Second Toughest in the Infants
By Kai Wailbone
Author's note: just to let you know, in writing this story, I am trying to be as true to the real personalities of the characters I portray as I can be without compromising the story. The views and opinions expressed by the various characters are not necessarily that of the author. In fact, in some rare cases they're not even the view of the character being portrayed, and are merely used as counterpoint in a fictional conversation.
Quick advertisement -- O-Town's first album is in stores now! I'm not saying it's good, I'm just saying I went out and bought it, and think you should too! ;-)
Dedicated to the memory of Michael Cuccione -- January 5, 1985 - January 13, 2001
We miss you
THE DISCLAIMER FOR CHAPTER THREE
Okay, legally, if you are under 18, 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 band O-Town is real, as is the television show "Making the band." The official web site has changed to www.o-town.com. The character of Jeremy Thomas is based on the artist Jeremy Thomas. Orlando, L.A., Montreal... you know what? The whole damned world this takes place in is real. Other than that, everything is made up.
The title is from the Underworld album "Second Toughest in the Infants." The chapter headings are from lyrics or song titles.
p.s. -- i like e-mail and encouragement. firstname.lastname@example.org
Second Toughest in the Infants
Chapter Three -- Kiteless
"Did you happen to catch or did it happen too fast
what you thought would always last has passed you by"
- Nine Inch Nails, "Where is everybody?"
"Oh, man... what did you do to your hair?"
Jacob grinned. "You don't like it?"
Trevor and Erik stared. Jacob had shaved the stubble he'd allowed to grow on his face for the past week and a half, but had left a small patch of goatee on his chin, much to Jay's annoyance. Then they'd gone to the hair stylist to prepare for their photo shoot. Jacob had his normally curly hair carefully straightened into dread-locks that pointed in several different directions from his head. With his sleeveless white shirt and jeans, he looked almost... punkish.
Trevor laughed. "It looks like a spider crawled on top of your head and died. In agony."
"Yeah, man, what is this, Rage Against the Machine look-alike day?" Erik added with a smirk. Thinking for a moment, he asked, "Does Jay know you did this?"
"Yeah, he knew I was doing something." Jacob shrugged. "You really don't like it?"
"Well, it's... certainly something I wouldn't do to my hair... it's... different." Trevor shook his head. "But if you like it, man, all the best getting it past Jay."
"I do like it." Jacob shook his head, trying to get the dreads to whip around. But since they were so short and still carefully styled, there wasn't much movement. "I always wanted to do this, I just never had a job that would let me."
"I wonder why..." Erik smirked, but he was interrupted by a loud voice behind them.
"Oh... my... God!"
Jacob turned and saw Dan and Ashley standing in the doorway, staring at him. "Yeah, you like it, man?"
Dan stared at Jacob's hair and laughed. "It's... well, it's a little... I dunno, a little rebel-N'Sync-ish, but... uh... I dunno. Do you like it?"
Jacob shrugged. "I think it's cool." He looked at Ashley. "What do you think?"
Ashley smiled slightly. "It's alright, I guess."
"You see?" Jacob slung his arm around Ashley's shoulders. "Me and my main man Ashley here know what's cool. The rest of you can go to hell."
Ashley's smile was sad and distracted as he gently shrugged Jacob's arm off of him. "It looks good on you. Very different."
Trevor leaned back in his chair. "Yeah, if you're trying to get it on with your pet tarantula."
"Hey..." Jacob made as if to hit Trevor. "I think I look cool, and Ashley does, too. That's all that counts."
Further discussion was interrupted by the door opening behind them.
"Gentlemen!" Jay came into the room, followed closely by Marc, their road-manager-slash-body-guard. "Good, you're all on time. We have..." Jay stopped and stared at Jacob. "Jacob..."
Jacob braced himself. "Yes, Jay?"
For a tense moment Jay was quiet. He looked to Marc, then back to Jacob. "Nice hair. Okay. Guys, we have important things to discuss." Jay motioned for them to follow him into the adjacent room, holding a videotape in his hand. "We have your tape from the interview in Toronto. I've looked at it, Lou has looked at it, and several things have come to our attention."
As soon as he was out of earshot Jacob breathed a sigh of relief. "Whoa."
"You know, sometimes I think you get on his nerves on purpose," Erik said.
Jacob grinned. "Oh, as if you don't?"
Erik pretended to look innocent. "What? I never get on Jay's nerves!"
"Yeah... and Jay just wants to tell us how great the interview went." Jacob looked to Dan. "Do you think it's gonna be bad?"
Dan shrugged. "I don't think he'd be doing it right now if it was good."
Trevor stood up and stretched. "Probably the sock."
"That sock thing." Trevor laughed shortly. "I'll bet that puppet got Lou upset."
Jacob laughed, too. "Undone by a sock. Wow, I can see the headlines now..."
"Hi, and welcome back to our Much Music interview with O-Town, the band from the TV show, `Making the band.'" On the older model VCR, the picture skipped for a moment, then the face of their interviewer, Rick Campanelli, came into view. The camera panned to the side and revealed the five guys sitting in a row against the casually haphazard décor of the Much Music studio.
"Whoo-hoo! Yeah!" Erik and Dan high-fived each other.
"Wow, look at that sharp guy Dan! Think he's single?" Dan laughed.
"Gentlemen!" Jay snapped sharply. "Pay attention."
"So," Rick was saying, "the first single is due out in December, your first video premiers around the same time, and... I guess the show is on some time?"
"Yeah." Dan fielded the question, lifting his microphone to his mouth. "They're still filming for the second season, which is supposed to air in March."
"Oh, so that's what all these other guys are doing here?" Rick gestured off camera. "They're the guys taking pictures of... well, of our guys taking pictures. Great, so what's the second season going to be like? Since the title was `Making the band,' and you guys have made the band... any chance you'll change it to `Made the band'?"
Erik laughed and lifted his microphone. "Nah, probably, `Making the album.'"
"Or `Surviving the band,'" Trevor chimed in.
"Surviving? So you could do a `Survivor' type thing and vote guys out of the band?" Rick grinned. "Well, if you guys ever do that and need an extra guy, you know where I am, right?"
"You'll be the first one we call, Rick," Jacob said.
"Thanks, I, uh... I appreciate that. You know," Rick said, "You guys should let me know if you're ever coming back here and have a couple days off. I heard you hung out doing nothing for the weekend. You should have let me know, I could have shown you around, we could hit the clubs, hang out a bit..."
Before he could continue, Rick was interrupted by a deep, grating disembodied voice that shouted in a rather obnoxious tone, "Hey, Rick! Are you sucking up to another band?"
"Okay," Jay said, pointing to the TV. "This is the part. Now, tell me... what is this?"
"Oh, look at this!" Rick laughed as if to an inside joke. "This is definite trouble. Oh, boy..."
Suddenly appearing at the edge of the camera's view was one of the most unorthodox things any member of the band had seen in all the interviews they had done so far. Constantly positioned to be just in front of the lens was a steel-gray sock pulled over the arm of a guy who, presumably, was crouching beside the camera. It had been fitted with large eyes, a patch of dark green hair, and even the stub of a cigar sticking from its cloth mouth. It "wore" a bright Hawaiian shirt over a white t-shirt that claimed, in red block letters, "Hetero-Socksual."
Surprise and obvious uncertainty was clear on each face except for Rick's, who was taking it all in stride. "Ed! Hey, guys, this is... this is one of our other VJ's, Ed the Sock. Ed, these are Trevor, Jacob, Erik, Dan and Ashley, from the new band, O-Town."
"Oh, a band, huh?" The sock, "Ed," wasn't a traditional puppet with a mouth, but he accentuated each word by nodding his head. Turning to Dan, he said gruffly, "Okay, hot shot, so what instrument do you play?"
Dan looked at Rick with a "What the hell is this?" expression on his face, but smiled and answered, "Uh... you mean for the band?"
"Yes, for the band. I know you `play' your instrument. After all, what young boy doesn't?" The sock turned and looked into the camera. "Heh-heh." Turning back, the voice continued, "Of course I mean for the band! So, what instrument?"
"Well, I don't play an instrument for the band. Except for my voice..." Dan, unsure if the interview was still going on, trailed off and looked to Rick again.
"Yeah, Ed," Rick continued for him. "These guys just sing. They're the new boy-band..."
"What? Another boy-band?" Ed looked into the camera again. "Oh, God, we don't need another one of THOSE." Turning to face the guys, he yelled, "What the hell are you guys thinking? Aren't the sappy, contrived, and empty acts of N'Sync and the Backstreet Boys enough? Have some compassion on the ears of people who have actual taste in music! God, have mercy on us, please!"
"Oh, come on, Ed." Rick talked to the puppet as if it were a real person. "These guys are nice guys. And they even write a few of their own songs, as you would know if you watched the show."
The sock positioned itself to appear as if it were staring at Rick. "Watch the show? Excuse me, I have better things to do with my time than watch some cheesy television show about the life behind the scenes of a boy-band. `Oh, no, the stylist cut my hair too short, I've got screaming girls all around me, and I'm making too much money!' Please! I'm too busy for that kind of crap. In fact, come to think of it, don't YOU have better things to do with your time than watch that show? I mean, come on, only air-headed young girls watch that show. You're starting to worry me, Rick."
"What, can't a straight guy take some time out to, you know, relax and see what all the fuss is about? Besides, it's an addicting show." Rick smiled innocently into the camera.
"Yeah, way to suck up to them, Rick..."
Jay paused the tape again. "Okay, can anyone tell me what the problem was with that?"
Trevor and Jacob exchanged an amused look, and Dan was obviously trying hard not to laugh.
"I don't know... could you play it again?" Erik asked, barely managing to keep a straight face.
"Yeah, you think it's funny." Jay leaned against the table. "And okay, off the record, I thought it was funny, too. Apparently this puppet is very popular in Canada, and while he's mean, he's also well known for being full of hot air. Not everything he says is taken seriously, so you don't need to worry about people not liking you on the word of a sock. But... Lou didn't like it."
Jacob groaned. "Oh, why am I not surprised?"
"Well, look at it this way. Right now you're getting more than your fair share of negative press." He raised his hand before anyone could speak. "Trust me on this, you are. And at this point, Lou doesn't think this would be the best thing to have air. So..." Jay sighed. "So the interview is being pulled. Lou threw his weight around a bit, and arranged for it not to be aired."
"What?" Jacob stared at Jay.
"Wait, that's not fair!" Dan almost stood up. "We spent a lot of time rehearsing for this! He can't just... I mean, that's just..."
"He can, and he has," Jay said. "This is his prerogative. If he feels it won't be good for the band, then he reserves the right to..."
"But what about live shows and interviews? We do those all the time!" Jacob was angry, and didn't hide it at all. "So, what, is Lou going to pull every tape of every interview he doesn't like? We're just never going to be going live again because some funny little quirk of the station might be slightly negative?" He shook his head in frustration. "They were really nice people up there... we can't just let all their work go to waste!"
"Not to mention our work," Dan muttered.
Jay waited for them to quiet down before he spoke. "Jacob, I know how you feel. I know how all of you feel. And we didn't pull it completely, we're going to let them use sections of it for their programs, but they just can't play the whole interview. We've already arranged for you to go back in a couple of months and do an actual interview, this time with certain limitations. But for now, as it stands, Lou doesn't want to air the interview. Now, as always, if you some issue you want to address with him, he is willing to hear anything you have to say."
"Oh, hell, yeah," Jacob said, throwing himself back in his chair. "You'd better believe I have an issue with this."
"Yeah, could you do that, Jay?" Dan asked. "I mean, I know I am a bit upset at this. What have we been working for all this time if no one's going to see it? So definitely, yeah, let's see if we can talk to him about this."
"Okay..." Jay looked at the other guys. "Trevor? Erik? You agree?"
"Yeah, man," Trevor said.
Erik just nodded.
Jay turned to focus on Ashley. "Hey Ashley... you've been quiet this whole time. Anything to say?"
Ashley was staring off into space, looking for all the world as if he wasn't paying attention to anything. Then he said quietly, "I thought the sock was funny."
Jay waited, but Ashley didn't say anything else. "Ash? Are you okay?"
Ever so slowly, Ashley turned to face Jay. "Yeah... can we just go on?"
"Okay... sure." Jay picked up the remote control again and started rewinding the tape. "Our next item... there are certain things you simply do not talk about in interviews at this stage of the game. When you talk about these things, it throws a shadow on the way we run this business..."
Jacob tuned Jay out and turned to Ashley. Putting his hand on Ashley's shoulder, he leaned over and whispered, "Hey, man, you sure you're okay?"
Ashley smiled at Jacob. "Yeah, man, thanks," he whispered back. "Just a little out of it today, that's all."
"Is it about a certain brown-haired girl from Redding?"
"When isn't it about a girl?"
"Gentlemen!" Jay's voice cut through their whispered conversation. "Do you think I am talking because it's good for my health?"
Jacob and Ashley whipped around.
Jay studied them for another moment before continuing. "Okay, if we have everyone's attention now..." he played the tape.
"...just wanted to talk to you guys really quickly before we get to our next question. Now, I've been had the opportunity to interview bands like N'Sync, and 98 degrees, and... well, I guess you can put Hanson in there, and I have to say that it seems like they all have these elaborate security measures and stuff. In fact, when I interviewed N'Sync one time, I actually was taken to meet them in a van with no windows so I wouldn't know where we were going. But you guys... you don't seem to have that. What's up with that?"
It was Dan who spoke first. "Well, we certainly do have strict security..." But he was interrupted by Erik.
"Yeah, we don't want anyone to think we're not being protected."
"Of course not," Rick said. "So, you guys have your own armada of body guards and stuff?"
Dan looked to the other guys. "Well, we have..."
"Yeah, we do," Trevor jumped in.
"Yeah, there's Marc..." Erik started.
"Marc?" Rick looked down to check his notes. "He's the guy we see on the show, right?"
"Who is he?"
"He's..." Dan started.
"Ex-cop!" Erik said enthusiastically.
"An ex-cop?" Rick asked.
The sound of a cell phone interrupted them. Jay paused the tape with a frustrated sigh and glanced at the display. When he saw the name, he glanced at Marc and nodded. "Okay, guys, I need to take this. We'll get back to the tape in a couple of minutes, but for now, Marc has some things he needs to say to you." With that, Jay walked quickly from the room, closing the door firmly behind him.
Marc straightened from where he'd been leaning quietly against the wall and came to stand in front of them.
"Gentlemen, good morning." His voice as usual was calm and even-toned. "I'm guessing you all know what Jay was going to say about that section?"
"Don't talk about security?" Dan asked tentatively.
"Pretty much." Marc leaned against the table. "There are some things you will be able to tell the public, and other things you won't. We can't protect you to the best of our ability if you spill all our security measures to the public. Please keep that in mind." He paused as if gathering his thoughts. Then, in his gradual, methodical way he started to speak. "Okay. Here's the deal. I've had some conversations with our good friends who run the cameras. And guess what? They've come to me and Jay with several complaints. They've told us that microphones have been turned off, or covered and obstructed, whether accidentally or intentionally we don't know." Marc crossed his arms as he looked sternly at each of them. "You guys know your contracts, you don't need to be reminded. Or at least you shouldn't need reminding. I'm going to remind you once again, and let's see if we can make it the last time. You are under contract to wear these microphones at all times, under any conditions. For obvious reasons we have made exceptions for and only for what we call the three S's: sleeping, showering, and swimming." He looked up to see Erik raising his hand. "Yes, Erik?"
"Okay, yeah, uh, this camera guy? Okay, he got mad at me because after I went swimming I lay down and didn't put the microphone back on. But I had nowhere to put it. So... if any of them told you I was a problem, I didn't mean to be."
Marc looked at Erik for a moment. "Who said they mentioned anyone specifically? I never said you were the problem, Erik, though what you have brought up is an understandable concern."
"Wait." Jacob leaned forward. "You're saying we can't relax after swimming? We need to get dressed just so we can put the microphone on our shirts?"
"No, that's not what I'm saying." Marc's voice remained almost maddeningly even and calm. "Normally the camera crews can pick up whatever's going on when you guys swim or shower or whatever. But if you're alone or it doesn't look like much is happening, we do try to prioritize and go where the action is. The microphones let the crews know if anything's going on, and if you take them off, they won't know. I'm not saying you need to put on your microphone every time you start to talk. What I'm saying is you can't use going swimming as an excuse. You can go swimming and lounge around without shirts or microphones on all day. Just don't go swimming to have private conversations, or run off and try to hide from the cameras. Understood?" When everyone nodded, Marc continued. "Good. Next item... Jacob."
Jacob looked up. "Yeah?"
Marc smiled his deceptively nice smile. "I heard you took a little trip last week."
"Yes. Oh." Marc uncrossed his arms. "Look, I know you and Jeremy are friends. That's okay, we have an understanding with Jeremy. That's not the issue. The problem we had is that you left us all high and dry without knowing where you were going or why. You can't just drop everything and run off like that unless we know about it, it's been approved, and it's an emergency. An extreme emergency. And last time I checked, social trips to see friends are not emergencies."
"No, it's not okay. You know the camera crews are under strict obligation to stay away from Jeremy. Every time he stops by, we have huge gaps in the tapes. That's not good for continuity for the show, and..."
"But we don't use most of the footage anyway, why should it matter?"
Marc shook his head. "It matters to Lou, it matters to Jay, and it matters to Jon. You're not the one who needs to worry about these types of things. We are. And we can't have these huge gaps in the tape editing because we need to account for that much lost time. So we can't have you going places that our cameras can't go."
"So what are you saying? I can't see Jeremy ever again?"
"Jacob... we'll never tell you who you can or can't be friends with. That's not our place, you can decide for yourself. But if you go places that the cameras can't go, you get Lou upset. And understand that Jeremy and Lou don't get along very well, and while Jeremy is a nice guy and all, Jeremy's not the one running this show. So while I can't say you need to stop seeing him... I can say you have some decisions to make, and prioritize some things in your life."
Marc cut him off. "Look, Jeremy is a great freelance sound engineer, we'll probably use him again. You'll probably see him again. Don't worry about that. Worry about what you need to do for yourself and for the band. Which means you can't just jump over to visit his house every time we make a stop in Canada. Okay?"
Jacob sighed, obviously frustrated, but he nodded. "Yeah, okay."
"Okay, good." Marc crossed the room as he spoke. "One last thing. You may have noticed some of our camera people are missing." He opened the door and peeked out. Jay was just outside, talking on his cell phone. Mark motioned to him, and Jay nodded. Closing the door, Marc faced them again. "I know this sounds a little strange after I reminded you to keep up the vigilance for the microphones, but this weekend is our camera crew's vacation. Now before you start cheering..." Marc held up his hand as Erik and Dan high-fived each other again. "Before you start cheering, this is not a free weekend for you to go out and do whatever you want." Crossing back over to the table, he leaned back against it. "Not only does this totally not free you from your responsibilities, but it also confirms that you will have a camera crew going home with you for the holidays. They'll be with you, following your family, they'll be at your Christmas dinner..." He paused as Jay came into the room and nodded to him. "So call family members, friends, neighbors, let them know what's going on. If anyone doesn't want to be on camera, let us know. Everyone else needs to sign a release form. Everyone understand?" Again everyone nodded. "Okay... this weekend." Marc frowned. "I shouldn't need to say this, but I will anyway. I expect each and every one of you to be on your absolute best behavior. Act as if the cameras are there. Yeah, yeah, I know you're going to do whatever you want anyway, okay. I know how things go. But understand this: if we get a call, if we get a report, if we in any way need to apologize or explain your presence or behavior, you will be put on probation. For a long time. We're trusting you this weekend. Don't let us down. Any questions?"
Trevor raised his hand. "Yeah, just really quick. How long will we have this year for Christmas?"
Marc looked at Jay. "What did Lou say, four days?"
"Maybe five," Jay said. "We're not absolutely sure yet, but you'll have enough time to go home and spend the holiday with your family, but you need to be back here immediately afterwards. We have a lot of work to do."
"Okay, anyone else? No? Okay, Jay, I'm done."
"Alright, guys." Jay came back up and picked up the remote control for the VCR. "Where were we? I think we were going over the part of the interview where..."
As soon as the door closed Marc turned to Jay.
"So did you talk to him?"
"Yeah." Jay sighed and sat down. "He didn't say much, you know."
"That in itself is saying something." Marc sat down beside him. "Does he suspect we know anything?"
"I doubt it. I told him Dave's idea about bringing him in to help with the video and maybe some mastering work on the album. He complained rather loudly that we're exploiting him so I think he bought it."
"And since he's in L. A. anyway he agreed to do it."
"That's not what I meant."
Jay smiled. "I know... he said that Jacob came up because he had some personal problems and wanted some advice."
"Which could mean just about anything."
"So... you watched him, what do you think?"
Marc thought for a moment. "I don't know... he doesn't look gay..."
"Oh, please. What does gay look like?"
"Did you notice anything about the way he acted? Particularly with some of the other guys?"
"Nothing out of the ordinary."
"So you didn't notice how he acted to one person in particular?"
Marc looked at Jay warily. "What are you trying to say?"
"I'm trying to say... maybe... from what I've seen... he might be in love with one of them."
"Oh... Christ, you've got to be kidding me." Marc lowered his head into his hands. "Which one?"
"Well, I'm not sure, but..."
Jay sighed. "Erik."
Marc looked up. "Erik?"
"Well, yeah, if you think about it, it makes sense. He arranged for Ashley to move out of the room he shares with Dan at the house for Erik to move in. They always room together in the hotels. Not to mention that they're always the ones going out to clubs together..."
"Okay, I get the picture. So... Erik."
"Yes. At least, I think so."
"And Jeremy is in on it?"
"I think Jeremy's one of the only people he could go to about this."
"But Jeremy also knows to keep his mouth shut."
"True... but that's small consolation." Marc stood up. "Okay, arrange for Jeremy to join us at the video shoot. We need to talk to him."
Jay stood up as well. "Should we tell Lou?"
"No!" Marc said quickly. "Definitely not." Calming down a little, he said, "I know that makes you a little nervous, but really, what do we know? Nothing. Jeremy kissed Jacob on the cheek. That very well could have been a slip up with him, a mistake... it could mean nothing. Lou doesn't need to be notified about this. Not yet."
Jay hesitated before nodding. "I guess you're right. But if he finds out..."
"If he finds out, there's no proof we ever knew about it," Marc said reasonably. "After all, they didn't come to us with it, so for all we know everything's just fine."
"Are you okay, man?"
Ashley looked up as Jacob came up beside him. They were taking a break in their photo shoot. They'd all been given black or dark blue clothes to wear, some of it so new that it was uncomfortable. Combined with the constant order to "smile and look happy" piled onto his already heavy mood and had given the day an oppressive feel. He would have thought it was obvious to anyone that he wasn't doing okay, but he answered, "Yeah, yeah, I'm fine... listen, I'm sorry again that I got you into trouble back at the meeting..."
"And I keep telling you not to worry about it." Jacob snickered. "Besides that wasn't even real trouble. That's tiny shit compared to the stuff Jay usually yells at me for."
"Yeah, like your hair?" Ashley said with a slight smile.
"Yeah... I got lucky on that." Jacob pulled one of the straight locks over his eye, but when he let go it bounced back up. "So what're you going to do this weekend? No cameras, no microphones, no one following us..."
Ashley shrugged. "I don't know... probably just rest."
"Rest? You can't rest! That's... that's just wrong. We need..." Jacob turned around. "Hey, Erik! Ashley here says he's not going to do anything this weekend!"
"What?" Erik came up to join them. "The one weekend we have to go wild and do whatever we want, and you're not taking advantage of it?"
Ashley smiled. "I just don't feel like going out this weekend."
"Oh, come on," Erik said and pulled at Ashley's arm. "I know you're down and all, but it's like I always tell Jacob. Come on out to party, it'll cure what ails ya'. Straight from your truly, Dr. Love himself."
Ashley looked to Jacob. "You do know you've condemned me to a week of him pestering me until I say yes."
Jacob grinned at him. "Of course. That's why I called him."
Ashley pretended to sigh in frustration. "Oh, okay, I guess I could go with you guys. To one club. Then I'm going back to the hotel, okay?"
"Deal," Erik said, but he was already high-fiving Jacob, a habit that was getting increasingly more irritating.
Ashley suppressed his smile. Jacob had been at his side almost constantly throughout the week, always finding some way to cheer him up when he was at his lowest points. In fact, Ashley would often look up to catch Jacob staring at him, watching him like a faithful watchdog. And though Jacob would always quickly look away, Ashley felt a warm thrill inside that he had a friend who was so concerned about him.
For the briefest of instants Ashley remembered how Jacob would often switch rather suddenly from the talkative, funny guy who acted friendly to him to the strange, cold and almost arrogant person who often ignored him. In fact, he'd often thought that Jacob was a dangerous guy to have in the band, someone capable of leaving them all behind or pulling them apart... but now he felt comfortable pushing his fears away. If his actions were any judge, Ashley was sure Jacob was over whatever he'd been going through and things would be just fine from now on.
Ashley leaned back on one of the low couches that lined the back room of the club, wondering what the hell he was doing there.
It was the weekend, their last private weekend without cameras for a long time, and though he knew he'd agreed to come out with Jacob, Trevor and Erik to the dance club, he was finding himself regretting it.
Erik had dubbed it "singles night," with the four single guys going out to party, while Dan stayed at the hotel, having a long, private conversation on the phone with his girlfriend. It was an opportunity to do whatever they wanted, but to Ashley, it seemed like they were so used to being in front of cameras that none of them had any idea how to go wild, or even act naturally, anymore. He'd even caught himself looking over his shoulder once or twice, expecting the bright camera light to be shining on him, and feeling a slight thrill that it wasn't there. He wondered if they'd become dependent on the constant attention and stress of knowing they were being recorded... or if they were so out of touch with the world that their idea of going wild was doing the exact same thing they seemed to do ever weekend they had free -- going out to clubs and partying.
Okay, with one difference. Jacob was drinking. Ashley knew Jacob didn't drink often, if at all. Sometimes Erik managed to convince him to buy a drink, but Jacob rarely drank them.
Tonight, however, Jacob was getting utterly sloshed.
It had been almost amusing to watch as the normally composed, well-coordinated young man slowly becoming loose-limbed and clumsy. He'd started acting silly and spontaneous, and on the main floor it was hard to tell if he was being serious or trying to be funny with his dance moves. But Ashley didn't mind. He rather enjoyed seeing Jacob let loose for once, and that was the only thing that kept him from completely wanting to leave.
Ashley looked up to find Jacob standing over him, grinning. "Hey, Jake." For all his drunkenness, Jacob made it a point to keep coming up to check on Ashley.
"Aren't you gonna dance?" Jacob was very used to the club environment, and managed to speak just loud enough to be heard over the loud music.
Ashley shook his head. "Nah," he said. "I think I'll just sit here."
"But this is a dance club. Not a sitting-here club."
"Yeah, yeah, I know..."
"So come on." Jacob took Ashley's hands in his and pulled until he stood up.
Ashley pulled back a bit. "I don't know, man..."
"C'mon," Jacob pretended he was whining. "I'm all lonely out there and stuff..."
Ashley just smiled and pulled back. "I really don't feel like it."
Jacob ran his hands up Ashley's arms, rubbing his shoulders. "Pleeeze?" He pulled Ashley closer, dropping his hands to Ashley's waist. "I promise it'll be fun."
Ashley just laughed softly and shook his head. "Pass, dude." He thought nothing of Jacob's arms encircling him. Living in the same house broke down a lot of inhibitions, and it was nothing for them to show mock-affection to each other. Besides, Jacob was obviously drunk. Thinking he'd have some fun, Ashley reached out and laced his arms around Jacob's shoulders. Leaning forward, he spoke softly into Jacob's ear. "Although I'm sure you would have shown me a fabulous time."
Jacob backed away, but instead of the return joking smile Ashley expected, he seemed uncomfortable. "Uh... yeah." He glanced around quickly, then smiled shyly. "I'm going to go dance again. You sure you're okay?"
Ashley grinned. Served him right for getting so drunk. "Sure, man. Have fun."
In the crowded bathroom, Jacob stood in front of the mirror, carefully trying to fix his hair. It was a good distraction, and kept him from thinking about how drunk he was, and how low his inhibitions were getting. He'd actually touched... touched Ashley... and Ashley had touched him back...
He shook his head and concentrated on his hair. He forced himself not to think about what it all meant... and, more importantly, what he wanted it to mean.
The short dread-locks had been carefully arranged so that he could still part his hair down the middle and have it look decent, rather than the "broom effect" that he hated so much when he saw other people with dreads. Two and a half hours of dancing had caused them to loose the neat part he was trying to keep them in. Tossing his head back, he flipped his hair out of his face and let the short straightened locks fall back down. Naturally, they didn't fall into place. Frustrated, he ran his hand under the tap and tried to arrange the braids with a little water.
Startled, Jacob looked up to find the guy who had been standing beside him smiling at him. He looked like he was a little younger than Jacob, with white-blond hair fixed so it spiked straight up in front. He had startlingly dark blue eyes, and when he smiled...
When he smiled Jacob felt his heart skip a beat.
"Uh... hi." Jacob smiled back.
"I love your shirt."
"Huh? Oh... thanks." Jacob automatically looked down at his shirt, though he knew very well what he was wearing. He'd chosen to wear one of the shirts Ben had bought for him in Montreal, a soft gray shirt with intricately woven patterns along the bottom and large, fancy black buttons. He'd been very careful not to dance too hard for fear of sweating and messing it up.
"I've never seen one like it before."
"Well, uh... I, uh... my friend bought it for me. In Montreal."
"Ooh, Montreal. Nice."
"Yeah..." Jacob felt a little uncomfortable, unsure of how to really respond.
The blonde young man, however, seemed perfectly comfortable. Offering his hand, he said, "My name's Derek."
"Uh... Jacob." He took the offered hand and shook it.
"I saw you dancing. You're pretty good."
"Thanks." Jacob relaxed as he followed Derek out of the bathroom. He'd been going to clubs long enough to know that there tended to be two kinds of people: the ones who kept to themselves, and those who made friends with everyone there. Derek seemed to be of the latter type.
"So you come here often?" Derek asked.
"No... no, I'm just here for a while with some friends. We're actually set to leave on Tuesday."
"Oh... are you sure you've never been here before? You seem so familiar." Derek openly studied Jacob's face, frowning.
Jacob felt a slight thrill of nervousness. He wasn't like Erik, who bragged to all the people he met about what they did. He preferred to act normal and let his personality speak for itself rather than impress people with his status. His mind quickly raced through the possible reactions he could have to Derek recognizing him from the band...
But before he could finish thinking, Derek spoke again. And his next words nearly knocked Jacob over.
"Doesn't matter, I guess. You're cute anyway." With no hesitation, Derek reached out and touched one of Jacob's dreads. "I love your hair. Your boyfriend's a lucky guy."
Jacob was too surprised to even pull away from Derek's hand. "Wh... what?"
"Your boyfriend." Derek shrugged. "Couldn't help but notice the two of you by the dance floor."
"Yeah. The blond guy who doesn't like to dance? I admire you guys so much for being so brave and unashamed about your relationship. I don't think I could do that..."
Jacob stared uncomprehending for another moment before it hit him. "Oh... oh, Ash... no, we're..." He couldn't help but laugh out loud. "I'm sorry. You've got it all wrong. That guy... he's just my friend. A close friend. We're not... I mean, he's not... we're not together."
"Oh... oh, geez, I'm sorry..." Derek started to blush. "I just thought... oh, I'm so sorry..."
"No, no... it's okay. I can see how you could make that mistake." Jacob smiled sympathetically. "We're really close friends since we live together and all. I'm trying to be nice because he's going through a rough time right now. He just broke up with his girlfriend for, like, the fourth time in the past month. And he's definitely not gay."
"Oh," Derek said again, disappointment clear on his face. "So I'm guessing you're not gay either, then?"
Jacob almost laughed again.
"Dude, where's Jake?"
"I don't know, he was here just a second ago..."
"Well I don't see him now."
"Did you check the dance floor?"
"Yeah, I looked all around, he's not dancing."
"Well, he came through here, and then he went back in that direction, so..."
"Was he with anyone?"
"What do you mean, `with anyone'?"
"I mean a girl."
"No, I don't think so..."
"Damn, that boy just doesn't know how to play it... there are a lot of girls who noticed him. There's this one girl, dude, she is so hot... her name's Rena, and she was watching Jacob dance but he never paid any attention to her. He's probably so drunk he can't think straight..."
"He's pretty far gone..."
"Yeah, so anyway, I told her I was a friend of his and went lookin' for him... now I can't find him."
"Well, I think he might have gone to the bathroom..."
"You know what? Fuck it. He didn't talk to her in the first place, so it's his loss. But you know what, we don't have to... hey, got a idea. Dude, you want to meet her?"
"C'mon, dude. Forget Shelli and just go with it. Have some fun. Just wait right here, I'll get her."
"Erik, no, c'mon..."
"Just stay right here. Trust me, okay, dude? She's really cute, you'll like her. Just stay here, I'll be right back."
For one moment, everything was clear.
Such a simple word, nothing really to think about. Two letters, a single syllable... it would be so easy.
Jacob's smile was frozen to his face, that simple word on the tip of his tongue. And for a second, one crystalline, gleaming instant, he almost did it. It was so natural, denying his sexuality. It wasn't even a consideration to hesitate. He was living up to the image he had spent his entire life creating. He was fulfilling the dream of the publicists and PR wizards and Lou Pearlman himself. He was a perfect, all-American straight boy...
For that one moment, he was exactly what he'd allowed everyone in his life to believe.
And for that one moment, everything was perfect.
Then he looked up.
He and Derek were in the short hallway connecting the main dance floor with the back room. He had been heading for the back room to check on Ashley again, but a look to the dance floor negated any need to do so.
Ashley was headed for the dance floor, an almost goofy smile on his face. No stranger to club life, he wove expertly through the crowd, but it wasn't his destination or movement that caught Jacob's real attention. It was the girl with long blond hair who was leading him, his hand firmly clutched in her own.
Jacob couldn't look away. Ashley, the guy who'd sat in the back room ever since they'd arrived, who wouldn't respond to Jacob's antics to try and get him to dance... got up for a girl. A girl he didn't know. A girl he probably wouldn't see again...
Jacob felt a strange feeling welling up inside of him. It wasn't quite anger, but it had the same energy... it wasn't sadness, although he felt like the bottom of his heart fell out. It was almost disappointment, but much, much stronger...
It almost surprised him how he realized he'd never felt this way before. He was jealous. A feeling he'd always thought of as silly and arrogant now perfectly fit how he felt, and he embraced it. He embraced the anger towards Ashley for leaving him, for not giving him the same attention and interest and affection he was giving some girl. The anger towards himself for thinking he had a right to Ashley's attentions. The anger... and the pain. The pain of betrayal, of abandonment, of loneliness... jealousy.
For a moment Jacob was ready to walk out of the club, as he had so often in the past. Just forget about Ashley and Erik and the girls that surrounded him and just go back to his room and jerk off and maybe cry himself to sleep since he was so pathetic and stupid and... and...
But then he noticed Derek still standing beside him, watching him, still waiting for an answer to his question, already thinking he knew the answer.
It took him a moment to remember what that question was.
Gay? Hell, yeah, but the word "no" had leapt immediately to his lips. And why? Because he'd spent his entire life living up to that word. Living up to that belief. Living up to that lie. He couldn't tell anyone the truth, he couldn't explore and have fun because it would ruin his life, his family, his career... It would cast a shadow on the band and mess up the marketing of their image and... and...
Oh, fuck it, he thought and faced Derek head on. "Actually, yeah. Yeah, I am."
Derek looked at him, obviously suspicious. "Really?"
Jacob glanced back at the dance floor, but Ashley was already gone from sight. "Yeah. Really."
When Derek smiled at him again, Jacob felt his pulse quicken. He'd never had someone smile at him like that. It was almost frightening. It wasn't just a smile to be friendly, or a smile to be polite, though it was certainly both of these... but it was also a smile that spoke of something deeper, something more carnal. A smile of recognition. A smile that reflected similar wants and desires. A smile that promised the contradiction of everything he'd been his whole life up to that moment.
It took a moment for him calm his beating heart...
Then Jacob smiled back.
Trevor finally tore himself free of the crowded dance floor and took a deep breath. He enjoyed dancing as much as the other guys, but he wasn't a huge party animal. He hated the claustrophobia of dancing in large clubs, and after a couple of hours he was usually ready to leave.
And they'd been out for almost three hours now.
Thinking he'd leave Erik to party as hard as he wanted, Trevor set to looking for Ashley or Jacob in case they wanted to leave with him. The only problem with looking for people in a crowded club was that it was almost impossible to find one person except by sheer coincidence. After fruitlessly scanning the dance floor as thoroughly as he could, he pressed through to the back of the club. He figured he'd check the bathrooms and the back room, and if he couldn't find any of them, he'd just go back to the hotel and page Erik to let him know where he was. Making his way through a particularly tight knot of people, he was about to enter the men's room when a flash of gray caught the corner of his eye.
Jacob's shirt. He remembered it clearly, because it was one that Jacob had brought back from Montreal. He'd even asked if he could borrow it some time. Trevor turned and found it again, in the darkened corner of the back room, where small, cheap couches had been arranged for people to rest.
And he wasn't alone. He was leaning over what was obviously someone else, a pair of hands on his shoulders. Trevor grinned as he crossed over to where Jacob was sitting, his mind already coming up with comical ways he could interrupt what looked to be a make-out session.
The first reaction Trevor had when he came close was, Damn, she's got short hair.
Then he saw that it wasn't a girl.
It took him a few seconds to find his voice.
Jacob turned quickly and stared. "T-Trev?"
Trevor looked over at the other guy, who looked about a year younger than he was, with bleached-blond hair. Then looked back at Jacob.
"We need to talk."
Trevor was nervous.
That was how he knew it was bad. He was never nervous when performing on stage. He never got the jitters before an interview. He never even got a stab of panic when Jay or Marc called a sudden meeting.
But now, walking out of the club, Jacob following close behind and an unspoken subject hanging above them, he was nervous as hell.
Trevor resisted the temptation to turn on Jacob as soon as they hit the quiet of the street. There were still a few people around, and he didn't want anyone to see or hear them. Looking around quickly, he spotted a coffee shop across the street. Without a word, he led the way over and inside, finding an isolated booth near the back.
"Okay. Out with it." Trevor waited just long enough for Jacob to sit down. He immediately regretted his choice of words. He sounded harsh and angry, so he softened his tone. "Sorry, I just... I'm a little nervous. You want to tell me what I just saw back there?"
For his part, Jacob looked even more nervous than Trevor felt. He hadn't spoken a single word since they left the club, and he couldn't seem to lift his gaze to meet Trevor's. Staring at his fingers, he traced the patterns on the tablecloth.
"Trev... I..." Jacob's voice was almost inaudible, and trailed off before anything was really said. Trevor waited for a minute or so before he tried again.
"Jacob? Look, you can't exactly deny what you were doing. I saw..." Trevor glanced around to make sure no one was listening. Lowering his voice, he said, "I saw you kissing another guy. I know what I saw, and as far as I can see, there's really only one explanation. Now, I think I have a pretty good idea what you're going to say. I just want to hear you say it. To my face." Trevor leaned forward. "Tell me you trust me that much."
Jacob didn't look up.
"Jacob?" Trevor looked around again. "Jacob, are you gay?"
For almost a minute Jacob just sat tracing the tabletop patterns. Then, almost imperceptibly, he nodded. "Yeah," he whispered.
Trevor took a deep breath and leaned back. "Shit..."
"You boys ready to order?"
Both Jacob and Trevor jumped in their seats at the sudden interruption. So great had been their concentration on each other that their waitress, an older woman with dark red hair, had come up unnoticed. She now stood by their table, a tired but friendly smile on her face.
"Oh, uh... yeah." Trevor glanced at Jacob, then back at their waitress. "Just coffee for me."
"Okay, and you?" The waitress looked to Jacob.
Jacob nodded. "Same. Please. Thanks."
"Okay, two coffees, that it?"
"Yes, please," Trevor said. "Thank you." He watched her leave. When he was convinced she couldn't hear them, he turned back to Jacob. "So you..."
"Yes! I am!" Jacob hissed, snapping his head up to stare at Trevor. "I am, are you happy? I'm gay!"
Trevor looked around. "Jeez, man, keep it down!"
Jacob looked at him sullenly. "As if it matters."
"What? What do you mean..." Trevor took a moment to choose his words carefully. "Look, man, I don't know how you thought I was going to react to this. I mean, it's cool with me and all, but understand that it's a shock. It's not everyday the guy you're living with comes out of the closet. Especially," Trevor smiled ruefully. "Especially when that guy has a shirt that says `Straight Pride' on it."
Jacob stared at Trevor for a moment. "Wait a minute. You... you're okay with it?"
"Yeah, man." Trevor shrugged. "It's no big deal. I wish you'd come out with it sooner, but frankly, I understand why. The cameras and stuff..."
Jacob leaned back in his seat and almost laughed in surprise. "You're okay with it?" he repeated.
"Yeah, sure. In fact..." Trevor's voice faded as their waitress came back, two cups of coffee in her hands. "Wow, that was fast."
"Well, you're timing was just perfect." The waitress smiled as she set their cups down. "The pot just stopped brewing just as you came in, and since we're not very busy this time of night, it just worked out in your favor." Reaching into her apron pocket, she produced several small containers of cream. "Okay, anything else?"
"No, thank you," Trevor said with a smile.
"Alright, if you need anything, just holler."
Jacob watched her leave. "How much you want to bet the coffee has been sitting there for an hour and she just made that story up just now?" he asked with a very small smile.
"Probably." Trevor relaxed a bit. Jacob never joked when he was upset, so this was a good sign. They weren't out of the woods yet, and he watched Jacob fiddling with a creamer before opening it. He tried to imagine what Jacob was going through, to have his secret suddenly out in the open, revealed to someone who had the ability to hurt him so badly, unsure of what the next second would bring... Trevor shook his head. He couldn't even begin to imagine. "So you okay, man?"
Jacob poured the small container of cream slowly into his coffee. "Yeah... a little shaken up."
"I guess you were afraid of how I'd react?"
Jacob nodded. "Yeah."
Trevor frowned. "Okay, I can see how you'd be nervous, but did you really think I was that closed minded? I mean, you know my stand on gay people. We talk about gay fans all the time..."
"That's different..." Jacob stared at the tabletop. "It's different when it's one of us. I didn't... I couldn't risk ruining everything..."
"So you didn't tell anyone? At all?" Trevor thought for a moment. "Wait a minute... you told Jeremy, didn't you? In fact, I'm guessing that's why you just had to go to Montreal. To talk to Jeremy about this."
Jacob slowly looked up. "What makes you say that?"
"Oh... just the fact that there's exactly one person on this whole damned earth that the camera crews won't film, and since that one person is also a good friend of ours and happens to be gay... well, it's not that great a leap of intuition." Trevor grinned at him.
"Actually, I wasn't thinking about the cameras at the time." Jacob took a sip of his coffee. "I just knew I couldn't tell anyone in my family."
"So you did tell Jeremy. Okay, I understand talking to him, but if you weren't thinking about the cameras, why didn't you tell any of us?" Trevor tried not to sound hurt at the thought of Jacob keeping a secret from them. "Don't you trust us?"
Jacob hesitated before he answered, "About this? No, not really."
"Not any of us?"
"No." Jacob looked down again, his voice dropping to be nearly inaudible.
"Not even Erik?"
"No." Jacob looked up, puzzled. "Why'd you ask about Erik?"
"You guys just seem to be really close. I figured you might have told him."
Jacob shook his head adamantly. "Hell, no. Could you imagine how he'd react?"
"Yeah, I could. And I don't think it would be any different than how I reacted. I don't think he'd really care. I don't think any of them would."
"But this..." Jacob stared into his cup. "No, I can't believe that. This isn't some little secret like stealing your toothpaste or breaking your headphones... this is... it's big."
Trevor shrugged. "Aside from the fact that you felt the need to keep it a secret and not trust us for so long, it shouldn't be a big deal. It's not that big a deal to me. I mean, yeah, things will be a little different, but now I understand you a bit better. I know you a bit better. I think that helps me, will help the band, and I think if the other guys know this, too, it'll be even better."
"But... but they might not..." Jacob took a deep breath. "You don't know they'll be okay with it. What if they're not? Even one person could..." his voice trailed off, but Trevor knew what he was thinking.
"Okay, look, Jacob. I don't know where you've been for the past year, but these guys are great. They're very opened and care about each other, and that includes you. This really won't be a big deal."
Jacob stilled looked dubious, so Trevor continued.
"Okay, here, I'll go through each of them. Dan. Dan's really opened about this kind of thing. You haven't heard it, but he and I talk all the time about how to handle gay fans. Remember that guy from Cleveland? Dan was really cool about it, and that was no act. Ashley's the same way... remember what he told that gay magazine last summer? And besides, I don't think you could do anything wrong as far as Ashley's concerned. The way he talks about you sometimes, you'd think Jacob Underwood was the best thing since sliced bread."
"Really? He thinks I'm cool?"
"Yeah, he thinks you're cool! He really looks up to you. And Erik..." Trevor paused. After a second of consideration, he said softly, "Well... Erik's bi."
Jacob almost dropped his coffee. "Wh... what?"
"As in... wait, as in bisexual?"
"Yeah." Trevor looked at him strangely. "You didn't notice?"
"How he acted when Ikaika left?"
Jacob's expression instantly went blank. "Don't talk to me about Ikaika," he said flatly.
"Ah. See? That's why you didn't notice it," Trevor said, nodding. "You were too caught up in your own little war with Ikaika to notice that Erik had a huge crush on him."
Jacob stared at Trevor incredulously. "Erik? Are you... you're sure?"
"Yeah, everyone knows. Didn't you hear Ikaika talking about Erik walking in on him in the shower a few too many times? And how Erik sulked for weeks after he left?"
Jacob shook his head. "No... why didn't he talk to me about it?"
"Oh, I don't know... possibly because every time someone even mentions Ikaika you go ballistic? None of us want to mention him around you, so Erik talked to the rest of us about it."
"And he actually said he had a crush on him?"
"Well... not in so many words." Trevor sipped his coffee. "But he did say how much he missed him. And how sad he was. And how he wished you didn't hate him so much." Trevor felt strange telling Jacob this, as if he were betraying Erik's trust. It was true Erik never openly admitted to having a crush on Ikaika, but it was generally accepted with Trevor, Dan, and even Jay that Erik had more than just friendship feelings in the mix.
"Oh... wow..." Jacob sat back.
"And," Trevor turned the conversation back, "as you can see, I myself am fine with it. So I seriously doubt anyone will really be upset if you come out. We're a pretty opened group of people."
"Yeah... more than I realized..." Jacob smiled for the first time since they left the club. "So... so I could tell them."
"Yes, you could." Trevor smiled and took another sip of his coffee.
"So I..." Jacob leaned his head back, overwhelmed. "I could actually tell them." Staring at the ceiling, he started laughing, an amazed, relieved sound. "I could actually tell them," he repeated.
Ashley jumped slightly at the sudden voice right next to his ear, almost shouting to be heard over the loud music. Turning, he saw Trevor standing beside him, looking out of place standing still in a crowd of dancing people.
"Trev!" Ashley smiled at him.
Trevor looked over at the girl Ashley had his arms around, then back at Ashley. "I'm guessing you are gonna want to stay here for a while?"
"Oh, yeah." Ashley, it seemed, had shaken the depression that had surrounded him like a cloud for the past few days and was having the time of his life.
"Okay, man. Be sure to bring Erik home when you leave, okay?"
Ashley nodded and turned back to the girl. It was obvious that, as far as he was concerned, Trevor no longer existed.
Trevor didn't mind. He smiled made his way back to the club exit. He was really happy for Ashley. They'd all been concerned with him when Shelli broke up with him yet again, but had allowed him his space to deal with it. Trevor hadn't been very confident in the wisdom of bringing him out to a club so soon, but the sight of Ashley finally having fun put those fears to rest.
"What are you smiling at?" Jacob asked as he handed Trevor his jacket.
"Oh, Ashley's on the dance floor with a girl," Trevor said.
"Yeah. It's good to see him having fun."
"Yeah... I guess so."
"So," Trevor led the way out of the club. "Did you find that guy you were with?"
"Nah, he's probably on the dance floor somewhere."
"Do you want a little extra time to look for him?"
Jacob thought for a moment, then shook his head. "I'd better not. It was a stupid thing to do, anyway. I was probably too drunk to think properly."
"Yeah..." Trevor looked up and down the street. "So you want to walk or take a cab?"
Jacob looked around, too. It was pretty warm outside, he had his jacket this time, and he had a lot of things on his mind he wanted to talk to Trevor about. "Can we walk?"
"Sure, no problem."
They started walking down the street, not talking for a few moments. It was Trevor broke the silence.
"You know, it might be better if we didn't tell Jay or Marc this."
"Or Lou," Jacob said quickly.
"Yeah, or Lou." Trevor paused. "You don't think any of them know already, do you?"
"What?" Jacob's voice was laced with fear. "You don't think..."
"I don't know, I was just thinking... after all, you rushed off to Jeremy's place and they didn't even ask why. Makes me wonder if they already knew."
Jacob didn't say anything for a while. "Do you think they'd act this way if they already knew?" he asked finally.
Trevor sighed. "I really don't know, man. I know Jay wouldn't really care, and Marc... I don't think either of them would mind, really, but I think they'd watch you very carefully so you don't give anything away. But Lou..."
"Yeah." Jacob grimaced. "Lou."
"He's a great guy, but I know you've got problems with him," Trevor said. He knew it was a great understatement, because Jacob sometimes got rather vicious in his rantings about Lou's ultimate control over them. Jacob, underneath it all, was an idealist who wanted to write and sing songs for the love of music rather than the marketability of the band. Trevor knew that, but he really liked Lou and was uncomfortable with the growing animosity between him and Jacob.
"I guess, yeah..." Jacob kicked at a rock in his path, idly watching it bounce away. "But I still don't want him to know. It may or may not be an issue with him, but I don't want to take that chance."
"Which is why you should tell the guys tomorrow," Trevor said.
Jacob sighed and stared up at the sky. Trevor had been saying that over and over again since they were in the coffee shop. Trevor honestly believed it would be the best thing for the band, and that a weekend with no cameras and limited supervision would be the perfect time to do it. And Jacob agreed that they would probably never get a chance like this for a very very long time... he just wasn't sure.
"I don't know, man. Even Jeremy didn't think I should come out to you guys. And Jeremy thinks everyone should come out to everyone."
"Yeah, but Jeremy doesn't live in the same house as us. He doesn't know what it's like to live in the same house with a bunch of guys you have to get along with. He doesn't know us well enough to know you've probably got nothing to worry about."
"But he knows other bands, and he knows what happened when other members came out." Jacob looked at Trevor. "Besides, it's the fact that we do live in the same house that I think the other guys might not like it."
"Yeah..." Trevor grinned slyly. "I was about to ask you about that. We do share a house... you don't ever... you know... look at me, do you?"
Jacob stared at Trevor, then laughed. "No... no, of course not..."
"Oh? Then why are you blushing?" Trevor asked.
"I'm not..." But he was. "I just..."
"C'mon, man. All those times in the hot tub, going swimming, changing in the dressing room?" Trevor raised his eyebrows suggestively. "Not even once?"
"No!" Jacob tried to keep a straight face and kept walking. "Seriously."
Trevor just looked at him for a moment and laughed. "Okay, man, whatever."
Dan looked up at the knock on the door adjoining the room he was sharing with Ashley to Jacob and Erik's room. Glancing at the clock he noticed it was just after twelve thirty. He could guess who it was that had come back early.
Standing up, he said loudly, "Was it really that bad this time, Jacob?" as he crossed the room and opened the door.
"How'd you know it was me?" Jacob asked, grinning.
"No one else comes back from the clubs that early," Dan said.
"Well, Trevor did, too."
"He did? Why?"
Jacob shrugged. "He was tired."
"So Ashley is still there with Erik?"
"Did you let them know they need to come back together?"
"Good." Dan turned back into his room. "Anything else?"
"Yeah..." Jacob hesitated. "Dan... can I call a meeting for tomorrow morning?"
"Tomorrow?" Dan frowned as he thought. "I think so... we need to check in tomorrow afternoon with the camera crews. Do you think we should wait until then?"
"No!" Jacob said quickly. "I know Jay said we shouldn't try and manipulate things to have private conversations, but... this is important, Dan."
Dan bit his lower lip. "If I say yes to this, and anyone finds out..."
"No one will find out. Honestly. And even if they did... just trust me, tomorrow you'll understand why. And be glad we didn't wait."
Dan considered for another moment before nodding. "Okay, I'm trusting you. But this had better be important."
"Don't worry, it is."
"Well, it's about time."
Ashley blinked in the sudden light. "Dan?"
Dan sat up in his bed. "Yes... what's wrong with you?"
Ashley smiled as he closed the door behind him. "Nothing... I just..." he started to say, but he stumbled as he stepped into the room.
"Are you drunk?"
"No! 'course not!" Ashley said with a giggle.
"Oh, God, you are." Dan sighed in frustration. "Get to bed. I don't feel like dealing with this right now."
Ashley straightened and managed to look indignant. "What? Can't I have fun sometimes?"
"Ashley... it's almost four in morning. You can have fun at a decent hour." Dan turned away and draped his arm over his face. "Turn off the light and go to bed."
Ashley took off his jacket and managed to kick his shoes off. Walking unsteadily across the room, he leaned over Dan. "You're a real sourpuss, you know that Danny?"
Dan didn't change his position. "Congratulations, you've graduated from being drunk to annoying. I hope you have a huge hangover tomorrow."
"Oh, shaddup... you can't ruin my mood." Ashley straightened. "I had fun tonight."
"Good for you. Now go to sleep."
"Fine." Ashley climbed onto Dan's bed and started walking across it.
"Ashley! What the hell?" Dan sat up and watched as Ashley jumped from one bed to the other, collapsing on his own.
"The shortest point between two lines," Ashley said sagely.
"Great." Reaching over, Dan flicked the light switch. "Now go to sleep. We have a meeting early tomorrow."
In the dark Ashley managed to take his shirt off. He was feeling great, and Dan's sour view on drinking and partying wouldn't mess it up for him. In fact, he didn't think anything could mess it up. Even thinking about Shelli didn't have the heart-stabbing feeling that had accompanied him for the past week. He felt better than he had in a long time.
Smiling to himself, he reminded himself to thank Jacob in the morning.
"Come in!" Jacob called.
Trevor opened the door and peeked in. "Hey, man."
Trevor came all the way in. "How'd you sleep?"
"Not so good."
"In the shower," Jacob said, but still didn't look over to Trevor. The early morning sunlight cast its light across his stomach as he lay on his bed, staring at the ceiling. A large glossy photograph lay beside him on the bed.
Trevor looked over at the photo. "Is that the one from the photo shoot?"
Trevor studied Jacob for a moment, then sat down beside him on the bed. "You okay, Jake?"
Jacob turned his head. "I really don't want to do this, man."
"Yeah, I hear ya'." Trevor nodded. "I wouldn't want to do it either... but I still think you should do it."
"Are you sure?"
"It has to be done. I firmly believe that. And it has to be done now -- when else are you going to do it? This is a golden opportunity... a God-send, actually. God gave you this opportunity to tell the others without any sneaking around or fear of anyone finding out. Take this opportunity, Jake."
Jacob was quiet, but after a moment nodded his head. "Okay," he said softly.
"Good man." Trevor looked at his watch. "I came by to tell you that Dan and Ashley are ready and waiting in their room. Dan thinks it would be better if we had it in there, so... we're just waiting for you two."
Jacob nodded again.
"You gonna be okay?" Trevor asked, concerned. When Jacob didn't answer, he said, "Hey, man, I know this is hard for you. I can't even imagine what it is you're going through right now. But I still think you're doing the right thing."
"But what if they..."
"They won't." Trevor sighed. "Listen... I know it's cliché and pathetic, but we're all in this together. We need each other, and can't leave one person off to himself just because he's different. Everyone here understands that. And even if they forget it -- which they won't -- remember, I haven't forgotten. I'm here on your side, and if we have to replace their brains with monkey brains, we'll make them accept you. Deal?"
Jacob smiled slightly. "Okay," he said softly. "Deal."
Trevor smiled encouragingly to Jacob, patted him on the shoulder, then stood up. "We'll be waiting for you in Dan's room." On his way out, he pounded on the bathroom door. "Erik! Five minutes!"
"Okay!" came the muted reply.
As soon as the door closed behind Trevor, Jacob closed his eyes. Trevor had interrupted him while he was trying hard -- shamefully hard -- to do the one thing that came so easily to him for his whole life until recently. He'd been trying all morning to calm himself down, to clear his mind and relax just enough to say a little prayer. He took a deep breath, trying to find that core of peace and tranquillity that had always accompanied him in his times of prayer.
It was surprisingly difficult. He hadn't prayed in months, and even now he felt vague shame as he thought about it. Though he'd tried to tell himself he was too busy, that God would understand that he had a life, a career, a dream to fulfill... he knew the real reasons why he hadn't kept up in his spiritual life. He'd been avoiding God, avoiding his morals... he'd been afraid to pray. He was afraid that God might have forgotten him and may now notice him, notice what was in his heart... what was in his mind... he was afraid that God would be angry with him and take everything away because of his sin. Because of his lust.
Because of who he'd allowed himself to become.
Jacob shook his head. He couldn't think about it. To his great relief, the two people who knew about him so far hadn't asked him the question he'd been dreading for years, now... the question that now surfaced in his mind.
What would God think?
Worse, what would God do?
Both Jeremy and Trevor were spiritual, though not nearly as religious as Jacob was. Both of them were fine with it. Both of them were so fine with it that the thought of God punishing him hadn't even come to them...
But it was coming to him.
It was coming now.
Looking up, and trying hard to imagine talking to Someone far above and beyond where he lay, he composed his thoughts into a prayer. A prayer for wisdom, for guidance, and strength. He said it quickly, as if it might escape God's attention why he was asking for these things, and rolled off of his bed.
He still felt a lingering, inexplicable regret, and hoped God would forgive him...
Crossing the room, he banged on the bathroom door. "Erik!" he called.
"What is it?"
"Come on, man! Hurry up!"
"I'll be there in... in five minutes!"
"Well, hurry!" Jacob called, but didn't mean it. He didn't want him to hurry. As far as he was concerned, Erik could stay in there all day.
Erik was, of course, the last one in the room. He walked in, still drying his hair.
"Hey, what's up, boys?"
"Erik, we've been waiting for ten minutes." Dan's voice was tense and frustrated.
"Yeah, well, I got up late. Why, is this important?"
"Yes. When we call a meeting, it's always important."
"Okay, fine." Erik rolled his eyes and sat down beside Ashley on the bed. "So I'm here now. What's this all about?"
Dan glared at Erik for another moment before looking to Jacob. "Jacob? You called this meeting."
Jacob nodded. He'd thought that more time would prepare him better for what was coming up, but in fact it had made it worse. For each second in every minute in the full ten minutes until Erik came, he'd gotten more and more tense. He kept running what he would say through his head, changing it again and again, as well as wondering what each individual reaction would be like. As the seconds ticked by his imaginations got worse and worse, the reactions more ugly and violent until he was so jittery he nearly leapt out of the room when Erik finally walked in.
But then he looked at Trevor, who was watching him carefully. When he noticed Jacob looking at him, Trevor nodded and smiled ever so slightly. Jacob tried to smile back, but he didn't feel much like smiling. However, the smile reminded him of Trevor's support, and gave him just enough courage to take a deep breath and begin.
"Okay... uh... guys... okay, how to say this..." Jacob's voice shook and even to himself sounded weak and uncertain. Half coughing, half laughing he looked down at the floor. "Uh... there's something... something I need to tell you guys."
Jacob's heart felt like it would burst from his chest, and it was getting hard to breathe. At the edge of his vision, Jacob nervously watched for any reaction, any sign of movement. Of course, there wasn't much yet. He saw Dan shift slightly, and Erik stop drying his hair. Ashley and Trevor stayed motionless.
"I... uh... I..." Jacob's voice failed him. Closing his eyes, he forced himself to take a deep breath.
"It's okay, Jake." Dan spoke softly. "Whatever it is, man, we're here for you."
Jacob almost laughed. Oh, really? He thought. Even if I told you I was... But he couldn't even finish the thought. With Jeremy it had been easy, he wasn't afraid of rejection. He only had to overcome his own fears and say it out loud. With Trevor... Trevor had been even harder, but he really had no choice and no leeway to deny it. But this... this was just too much. He couldn't do it...
"Jake? Is everything okay?"
Jacob felt a chill up his spine as he heard Ashley's voice. So filled with concern. So compassionate. So... accepting.
Looking up, Jacob took a deep breath. He could think of no introduction or prelude, nothing to say that would possibly introduce or prepare them for what he was about to say. Maybe if he did it like he'd done with Jeremy, just say it quickly, not worry about how it sounded or how it came out, and explain things later. Yeah, just take a deep breath, and...
"Guys, I'm... I'm gay."
Jacob's voice cracked with the last word, and he coughed harshly. He knew it probably made what he said almost incomprehensible, but he couldn't bring himself to say it aloud again. He felt a tingling heat creep up his back and into his neck, and he couldn't lift his eyes from the ground.
There was a moment of silence, then nervous laughter from Erik. "What? I'm sorry, I thought you just said you... I mean, I thought you just said you..."
"Gay?" That was Dan. "Jacob, did you just say you were gay?"
Jacob didn't look up, and was careful not to move, not even to nod.
"Jacob? Jacob!" Dan leaned forward. "Jacob, hello?"
"Yo, man, chill," Trevor said. Jacob felt an instant, cooling rush of relief. Never before in his life had he been so glad to hear someone's voice. "Can't you see how hard this is for him?"
"Wait... did you know about this?" Dan asked.
"Yeah, we talked about it last night."
"Oh... my God..."
Erik laughed again, but this was a sharp, painful laugh. "What?" he asked.
Trevor looked at him. "Don't start this, man. This was hard enough for him to say, he doesn't need you..."
"But... but he's gay?" Erik stood up crossed the room to stand in front of where Jacob was sitting. "Jacob? Jacob! Are you shitting me, here? Jacob!" Jacob didn't lift his head, and Erik started to reach for him. "Jacob!"
"Erik... Erik, man!" Trevor got up and pulled Erik away. "What's your problem man?"
"My problem?" Erik stared at Trevor. His voice had risen in volume and pitch. "My problem, man, is that I've been living with a homosexual. A... a fag. In the same fucking room!" Erik looked down at Jacob, then up at Trevor. "In the same... we... I was..." with a wordless, angry sound, Erik pushed Trevor out of his way. "I'm moving out. Someone else live with him, I don't want to be in the same room with him." He swung opened the door connecting their rooms and slammed it behind him.
There was a moment of shocked silence. Ashley was openly staring at Jacob, while Dan and Trevor were staring at the door where Erik had just left. It was Trevor who finally broke the silence.
"I guess I should go after him," he said. Looking back at Dan, he said, "Are you okay with this, man?"
Dan looked at Trevor, then over to Jacob. "Uh... I don't know, man." He shook his head. "I really don't know."
Jacob could feel Ashley's gaze on him, and barely noticed it when Trevor left. But Dan's words pierced him straight to his heart.
Are you okay with this?
I don't know, man. I don't know...
Erik looked up as the door opened.
"Trevor." Erik turned and continued packing, which for him was picking up the piles of clothes that belonged to him and stuffing them into his bags. "Did you come in here to lecture me?"
Trevor watched him for a minute. "No, man. I'm just wondering what the big deal for you is."
"The big deal?" Erik shoved a shirt into his bag with a violent punch. "Did you not just hear what happened in there?" He picked up some more clothes, and accentuated each of his next words by throwing them into his bag. "Jacob... is... gay."
"Yeah, I heard," Trevor said softly.
"And you can just sit there and take it?" Erik looked at him. "Oh, wait, that's right. You already knew about it. And still you sit there as if... as if it's all okay!"
"Why can't it be?" Trevor asked. "He's still Jacob..."
"No, he's not!" Erik almost shouted. "He is not still Jacob. The Jacob I knew was... Jacob's straight. He likes girls. He jokes with me. He..."
"He what? He's not someone you have to worry about looking at you in the shower? He's not someone you think will hit on you, or touch you when you're asleep?"
"Yeah!" Erik shuddered. "I have been sharing a room with this guy. I've been naked in the same room with this guy. Changed in the dressing room. And the whole time... the whole fucking time he was..." Erik sat down on the bed. "This is too much. I can't... I can't do this."
Trevor studied Erik's face for a moment. "So you don't like gay people?"
"What ever gave you that idea?" Erik asked sarcastically.
"Then the thought of another guy and another guy..."
"Don't... even talk about it," Erik interrupted, holding up his hand. "I don't want to hear it."
Trevor was quiet for a long time. Then he stood up. "You can share my room if you want."
"Don't thank me yet. You and I are going to talk about this."
"What's there to..."
"Trust me. We're going to need to talk."
"Are you in love with him?"
Jacob lowered his head into his hands. It seemed like he got no relief from this emotional abrasion he was going through. Too much was coming too quickly. The decision to talk to Jeremy and finally ending his lifetime of denial. The pressure of seeing the one person in the world he wanted every day and not have him. The knowledge of who it was he really wanted. The moment of irrational stupidity when he kissed Derek, something he still thought might not have happened if he'd just stayed in the closet. Trevor's catching him, and his incredible understanding. The opportunity to reveal his last secret to the group... and Erik's reaction to it.
Events were hitting him like bullets, and he was so raw and hollowed out right now that he was numb. He didn't know how to feel, how to react... he felt a little sad, a little angry, a little relieved, all mixed together in a tight ball somewhere in his chest. And right now, the last thing he wanted to deal with was Dan, using the last couple of hours before all privacy was snatched away from them, to ask as many questions as he could.
"Who?" Jacob asked.
"Wha... no... no! What the hell? Where did that come from?"
"You guys are kinda close..."
"So what?" Jacob turned to Ashley. "You think this, too? Just because I'm gay and get close a guy friend, suddenly I'm automatically in love with him?"
"No, of course not," Ashley said. Aside from Trevor, he seemed the only person who still looked Jacob in the eye. "After all, you and I have been really close, and I don't think you're in love with me."
Jacob smiled thinly. "Thanks, Ash."
But Dan wasn't finished. "So you're not in love with Erik? Is he in love with you?"
Dan gave Jacob a meaningful look. "Any of us? Are you... do you have feelings for any of us?"
Jacob looked away. "Look, Dan... you guys are like family. I love you guys like... I love you guys, but I would never..."
"It's okay," Ashley interrupted. Getting up, he came over to sit next to Jacob. "It's cool, man. We're still here for you." Without hesitation, he reached out and put his arm around Jacob's shoulders.
Dan looked from Jacob to Ashley for a moment. "I don't know, man... this is going to take some time getting used to. I think I'm okay with this... just give me some time, okay?"
"Sure," Jacob said hoarsely. He was very aware of Ashley's arm around him, and even though in his head he knew it was out of compassion and friendship and didn't really mean anything... his heart felt like it would burst. "Yeah, take all the time you need. I... I understand."
Ashley smiled at him. "We'll get through this, Jake. Don't worry about anything."
Dan laughed, but he was obviously very upset. "Worry? Sure, what's there to worry about? We've only got cameras coming back in a couple hours recording every second of our lives. But I'm sure they won't notice a thing... oh, hell, how are we going to explain all of this?"
"Yeah... and Erik went nuts." Trevor watched Jay talking to the cameraman. They hadn't noticed yet that the microphone they handed him was still laying beside him on the bed, and he wasn't going to call attention to it.
"I can't believe this." Jeremy's voice on the other end of the cell phone was slightly distorted by a thin layer of static, which was understandable since he was almost three thousand miles away. "Where is he now?"
"Who? Erik or Jacob?" Trevor spoke softly so no one would hear what he was saying.
"Ja.... well, Erik. Where is he?"
"He's on the balcony."
"Oh... is he... you know, okay to be out there?"
"He's not going to kill himself, if that's what you mean." Trevor glanced over to the window. "Wait... you don't think..."
"I don't know. You would know better than I because you're there, I was just checking."
"Well... see, now you've got me thinking about it... sheez, man, why did you have to...?"
"It's a valid concern. I've known it to happen before." Jeremy sighed. "I just want to know why you thought it would be a good idea for him to do this."
"What? You don't think it was a good idea?"
"Look, I know what was going through your head, and I don't want to make you think you did the wrong thing... but honestly... you know you could have talked to me about this."
"It didn't exactly cross my mind..."
"Should I feel insulted?"
"No! I mean... look, we had an opportunity to do this without anyone knowing. We're not going to get a break like this for..."
"For another year or so. C'mon, T, they're not going to keep the cameras on you forever. Eventually they'll cut away."
"And you think if we had more time it would have been better?"
"Worked for the Backstreet Boys."
"Yeah, well... wait a minute, did you just say..."
"Forget it, never mind. What I meant to say was I've seen it work for other bands who got to know each other first. I know you've been together for almost two years, but I've known couples who've been together longer who don't know everything about each other. Trust is a process, not an event."
"But... wait, the Backstreet..."
"Trevor, focus here. We're talking about your group. And right now, you've got a problem."
"Does Jay know?"
"No, should he?"
"I don't know... do you want me to talk to him for you?"
"Why, what do you think you can do?"
"Well, he called me earlier this week."
"Yeah, he wants me to help with the final production of the album."
"Really? Wow, that's great!"
"Yeah, great. He also asked about Jacob and what we did. Specifically, what we talked about."
"And I think he might think he knows something."
"Yeah, so... he might be waiting for me to say something. Do you want me to?"
"Um... I'll talk to Jake about it."
"No, better yet, let Jake talk to me about it. The little squirt hasn't called me about this yet. If he doesn't soon I'll have to cut out his tongue."
Trevor chuckled nervously. "Okay, man."
"So how is my little Grasshopper, anyway?"
"Well, he's... I left him with Dan and Ashley. I had to get..."
"Wait... you left him with Dan... and Ashley?"
"Yeah... why, is there a problem?"
"Oh... uh... no, no, of course not." Now it was Jeremy who seemed a little nervous. "Though now, if I don't get a call from him soon, I really will cut out his tongue. All the while pretending I haven't talked to you yet."
"I think it'll be cool. Dan and Ashley are pretty opened about this kind of thing."
"Oh, sure, it's real easy to be opened about it to magazines and to each other, but when it hits you in the face like this, it's a lot harder. Trust me, I've had firsthand experience."
"Okay, well... should I check on them? Or Erik?"
"I think you need to tell Jay that Erik might be depressed and should be watched, and you need to watch Dan and Ashley. Jacob's in a fragile state right now, and... oh, shit... I've got another call, man."
"Um... okay, I'll call you back in five minutes. I don't care who's on the line, I want to talk to you."
"Yeah, but the cameras..."
"Fuck the cameras, man. This is important." Jeremy's voice was unusually harsh and aggressive. "I'm calling you in five minutes. Cameras and microphones and anal fucking probes, whatever, you're talking to me and I'm talking to you. We need to do this. Understand?"
"Yeah... sure, man."
"Okay. Stay by the phone." With a click he was gone.
The camera swung up to capture Dan's face as he shook his head.
"No. No-no-no-no. No. Call me selfish and immature all you want, but it's my turn to have the single room. I never had my own room yet, and I intend to enjoy it."
The camera focused on Jacob as he stared at Dan's back hopelessly for a moment, then tried again. "Look, Dan, I know it's your turn and all, but Erik..." For the briefest of moments Jacob's gaze flicked to the camera, then away. "Erik isn't talking to me right now, so he's rooming with Trevor. I don't know why, but he won't go with Ashley."
"And why don't you want to room with Ashley. Don't you guys get along?"
"Sure we get along."
"Then there's no problem. Room with him."
Dan looked at Jacob. "Why not?"
Jacob lifted his hands in resignation. "I just... I mean... please, Dan, don't ask me to do this."
"Why not? What's wrong, Jacob?" Dan stopped packing his bag and turned to Jacob. "What's your problem? First you're all friendly with Ashley, then you decide you don't like him? That isn't fair to him. You know he complains about that all the time. He's a great guy, he's been a great guy to you, especially recently. You can't do this to him. It's not fair to him, it's not fair to us... So out with it. What's the deal?"
"I just..." Jacob sat down on one of the beds. "I can't room with Ashley. We just... we're not compatible living together. It's too much, and I..."
"Not compatible?" Dan went back to packing. "Not good enough."
"Okay, fine." Jacob came around and faced Dan. "The truth? I can't stand him. I know he's been a great guy to me and all, but... he's just so annoying. He never takes a stand on anything, needs the phone all the time... top that with the fact that he's always whining about Shelli, complaining about it being too cold no matter where we are, he's depressed and moody all the time... would you want to live with him?"
"I have been living with him."
"Then you know what I'm talking about. I can't do it. Please, don't ask me to do this. Ashley's a nice guy, but I can't room with him..."
"Oh, well thanks for telling me."
The camera swung over to the doorway that connected the two rooms, where Ashley had appeared and, apparently, heard the tail end of the conversation.
"What the hell, man? I thought we were friends. But all this time we spent together, all those times telling me how great friends we were... what, you're just putting up with me?" Ashley's face was dark red, and he seemed literally shaking with anger. "You know what? Fine. Fuck you, fuck all of you. I don't want to room with you. I'll sleep on the floor in Trevor's room if I have to, but you can stay by yourself you arrogant little prick." With that, Ashley turned and stormed out of the room.
Dan and Jacob were both stunned and motionless for a moment. Then Jacob got up and ran out the door after Ashley. The camera followed.
"Ash! Ash, man, wait up!"
"Get the fuck away from me!" Ashley called back as he stalked down the hall. Jacob ran up to him and pulled at his arm.
"Don't touch me!" Ashley whirled around and almost threw Jacob into the wall. Jabbing his finger into Jacob's face, he hissed, "Stay away from me. I don't want to see you... I don't even want to hear you... just stay away from me."
"Ash..." Jacob said imploringly. "Ash, just let me..."
"What? Talk? Explain yourself?" Ashley sneered at him. "I think you've said enough to last this group the rest of our lives."
Jacob fell back as if Ashley had actually hit him. "But... Ash, I..."
"No!" Ashley turned to walk away.
"No... please, Ash... Wait up a sec'." Jacob took a deep breath, and glanced over at the camera. This time it was obvious, and he gazed straight into the lens for a few seconds before looking back at Ashley. "Ash... look, I'm sorry."
"Sorry? Sorry for what?" Ashley glared at him. "Sorry for being my friend? For getting so close to someone you obviously can't stand?" Ashley allowed his bitterness to be heard clearly in his voice.
"No..." Jacob's consternation increased, and he seemed nearing tears. "Ashley, listen..." He glanced again at the cameras. Taking a deep breath, he managed to get himself under a little bit of control. "Ash, remember that... that thing we were talking about earlier? About Erik?"
Ashley seemed to calm down a little. "Yeah..."
"Remember what you... what you thought happened? What you thought I... had?"
"Well..." Jacob took a deep breath and leaned back against the wall. "I... sort of... sorta have it... but with you."
Ashley froze for a moment before slowly looking up at Jacob. "What?" he asked in a whisper.
"Me?" Ashley's voice was almost too quiet for the small microphone to pick it up.
"That's... that's why I can't... why I didn't want to share a room with you."
Jacob looked at Ashley, his nervousness apparent in his meek hesitancy. "So... I hope you understand."
"And I hope... I hope and pray we're still friends."
Ashley didn't respond. He just slowly turned and started to walk away.
"Ash?" Still no response. "Ashley!" Jacob didn't follow this time. He just stood in the hallway and watched Ashley walk away around the corner and out of sight. After he was gone, Jacob seemed to loose all strength in his legs. Leaning back against the wall, he slid down and pressed his face against his knees.
"What do you mean?"
"I just got a call from the camera crew. It seems Ashley and Jacob just had a little tiff."
"Her word, not mine."
"Something about Jacob not wanting to room with Ashley."
"Why doesn't he just room with Dan?"
"It's Dan's turn to get his own room."
"Don't they draw straws or something?"
"Yeah, and it came to Dan, and he's not willing to give it up."
"So why doesn't Jacob want to room with Ashley?"
"Where are they?"
"Well, Jacob went back to his room and is still there. Ashley left. They've got a guy following him, but no one knows where he's going."
"Hmmm... think one of us should go find him?"
"I don't know... he may want to be alone."
"He could also be upset enough to try and disappear."
"But we're leaving tomorrow..."
"All the more reason to catch up with him and make sure he gets back on time."
"Okay, fine. I'll go and keep an eye on him. It's probably nothing."
"Yeah. They have a weekend with no cameras that splits the band down the middle, something no one's talking about, and suddenly Ashley and Jacob have a fight? Those two were close this week -- really close. This isn't coincidence."
"You don't think..."
"It would be the perfect time for him to."
"If you talk to him, you might be able to find out for sure."
"Yeah... I was going to talk to you about that."
"What do you mean?"
"I was just thinking, maybe it wouldn't be so bad if Jacob fell for one of the guys in the band."
"Yeah... now just think about it. Think, if they were a couple in the same band, they would know what's at stake, and would reduce the risk of exposure."
"And what would happen if they broke up? Or had a fight? Relationships are messy things even without the pressures of being role models and iconic performers."
"Still nothing. Maybe I should go instead."
"No... I'll go."
"I don't want you filling his head with crazy ideas of romance..."
"I won't. Besides, Ashley's the straight one, right?"
"So far as we know."
"So far as we knew Jacob's straight, too."
"Okay, fine. See what's wrong, get whatever information, but other than that let them handle it. Agreed?"
"That much we agree on."
Erik stood on the balcony on the hotel room. He knew the cameras were behind him, behind the closed door and filming him through the glass, but he didn't care. The microphone he was supposed to be wearing rested on the table beside him, obviously turned off with the wire neatly coiled and wrapped.
He wasn't stupid. He knew what they would be talking about amongst themselves. He knew what they were whispering about him. He knew what they thought they knew, what they believed about him, and all the little schemes they were plotting to handle it. He knew what Trevor wanted to talk to him about, what he was expected to be convinced of, and what they thought they could make him do.
He knew they would try.
But he was determined that they would fail.
It was baffling to him how he was the only one who was still keeping his head. He seemed to be the only one who could still clearly see what was right and wrong, the only one who cold figure out what was going on. He could see it so clearly, and was frustrated that no one seemed willing to listen to him.
He didn't know exactly how to react or what to do about it, but he did know who was to blame.
Reaching into his pocket, he took out his cell phone and a crumpled piece of paper. After a moment of gathering his thoughts, he carefully dialed the number.
On the other side of the window, Trevor closed his cell phone. He couldn't get what Jeremy had said out of his head, and unconsciously looked through the window sadly at Erik's back. He didn't know what was going through Erik's head, but he could imagine it was difficult for him. Erik, in spite of being the most rambunctious and outspoken of all of them, was also the most delicate, proof of which being his blustery and at times even ridiculous image. Trevor had a lot of experience with people like that, and knew that the ones that spoke the loudest about how resilient they were tended to be the ones who were the heaviest effected. And Erik had always put on a calm and blithe façade to whatever they faced.
He knew the cameras were watching them both, but Erik had obviously taken off his microphone. It wasn't any huge deal since Erik was just standing out there, but while he'd been on the phone he saw Erik take his cell phone out. For a moment he considered going out and telling him to put the microphone back on, but reconsidered when he put himself in Erik's place. If he'd been through what Erik had been through, he was sure he wouldn't want someone telling him he needed to have his private conversations recorded. It was a fact he would have to face when Jeremy finally called him back. Besides, Erik was probably just calling his mother or something.
Outside, turned away from Trevor and the cameras, Erik's face contorted with anger as he yelled into the phone.
Ashley looked up. He'd walked down the street, no particular destination in mind and fully aware of the stares he was getting because of the cameraman following him. After a full ten minutes of crossing random streets and avoiding passing pedestrians, he'd found a relatively isolated park. Some kids were playing basketball on a cracked macadam court and a small group of joggers were making their way around the perimeter, but otherwise no one was around. Off to the side were picnic tables, and he'd headed over to them and sat down on top of the table, trying to calm down enough for his thoughts to start making sense.
Now, after almost a half-hour of sitting and staring at the grass, he heard a familiar voice.
"Jay?" Ashley looked around for the cameraman. He found him several feet away, still holding his vigil.
Jay came over and sat beside Ashley. "How're you doing?"
"Okay, I guess."
"I heard you and Jacob had a little fight."
Ashley shrugged and looked away. The basketball players had finished their game and were slowly dispersing, singly or in pairs. For a moment Ashley felt a stab of homesickness, and wondered what his friends back home were doing, and if he'd ever be able to just pick up a game of basketball like that again without the pressure of people watching and knowing who he was. For just the briefest of instants he felt the familiar regret that came to him sometimes at night, when he wondered if he'd made the right decision...
"You want to talk about it?" Jay's voice snapped him back into the present.
"Huh? Oh... no, it's nothing." Ashley glanced over to the camera, a quick and automatic gesture. "I'm sure we'll work it out later."
But Jay caught that quick glance. Motioning the cameraman over, he whispered something to him. Without pause, the man nodded and switched off the camera. A quick word to Jay, then he walked off.
Turning to Ashley, he said, "You can turn your microphone off."
Ashley stared as the cameraman walked away, the camera powered down and held in his hand like a briefcase. He'd almost never seen one of their cameramen like this, and the sight slightly disturbed him. "Wh... what? What do you mean...?"
"I mean your microphone." Jay reached into his shirt and pulled his own out. "I have a feeling you might be more comfortable without it."
Ashley was bewildered. In all the time they'd had the cameras on them, they had never been allowed to choose what scenes were taken out or left in, and certainly had never seen Jay, Marc, Lou or anyone else send a cameraman away. It made him more than a little nervous. "Am I in trouble?"
Jay laughed humorlessly. "If you were in trouble, believe me, I wouldn't be sending the camera away. It would be here for every second." He unclipped the small box at his back and wrapped the microphone wire around it. "No, you're not in trouble. I just want to talk to you."
Ashley still didn't quite understand, but he gladly unclipped the microphone from his shirt. Jay watched and waited until it was switched off and beside his on the table before continuing.
"Okay, let's start again. How're you doing?"
Ashley hesitated before saying, "Fine... I guess..."
"You don't sound very sure." Jay watched Ashley carefully. After giving Ashley time to think, he said, "Look. I'm giving you an opportunity to be honest with me. You don't have to take it, but I'd really like you to at least consider it." Ashley was staring at the ground, so Jay leaned forward to look up at him. "Ash? You think you can be honest with me?"
Ashley looked at Jay and smiled shyly, but still had a sad look in his eyes. "There's nothing... really... to talk about."
"Oh. Okay. `Nothing really,' huh? So I guess it's no big deal if I know what you and Jacob fought about."
Ashley looked away again. "We just... yeah, it's no big deal. Just stupid stuff."
"I heard he didn't want to share a room with you."
"Is that true?"
Ashley stared at his hands. "I guess."
"Did he give a reason?"
"He said... he said I was stupid. And annoying. And that I talked about Shelli too much."
"I see. And that made you upset?"
Ashley nodded. "Yeah, I thought we were friends." His voice was soft and hesitant, but as he continued it started to get louder and more assertive. "I mean, when he left for Montreal he was in a good mood, one of these times when he was talking to me, right? Because he would just stop talking to me for days at a time and not tell me why. Then when he came back, he was just so... so nice, he was so understanding and sensitive when Shelli broke up with me. He was always there, checking on me, he invited me to go with him with Erik to the club this weekend, we were doing great, I thought he was a great friend, and I thought maybe we'd have some fun finally rooming together, because we never really did that before. But then I walk into the room and he's there, practically begging Dan to stay with him so he won't be stuck with me..." Ashley took a deep breath.
"So that's why you walked out?"
"Isn't that enough?" Ashley paused. "You know what? Actually now that I say it out loud..." He looked at Jay. "Was I being incredibly stupid?"
Jay sighed and leaned back a bit, looking almost relieved. "No, no... being together for so long, little things look a lot bigger, get more frustrating, but it also helps you to get over it faster. You guys live in the same house all the time, you need to work stuff like this out."
"Yeah, I know."
"So... you're feeling better?"
Ashley sat up. "Yes, much."
"Good." Jay started to stand up.
Jay looked down. "Yes, Ashley?"
Ashley was suddenly very nervous, and started staring at is hands again. "Um... just really quickly... while the cameras are off and we have a little privacy... I was wondering if I could ask you for some advice."
"Sure thing, kiddo." Jay sat back down.
Ashley sighed again. "Um… okay, I've got this friend. Who's not me," he said quickly. "And, uh... he... I'm not sure how to handle him."
"Why, what's wrong? Is... your friend back home in California?"
Ashley thought. "Well, he's from California, yeah, but... that's not important." He shook his head. "What I'm trying to say is... no, nothing's wrong, he just... uh... well, we talked this past weekend and he told me that he's... well..." Ashley bit his lower lip, then blurted, "he came out to me."
"Yeah… as, uh... gay."
"Oh." Jay was very still for a moment, then nodded slightly. "And this bothers you?"
"No... I mean, no! Of course not. He's been a great friend to me, he... he's still the same, right?" Ashley looked at Jay, and he had an almost pleading look in his eyes. "I mean, it doesn't change you does it?"
Jay almost laughed. "Ashley... your friend hasn't changed at all. He just revealed another part of himself to you. He's still the same person, yes."
"Oh... good." Ashley smiled, relieved. "I already knew that, I guess I just needed someone to tell me that."
"Sure thing... and you said you're having trouble... `handling' him?"
Ashley started to blush. "Yeah, okay... he came out, and… he told me… well, he kinda… uh..."
Jay smiled. "What, he told you he loves you?"
"No… well, yeah, but not in so many words." Ashley's blush was getting darker, and once again he found himself unable to look Jay in the eye.
"Is this the real reason you're not sure how to handle him?"
"I see." Jay thought for a moment, then smiled. "Well, what do you think? Do you think you could go for him?"
"What? No! I mean… no." Ashley shook his head, but paused in thought for a moment. "I... I'm straight. I love Shelli. I loved Shelli... she... well, he's… well, he's good-looking, but I'm…"
"Once again, you don't sound very sure of yourself."
"Sure I'm sure, I'm..." But Ashley had to stop and think. Straight? Sure he was, that had never been in question before. But now that Jay asked... "I'm not. Sure of myself, I mean." He shook his head again in confusion. "Damn, I never really thought about this. Not until he said... I mean, I never really considered... because I'm pretty sure I'm straight, but..."
"But suddenly you're not so sure?"
"Yeah. I just... like I said I never thought about it, and..." Ashley's voice trailed off as he lost himself in thought.
"Hmmm. I see." Jay looked around for a moment, then back at Ashley. "That's actually not uncommon. Lots of guys your age go through moments of uncertainty, especially after a breakup or after a close friend comes out, and it looks like you're right in the middle of one. If you want my advice... Do you?" Ashley nodded. "Okay. This is all off the record, and don't you dare tell anyone I told you this. Understand?" Ashley nodded again. Jay took another glance around, then said, "My advice, on a personal level, and keeping in mind that I had to deal with this myself at your age... is to keep yourself opened to it. Forget everything you've been told or think you believe and open your mind. Keep yourself opened to any possibility. You never know what could happen, so don't shut him out, don't dismiss any possibility... and don't close the door on anything. You never know. Maybe you're straight, you'll end up with Shelli or some other girl, get married, and have 2.5 kids, a dog and two cats. Or you might end up with your friend, or another guy. Or," Jay raised his eyebrows and smiled. "You could just have some fun while you're young, explore things, and not worry about labels until you're old enough for that kind of commitment."
Ashley liked that last bit. "So… yeah! I'm young, I don't have to worry about this... I can just explore... have fun, right?"
"Sure. Go for it. Don't worry about labels or pigeon-holes. Just do what makes you happy."
"And when I get older I can just say I was young and curious... wow. Cool."
"Yeah, cool." Jay continued smiling, then leaned forward. "And, Ashley?"
Jay looked at him seriously. "Now, on the record, you're officially completely straight and always will be. For the record, you are officially single for all those pretty girls out there. And, for the record, if you're ever caught with another guy, I will personally skin you alive."
Jacob waited until after midnight before he took off the microphone from his shirt and turned it off. He wasn't supposed to do it until he went to bed, but they usually turned them off when they started getting changed, taking showers, stuff like that. Technically, this was breaking the rules, but right now Jacob couldn't care less.
The room was almost painfully empty. He didn't realize until he came back to it and started packing how much he hated having a room by himself, and how accustomed he'd become to having Erik to bother him and annoy him. He'd forgotten how close they'd become, and it was almost unbearable to look over at the cold and empty unmade bed where his friend had slept only the night before...
He pushed such thoughts away and picked up his cellular phone. He had more pressing matters to attend to.
Slightly paranoid, he double checked the microphone on the bed to make sure the small light was off. He didn't need anyone to even accidentally hear his conversation. Convinced he was safe, he dialed the familiar long-distance number from memory.
The phone rang once. Twice. Three times. Four times. Jacob started to wonder if it would be answered at all when someone finally picked up.
Jacob was startled at the unfamiliar voice. "Uh, yeah, hi... I, uh... think I have the wrong number..."
"Yeah... who is this?"
"Oh, Jacob! It's Ben! You need to talk to Jeremy?"
"Hold on, I'll get him."
There was a moment of silence, then came the voice he wanted so much to hear. "Jacob?"
"You have no idea how much I need to talk to you right now. Are you busy?"
"What? No, no... I'm available for a while. So... Whazzup, lil' Grasshopper?"
"You feeling okay? You don't sound so good."
"Okay... uh... want to talk about it?"
"No, not yet."
There was a moment of silence. "Okay... then should we just sit here letting the silence grow more and more uncomfortable until I accidentally hang up? ...or you could try and talk about something."
"Jeremy... I've been having a really bad week... I just want to have a normal conversation, and hear about something other than... well, something else. So tell me how you've been."
"Bad week? Normal conversation? Hmmm… sounds mighty suspicious. But okay, let's see what we can do. Um... well, uh... you know what? I can't just start like this. Ask a specific question."
"A specific question. I don't know what you want to hear about. Unless, of course, you want to talk about yourself, since you did call me."
"No, no, I... please, Jeremy, just... talk to me."
"Then ask me something."
"Okay..." Jacob thought for a moment. "So... are you still in California?"
"How is it?"
"Warm. Or at least warmer than Canada. It's cold for here, but we don't care, we're walking along the beach in our shorts... to the stares of the natives..." Jeremy laughed. "We're having fun."
"And how's Ben?"
"Enjoying himself. We're at my sister's beach house with lots of large windows, so he's a bit miffed at needing to wear a bathing suit when in the pool... but he compensates by splashing me every chance he gets. He says we need to come out here more often."
Jacob smiled, trying to imagine pale-skinned Ben in a bathing suit. "Can he stand the heat?"
"Oh, he's loving it. Almost makes me want to move back here."
"And what's stopping you?"
"Heh... everyone keeps asking me that. Everyone here keeps telling me all the wonderful reasons to move here like the beach, celebrities, and Hollywood. Then I tell them I moved away for the exact same reasons. I can't stand getting lost in movie sets every time I go to the mall."
"Oh. That reminds me. How's the movie?"
"Oh, excellent, excellent. I'm meeting lots of great actors and actresses."
"Who do they have?"
"Don't know if you'd recognize the names. Um... you'd probably know Lisa Kudrow, from the show `Friends'... and they've got William H. Macy, who I think is just fantastic… they've got Will Friedel, from `Boy meets world,' and... oh, and my favorite actor of all time is playing the lead."
"Never heard of him."
"Oh, well, you'll have to meet him. He's cute. Really nice guy. I'm turning him into a Nine Inch Nails fan."
"Corrupting our nation's youth again?"
"Yeah, Satan should be paying me."
Jacob surprised himself by laughing. Not so much at the joke but at Jeremy's tone, which was so believably serious as to be funny.
Jeremy chuckled. "Well, someone's cheering up."
"No, it's just you."
"Ah… is it just me enough that we can get back to how you are yet?"
Jacob leaned back in his bed and closed his eyes, trying not to imagine the empty room. "Not quite yet. Keep talking."
"Then you need to ask more stuff."
"Okay… speaking of nine inches, how's Trent?"
"Oh, he's okay. He's still a bit pissed about Limp Bizkit being on the soundtrack, but other than that, it's cool."
"Did you talk to him about Trevor's songs?"
"Yes, and he agreed to look at them. But the man's busy, Grasshopper. He's got a remix album coming out, a live DVD next month, another album in the works… he doesn't exactly have a lot of time to spare. You know how it is."
"Yeah, yeah I do." Jacob sighed loudly. "Okay, now you can ask me how I am."
"I'm not sure I want to anymore."
"Okay. Jacob, how are you?"
"I'm… I'm bad."
"Oooh. Okay. Tell me about it."
"I... well, I came out to the guys today…"
"What?" There was a slight pause. "Did I just hear you right?"
There was a longer moment of silence. "Let me get this straight. You came out to the other guys... and waited this long to tell me?"
"Well, I was a little distracted, because Erik stopped talking to me..."
"Wait... Erik stopped talking to you?"
"Yeah, he's not very happy right now."
"Alright. Stop. Start from the beginning. I want to hear your side of this, so... tell me. What brought all this on?"
"Um... I guess when this boy came on to me at the club we went to last weekend."
"A boy came on to you? Did they film that?"
"No, the camera crews were off for the weekend, and..." He was interrupted by a knock at the door. "Um... Jeremy, someone's at the door."
"What? Oh, hell no... no, you can't answer it. Is God somehow conspiring to interrupt every important phone call I get? Ignore it. I want to hear what happened."
"Jeremy... it could be important."
"It could also be a mistake. I mean, it must be close to midnight, there. Who could it be?"
"Whoever it is, it's bound to be important. I'll call you back later, okay?"
Jeremy sighed loudly. "Okay, fine... but you'd better call me back soon, dude. I want details, okay?"
"Okay." The knock came again. "I gotta go. I'll talk to ya' later, man." Jacob hung up the phone and went to the door. When he saw who had knocked, he hesitated before cautiously opening the door.
Ashley stood outside, smiling but uncertain. "What's up?"
Jacob stared at him for a moment. "Not much," he said quietly, unsure of how to react to Ashley's visit.
"Can I come in?"
Jacob considered for a moment just letting him stay outside. Ashley was really mad at him before, and Jacob had been hurt more than he'd like to admit when Ashley just walked away from him. But at the same time Ashley had a right to be angry with him for not being honest from the start. And he looked so nervous and vulnerable... Jacob had a feeling he might regret it, but his feelings overwhelmed his discomfort. Standing back, he let Ashley step inside.
"So what's up, man? You still mad at me?"
Ashley fidgeted slightly, obviously uncomfortable. "Uh... no, man, forget about it. It's good. I talked to Jay and stuff and he made me see I was just being stupid."
"So it's cool?"
"Yeah, it's cool man."
Jacob crossed his arms and automatically checked for the small microphone on Ashley's shirt, but it was gone. "Where's your mic?"
"I took it off. Jay said I could," he added quickly.
"Yeah..." Ashley glanced into the room, then back at Jacob. "So... all packed?"
"Yeah." Jacob glanced over to where his bags were neatly closed and arranged by the door. They seemed so lonely there without Erik's bags and haphazard clothes scattered around them. Thinking about Erik was still too painful, though, and he quickly looked away. "So what did you need?"
Ashley sighed. "Look, Jacob, I just... I needed to..." He ran a hand through his hair. "This is difficult for me to explain."
"Uh.... huh..." Jacob looked at him skeptically.
"Um... Jake, I talked to Jay, and uh... well, I..." Ashley ran his fingers through his hair again and looked up to Jacob. "I was thinking... you know... about what you said."
Jacob looked away. "Look, Ashley, I..."
"No, it's okay. Look, I understand why you got upset, I had no right no..."
Before he could continue Ashley reached out and took Jacob's face in his hands.
"Shhh..." he whispered, then pulled Jacob's face to him, kissing him full on the lips.
Okay, I know that was a little long... they usually won't be so long. For updates, progress reports for upcoming chapters, or just to say "Hi!" e-mail me -- Kai Wailbone email@example.com