Second Toughest in the Infants

By Kai Wailbone

Hi, there. Me again.

Okay, the fonts didn't work on the last chapter, so the disclaimer was really really long. Sorry about that. I'll keep it short from now on.

Just to let you know... I'm not sure I really like this chapter. I based it on a conglomerate of post-coming-out conversations I have been a part of, and unfortunately reality doesn't make the best reading. I tried my best, but I still don't like it. If you hang in there with me, I promise it will get better.

And just really quickly -- I'm currently on vacation, so I'm not as familiar with the conversion process on this computer. After several hours, I think I finally got it.

Well, here's hoping.

and a little howdy for Carmody - thanks for the encouragement, Pookie!


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. Not that it matters much for this chapter... no sex yet.

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 straight/bi/gay/or neutered.

This story will move slowly, and will not revolve around sex. If you're looking to get off quickly, I don't think you will like this. It focuses on the boy-band O-Town, specifically Jacob Underwood, who I happen to have a crush on.

The character of Jeremy Thomas is based on artist/musician Jeremy Thomas.

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 really DO like e-mail and encouragement.

Second Toughest in the Infants

Chapter Two -- Sugar Boy

"I'm getting closer all the time"

- Nine Inch Nails, "10 miles high"

"Yes, Trent... Yes, Trent, I understand... Yes, I understand... yes, I know... yes... yes... yeah... if I say `no' right now, will you be mad?"

           Jeremy was on the phone, but hadn't been able to get a word in edgewise for quite some time. Ben was sitting beside him on the couch, and felt sorry for him. He knew that Jeremy hated it when Trent chewed him out like this. But Jeremy, as he usually did when things bothered him, was making a big joke out of it.

           Jeremy winced at whatever Trent said back, but winked at Ben. Making his hand an impromptu puppet, he made talking motions with it, mouthing, "blah-blah-blah-blah." Ben smiled back, but he could see the stress in Jeremy's eyes.

           "What? Oh... Yes, I'm sorry, Trent... No, I didn't... Yes, I understand. Well, I... uh-huh... well, I'm sorry to hear that, but I really do have an emergency here... maybe Tuesday... as in... yes, I'm sorry... yes, Trent... no, we're leaving next week... for... uh-hunh... Yes... Yes, I know... I'm sorry... Yes, Trent... I understand... okay... yes, I promise this time... no... yes, Trent... okay, bye." Jeremy hung up the phone and threw it onto a chair across the room. "Whoa! Now there's an experience I could have lived without."

            "So?" Ben smiled in mock ignorance at Jeremy. "Was he mad?"

            "Mad?" Jeremy rubbed his eyes, all pretense and joking gone. "Well, let's see, what does he have to be mad about? The live footage DVD of his concert is going to be pushed back a couple of months, he's under pressure to bring some fruition to the Tapeworm project, create a better record of his own, and produce my next block of work, of which I haven't even given him a rough mix of yet... And now, of course, I tell him I can't fly to the Big Easy tomorrow?" He looked at Ben wearily. "Did the number of `Yes, Trent'-s not catch your attention?"

            "So he's mad?"

            "As a hatter." Jeremy leaned back. "Of course, I'm just the current scapegoat. I'm the popular person to blame for his life falling apart."

            "You know, if it's that bad, I could stay here and you could just fly out..."

            "No, no... I would never forgive myself if something happened to Jacob while I was gone." He said it softly, and for a moment a very sad look crossed his face, and then it was gone. Smiling slightly, he looked up and said, "Besides, do you really think I'd leave you alone here with a cute guy like Jacob? God only knows what you two would do without my supervision."

            Ben heard the deflection clearly, and briefly considered asking Jeremy what he was really thinking, but he knew from experience that Jeremy would tell him what was wrong when he was ready. Letting his concern dissipate with the ease and comfort of an old habit, he smiled back and said, "Oh, come on. You don't trust me?"

            "Of course not," Jeremy said with a smirk of mock arrogance.

            "Oh, come on." Ben snuggled up against Jeremy. "I promise to be good."


            "Pleeeeeze?" Ben kissed Jeremy on the base of his neck.


            "I'll be nice and gentle and then tie him up to the bed for you when you get home."

            Jeremy laughed and pushed Ben away. "Oh, no, I don't think so."

            "So it's okay to tie me up but not some cute guy?"

            "Exactly." Jeremy was finding it difficult to keep a straight face.

"Well, I hope he realizes how special he is to you," Ben said with a pout.

            "Oh, no doubt he doesn't. But he still remains the one person I would leave you for." Jeremy's smile turned sly, and he slid across the couch, pulling Ben into his arms. "Well, you and Johan Paulik."

            Ben giggled and pushed Jeremy away. "Bitch... you know your Sleeping Beauty hasn't deigned to grace us with his presence yet. Do you want to go wake him with a kiss?"

            "Nah, I'll let him sleep." He blew a kiss to Ben. "Besides, with Jacob asleep, our trip to New Orleans on hold, and spare time..." he snuggled closer.

            "Spare time? Don't think so." Ben pushed him away again, this time standing up. Clearly enjoying the turnaround, he said, "You know I need to do laundry."

            Jeremy sighed indulgently. "Oh, yes, the all-important laundry. Okay, fine... but I'm getting you tonight."

            Ben blew a kiss back at Jeremy. "Only if you can catch me."

            "Is that a challenge?" Jeremy feinted a dash from the couch, but Ben was already running from the room, laughing. Jeremy leapt from the couch and raced after him.


Jacob came down the stairs, his hair still wet from the shower. He felt better than he had last night, though he still felt a little raw and fragile inside. It was as if someone had pulled everything inside of him out and replaced it with something strange that didn't feel quite right, and he was afraid of what it might do.

            Which was pretty close to the truth. He'd torn down the walls of denial he had been living behind for so long, and in one simple act had contradicted everything he had ever been, or pretended to be, his whole life. Which basically meant he had replaced everything inside for something new, something different that he wasn't quite comfortable with yet. Something that might poke or hurt him in places he couldn't quite feel yet. The idea was quite terrifying.

            His thoughts were inturrupted by the sound of laughter, and the sudden appearance of Ben, who wasn't watching where he was going. For some reason he had been running, and now ran full force into Jacob.


            Jacob fell back onto the stairs, which were thankfully covered by thick carpet, and Ben collapsed in a tangle on top of him. Ben, who was still laughing, looked down.

            "Jake! You're awake. Uh... you okay?"

            "Uh... yeah." Jacob was a little dazed.

            Jeremy's voice broke in. "And you want me to leave you two alone together. Tsk, tsk, tsk."

            Jacob looked up and around Ben to see Jeremy smiling down at them. "Uh... hey, G... uh, this isn't... I mean, I..."

            "Oh, just go with it," Ben said in a loud whisper. Kissing the air just above Jacob's face, he pulled himself up and straightened his clothes. "It's all Germs' fault, anyway."

            "What?" Jeremy asked.

            "Well, you chased me here. If Jacob becomes overwhelmed by this rather sexual experience and seduces me when you turn your back, it won't be my fault, now will it?"

            "You little..."

            But Ben was already running up the stairs. Jeremy was about to chase him when he looked down at Jacob, still on the stairs.

            "So... Grasshopper." Jeremy offered his hand and helped Jacob stand. "Nothing broken I hope. You okay? How'd you sleep?"

            "Okay." Jacob smiled what he hoped was a convincing smile.

            At any other time Jeremy might have noticed. But at this point, Jeremy was focused only on Ben. Satisfied that Jacob was okay, he made his way up the stairs.

            Not that Jacob couldn't take care of himself. He'd visited enough times to feel at home serving himself to whatever he needed. Heading for the kitchen, he heard the phone start ringing. Once. Twice. Three times. Jacob knew Jeremy had an extention in his room, so he could answer it, but he didn't. He was probably letting the answering machine take it. Four times. Five times. By now Jacob had reached the kitchen, but the phone was still ringing. Maybe the machine was off.

            "Jeremy! Jeremy, phone!" Jacob called.

            There was no reply from Jeremy, and the phone kept ringing.

            Jacob had answered Jeremy's phone before while he visited, so it was no big deal if he did it now. But right now he really didn't feel like it. He didn't want to deal with anyone.

            After a few more rings the phone stopped ringing.

            Finding a bowl he poured himself a bowl of cereal and sat down at the table. Glancing a the clock he noticed it was well after eleven, and the late morning sunshine streamed through the windows. The newspaper lay on the table, completely dissected. Finding the comics, he set to reading them.

            The phone started ringing again. Again, Jacob tried to ignore it, thinking Jeremy would answer it. He didn't, and Jacob found himself automatically counting the rings. It rang eleven times before it stopped. Then, after a minute it started ringing again. Jacob couldn't relax, he was automatically counting the rings again. Four. Five. Six. Finally, Jacob stood up and picked up the extention on the kitchen wall.


            "Who is this?" The voice on the other end was harsh and obviously irritated.

            "Who's this?"

            "I asked first."

            "But you called here."

            "Look, is Jeremy there? I've been trying to reach him."

            "Um... he's not answering the phone."


            "I don't know."

            A frustrated sigh, then, "Okay, fine. Who is this?"

            "Jacob," he answered automatically, before he realized he still didn't know who was talking.

            "Well, Jacob, this is Trent. Tell Jeremy I'll let him off the hook if he makes sure he's here by three o'clock Monday. If not, he can find another producer, okay?"

            "Off the hook?"

            "Yes. For not coming today."

           "He was supposed to..."

           "And tell him we had a deal that he would help with the DVD, and I'm still pissed at him. And tell him to answer the fucking phone himself next time." Then there was a click, and the phone went dead. Jacob stared at the phone for a moment before hanging it back up.

            "Who was it?"

            Jacob jumped a little at the voice, and turned to see Ben leaning into the kitchen. "Uh... Trent. He called to say he's still pissed."

            Ben laughed, and looked behind him before coming into the room. Apparently he and Jeremy were still playing around. "Yeah, Trent'll be pissed at Jeremy for a while."

            "This is Trent, Jeremy's boss?"

            "Yeah. Jeremy got chewed up and spit out by him this morning." Ben sat down at the table and, pulling the comics away from Jacob, started to read them.

            "Why?" Jacob sat down beside him.

            "'cause Jeremy's not going to New Orleans today."

           "Was he supposed to?"


           "What for?"

            "Stuff... did he say anything else?"

            "Well, he said if Jeremy's not there Monday he can find another producer."

            "Oh. Okay."

           Jacob stared at Ben. "Isn't that anything to get worried about?"

           "Nope. Jeremy and Trent argue all the time." Ben looked up from the comics. "You okay? Trent didn't yell at you, did he?"

            "No, I'm fine, why?"

            "Hmmm... You look a little strange today, that's all."

           "Just a little tired."

           "Oh, yeah. I heard you came out for the first time last night."


            "Pretty rough?"


            "But you're doing better?"


            "Cool. And I hear you have a crush on Ashley."


            "So talkative." Ben grinned. "You could say more than yeah, you know."

            Jacob smiled, a more genuine smile this time. "Okay, yeah I have a crush on Ashley."

            "Repeating my question as a statement." Ben shook his head. "How juvinile. Okay, fine. If you're going to be like that..."

            "What do you want me to say?"

            "What do I want? Details. How thick, how long, how low it hangs... and don't blush, I know you guys live in the same house."

           Jacob was blushing, he couldn't help it. "Yeah, but I don't actually look."

           "Yes, you do. Even straight boys look."

            "Well... I don't."

           "You don't look? Then how will you know what you're gonna get when you get laid?"

            "Getting laid?"

           "Isn't that the goal of every infatuation?"


           "So you don't want to have sex with him?"

            "What? No... I mean yes... I mean..." Jacob was blushing full strength now. "It's not as if... I mean... You make it sound like a sure thing."

            "Oh, definitely." Ben winked at Jacob. "But I get exclusive movie rights to the details of that event."

            Jacob found himself laughing. "Yeah, okay, whatever, man."

            "So... do you think you have a chance?"

            Jacob hesitated, his smile quickly fading. Did he have a chance? It was something he was almost afraid to think about. He knew Jeremy's logic, and accepted it, but he also remembered Ben's words that he overheard last night. He remembered that Ben himself thought Jacob had a chance. He wanted to hear more about that, so instead of answering, he asked, "Do you think I have a chance?"

            "Oooh. Loaded question." Ben stared at the table, thinking, as he absently folded down the corners of the newspaper. "I do think you're very attractive. And if I was Ashley, I'd be all over you every time the lights were out. But then again, I'm gay, and think you're very attractive. If I was a straight boy... another question entirely."

            Jacob was startled, his original question forgotten. "You... you think I'm attractive?"

            "Oh, yeah. Jeremy and me both think you're gorgeous. We joke about having you over for a threesome all the time." Ben smiled at that.

            "A... what?"

            "Threesome. You know, the three of us... naked... having sex..." Ben, still smiling, didn't look up from the comics, as if this were a normal conversation.

            Jacob was speechless. He had always known Jeremy and Ben were gay, and smiled when they talked about cute guys all the time, but they'd never talked seriously about finding him attractive. Jeremy occasionally would say something about it, assuring him that girls would find him cute. But Jeremy never said out loud, "I find you attractive." And now, with Ben talking about threesomes...

           He found himself staring at Ben. Ben was shorter and a couple years younger than Jeremy, with creamy white skin and dark brown hair. He had an impish face with lightly visible freckles, and bright blue eyes. Although in public he and Jeremy liked to joke around and pretend to be stereotypically effeminate and dramatic, normally Ben was very shy and quiet, especially when without Jeremy. But in the house, he was somewhere in between; a confident, snickering young man who appeared to be having way too much fun in his life. Not that he could be blamed for it. Jeremy's lifestyle allowed Ben to do whatever he wanted with no worries about money, clothing, or even public opinion.

            Jacob had always thought Ben was cute, but since he had been in denial and Ben was with Jeremy, there had been less than no chance at having him. But now that he was out, it was as if he had been blind all his life and was just granted sight. In spite of knowing he was already taken, Jacob couldn't stop staring. He found himself noticing how smooth Ben's skin was. He noticed how his hair went from dark brown to a gold color in the sun. How his eyes seemed to reflect the light...

            Ben looked up quickly, and caught Jacob's gaze. Instantly all bravado and confidence left. He started to blush and turned away, pretending to look around the room. "What're you staring at?"

            "N-nothing..." Jacob looked down at his cereal. "Uh... what're you shy about all of a sudden?" he asked, trying to sound casual.

            "Shy? I'm never shy!" Ben smiled, but seemed suddenly nervous. "You know what, though? I'm going to go find Jeremy and give him the message, okay?" With that he jumped up and left the room.

            In the hallway he found Jeremy standing at the bottom of the stairs.

            "Ah-hah!" Jeremy pointed at him. "Found you..."

            Ben was a bit surprised, then remembered their game. "Oh... no, Jeremy. I've got to talk to you."

            "Hmmm... something tells me I'm going to hate hearing those words. Is it about whoever called?"

            "Oh, yeah. Trent called. He said to get your ass down by Monday or he's firing himself."

            "Firing himself? Gee sounds serious. I guess I should get down there... But that's not what you wanted to talk about, is it?"

            "No." Ben stepped past Jeremy and started going up the stairs. "Let's talk upstairs."

            "Oooh. You sure you want to talk?" Jeremy grinned, but a look from Ben stilled his joking. "Okay, fine." He followed Ben up to the bedroom they shared and sat down on the bed. Ben carefully closed the door behind him.

           "Okay, Benji, what's up?"

           Ben seemed almost embarassed. "It's about Jacob."

           "What about him?"

            "I think he needs some guidance."

            "Wow. You came up with that conclusion all on your own?" Jeremy lay back on the bed. "He's young, just came out, and has to deal with a life that won't let him be honest. Guidance? No, the kid needs a new fucking life."

            "That's not what I mean." Ben lay beside him, propped up on his elbow to look at Jeremy. "Can you remember what it was like when you first came out to the world?"

            Jeremy pretended to grip his head in pain. "Oooh, ancient history. I'm not sure if I can remember..."

            "Seriously, Jeremy."

            Instantly Jeremy dropped his hands. "Okay, what do you mean, then?"

            "I mean... Okay, the kid's going to be confused. I remember how I was... and Jacob's gonna have at least a couple of years' worth of unreleased sexual energy wrapped up in a tight ball somewhere between his legs. I remember what it was like to be in denial for so long and then finally admit it. All I could think about for weeks was how many guys I could have sex with."

           "Yeah, but that was you. This is Jacob. I doubt he'll be thinking about sex right away."

            "That's because you have this stupid idealistic attitude about everything. Jeremy, Jacob's human, he's gonna think about these things."

            "Okay, fine. He'll be thinking about it. So what?" Jeremy turned his head to look at Ben. "He has to learn how to deal with these things eventually, might as well be now. After all, wherever he is right now is better than he was, when he was denying himself. That's good, right?"

            "That depends. Some people don't handle it very well. So I say he could use some guidance, if only because he's never going to be allowed the weeks and months of experimentation and exploration that I had. Your little grasshopper is a great guy, Jeremy. He's like a brother to me. But you need to talk to him, let him know what he's feeling is okay. Give him some comfort, because he's never going to have the kind of life that will make him happy. This kind of thing, especially in the position he's in, can fuck a guy up forever."

            Jeremy sighed. "You're right, of course." He stared at the ceiling. "But what am I supposed to tell him? `I know you'll be having certain feelings, growing hair in weird places...'"

            "I don't know."

            "It's not like there's a `Now that you're out but need to stay in' handbook by Dr. Liberace."


           "The kid's in a business where, no matter how it fucks him up, he needs to be straight for the camera. How in the bloody blue hell is he going to find an outlet for sexual tension? And don't tell me his right hand." Jeremy took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes, as he always did when he hit a mental wall.

           "I wasn't going to say that."

           "I know. I'm just frustrated."

           Ben thought for a moment, then spoke, hesitantly. "You know... we're his friends and all... and we won't tell anyone if we... you know..."

           "The `you know' that I think you mean?" When Ben nodded, Jeremy almost laughed. "Oh, my god! With Jacob?"

           "Oh, come on. We joke about it all the time."

           "Yeah, but I never thought... I mean... do you really want to?"


           Jeremy grinned at him. "You do, don't you?"

           Ben looked at Jeremy coyly. "Do you?"

           "Ah-hah! I knew it!"

            "Oh, you want to, too. And you know it."

             "Yeah... but right now we need to think about what's best for Jacob. The kid needs something more than a wild orgy right now." He studied Ben's face for a moment. "What brought that up, out of curiosity?"

            Ben blushed. "Well... I saw him staring at me this morning."

            "Oooh. Staring."

            "In that way."

            "In that that way?"


            Jeremy couldn't resist. "Do you blame him?"

            "Of course not."

            "Oh, hush, it's just the post-closet passion."

            Ben pretended to pout for a moment, then said, "Okay, fine, then. We can't have him... but couldn't he just try going to a gay bar or something? I mean, without telling anyone?"

            Jeremy shook his head. "No, too risky. And not just from the fans and the media. I think if Lou ever found out he'd string Jacob up by his balls."

            "Oh, come on, Lou's a nice guy."

            "You only think so because you've only ever talked to him at parties." Jeremy put his glasses back on. "But even if Lou didn't care, he's got the rest of the world that's going to watch him. Well... not yet. Maybe. If he's lucky, and let's assume he is, his band is going to make it big. The whole world will be watching him. It would be kinda hard to go to Unity and pick up a guy."

            Ben thought about it, then said, softly, "Not necessarily."

            "What do you mean? Could you imagine? The Backstreet Boys can't even go to the mall or the gas station without being hounded. What makes you think..."

            "Like you said, if he gets lucky, he'll be that popular. But for now?" Ben looked at him meaningfully.

            Jeremy thought about it, too. Then understood. "Oooh... for now no one knows who the hell he is. So he can... and we could... oooh. I like it. Not as much as the threesome idea, but I like it." His smile faded. "But don't you think it's a little early to be thinking stuff like this? After all, he just came out last night. I really don't think..."

             "Jeremy... he hasn't got a lot of time to figure things out. If he's going to do anything, he should do it now. And who knows? Maybe he'll even find someone and fall in love."

            "Hah! Yeah, right. He'll find a quick bang, sow some wild oats, then settle into the monotony of masturbation. That's the way of things, you know. Especially on the club scene."

            "Well, you never know. You met me on the club scene."

            "Yes, and look where I ended up."

            Ben just smiled and gently kissed Jeremy on the forehead. "So you'll talk to him?"

            Jeremy pulled Ben's face to his and kissed him on the lips. "Yeah... but do I have to do it now?"

            Instead of saying anything, Ben just kissed Jeremy again.



           Jacob looked up as Jeremy came into the kitchen. "Hey, G. What's up?"

            "Caught Ben."

            "Sounds so challenging when in the same house."

           "Mee-ow.. Someone's determined to stay on top this morning." Jeremy grinned and crossed the room. Seeing Jacob eating, he said, "I swear, we need to find friends who don't like our favorite cereal so we won't run out of it so fast."

            Jacob shrugged. "And I should find more friends in the states, or a country where they don't sell milk in little plastic bags."

            "It's less wasteful," Jeremy said sagely. "You Americans think you're all invulnerable with your big fancy cars, fast computers, circumcised dicks..."

            Jacob rolled up a section of newspaper and slapped Jeremy lightly with it. "Watch it. You were an American too, once."

            "Yeah... thank God that's over." Jeremy laughed, knowing on some shallow level it would get to Jacob.

            But Jacob just smiled and kept eating.

            "How you feeling today, Grasshopper?"

            "Okay, I guess."

            "Sleep well?"

            "Why is everyone asking if I'm alright?"

            "Because we're concerned. We... we got the news." Jeremy pretended to blink away tears. "Ben... is unable to bear children. So you're our substitute. Please don't take offense. It's so important for Ben to be a mother, the news just crushed him..."

            Jacob lowered his head, trying not to laugh through a mouthful of cereal. "Stop! I'm eating."

            "Well, it's true." Jeremy sat down beside Jacob and crossed his legs. "And it's all his fault, because I know my sperm is just fine..."


            "What?" Jeremy looked at Jacob innocently. "I'm not sterile, I just thought you should know..."

            "Not while I'm eating, please!" Jacob picked up the newspaper again and lightly whacked Jeremy on the head.

            "Abuse! Oooh... I feel the head trauma!" Jeremy lowered his head onto the table. "And it wasn't even Ben this time! Aaack!"

            Jacob gave up and started eating again. Jeremy went through entire blocks of time where he couldn't be serious to save his life, which often made it aggrevating to be around him. Like Ben said, Jeremy often acted his shoe size, and was proud of all thirteen inches.

            The phone started ringing again, but Jeremy didn't move his position, with his forehead pressed against the table surface. After three rings it stopped.

            "Aren't you answering your phone today?"

            "Ben got it."

            "Yeah, but it rang earlier. You're not answering it?"

            "Nope." Jeremy didn't raise his head, so his voice was muffled by the table.

            "Why not?"

            "Because my boss is mad at me, and I know he'll call ten times today just to keep yelling at me." Jeremy turned his head a little to look at Jacob, but kept his face pressed against the table. "Why, expecting a call?"


            "Good. 'cause I need to talk to you."

            Jacob felt a thrill of fear up his spine at those words. "Why?"

            "Oh, nothing too serious." Jeremy sat up. "It's just customary to evaluate my customers the day after a major purchase. Are you satisfied with your product? Do you understand the warranty? Would you like a free calander or fries with that?" Smiling weakly, Jeremy leaned forward. "I'm sorry. I'm probably freaking you out."

            "No, not really."

            "How disappointing. But seriously, I do need to talk to you." Jeremy sighed. He had no idea how to do this. Most guys who came out to him were eager to go out and experiment or had already started. He'd never encountered anyone in Jacob's situation, and he wasn't sure what to do. Or even if he should do anything. Skirting the main issue a little while longer, he said, "Incidentally, I do need to leave tomorrow. Well, actually, no I don't, but I would like to. I need to be in Louisiana by Monday. So... is it alright if I drive you back to Toronto tomorrow?"

            "You're driving me?"


            "Tomorrow's fine, sure."


            Jacob nodded and kept eating. He was hoping that was all Jeremy wanted to talk to him about. He felt so... guilty. As if he'd betrayed Jeremy's friendship with him by staring at Ben for those few seconds. Here he was, coming to Jeremy's house as a friend, talking about Ashley, and then he starts staring at Jeremy's boyfriend...

            Jeremy, on the other hand, was nervous as hell. He didn't really want to confront Jacob about staring at Ben. He knew he should, if only to let him know it was okay. He remembered how guilty he felt looking at his friends when he was younger, and how dirty he felt aftewards. He wanted to let Jacob know what he was feeling was okay, but he also knew that the first few seconds after being confronted were the hardest. If Jacob felt like Jeremy was condemning him, his ears would be closed to whatever else he had to say.

            Choosing his words carefully, he said, "So anyway, Ben and I were talking about you."

            Jacob felt his heart leap up to his throat at those words, but he forced himself to stay calm. "Yeah?"

            "Yeah. You know he thinks you're cute."

            "He... he mentioned that." Jacob didn't like where this was heading. Pretending to be casual, he asked, "So you told him about me?" He already knew the answer to that, of course, since he had overheard them talking last night, and Ben had mentioned it already to him. He just wanted to delay what he knew was coming.

            "About last night? Of course. I tell him everything." Jeremy laughed. "He even admired your taste in guys."


            "You know, Ashley?"


            Jeremy took a deep breath. "Jacob..." He noticed Jacob flinch. As gently as he could, he said, "Just out of curiosity... have you ever thought of anyone else? Besides Ashley, I mean."

            "Why, what do you mean?"

            "I mean, you're a young man, with a healthy... uh... imagination. Have you ever thought about anyone else... the way you think about Ashley?"

            "Like who?"

            "Oh, I don't know... anyone from the band... or... anyone else?" Jeremy's skin was just dark enough to hide his blushes, but he could feel his face getting hot. Speaking quickly, and looking at the table, he said, "Because if you did, it's okay. It's natural, it's normal..."

            Jacob felt a little relief. Jeremy wasn't mad. If anything, it sounded like he was more embarassed than Jacob. In fact, he was acting like a father trying to talk to his son about... oh... smiling and, joking a little, he said, "Jeremy... are you trying to give me the gay version of the birds and the bees?"

            Jeremy stared at him for a moment, then laughed. "No, no... well, actually, yes. I was just thinking... Ben and I were talking about how it was when we first came out, and there was a period when we were rather... confused. And for me, I would feel so guilty about thinking about my friends..."

            "Jeremy... I know. It's okay."

            "Oh. Good." Jeremy took a deep breath. "So you understand that thinking about guys who are totally unavailable is normal? After all, look at the gay fan club constantly surrounding Leonardo Dicaprio..."

           "Yes, yes..." Jacob nodded. "I understand all that."

           Jeremy sighed with relief. "Good." Looking up to the kitchen doorway, he called, "You can come in now, Ben."

            Jacob looked up, startled, as Ben came in. "How long have you been standing there?"

            Ben grinned. "Not long." Leaning across the table, he kissed Jeremy. "Hey, Germ."

            "Hey Bird. Who called?"

            "Harry. He's going to New York in a couple of weeks."

            "And he wants us to watch Saucy?"

            "If we can, of course."

            Jeremy grinned. "Well, I don't know... you're the one who's going to need to do it. How do you feel about walking across the street? For a cat?"

            "I keep telling you to install a moving walkway between our houses. It would make things so much easier. But alas, her majesty needs me, so I go." Ben looked at Jacob for a moment, then back at Jeremy. "So, did you talk to him?"


            "Sorta meaning no?"

            "Sorta meaning I didn't get to what you wanted me to talk about."

            Jacob, still startled that Ben had been standing outside the room, listening, inturrupted. "Wait... what are you guys talking about?"

            Ben laughed and walked to the refrigerator. "Jeremy was supposed to talk to you."

            "Well, he did that."

            "But he didn't tell you my idea?"

            "Your idea?" Jacob looked at Jeremy, who promptly picked up the newspaper and started to read, effectively hiding his face. "Idea about what?"

            Ben turned around, a package of hamburger meat in his hand. "Jeremy, you're hopeless, you know that?"

            "Yes," Jeremy said from behind the paper.

            To Jacob, Ben said, "We were talking about you this morning, and decided you needed to get out."

            Cautiously Jacob asked, "Get out as in...?"

            "Get out as in have fun!" Ben tossed the hamburger onto the counter and came back to the table. "You're twenty years old, gay, and I'm willing to bet you haven't ever gone shopping, or gone to a sauna, or even had sex before. Am I right? You're blushing again, so I know I'm right."

            Jeremy laughed from behind the paper. "Careful, Grasshopper. Don't claim you've ever done those things because buying socks at Wal-Mart, swimming at the Y, and wacking off don't count."

            Jacob was blushing again. He seemed to be doing that a lot lately. It had taken him some time to get used to Jeremy and Ben's utter disregard for social stigmas about homosexuality, and even longer to get used to their unending banter. Now, it seemed to be twice as bad, if only because they shared a secret, and neither Jeremy nor Ben seemed likely to give him any mercy.

            "I wasn't..."

            "Oh, you know you were." Ben blew him a kiss. "So anyway, I was figuring we could take you out to some clubs. You know, Unity, Stereo, Mississippi..."

            "But those are gay clubs..." The words were out of Jacob's lips before he even realized what he was saying.

            "Well, yeah... you did say you were gay, didn't you?" Ben smiled sweetly. "Or did you forget already?"

            "No, I..." Jacob tried to organize his thoughts. "I'm gay, but... but I can't be seen in a gay club! I mean... if anyone ever found out..."

            Ben looked over at Jeremy. "Sweetie? Could you take over from here?"


            "Because you're better at this than I am."

           Jeremy lowered the paper. "Gee, flattery. Well, um... okay, fine. Grasshopper..."

           "Talk seriously, Germ."

           Jeremy sighed. "I never get to have any fun... okay, fine. Jacob... We were thinking this morning, Ben and I... well, more Ben than I, but we realized something. Yeah, yeah, Backstreet and N'Sync are so popular, recognized everywhere, and everyone says you'll be just as big. All the promotion and hype going into your marketing says you guys `will become superstars.' But the detail that, quite often, is overlooked because we're all subjective is that the operative word there being become. You guys, no matter how seriously you may take it, aren't superstars yet."

            "Gee, thanks..."

            "Well, hold on. This is a good thing. It means that you can do stuff. No one's watching you right now, so you can go out and have fun. Sow your wild oats, if you will. Kinda like Erik does, except without the whole bragging part."

            "Wait... let me get this straight. You think I should go to a gay bar and start picking up guys?"

            "Pretty much, yeah. Ben and I would take you out to some places, if you like."

            Jacob couldn't believe his ears. "So what are you saying? I should become a slut?"

            "Oh, no, no, no." Jeremy laughed lightly and shook his head. "Apparently I'm not being very clear at all. Um... okay, check it out. Lou Pearlman, your boss and self-appointed god for the next ten years. He's a nice guy, smiling and being the whole jolly fat man, but he's in it for the money. Do we agree on that?"

            "Yes," Jacob replied without hesitation.

            "Okay. What makes money? Hmmm... let me think. Screaming girls make money. Specifically, screaming girls with sighing and exhausted parents who reach deep into their pockets to keep these girls from screaming in their ears. What does this mean? This means there are people paying thirty bucks for a t-shirt and twenty for a CD. Give or take a few bucks depending on the current exchange rate. Right?"


            "Now, take away the screaming girls, and you've got considerably less money. And if you're gay, that will keep a lot of girls away. Not all of them... God only knows how many girls have been after me since I came out, but certainly a lot of them. This will mean a drop in the green rectangular barter slips we so maliciously covet. Lou won't like that. So what Lou's gonna do is make sure the screaming girls keep coming back, which means that all these screaming girls are going to be made to think you're, somehow, somewhere, in their wildest most distant dreams, one day going to come and sweep them off their feet."

            Jacob rolled his eyes. "Yeah, okay. But all this sounds like an argument for me not to go to a gay bar and stuff."

            "Well, that's true. After all, you're the reason the screaming girls come to the concerts. You're the reason they watched the show. Well, you're one of the reasons. You're hot, kid, but hey, Trevor?" Jeremy lifted his eyebrows suggestively. "Anyway, you've been told a hundred times, you never tell anyone you've got a girlfriend. Why? So these screaming girls will keep coming back. So they'll believe that they might actually be your girlfriend, or even the future Mrs. Jacob Underwood... so no girlfriend for you. And sure as hell no boyfriend."

            "I'm not following..."

            "Let me finish. You can't tell anyone you're gay. If you can't tell anyone you're gay, you have to look straight. And if you look straight, supposedly you'll become popular. That's where the problem comes in. If you become popular?" Jeremy shrugged. "Then, I'm sorry, kid, but you're never going to get a chance to get some action. Now is the time, before all that happens."

            Jacob bit back his protests and thought it through. Jeremy often had a convoluted way of saying things, but in the end he was usually right. And this was no exception. Now would be the time for the guiltless one-night-stands and cruising. But a large part of him was still hung up on... "What about Ashley?"

            Across the room, Ben looked up sharply. Jeremy didn't notice, and shook his head, startled. "What? Didn't we discuss this last night? This is a rather interesting non sequitor..."

            Ben came up to the table and inturrupted. "No, actually it's quite relevant, especially if I think he means what I think he means. So, what do you mean, Jacob? What about Ashley?"

            "Well... I'm still kinda hung up on him."

            Ben looked at Jeremy, who seemed about to say something. But looking up at Ben, a moment of silent communication passed between them, and he sighed and nodded. "Okay. Well, I understand, believe me. I've been in the same situation a few times. I know how that feels, so I won't try to push you into the club scene if you're thinking about another guy. Trust me, that could get real ugly. After all, that's what I did, and look who I ended up with." Jeremy said, pulling Ben closer to him.

            Ben giggled. "You really are a bitch, you know that?"

            "Me? Bitch? Well, at least I wasn't picked up on your rebound."

            "You do know that was planned, right? Did you really think I could land a rich boyfriend otherwise?" Ben managed to say it with a straight face, even as Jeremy pushed him away, laughing. "Besides, you're one to talk about straight-boy obsession. You could teach a class on that." Turning to Jacob, he said, "Jeremy fell in love with every straight boy in his life, so don't let him tell you to get over it so fast. If you ask my advice, I'd say don't even try going to any clubs yet. If you're anything like Jeremy was -- and let's hope you're not, for your sake -- even if the cutest guy in the world walked through here naked, you wouldn't go for him. Not while you believe there's a chance with Ashley."

            Jacob smiled, but uncertainly. He was waiting for the other shoe to drop. "So it's cool?"

            "Yeah, it's cool." Jeremy picked up the paper again. "We're your friends, not your parents, after all. You're a big boy, you know what you want. But if you ever decide to take us up on our offer, let us know. We'll take you out, introduce you to everyone..."

             "Thanks," Jacob said, and turned back to his cereal. But before he could take another bite, Ben called to him.

            "Oh, Jacob?"


            "Could you do me a huge favor? Could you get the carrots out of the fridge?"

            Jacob got up to do it, and found himself drawn, as simply as that, into preparing lunch. Jeremy and Ben took turns preparing meals, and today was Ben's turn. By the time they were done and Jacob returned to the counter, his cereal was all soggy. Ben laughed at the sad expression on his face.

            "It's cereal, Jake. Not a pet dog."

            "But I wanted that cereal."

           Ben wrapped his arms around Jacob's shoulders. Jacob instantly stiffened. Ben and Jeremy used to do that all the time and he didn't care. Today, he was unsure how to react, but Ben just pulled him close and in a loud whisper right next to his ear, said, "If I was the vengeful type, I might be offended that you prefer cold cereal to my cooking."

           Jacob smiled, an uncertain, strained smile. He was hyper aware of Ben's touch, and could smell the subtle scent of soap, he could feel Ben's breath at the back of his neck, his body pressed against his back... then he was gone, and he was left standing alone.

            "Careful, Jacob," Jeremy called jokingly. "I might have to get jealous of you."

            "Yeah..." Once again, Jacob found himself confused and unsure of how to handle it. He realized he was still standing in the middle of the kitchen, awkward and uncomfortable, so he sat back down in front of his cereal and started to pick at it.

           "Oh, don't eat that." Almost motherly, Ben took the bowl away and emptied it in the trash. "And speaking of pet dogs, I still say we need a dog or something to feed table scraps... this is just wasteful."

           Jeremy hadn't looked up from reading the paper during all the time they had been making lunch around him, and didn't do so now. "I keep telling you that."

           "But you want a huge fucking wolf."

           "I want a dog! Not some guinea pig whose bark breaks windows in cars a block away."

           Ben threw up his arms and looked at Jacob. "You see what I have to deal with?"

           Jeremy dropped the paper and grabbed at Ben as he passed, pulling him down into his lap. "Forgive me?" He asked.

           Ben pretended to be mad. "No, I'm not talking to you."

           Jeremy kissed him behind his ear. "Please?"

            "Mmm... no."

           Jeremy kissed him on his neck. "Please?"


           Jeremy reached around and kissed his cheek. "I'll take you shopping."

           Jacob had to laugh as Ben turned, kissed Jeremy on the lips, and said, "Forgiven!" Turning to Jacob, he said, "Don't laugh yet. You're coming with us. If we can't take you to clubs, you're at least going to come with us and let me shop for you. We can go to Old Montreal after, walk along the water, scare small children, and be envious of dogs that have been neutered." Slinging his arm around Jeremy's neck, he said, "You've got another twenty-four hours as a gay kid out of the closet who doesn't need to worry about anything. Might as well spend it with style."



            "Hey, Dan?"

            "Jacob! Where are you?"

            "I'm with Jeremy."

            "No, are you still in Montreal?"

            "Oh. No, we're in Toronto. Which Crowne Plaza are we at, again?"

            "The one by the Toronto Centre."

            "Oh, right." Jacob said something to Jeremy, then came back. "So, what's up?"

            "What's up? What do you mean `What's up?' We've been worried about you... Why didn't you call?"

            "Oh, uh... I was kinda busy."

            "Doing what?"

            Jacob sighed. "It's a personal matter, Dan."

            Dan bit his lip, unsure if he should press the matter. Jacob was one of the people who had to learn the hard way how to be opened with the band, and there were even times when he told them to hit him over the head if he ever tried to keep things from them. But Dan had also been brought up to respect other people's privacy, so he said, "Okay. But Jay's pissed at you."

            "I thought you took care of that."

            "I did, I told him you were going. He's just pissed that, not only did you not call, but you also didn't tell us when you were coming back."

            "I told you..."

            "Yeah, I know you told me you would be back in time for the Much thing. But Jay... you know Jay."


            "So just be prepared for that."

            "Okay... speaking of being prepared, where am I staying?"

            "What do you mean?"

            "Tonight. We're in town for another night, right? Which room am I in?"

            "You don't have one. We just got two rooms, and you're sleeping on a cot in either our room or Trev's."

            "Who're you with?"


            "Oh... um... I think I'll stay with Trev and Erik tonight."

            "Okay, no problem, I'll let them know. So how was your weekend? Did you have fun?"

            "Oh, yeah. Ben took me shopping. I swear, I've got more clothes now than I did my whole life."

            Dan laughed. "Well, that's Ben for you, I guess."

            "No, you don't understand. He took me shopping. No forced trip to the mall with your mother can compare to a young gay man with a credit card and a rich boyfriend. I mean, my god, we visited every shop in Montreal, and probably discovered a few more that no one has ever been to before and bought everything from all of them!"

            Still laughing, Dan asked, "Why'd he do that? It's a little early for Christmas, isn't it?"

            "Oh, uh... yeah, well, he was just in the mood, I guess." Jacob seemed suddenly nervous. "So, how are things there? Did everything fall apart as soon as I left, as I knew it would?"

            "Well, not really. Erik went out last night and didn't come back until about nine this morning. We really need to talk with him about stuff like that. Um... Marc's going to be back next week, so Jay's happy about that. We have a photo shoot scheduled on Wednesday for the photos on the single... um... and... oh, Shelli broke up with Ashley again. He's pretty upset about that."

            "Oh... really? Is he okay?"

            "He'll be fine. This isn't the first time, after all. I'm a little worried he's thinking about leaving the band, though. A guy can only take so many broken hearts over the same girl, when all she's asking is that he give up the band."

            "Yeah, just give up his hopes, his dreams, his life-long desire..."

            "Well, when you're in love, that's the small shit. At this point, I'm not sure if he'd mind giving all that up if Shelli took him back."

            Jacob was silent for a minute. "So he's taking it pretty hard?"

            "No harder than usual."

            "Do you... do you think he'd let me talk to him?"

            "You can try. He's not really talking to anyone right now. Even the camera guys... oh, shit that reminds me. Did I hear you say that Jeremy's with you?"

            "Yeah, he's the one driving me back."

            "Well, let him know he can't come up for a while. The camera guys are here, and Jay..."

            "Yeah, yeah, I know. Okay, I'll tell him. We'll be there in a few minutes, cool?"

            "Cool, man. Later."


The camera swung up from where it had been focused on Ashley, sitting up in his bed, staring blankly at the television. He'd been in the same position all day, and was rather uncommunicative when anyone tried to talk to him. The cameras had left him for a while, but had come back when word arrived that Jacob was coming back.

            The door opened and Jacob came in, his backpack still on his shoulder. He didn't even spare a glance at the cameras, and just dropped his bag by the door, kneeling by the bed.

            "Ash? Hey, Ash, you okay?"

            Ashley had obviously been crying, his eyes still red, and he barely turned to look at Jacob's voice. "Jake," he said hoarsly. "You're back."

            "Yeah, we just got in. How're you doing, man?"

            "Shelli broke up with me."

            "How'd that happen? I thought she was going to talk to you over Thanksgiving break, and you guys might work things out..."

            "She met someone else." Ashley's voice was soft and shook ever so slightly. "She said it was hard to stay in love with someone you can't see every day, and that there are a lot of guys who..." a tear escaped and slowly fell down his face.

            "Oh, Ash... I'm so sorry..." Jacob hesitantly reached out and put his hand on Ashley's arm. "That's not right for her to do. That's just mean... to put you through this."

           Ashley took a deep breath. "She's asking me to leave the band."

           "But she always asks that."

            "Yeah, I know." Ashley stared blankly at the television again.

            "You're not seriously considering leaving the band, are you?"

            Ashley sighed. "No, no... I just don't think I can handle her leaving me, that's all..."

            Softly, obviously nervous, Jacob asked,"Do you... I mean, don't you think that might be for the best? I mean, this is a girl who put you through hell, man. She keeps dangling you on a string, pulling you closer one day, pushing you away the next... maybe it's for the best that she broke things off. Maybe you should just make this time final."

            Ashley turned and stared at Jacob. "What the hell are you talking about?" His emotions suddenly flip-flopped from sad to angry. "What the hell do you know about stuff like this? It's not as if you've ever been in love. Sure, let go, move on, that's so easy for you to say when you've never been in a relationship before."

            The camera moved up and started to zoom in on Jacob's face. It had gone from sympathetic and concerned to shocked and even a little afraid.

            "What right do you have to tell me I should let go?" Ashley continued. "You have no fucking clue what it's like to love someone. The whole time we've known each other, I've never seen you with a girl. Never. You have no experience with this. So don't tell me I should let go, when you can't even say what it feels like to loose someone..." Ashley's anger quickly gave in to his pain, and his voice abruptly gave up on him, leaving him to cry helplessly, hiding his face with his hands.

            Jacob was stunned into silence, and could only stare at Ashley crying for a moment before he recovered. Very hesitantly, his hand still on Ashley's arm, he almost whispered, "I do know."

            Ashley took a deep breath and rubbed his eyes hard. "What do you mean?"

            "I mean I know. How it feels." Jacob bit his lower lip, lost in thought for a moment. "I know how it feels to love someone you can't have, to have to deal with the sense of loss. How it feels to need that person even more as they become more unavailable." Jacob looked at Ashley. "I know how it feels to feel so close to someone, to believe a future together might be possible, and then to have that taken away. I know it hurts."

            The camera focused on Ashley's face, his eyes red and wet, as he looked up. Jacob smiled sympatheticaly, and gently rubbed Ashley's arm. Ashley reacted by reaching out and puling Jacob into an embrace, and started crying against Jacob's shoulder. The camera then looked to Jacob, who had an expression of surprise and discomfort on his face, and focused on the fact that he took a moment before he reached his arms up and hugged Ashley back.


Dan and Trevor found Jeremy where he had parked his large Cadillac convertible a bit further down the street. The top was down, and he was sitting cross-legged on the trunk smoking a cigarette, the stereo blasting behind him.

            "Hey, G!"

            Jeremy looked up, blowing smoke from his nose. "Well, well. If it isn't Brother Daniel, and Mr. T. What's up, dudes?"

            "Hey, man... I want to apologize for this," Dan said as he pulled himself up onto the trunk to sit next to Jeremy. "If it was up to us, we wouldn't mind you hanging out all the time. But Jay's just following Lou's orders..."

            "What're you talking about?"

            "You know. The whole camera thing." Dan smiled uncertainly. He was always nervous when talking to Jeremy about stuff like this. Jeremy was one of the best friends the band had outside their normal entourage, and Dan was always afraid of loosing him. Even though Jeremy publicly denounced boy-bands, he honestly admired their talent, and didn't hesitate to help them out. Unlike some of the other producers and song mixers O-town had worked with, Jeremy spent time with them on a personal level, treating them like regular people instead of "soon-to-be-superstars." When they met in L. A. to record, he would take them out after their studio session. He seemed to know every place to hang out, from the fanciest restaurants to the cheapest video arcade. Since he was only a couple of years older than they were, it was like having a normal life for a while.

           But because Jeremy worked primarily with bands like Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson, Lou was very strict that no one ever talk about his involvement. He claimed they needed to project a wholesome, family-friendly image. In private, they all had asked Jeremy if the real reason was because he was openly gay, to which Jeremy smiled and answered, "The Backstreet Boys are currently under the same management as Korn. Everyone knows. No one really seems to care. Yet a programmer for Trent Reznor has to go unmentioned? Go figure."

            So Dan felt obligated to apologize every time Jeremy was asked to stand outside or wait in the hallway while any cameras or members of the press were around. Jeremy, of course, always took it all in stride.

           "Don't worry about it." Jeremy reached behind him and turned the music down. "You guys keep thinking I mind being excluded from your little documentary filming thingies. I really don't. In fact, I rather enjoy it. Now there's no corroborating evidence to support my wild claims that I know you."

            Trevor laughed. "Cute, man. Really." He pulled himself up to sit on the other side of the trunk. "So didn't Ben come with you?"

            "Nah. He's home packing for our trip to New Orleans."

            "Working on Trent's new album?"

            "Tour footage, actually." Jeremy took out his pack of cigarettes and offered it to them. They both refused. "That and he hasn't yet sent me a copy of his new remix album. So I'm going to bug him for it. In a month it'll actually be out in stores, and owning it won't seem so special anymore." Jeremy grinned at them. "Speaking of which, I haven't got a copy of you guys' first single. Should I feel offended or shunned?"

            "You didn't get the disc? It's in the mail, man," Dan said with a smirk.

            "Funny, kid. Really funny. Are all people from the states so funny?"

            "No, just fans of the Drew Carey show."

            Jeremy laughed. "Okay, fine, so you have good taste. Still, no excuse for forgetting to send me a copy of the single. Which, I have no doubt, will be stunningly lacking in my handiwork."

            "Well..." Dan looked away. "Lou said..."

            "That it wasn't the sound he was looking for. It's okay. Just forget it, man. It's okay."

            "But you worked so hard..."

            "No, you worked so hard. I'm not in the band, you guys are. It would be exceedingly unfair to hold up the release of your first single just because you didn't use my version. I'm not going to be that petty."

            Dan shook his head. "You're too nice, man. If I were you, I would be pissed..."

            "Yes, but then if I were you I'd forget this girl back home and spend all my time in front of the mirror wackin' off ..." Jeremy grinned as Dan blushed.

            "Hey, G?" Trevor interrupted, much to Dan's relief. "Not meaning to change the subject or anything -- after all, loving Dan's my favorite subject too," he grinned at Dan, "but I was just wondering... did Jacob give you my disc?"

            "Wow. You certainly have an interesting way of not meaning to change the subject." Jeremy thought for a moment. "But disc? As in the small flat round thing that when played can produce music? No." He tossed his cigarette onto the street. "Why, was it important?"

            "He didn't give it to you?" Trevor asked, incredulous. "I don't believe it. He forgot?"

            "Hey, it happens, T. Why, what's up with it?"

            "It had a couple unmixed songs I wanted you to take a look at. I want them to have an aggressive beat to them, and maybe some subtle acoustic guitar, synth or piano. I also wanted Trent to look at a couple of them."

            "Hmm..." Jeremy frowned. "Trent's kinda mad at me right now, and he's really swamped with work. But... if you have another copy of the disc, I can give it to him when I get there tomorrow."


            "Sure. And while I'm at the studio I'll use some of Trent's equipment. Aggressive... as in sixteenth-note bass beats? We can get that and a lot more." Jeremy pushed off from the trunk and stood up. "Do you have it now?"

            "Yeah, man, sure." Trevor jumped up as well. He became noticably more animated now that he was talking about his music. "They don't sound like much right now, but they're just rough recordings. You can tear out everything except the vocals. I like what you said once about the sound of contrasting music manipulated by computers and the voice standing on it's own. And there's this one song I have that I'm really proud of, the second track..."

            "Easy, kid, easy. Start filling my head with propaganda now, and I'll never be able to honestly see what you've got. Let's get the disc first, listen through, and I'll tell you what we've got."

            Trevor, grinning excitedly, slung his arm around Jeremy's shoulders. "G, if you can make this work, and if you can get Trent to work on my songs... man, I will kiss you!"

            "Nah, don't do that." Jeremy smiled slyly and opened the hotel door. "I never kiss straight boys."


When the camera man turned away from the room and started filming the hall, Jay looked up.

            "Oh, shit," he muttered and walked quickly to the three young men walking from the elevators.

            "Jay-man! What's up?" Jeremy grinned.

            "Jeremy... Dan, Trevor. Let's talk." Jay led them around the corner in the hallway. The camera followed, and though a distance was kept, the conversation could still be heard.

            Jay was the band's PR manager, and he hated this part of his job. It was his responsibility to make sure the image of the band remained intact, no matter what, and that included keeping Jeremy out of it. He liked Jeremy, he really did, and appreciated his work with the guys, but he had to be a jerk about it when the cameras were around. He had no choice, really.

            "Jeremy, you know I hate to do this to you, but we've got a situation here. The camera crews are covering it, and right now, we can't have you..."

            "Seen around here, yes, I know." Jeremy nodded. "We weren't going to bother you guys. Trevor just had a disc and he wanted..."

            "Shhh!" Jay quieted Jeremy quickly, and glanced over his shoulder. Camera crews were such a part of their lives these days that he had a sixth sense about them, now. "Whatever Trevor wanted to show you, I'm sure it can wait until later."

            "But, I need to get going today. I have an appointment with..." Jay glared at him. Jeremy smiled and said, "Ahem... I have a business trip that I cannot miss."

            "Fine. But I'm sure a few minutes won't matter." Jay looked at Jeremy meaningfully.

            Jeremy just nodded.

            Jay smiled thinly and turned away, heading back to the room.

            Dan and Trevor stared at Jeremy. Dan found his voice first.

            "How can you let him do that to you?" he asked.

            "Do what? He's protecting you guys. I understand and respect that. It's no big deal."

            "Yeah, but..."

            "Look. I can be a jerk about it and stand up for a stupid cause. But really, what is there to fight for? Getting my face on camera? They block out people's faces, anyway. Hell, they block out brand names on shirts and hats. So it's no big deal." Jeremy glanced up at the camera, which was still focused on them. "Um... Hang on a sec'. I'll be right back." Walking across the hall, he approached the camera man. "Hi, there."

            The camera operator, a young man in his mid-twenties, looked up, startled. "Uh... hi."

            "What's your name?"

            "Uh... Terrance."

            "Terrance. Nice name. You're new here, aren't you?"

            "Uh... yeah."

            "Ah. That explains it then." Jeremy smiled reassuringly and, hooking his arm through Terrance's elbow, turned him around and led him down the hall. "You see, Terrance -- may I call you Terrance? -- Lou Pearlman, the guy who, presumably, signs your paychecks, has an agreement with me. Or rather, I with him. I'm allowed to be friends with the band and hang out with them under the strict condition that I am not seen with them, or have my presence recorded in any promiximity of the band."


            "In other words, you can't film me. If you see me, look the other way. It's that simple."

            "But... why?"

            "Oh, people have asked that question so many times. Why is such a complex question, in spite of it's being one of the shortest. Just three letters, it's amazing. But those three little letters don't matter. What matters are the rules and agreements that have been established before you were employed. So just make sure you follow the rules, okay, old son? Okay. Now be a good boy and go film Erik or something." Jeremy disengaged himself from a now befuddled Terrance and, with a last little push in the direction Jay went, turned back to Dan and Trevor.

            "What was all that about?" Dan asked.

            "Oh, I had to get something straight with the camera guy. I can't be the one avoiding the cameras if they're going to follow me, too."

            Dan shook his head. "You're probably the only person who is granted that privilege. Everyone else we're with is recorded whether they like it or not. But you... Do you know how many people in this business are dying for what you have?"

            "What, privacy? Or forced exclusion? It all amounts to the same thing, bro. So be careful what you wish for." Jeremy smiled slightly, and glanced back down the hall. "Well, it looks like we'll have to put off our impromptu screening for your songs, Trev. It also looks like I'll be hanging out for a while. So... anyone hungry? I know some great places in town."


Ashley stared at himself in the mirror and tried to smile, but it just wasn't working. Every time he smiled it looked like he was trying too hard, and ended up looking either goofy or angry. And when he just relaxed, his face took on a depressing, almost puppy-dog sad look. But at least his eyes weren't red anymore. He'd woken up to find his pillow wet, and he still felt exhausted. He'd gotten out of the shower this morning to find the outfit he wanted to wear today hopelessly wrinkled, and he'd spent way too long trying to get satisfied with another look. And to make things worse, today was their special presentation for Much Music.

            "Hey, Ash. How're you holding up?"

            Ashley looked up, and if he'd been able to see himself he would have noticed that an actual smile, however strained and sad, finally crossed his face. "Hey, Jake."

            Jacob pulled a chair up next to Ashley. They were near the back of the Much Music studio, getting ready for their performance. "Are you sure you can do this?"

            "Yeah, I'm sure. I mean, the show must go on, right?"

            "Hey, man, I'm sure we could work something out if you can't do it. Shit happens, and I'm sure they'll understand..."

            "No. I'll do it. Maybe it'll help me sing better if I have some emotion behind it."

            "Maybe. Just don't let it get out of hand, okay?"

            Ashley nodded. Jacob had hardly left his side since he returned from Montreal, and even though Ashley and Jacob had their rough spots, Ashley felt very comfortable around him. Now, he was virtually the only person he was talking to. For a brief moment this morning Ashley remembered how Jacob would suddenly go through periods of almost avoiding Ashley, being very cold and unfriendly. If he did that now, Ashley wasn't sure if he could handle it...

            "Are you sure you can do this man?" Jacob looked at him in the mirror, very concerned.

            "I can do it." Ashley looked from Jacob to himself in the mirror and said again, as if trying to convince himself, "I can do it."

            "Okay... if you're sure." Jacob layed his hand on Ashley's shoulder. "Let me know if I can do anything to help, okay?"

            "Yes. Thanks, Jake." Again a genuine smile lit up Ashley's face, and again he was looking away from the mirror and didn't realize that he could do for Jacob what he couldn't do for himself or the cameras or the fans. "I really appreciate you... helping me out... staying by me and stuff."

            Jacob just smiled as he got up. "Hey, man, what're friends for?" Squeezing Ashley's shoulder slightly, he said, "I'm going to go find Jeremy. See ya' later?"

            "Yeah, later."

            Jacob walked across the studio to where Erik was talking to Jeremy. Jeremy had decided to stay overnight and say "Hi" to all his friends at the studio and maybe see their first song, then rush out to go back to Montreal. Jacob knew Jeremy wanted to go back to Montreal, but he had stayed because Trevor and Dan had kept him up most of the night talking about ideas for songs and remixes. Then Erik had asked him where some good clubs in Toronto were, and so Jeremy just gave up trying to rush and stayed the night on the floor of Dan and Ashley's room.

            As he approached, he heard Jeremy saying, "So what you're saying is that a man's prowess in bed is no longer judged by the bulge in his pants, but by the height of his hair? Hmm..." Jeremy ran a hand through his hair, which until a few months ago he had kept shaved to the skin. "So Ben's kinda getting the short end of the stick? Figuratively speaking, of course."

            Erik was trying hard to keep his concentration on fixing his hair and not on laughing. But, even though Jeremy's joke was really bad, as always happens when trying not to laugh, it was difficult to avoid. "Jeremy, seriously, stop. This is a very delicate procedure."

            "Yeah. Hair sticking straight up. That's difficult." Jeremy looked up and noticed Jacob standing beside him. "Grasshopper! What's up?" Turning back to Erik, he said, "Now, you see Jacob? His hair doesn't need to stick up, in fact it curls, but I'm sure he's every bit as good in bed as you are."

            "Whoa... there's a mental picture I don't need right now," Erik said with a chuckle. "Jacob having sex? C'mon, man!"

            "Oh, sorry, hon." Jeremy said sweetly, then turned his attention to Jacob. "What's up, dude?"

            "Not much." Jacob smiled at Erik. "Got enough gel there, Erik?"

            "Never, bro, never." Erik smiled as he carefully applied more gel to his hair.

            "Jacob," Jeremy said. "I hate to do this to you, but... I need to be leaving soon. Actually, I need to be leaving now. Do you think you can handle things on your own?"

            "Yeah... you're not staying to see our first song?"

            "Are you kidding?" Jeremy looked around until he spotted Dan. "Hey, Danny boy! What song are you guys doing?"

            "We're doing `Liquid Dreams' and `All for love,'" Dan called back.

            "You see?" Jeremy turned back to Jacob. "I hate those songs. They suck. I mean, honestly, `Liquid Dreams'? Why not just call it, `Fantasy girl who gives me a wet dream' and be done with it? I mean... shit, you even managed to get the word `dominatrix' in there. Now if you were doing `Baby, I would,' or `One heart,' maybe I would stay. And I still want to remix `You bring me under.' Promise me you'll let me do it."

            "I promise."

            "Okay, cool."

           "So there's nothing I can say to make you stay?"

           "Nope. Because I need to get back to Montreal so I can get to New Orleans. If I don't get there today, Trent's gonna chew my ass off. And I don't think you want to be the one to explain to Ben the reason why my ass is all chewed off."

           Jacob laughed. "Okay, man. So you're leaving."

            "Yes." Jeremy looked at him carefully. "By the way... I talked to Ashley. He told me you've been his best friend since you got back."


            "Grasshopper, old son, please please please be careful. I can see it in your eyes, you're falling for him. He's in pain right now, and vulnerable. Please remember to see things as they are, not as you want them. Jacob? Okay?"

            Jacob nodded. "Yeah."

            Jeremy kept looking at him for a little while longer before turning to Erik. "Well, Dr. Love, I'm off. Take care of my little Grasshopper, okay?"

            "Sure thing, man." Erik pulled Jeremy into a hug, made awkward by the fact that Erik still had gel on his hands. "Is it okay if I stop by sometime? We have a break coming up for Thanksgiving, and I might be able to stop by for a weekend or so. We could go clubbing and stuff."

            "Definitely. Definitely, man." Jeremy smiled. "Take care of yourself, too, okay?"


            Jeremy nodded and turned to find Dan standing behind him.

            "You're not staying?" Dan asked.

            "Nope, sorry Danny boy. You know I can't stand `Liquid Dreams.' And not just because it's an incredibly sappy straight-boy song." Jeremy sighed. "It's shit. You know it's shit."

            "Yeah, well... it makes money, and keeps us in a career," Dan said with a shrug.

            "Keep telling yourself that and you might actually believe it one day. Anyway... as long as you guys have fun, I'm cool with it." Jeremy pulled Dan in and hugged him. "E-mail me, okay? You've got, what, another two weeks of touring?"

            "About that. Jay gave you a copy of the single, right?"

            "Yes... and I'm sure it'll be utterly revolting. `Liquid Dreams' and `All for love.' Two incredibly irritating songs, finally on CD."

            Dan still smiled, but was a little put off. Jeremy usually wasn't this bitter about the songs, and he wondered what was wrong. "You okay, G?"

            "Yeah, yeah... I'm just tired, and I've got a lot of work to do. I'm going to California next week, you know."


            "Yeah. Trent and I are scoring a movie."

            "Have I heard of it?"

           "Probably not. But Trent called this morning and gave me the entire workload because he's pissed that Limp Bizkit is going to have a song on the soundtrack as well." Jeremy shook his head. "But what can I do, hey?"

            "I guess. Well, I'll call you sometime. I still want to come by when you finish the studio at your place."

            "Sure." Jeremy nodded and smiled as Trevor came up. "Trev. I'm leaving."

            "So I heard." Trevor pulled Jeremy into a complicated handshake before hugging him. "Take care, G. And let me know about those tracks."

            "Will do, man. Will do." Jeremy looked to the back of the studio where Ashley sat in front of a mirror. He hadn't moved since he sat there earlier, and Jeremy wasn't inclined to bother him. "Listen, guys... let Ashley know I'm sorry to hear about him and Shelli, and that if he needs someone to talk to, that he can call me, okay? And take care of him. Broken hearts are bad. Don't try to cheer him up. He's in pain, and trying to make life seem fun right now would be almost insulting. So... be careful, okay?"

            They all nodded. Satisfied, Jeremy waved to Jay. "Bye, Jay! See you next time?"

            Jay was on his cell phone, and he just nodded and waved back.

            "I swear," Jeremy muttered, "that man was designed by Microsoft." Turning back, he said, "If you could spare Jacob a few moments... Jake, could you walk me to my car?"


            "Okay, bye guys."

            "Bye, Jeremy."

            "Later, G."

            Jeremy and Jacob walked to the back of the building, where Jeremy was parked. They didn't talk until they reached Jeremy's Cadillac.

            "Are you trying to grow a beard or something?" Jeremy asked.


            "You've got something on your cheek, there," Jeremy grinned. "Seriously, are you going for a more rugged, bad-boy look?"

            Jacob rubbed his hand along his chin. "Maybe a little. Why, you don't like it?"

           "Not really, but then I'm not you. If you like it, go for it." Jeremy looked around the parking lot and said, softly, "So... you'll be okay?"

            "Yeah. I'll be fine."

            "You'll call me if you need to, right?"

            "Right." Jacob stood for a moment. "Let Ben know I said hi, and... uh... I guess Trent, too."

            Jeremy laughed. "Trent... yeah, okay. I'm sorry he yelled at you... he's a nice guy, he really is. You'll see, I'll drag him around some time. Promise." He unlocked the car door. "But... be careful, old son, okay?"

            "Okay. I won't do anything stupid."

            "I know you won't... okay then, this is good-bye, at least for now." Jeremy seemed to hesitate for a moment before embracing Jacob. Then he did something Jacob never expected. He kissed him, first on one cheek, then the other. He had seen Jeremy do that to other gay guys he knew, and to girls of course, but everyone knew that his one rule was never to do it to straight boys.

            Jacob didn't know what to say, so he just hugged Jeremy back.

            Jeremy leaned to his ear and whispered, "Courage, Grasshopper." Then he turned and ducked into his car.

            From a window by the back door of the Much Music studio, Jay, his cell phone and its call forgotten, watched for a moment more before turning back to the studio.

Okay, so ends the second chapter. The next couple of chapters will probably move a little faster, plot-wise. And if anyone really got this far -- it really does get better. Promise. One little note: this is taking place during the year 2000, so some things may seem out dated. And no, O-Town did not tour in Canada this year, I made that up. I hope you can forgive me. -- Kai Wailbone