back. "Showing your age a bit there, G."
Jeremy chuckled. "Yeah, such an old man."
Jacob felt a little better. Talking to Jeremy always made him feel better.
"Hey, I didn't do anything."
"Yes. You did."
Jeremy was quiet for a moment, then shrugged. "Okay, fine, maybe I did. But we're not done yet." Jacob groaned. "No, no, I'm serious. I want to find out about this fear of your band mates."
"Because they'll hate me." Jacob said it flatly, without drama. "The band is my first priority, you know that."
"Yes, I know that. But seriously, dude... do you really think the guys will take it that hard? I mean, Erik..." Jeremy snorted. "Erik hasn't got a leg to stand on criticizing anyone else. Dan... well, Dan's a pretty opened guy... I swore the kid was gay when I first met him. Trevor seems cool, and Ashley... well, Ash is your friend, right?"
Jacob could feel his face getting red. "Yeah..."
Jeremy looked carefully at Jacob for a moment. "Oh. I see. It's Ash, is it?"
Instantly, Jacob got defensive. "What do you mean?"
Jeremy shrugged and pretended to look out the window. "Oh... nothing."
Jacob was about to protest, but his denial quickly gave way to fear. If Jeremy could see it, then just how obvious was it? Was it possible...?
"Do you... do you think he knows?"
Jeremy turned to face Jacob again, sensing a more serious turn of the conversation.
"Knows what? That you're gay and have a crush on him?"
Jacob nodded, smiling weakly.
"My dear boy, you've been quite convincing in your `I'm a poor little straight boy with no girlfriend' act for quite some time. Well, not quite convincing. You're fuckin' gorgeous, and have no girlfriend? You've either got to be gay or a real jerk. And we all know you can be a jerk." Jeremy winked. "But Ashley?" He frowned, thinking. "Ash is the kind of guy who takes people at face value. You say you're straight, he thinks you're straight. He'll even defend you against people who say you're not. He's not the kind who jumps to any conclusions."
Jacob stared at the floor again. He knew all this, but...
"Do you... do you think..."
"That you should tell him? Immediately. I know I said you guys weren't ready to handle a coming-out scene. However, there's nothing worse than loving a straight boy who doesn't know it. For reference, I can give you my first album."
"Yeah, but... do you think... maybe...?"
Comprehension dawned on Jeremy. He didn't smile. He didn't frown. He somehow managed to look sympathetic without being condescending.
"I don't think he's gay, Grasshopper."
And with those words Jacob felt his heart breaking. Taking a deep breath, a breath that threatened tears, he asked, "So you don't think...?"
"That you have a shot at having him? No."
Jacob thought about Ashley. About the times their eyes met. How Ashley sometimes seemed to know what he was thinking, even before he did himself. How Ashley was always so nice and kind to him.
He thought about the time they spent together writing songs, discussing sounds and beats and dance moves.
"Isn't it possible? I mean..."
Jeremy sighed. "I know what you're going through, Jake. He probably smiles at you a certain way, or looks at you a certain way, and you think that there's a chance he might be into you. No matter how straight he looks."
Jacob nodded, but had to blink quickly. His vision was getting blurry.
"Please, Jacob, don't do this to yourself. I did it to myself for years. Cognitive distortions, believing in something that simply isn't there..."
The tears came slowly. Jacob found himself staring at the floor that he suddenly couldn't see clearly. Then, a drop fell on his hand.
"I'm not trying to be mean," Jeremy continued, apparently not noticing Jacob's situation, "but it will save you a lot of heartache if you let go if illusions and denial..."
Another drop fell. And another. Before Jacob knew it, his face was buried in his hands and he was crying openly.
Jeremy finally noticed. He immediately stopped talking, got up, and slowly crossed over to where he was sitting. Jacob leaned against Jeremy, crying into his shoulder. But Jeremy didn't tell him to stop crying. He didn't tell him it would be all right. He didn't tell him things would be better. He knew enough to know he didn't know how it would all end up. So he just held Jacob and let him cry.
"So where is he now?"
"Lying down. He's been under a lot of stress."
"What stress? He came out to another gay guy."
"For the first time. He hasn't told anyone else."
"The first time's always the hardest."
"Implying what? There may never be a second time. He's in the business of selling an image. He can't be gay for the image. Whether he wants to or not he'll be in the closet for a very long time."
"So he'll join the greater majority of young gay men all around the world. Big deal."
"Would you go back in the closet?"
"Not for all the tea in China."
"And you're a year younger than he is."
Jacob lay on the couch, wide awake. Jeremy and Ben were talking in the next room, apparently unaware that he wasn't asleep. He felt emotionally drained and raw, and as awake as he was, he felt like he just couldn't stand up. He felt like he was sick, except he wasn't. He was just... tired in some deep, dark place inside that he never felt before. He tried to close his eyes, but his mind refused to relax.
"Amazing how you can be pragmatic during the most sensitive of times."
"I'm just trying to help. I think he needs to be honest."
"Which worked so well for you?"
"It didn't work for me because I wasn't honest. Remember Bernard?"
"Hah! Robin? Yeah."
"He was straight, but I was in love with him for a long time."
"Yeah, but... but he was a stripper! People fall in love with those guys all the time!"
"Granted. But I had to live with him. I saw him every day, his good parts and his bad parts. I knew what he looked like when he first got up in the morning, before his hair was fixed and before he took his shower. I knew him intimately, and I loved him all the more. This is the same situation. Jake's been living with these guys for over a year now, and Ashley... well, Ash is cute."
"And living together breaks down a lot if inhibitions. Things you would normally never find out about a person you learn very quickly."
"Something I learned the hard way."
"Funny. Really. But seriously, I see where he's coming from. And I don't think he should keep it a secret. It's secrets like these that could ruin their friendship and ultimately tear the band apart. Being honest, and being truthful..."
"And you never know, Ash could be into it."
Jacob, still listening, felt a surge of hope so sudden it was painful. He hadn't realized how much he wanted to hear those words.
"Please, please, please don't tell him that. Yes, there is a chance. But I believe there is a greater chance that Ash is straight. You remember how he went on and on about that girl..."
"Yeah, what was her name?"
"I wasn't paying attention."
"Maybe. But he has to face the truth, just as I did. If the dude's straight, he has to move on. And the only way Jacob can do it is if he tells Ashley how he feels, and Ashley honestly tells him that there's no chance. Sounds cruel, but I think it's the best thing. It certainly would have saved me a lot of heart ache in my life."
Jacob listened still, but the fact that Ben thought there might be a chance had eased his mind a lot. Closing his eyes again, he felt his body slowly relax, and in a few minutes, the bickering couple became just a droning background noise as he drifted off to sleep.
Okay, that's it for the first chapter. I hope you liked it. Send me a mail if you liked it, and if you don't, tell me what to do better. Just don't say, "More sex!" Because I don't know when the sex will come. Oh, it will come... I just don't know when yet. Maybe next chapter. Maybe not. We shall see. -- Kai Wailbone firstname.lastname@example.org