by Ian McDuff
Cheers and jeers - and suggestions I may or may not take - gladly accepted at email@example.com. Profound gratitude goes out to David at Nifty, this series's first home, and to the beauteous and soignée Gabriella, Our Gracious Hostess (and brilliant author of My Surprise Romance, among other great fics, and hostess not only to me but to Casey and other superior writers at her site, Sweetheart Stories: It's Just a Beautiful Dream), at http://www.freespeech.org/gabriella/hosted/hosted.
I would like to take this opportunity to give a kudos or two to Gabriella, to Jackie, Karen and LB, Neesha, Stace, Jai, Jules, Alicia and Silvia, and Rashaun, to Casey of course, to Dale, and to Jim (of Jamie's Romance fame), who has the (ahem) second-best taste in music of any slash writer out there....
Standard Disclaimer: If descriptions of same-sex acts, feelings, &c are held to be - by any governmental entity asserting jurisdiction over you, or by your religion or moral framework - illegal, immoral, unethical, or fattening, read no further. If you are underage according to your local laws, read no further. If you have somehow managed not to notice until now that this is a slash (as in boys-with-boys) site, read no further (and look into either corrective lenses or remedial English classes, because you've managed to miss about a dozen different warnings to get here at all). I need hardly say that the events and personalities depicted in this story are wholly figments of the author's rabid imagination, and in no wise should be taken to imply that any actual member of any boyband, or any celebrity known to mankind, or any real person, is or conceivably could be gay - least of all the members of 'N Sync and of the Backstreet Boys, all of whom are of course straight, well-dressed, intelligent, articulate, cultured, sweet-natured, and kind to their mommies. No celebrity so much as mentioned here should be construed as having these assigned fictional habits, preferences, personality, or fashion sense. Major Lee also of course does not and cannot possibly exist - and I am certainly not he. (In fact, bits of him are borrowed from a lovably pompous writer pal of mine who has no idea he's gay....)
Equally, it should be evident that I have no contact with or knowledge of any of such musicians, pop stars, their agents, associates, staff, or families. Nor am I turning one red cent off this. Obviously, intellectual property rights are held by me, and no cross-posting to any site that charges any fee for entrance or activity is allowed without prior written consent from the author. The other warning is that this series is not going to move urgently into hot monkey sex - though, yes, we're getting there: patience; it will build, and it will I hope be something more than quick stroke-lit. Now enough prologue: let's get to the tale....
Sentimental Journey: Chapters Eighteen, Nineteen, and Twenty
In Our Last Episode: Thrown together by Amtrak, the members of BSB and 'N Sync fall in with dashing young military historian and lawyer, the Virginia aristocrat Major Custis Lee. The Major soon found himself their father confessor and an integral part of their joint 'Amtrak - VIA whistlestop tour.' In a move that backfired severely, the boys, playing Cupid, dragged the reluctant object of the Major's unrequited affections, Luke deMaria, along. That led to a tense scene or two - but nothing compared to the firestorm that erupted when Joey was caught with drugs in his luggage, and the Major and Dr Keyes forced a group meeting - and therapy session / confessional:
Chris was staring at James as we listened to him and Josh recount the past. 'So that was why you gave me that innocent look and suggested - suggested - you sneaky Mississippi Albino....'
'That - that motherfucker!'
Chris just looked murderously at Lance. 'Curly knows the word. And as for you ... "go ask Lou," you said, "you should be able to buy a new house for cash down with what we've made," you said.... Well I asked Lou and that motherfucker tells me he can give me an advance, a fuckin' loan, but that our cut - we're broke, do you people realize that, BROKE!'
James and Josh exchanged a look. 'I don't expect he told you where all the money went?'
'You sound awfully calm about this -'
'Well, Joe, gettin' mad won't help. Gettin' even, on t'other hand....'
Joey gave him a speculative look. Nothing in the world would convince him that their Scoop hadn't expected this, planned for it. But all he said was, 'Now you're thinking like an Italian, man - gotta love it....'
Oblivious, Chris stopped pacing and stood over the seated James, white with fury. 'He started spouting bullshit, but - fuck it!' Chris was uneasy with the question anyway.
'That question really hit home,' Chris told us that autumn night in the hotel. 'Part of what he said was that a big chunk of it had gone for ... well, had gone up my nose or what have you. I wasn't about to tell you that, then.'
'Chris. It's okay, now. He was so damn crooked you could have used his spine for a safety pin.' James turned to us all. 'Anyway. Kev and y'all ... I reckon that answers your question.'
'There are other questions, though,' Dr Keyes said. 'We'll take a break now.'
And now, Today's First Episode, Chapter Eighteen:
'Josh,' Dr Keyes began, after the break, 'I see where you're coming from on this.' He looked calmly over to Josh's lover. 'How do you feel about all this, James?'
James sighed, gustily. 'I love him. To me, he's perfect. But because I love him I want him to feel perfect, too. I wish I were enough for him to feel that way, but -'
'James! You are -'
'But you don't, though, you don't feel that way, so I'm not enough, am I.'
'Jesus, James, of course you are. I mean. Damn. Why the fuck do people let me write songs when I'm so damn inarticulate? When I feel perfect it's because of you. When I don't it's because of me, and my own hangups and shit ... like, overpowering, for a while, the feelings you make me feel.... Shit. I can't say it any better, I'm so fucking useless with words - yeah, Chasez the Big Bad-Ass Songwriter, what a fucking joke that is -'
'God damn it, Joshua, don't you ever say that! I may be a loser but I'd like to think I don't have a useless boyfriend -'
'What? Did you just call yourself a loser? Where the fuck did that come from, baby?'
The rest of us might as well have not been there - and if you'd taken a poll, I think it would have been unanimous that we'd rather not have been.
'From deep, deep inside,' James muttered wearily. 'It comes from way deep.'
'Oh my God,' Josh whimpered. 'Fuck. Fuck. I really have done a number on your self-confidence. I knew it, I just fucking knew it, I am useless, Jesus, I must be the worst damn thing that ever happened to you -'
'God DAMN it!' James took Josh and shook him like a terrier shakes a rat. 'STOP! Just STOP!'
Their gazes locked, in pain and anguish, both of them wide-eyed and terrified. James's eyes closed slowly in misery as the past few moments sunk in, then opened in horror.
'Oh my dear Lord, Josh, I didn't mean to - tell me I didn't hurt you -'
They stared at each other for what seemed an interminable time of agony and suspense. Then Josh clutched James to him, crushingly, with a raw need and desperation that hurt to watch. 'Never,' he murmured, 'never. Never. Never....'
I looked over at Keyes, and mouthed, 'God damn it, this is - the rest of us shouldn't be here right now -'
He was just as distressed, but replied, 'We can't interrupt now. They don't even know we're here.'
'They'll be hacked when they recall that fact, damn it....'
So far, they were still effectively oblivious.
'If I ever raise a hand to you, Josh, I swear I'd shoot myself -'
'Then we'd be headed straight for Hell together, James: I cannot, I will not live without you -'
'I just shook you 'til your teeth rattled, hon, I can't believe I -'
'You had every right, like slapping a woman who's having hysterics -'
'I don't think I could ever raise my hand to a woman ... course I thought I could never ever touch you in anger -'
'Baby, please, stop beating yourself up -'
'If I have to, you have to.'
James quivered from sheer tension then seemed to collapse, like a bow unstrung, against his love.
'Baby.' Josh gathered him into his arms. 'My precious, precious James. God, I sound like an old queen with an antiques shop and season tix to the opera. But you are precious. Fuck the macho bullshit. If I'm not useless, it's because you say so. Well, I say you're not a loser, even if you are stuck with me....'
'Don't. Sugar. Just ... don't.' James closed his eyes in pain. 'I've never wanted to ... to talk about ... look, my life before you is just something I ... well, I mean nothing before you matters, anyway -'
'It matters, baby. It made you who you are, and I love every fiber of your damn being, so it matters. It matters to me.'
'I've tried so hard to forget it.'
'James. James. You taught me - you taught me - we have to face things and face them down and stop running and hiding. I am here, James: me, the one who loves you. Talk to me. Please. Talk to me, let me in, let me face this with you and stare it down and break its hold on you. Please, James.'
James buried himself in Josh's embrace. 'It's not as if you don't know,' he muttered.
'But it needs to be talked about, not talked around, not anymore, not if it's affecting you like this.'
'Oh God.' James burrowed his head further into the crook of Josh's neck, and Josh just held him, rocking him softly.
'I should have known, a lot earlier,' James said softly.
'Y'all 'member what Momma always used to say, when I was leavin', even with y'all? "Remember whose son you are," the folks'd always say. Partly, well, they meant, mean, to remember that I'm a Christian. Partly, though, it's about the family and the family name....
'It bothers me to hell an' gone even now that I won't carry that on. I wanted to. I want to. And I honestly did ... well. I had my early crushes on Jennifer and Kathy Sue. The deal with Heather - she'd been after me and by the time I noticed she'd moved on - that shook me. Then there was Mary Ellen who was in the church choir with me.... I was good enough to buy lunch, dinner, movie tickets; I was useful to take shopping and be an errand boy; but ever' time cut came to shoot, she stood me up.
'By then, I had to be dangerously crazy about a girl to have the guts to ask her out - which of course didn't help with the next rejection, when it inevitably came. It was a few months ahead of when I got the call to audition.... Jessica was a pretty little thing from one of our better families, I mean, her dad was a lawyer - they were Episcopal, for Heaven's sake, money all over the place. She'd been datin' one of my soccer buds, Trent, and she'd found out - what I didn't know - that he was two-timing her. Right in front of him she asked me to a dance - and he begged me to accept, take her out, stand in for him as escort, on account of how he had to be somewhere else that weekend. That bein' to visit the gal he had on the side. Well, I did take her out. It felt ... to have ever' body lookin' over at me and gapin' and thumbs-up ... and as the night wore on, she told me about his two-timin', and I felt like that released me from any obligation to Trent, for damn sure. And.... Her plan worked - just as I was about to make a move, in walks Trent with the news that he's broken up with her rival. I was never so damn embarrassed in my life: but close, since whenever I got the shove it was never just a brush-off, it was like they wanted to humiliate me publicly. Damn if I wasn't dumb enough I let her use me as bait again the week before I joined the group, too.
'And all the time, while I was seriously and hopelessly wantin' these gals … there were these other urges.
'I mean, damn, I played seven years of soccer while also being the choirboy-nerd with the grades. No teammate crushes that I recall.
'But Jason…. We were probably seven. He was a natural athlete, playing for a different team, and Lordy was he handsome. I called his parents "Aunt" Maisie and "Uncle" Dexter: they were honorary godparents, and vice versa. Me and Jason'd played together since before we could walk, though he was several neighborhoods away, and summers, we stayed over. I was staying over there. He took me to the toolshed. For over a week, we - obviously at that age not having any real idea of what was going on - embarked on some major exploration. It was inevitably found out, and stopped. We remained friends, but went our separate ways. He died at 15 of congenital heart disease, collapsing on the soccer field; I was a pallbearer. I blocked this out for years.
'That same year Jason died, the Morenos moved in across the street: the first non-Anglos in the neighborhood. Paul was a classmate, and flat-out gorgeous; so was his sister, a year younger. They were a musical family, even Paul the jock; which, with Momma's musical enthusiasms, eased their transition. I think it gave us common ground; I'm equally sure that Paul saw me as belonging to a world he'd like to break into. One day he dropped by: we'd been arguin' about music. We were alone, listening to a new Garth album. He laughed: "Loosen up; get down here on the floor next to the speakers, and out of that damn hard chair." I did. There was less than an inch between us, and I know I didn't set that position. Hell, I couldn't move, trying not to eye-rape him. I'd ... I had forgotten this until now, now that I have to talk about things before all this … but there was, and I don't think I'm makin' it up lookin' back, an incredible tension, a waiting spark that could in an instant have arced over that space: either of us'd moved slightly or breathed funny, I flat-out believe, the whole barrier would have collapsed, and no telling what would have happened.
'Looking back, I can remember several boys I had just plain crushes on - and looking back, I see they run to a particular type: yours, Josh; but I was so friendless I thought I just wanted to be friends. Even when I first started realizin' I'd fallen for you.... Well. Of course I wasn't gay, I kept tellin' myself; bi, at most - and I really was still longingly interested in girls as well. Damn how easy it is be dishonest with your own self....
'But after you came into my life, Josh, there were no evasions left. Nowhere to run to. Nowhere to hide. It's just that ... I keep wondering, what happens when I wake up? Before you, I was always the lonesome loser. This - even more than the group: this - is the fulfillment of all my dreams. And I can't figure how it can last, what will happen when I wake up - or you wake up and realize that you've wasted the best years of your life on somebody as dull and geeky and clumsy and funny-looking as me -'
James buried himself in Josh's embrace: but not for long.
Josh gripped his fiancé by his shoulders and held him at half arm's length, looking levelly at him with a gaze that would have cut diamonds.
'James Lance Bass, I never want to hear you put yourself down that way again. You are the sexiest man, the most tender, the toughest, the most exciting and comforting and raw and gentle lover anyone could ever have, the best and most loyal friend, the wisest man I have ever known ... you have saved me from myself so many times I can't keep up with 'em all, you have rescued this whole damn group from shit I can't even deal with remembering, you are the one who made me a decent human being and taught me the meaning of home and love and every damn virtue I have.... You ... James.... Do you remember the day you came back from the hospital after that prick Lou drove you to collapse?'
'We got a problem,' Chris said grimly.
Justin and Joe looked over to the doorway where Chris was fidgeting.
'God,' Chris exploded, 'I wish whatever it is he'd just stop!'
'Tell me,' Joey said, in a tone that brooked no evasions.
'He just stays in that fucking room, with his headphones on - and even then I can hear it in my room - he'll be deaf before we get back to work - listening to the same stuff over and over and over. I'm ready to freakin' scream.'
'Blinded By the Light again?' That was always a bad sign, when JC started playing that repeatedly.
'Yeah,' Chris said. Justin shuddered.
'Springsteen, or the Manfred Mann cover?'
'Shit, Joe, does it matter? And worse -'
'N- not Pink Floyd again?' Justin was really worried now. That was a danger signal, with C: it always seemed to accompany his darkest and most self-destructive moments.
'Yeah. I wish he would get "comfortably numb" and let it go. And who the fuck is Vera Lynn, anyway?'
'Never mind that now. What else?' Joe knew that with JC, one didn't watch for clues, one listened for them.
'Well, the first time I heard it I thought he'd killed himself, I really did, but that fuckin' shriek is Maynard Ferguson on trumpet. And I hear Baker Street or The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald one more freaking time I'll kill him myself. I can live with that, though. What has me puckered is ... he's gone through Lansten's CDs and burned a mix. George fuckin' Jones, man. And the Allman Brothers. And Hold On Loosely, and Fooled Around and Fell In Love, and every third cut is Sweet Home Alabama, and every single time Van Zant says "turn it up now," he fuckin' does, every single time. It's - Jesus.'
'"Umhum" what, Joe?'
'Chris.' Justin was placatory. 'This thing with Lansten is tearin' him up, man.'
'There is no reason he should feel guilty for what Lou d-'
'That ain't the prob, Christopher.' Joe sighed. 'Stop foolin' yourself. You know what the score is.'
'I refuse to believe it, Joe. I mean, Jesus, he dates girls. He's fuckin' Bobbie all the time.'
'Lance dates girls.'
'Yeah, Just, but that's obviously cover -'
'So why can't it be with C?'
'Juju.... Man. I know you've known Spazz since the Creation, man, but. I don't see it.'
'You don't wanna see it, Chris.'
'And you do, Joe?'
'The truth is always worth seein', even if it ain't pretty. Yeah, I have - reservations, not problems. Pretty sure Jupe has problems, period. J?'
'Well.... It makes me antsy. I.... I was brought up - but hell, so was Lance, and he's the best guy I know, he and Jace, so, fuck, I don't know what to think. But I ain't gonna stop lovin' 'em whatever.'
Chris sighed and sat down, slumped over. 'I love 'em too. I just.... I dunno.'
Dre came in just then. 'Guys. He's here.'
They'd wanted to go, begged and demanded to go, to the hospital to pick Lance up, but Lou had vetoed it - on 'security' grounds. So Dre and Lonnie had brought him back.
'I'll get J,' Justin said, uncoiling fluidly and racing to the door.
The others followed. Justin had no need to get his oldest friend. Somehow, JC had been the first to know, cocooned though he had been in a weeks-long funk, cut off by headphones and a locked door and drawn blinds, he had still known, and as the three band members came to a halt in the hallway, they had their questions answered wordlessly. As Lance stepped haltingly off the elevator, Lonnie hovering in support, JC fell slowly to his knees and then prone at Lance's feet, arms outstretched like the Crucified Himself, not daring even to look up. A penitent at the altar, an ordinand before the Pope.
James sunk to the floor, on his knees, weeping silently, and tenderly pulled the sobbing Josh to a kneeling position, so that they were eye to eye. 'Never to me,' James whispered, again and again. 'Never to me....'
'You are my only god,' Josh said brokenly, before James put a gentle but firm hand over his lips.
'No. Never. Never. You and I have our peace to make with Him and with each other, but - oh my sweet love, we will. We will. It's going to be all right now.'
'James. God, James ... baby....'
'It's all right.' He pulled Josh to him, and they held on to each other desperately, as for dear life, tears mingling as their lips met.
Silently, the other members of N Sync, who had yet to be so much as noticed by the lovers, filed back into Joey's room. Justin threw himself onto Joe's bed, while Joe poured all three of them a stiff shot. Chris had slumped, sagged, against the door, and slid down it to sit on the carpet. Joe didn't say a word as he handed his friends the shots.
Chris slammed his. 'This better at least mean C will stop playing that damn mix CD on continuous repeat.'
'I think it means a hell of a lot more than that,' Justin said, distantly.
Joe shrugged. 'We'll wait to hear it from them.'
'Bet they'll never come right out and say it,' Chris said.
'Not that they need to, after that,' Justin said.
'Up to them,' Joe reiterated. 'Oh - and Chris?'
'A twenty says they will say it when called on it. And by the way. Dame Vera Lynn. English singer, kinda like Kate Smith here - kept up British morale durin' WWII.'
'I remember,' James said as Josh held him, there in the hotel with all of us forgotten.
'Then don't doubt me, or yourself. Please. You are my life, James. I know ... every time we take our relationship to a new level, you get these choking self-doubts. Let go a little. Use me as your mirror: see the incredible man I see when I look at you; let me give back some of the strength you've given me. When you're weak, lean on me, the way I lean on you all the time. You don't have to carry both of us all the time. Please, love.'
James tightened his arms around Josh and shuddered with a sob, then slowly relaxed as Josh soothed him.
After a moment or two, he pulled back and the two settled comfortably into each other. Suddenly, James stiffened and his eyes glazed. Alarmed, Josh started up and then came to the same realization himself. They had remembered the rest of us. They blanched, then flushed deeply.
'It's all good,' Kevin said. 'You're safe here, among family. I want both of you to know I am in awe of y'all, I admire the hell out you two and what you have, and whatever stupid shit's gone down in the past, I'm telling you now, you are family to me - to all of us - here on out.'
'Damn right,' said AJ, and the others murmured agreement.
James and Josh were still breathing fast and blushing, but they were settling down.
'James?' Dr Keyes's voice was soft and reassuring. 'Is this why you drive yourself so hard? To prove something to your Inner Censor, your father, your self?'
James hung his head, and nodded.
'With FreeLance, his management company, it'll just get worse, too,' Josh said quietly.
James slewed around and stared.
'Love, I am behind you two hundred percent, you know that. I just worry you'll drive yourself into the ground. And I am not going to apologize for loving you, and caring.'
James closed his eyes, exhaled, and embraced Josh, with a tender kiss. 'Never let me make you want to apologize for that.'
'I do the same thing,' Howie mused. 'I guess I figure if I become some cheap copy of Donald Trump, no one will be able to say shit to or about me, I'll make my pop happy even though I'm his faggot son and a disappointment, people will have to take me serious....' He and James exchanged a glance of perfect understanding.
James turned then and looked at all of us, a little uncertainly, but unashamed. 'Straight up, y'all. Are y'all really okay with this, with me and Josh?'
'Like we said,' Bri said simply. 'Family.'
'You know it,' Chris said. 'We never talked it out per se -'
'Whoa,' Nick said, involuntarily, then blushed and cleared his throat when the N Sync members looked over at him. 'Sorry, it's just ... we tend to act like a fuckin' corporation, deep down, despite all the PR bullshit, or we have, recent, hope that's fixed now ... but you guys're known to really be an' act like a family, always talkin' shit through....'
Joe smiled softly. 'Some things ... it's because we're this close we sometimes don't have to talk. We just understood Scoop and Spazz were a couple and treated 'em that way ever since they got things sorted, they knew we had their backs and we knew the score and it didn't need meetings or discussion or shit.'
'Would - would it have helped, would it have been easier on you guys if we had talked it over?' Chris asked.
James and Josh looked at each other, then at Chris.
'Damn if I know,' James smiled. 'Maybe it would have been good for the comin' out process, but ... to know y'all accepted us without even bein' asked ... that meant the world to us.'
'Especially that none of us had to walk on eggshells about it,' Josh agreed. 'When you geeks started raggin' on us about being such lovebirds, we knew everything was cool.'
'So don't start gettin' all solemn about it now,' James said, a grin returning to his face for the first time in hours.
'Thank God,' Chris yipped, ' 'cause I've been wantin' to point out that this whole thing's been Oldies Night so far.'
James and Josh just shook their heads, eyebrows raised.
'Well, yeah,' Chris said, bouncing. 'So far we've had (O What a) Lonely Boy, Lonesome Loser, Nowhere to Run, - and I mean the Martha and the Vandellas one - and - thanks to Kev - We Are Family.' Then he started warbling the latter song.
Maybe it was the relief after long tension, but we all laughed so hard a couple of the guys nearly puked or pissed themselves.
Sentimental Journey: Chapter Nineteen
We had to take a break after the laughing jag. When I walked back in, JC was scribbling in his notebook. He looked up. 'While you were out, all you guys, Hunter talked to me and James about the ups and downs, you know, and I thought I'd caught a lyric ... but it got away from me.' Unexpectedly, he tossed me the notebook. 'You're the musical type, Major. See what you can do with it.'
I looked at his henscratch. He'd juggled with the words, up, down, rising, spinning, to little avail: I figured he was blocked by having so recently heard James Taylor's The Secret O' Life. I took out my fountain pen - trust Justin to exclaim, 'Oooh, Mont Blanc, bling-bling' - and thought a moment. I wrote for a few minutes and tossed the book back to Josh.
'All right,' I said, 'let's get this show on the road.'
'Oh no you don't. Not so fast: I want to see just how inadequate you've made me look.' Josh said that with a grin, but I pounced on it seriously.
'All of you listen up,' I said sternly. 'Writing - writing anything - is a function of reading. Poetry, lyrics, mystery novels, history, essays, it doesn't matter. The proper food of writers is the words of other writers. Expecting you young men, for all your talent and indeed raw genius, to write with facility, when you've not been given the tools and the training, is as foolish as expecting you, regardless of what hidden talents and what personal courage you have, to become soldiers merely by handing you an M16 apiece. It's all about training. That y'all do so well as you do is the sign of untutored genius and the Grace of God. Artists are born and not made, perhaps, but this is a craft as well as an art, and craft requires apprenticeship. It would all come much easier if you steeped yourself in John Donne, or Willy the Shake, Browning and Keats and Yeats and George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter and Harold Arlen and Hoagy Carmichael. I tossed that bit of fluff off because of practice: years of practicing as a writer, though hardly a writer of pop lyrics; don't forget, too, I'm older, I've more life experience, which will come to all of y'all in time. It is just fluff: this ain't my life as it is yours, so all I just did was an exercise in technique. When y'all write, it's from the heart, whether I feel it or not. Generational and cultural thing, I guess. But y'all wouldn't have to sweat quite as much blood if you had the craft to match your innate art. Do you read me? Then I suggest less of the PlayStation and more of the poets, all right?'
'This isn't fluff,' Josh said. 'I mean, where did this come from, it's not, it can't be, just fluff -'
'Hell it cain't,' I said. 'The maple key bit - I thought about thistledown first, but no one this side the Atlantic has any idea what that is - I cribbed from Annie Dillard. I repeat: steep yourself in great writers, and you shall become one.'
'Read it to them,' Josh said to James, who'd been absorbed in reading it over his shoulder. 'Read Up and Down to us.'
Up and Down
Up and down
Like a maple key
Spinning and falling in currents of air;
Down and up:
Darling, you and me,
Falling, rising, buoyed up by our care.
Up to us
In love's sweet embrace
With our caring we'd make the world fair,
Up to us:
Leave it up to us
Love can transform the world on a dare.
Down to us
Darling, if we were
The last two on earth (what a pair):
Down to us -
We'd still make that end
Something glorious, blazing, and rare.
Up to us, down to us,
Yes, my love, here's to us
Down or up, we'll go on
Falling, rising, resurging,
We'll pick ourselves up off the floor.
We fall but to rise
While there's love in our eyes
And our spirits will reach out for more.
Up to us...
Down to us...
Up and down....
(Up to us...
Down to us...
Up and down....)
Up to us:
Sweetheart, watch us rise
We fly low but to swoop on love's wings:
Up we go,
In each other's eyes
Is the promise that lifts us past things.
Up to us, down to us,
Yes, my love, here's to us
Down or up, we'll go on
Falling, rising, resurging,
We'll pick ourselves up off the floor.
We fall but to rise
While there's love in our eyes
And our spirits will reach out for more.
Up to us...
Down to us...
Up and down....
(Up to us...
Down to us...
Up and down....)
'It's just fluff,' I repeated. 'Technically accomplished fluff, but, fluff. An exercise. Were y'all to add technical accomplishment to your undoubted unfluffy and heartfelt genius, there'd be no stopping you.'
Keyes decided this was his opening. 'Howie? Like James, you're driven to be the best at everything and you spread yourself right thin to prove yourself. How do you feel about this?'
'I like it, I admire it, but - and maybe five days ago it'd have been different, but - y'know, I really don't feel I have to try and compete.' He paused. 'Seems silly talking about family expectations with a Lee in the room.'
James nodded. 'I know. I mean, we're good people, but the Basses ain't anybody really -'
'From where I sit you are,' Luke interjected. 'There's as much distance between where I come from and where you are as there is from the smalltown middle-class Prots to the FFVs like the Major. And you know what? There's just as much pressure, all this patriarchal fucking bullshit about the family and the family name and all, even down where I came from, a bunch of half-literate Italian fishermen.'
D walked over and hugged Luke. 'I understand.' He turned back to Dr Keyes. 'But for whatever reason, it is different.'
'Why is it different now?'
'I have Nick. I came out. I'm not a gutless closet case any more.' He sat back, thinking hard. 'I know coming out isn't a magic bullet, 'kay? But - I feel a part of things again. I was s'posed to be the mild one, the grounded one, the mediator, and that's fine, but ... what I was, was withdrawn, in a shell, behind walls. Now at least with the people I care about ... freedom is kind of intoxicating, isn't it? I spent so much time hiding, censoring myself, distant.... I know James has had it rough, but at least ... look at you, James. You're a burly guy with a deep voice, even if you do have some pretty to you in the face. I'm this little guy with a voice only dogs can hear, and unlike you, Chris, I've never - obviously - been able to bolster my macho by having a hot girlfriend, not for real.... I've spent a long, long time tryin' not to be noticed. Partly ... I was too busy hiding to see, and Aidge, I will never forgive myself for that -'
'Hey. I forgive you - shit, ain't nothing to forgive -'
'Oh, but there is. But - being hunkered down behind the walls I'd built ... I didn't see what was happening, I wasn't there to protect my brothers ... one reason I hid so well, though, I always had a bad feeling about that chingar Lou, and I especially didn't want to be noticed by him. Not offstage. Bet you he'd done to me what he did to Josh, a least as far as harpin' on the fag thing, even if he didn't know any more'n he did with Josh. Unless he has gaydar....'
'He does,' I said flatly. 'I agree he didn't really want to mess with y'all, and thank God for that. But he strikes me as the classic instance of an extreme closet case, and one of those obese, beringed-and-bejeweled, Proustian queens. Y'all do know about his other eyebrow-raisin' business interest?'
'Oh. Shit, yeah....' That was Kev. 'That's right. Chippendales. What straight guy builds his business around male strippers and boybands? I bet that's where he gets his rocks off - poor bastards, but at least it kept him from really preying on us when we were young, thank God.'
I nodded, grimly. As far as I was concerned, I had acquired a target on one Louis J. Pearlman, and nothing could save him now.
D shuddered. 'But at least now, the lies and evasions are over, with the guys I care about. And ... and I have Nicky in my life now. That gives me hope, and the strength to carry on.' He smiled at Nick, and they kissed, tenderly. 'Sure, there're hurdles ahead ... I nearly blow chunks every time I think about comin' out to my parents ... but.... I can face it now.'
At the mention of parents, Nick had winced. Dr Keyes called him on it with a raised eyebrow.
Nick half-turned, burying himself in D's embrace. 'I hate them.'
'Nick!' Kevin couldn't help himself.
'I do, Boo, I swear I do, I know it ain't right and I know how you and Bri and all feel about family and I'm sorry and if I had your family maybe I would too, but I hate them, I hate them....'
'It's all right, Nick. It's all right.' Dr Keyes's voice was professionally soothing. 'Why do you feel this way?'
'I'm not their son! I'm a show dog, a trick pony, I'm their fucking cash cow! Shit, they're grooming Aaron to be next, and Leslie for God's sake. I'm income to them - and that fucking gooey book Mom's writing, Jesus Christ! They've whored me out. I swear, I can hardly wait to throw my being a gay boy in their faces -'
'Hold it right there,' James snapped. 'Is that what this's all about? If you're playin' D -'
Nick's jaw dropped and he crumpled. 'Oh God no, no, no - D, baby, please - I don't mean that, you know I don't, what we have is, it's real, man, tell me you know that -'
'Sssh. Sssh. I know. 'S a'ight, little dude. Dry those eyes, baby boy. I know. I know.'
Nick was still sniffling. 'I really love you, D, I do. I even let you call me "little,"' he said with a ghost of a smile. D kissed his tears away.
'I know. But James's right. They always say, "never come out in anger." This ain't something to use as a weapon, as blackmail. That cheapens who we are and what we have.'
'I would never -'
'I know. It's all good.'
'James? Guys? I'm sorry. I just ... James? What was it like, comin' out to your 'rents? 'Cause I know they're pretty strict and all....'
'We'll tell you when we do,' Josh answered.
'Y - you haven't - I mean -'
'Major,' James said, 'this is just what I meant, we're not good enough at this to be role models all of a sudden -'
'You're doing fine, James. Answer the man.'
James shot me a look of pure exasperation, and I blew him a kiss. That got everyone grinning.
Smiling, James turned back to Nicky. 'The time hasn't been right. The lawsuit ... all that ... it's not something to do casually. It is going to be done: I have some fears, of course I do, but "perfect love casteth out fear."'
It was just then that the house phone rang, pat on cue, as if the Fates had a sense of melodrama. Big John Sullivan answered, and his face went taut.
He turned to me, first.
'There's a problem in the lobby, Major. A bunch of lawyers, a process server, and ... well. Wait one on that. And James, your folks are down there too.'
James swallowed nervously.
'First off, though, Major and Jake or I need to get down there and break things up. That other group ... it includes Pearlman.'
I smiled like a wolf in a sheepfold. 'Lovely,' I said. 'Let's go.'
Sentimental Journey: Chapter Twenty
We exited the elevators into the lobby and stopped. A phalanx of Suits surrounded an obscenely fat, sweating man with glasses and a cruel, Neronian expression. Two salt-of-the-earth Southerners - who were to the most casual eye Lance's folks: he looks startlingly like both of them - and younger couple who were clearly Stacy and Ford Lofton, stood stiffly on the other side of the room, facing the Pearlman forces down.
Lonnie and Dre swiftly crossed over to the Bass family and shepherded them to the elevator. Pearlman and his forces started forward, evidently designing to get on the elevator as well. I planted myself in their path, Jake beside me, as the door closed behind us.
'I don't know who you are,' Pearlman sneered, 'though I know him. Doesn't matter. Get outta my way.'
'Fuck yourself,' I said politely.
He 'swole up,' as we say down home, like a turkey gobbler. 'GET outta my way!'
'Blow it out your ass, assuming you could find that with both hands.'
'Do you know who I am!?!'
'Obviously. No gentleman would ever be this rude unintentionally. What do you think you are doing here, Pearlman?'
'"Pearlman"? Not even a "Mister" with that? I don't know you, but -'
'So you said. I am Major Custis Parke Lee, of Virginia, liaison to the Department of the Army for this tour, which is underwritten in part by Army Recruiting. Now I repeat myself for the last time: what the hell do you think you are doing here?'
'Look, pal -'
I raised the volume to a full parade-ground roar. 'YOU CALL ME SIR, GOD DAMN YOU!'
It actually rocked him back a pace, and the sweat broke out on him afresh.
Upstairs, they heard the elevator ding.
Josh gulped, and started to get up, to put some space between himself and James. James stopped him.
'It's time, sugarpie.' James was paler even than usual, but composed, collected.
Josh shivered, but sank back down next to his fiancé.
'You son of a bitch,' Pearlman spat. 'I don't care if you're Colin Powell, I and my counsel and the process server are going up there. It is our considered belief that this tour and the performance violates the terms of the settlement -'
'Who the fuck is your chief inhouse or outhouse counsel?'
'I am,' said a Suit, affronted.
'Where did you get your law degree? A box of Cracker Jacks?'
'Sir!' He was white with fury.
'I happen to be, in addition to a Major of Armored Cavalry, a member of the Maryland, DC, and Virginia Bars. Even before Army Recruiting became an underwriter, this trip was sponsored by Amtrak and the Department of Transportation.'
'So?' Pearlman had no clue. The lawyers, though, were beginning to realize the implications, and looked ill.
'The Federal Tort Claims Act, gentlemen - and Pearlman. You go forward with this and I personally will file not only a 12(b)(6) dismissal motion but a Rule 11 Motion for Sanctions on the grounds of a facially frivolous action's being brought, so fast it will make your head spin. I will soak you for your last cent. Is that clear?'
Pearlman turned on his counsel. 'Is - is what he's saying - have you shlemazels - farkakte! Schmendriks, all of you! Fired! All of you are FIRED!'
In the suite, everyone was sitting back down. The N Sync boys had long since learned - those who weren't Southerners to start with - to rise when ladies, especially Southern ladies, and particularly Diane Bass, entered a room (though Joe usually had to nudge Chris). They loved her, but they knew she could be sweetly and gently uncompromising on standards, a true steel magnolia.
'Momma. Daddy. Stacy, Ford ... is there - what's wrong - I mean....'
'Honey, we didn't mean to startle you! It's all right, nobody's sick or in trouble.' Yet, Diane thought, as she tried not to notice how her son and JC were sitting. Her glance crossed her husband's, and she saw the same thing in his eyes: the fact they had all tacitly avoided, the signs they had chosen not to see, the discretion Lance and JC had preserved up to now.... 'We wanted to surprise you, and Stacy and Ford wanted to see you.'
She paused, and took a deep breath.
'Honey, is there something you want to tell us? You and, and JC?'
'Fire them, by all means,' I drawled. 'But hire replacements quickly.'
Pearlman swung his bulk back to face me. 'Why?'
'Because you're going to need defending. I am onto you.' I took two quick strides and went nose to nose with him, stabbing him in the sternum with my index finger as I spoke each word. 'You are going down, Pearlman. I shall destroy you.'
I about-faced and headed for the elevator, Jake a step ahead. At the door, I turned. 'If you are not off these premises in three minutes, I will call the nearest Reserve Component MPs and Provost Marshal and have you in the stockade for interfering with Army operations. Good day to you, and I'll see you in Hell.'
'Lance ... is there something you want to tell us?' Diane tried to keep her voice steady.
'No, Momma.' Lance felt JC tense next to him. 'There's something I need to tell y'all, but I can't say I exactly want to. But I do want to, too, sort of. J- Josh and I ... Josh and I are, um, together.'
As Josh braced himself and James Bass the Younger hung his head, hunkering down against the storm, Diane slumped against her husband. Stacy looked up sharply as Ford stood and began to pace.
James Senior cleared his throat. 'I think perhaps we should discuss this somewhere else.'
'No, Daddy. These are my friends and colleagues, and they know now. Have for a few days.'
'Well, son -'
James the Younger looked up at that: he'd been afraid he'd never hear that word again on his father's lips.
'I recognize that, and them. There are a few here, though ... I don't know -'
'I'm sorry, Daddy, I should have made introductions.' The world could be coming to an end, and Southerners would be obsessing over manners. 'Lenore is the Tour Manager. Dimi is our new fitness trainer. Colonel Keyes is an MD and a counselor. Jake there is BSB Security. And this is Luke deMaria, he's from Pass Christian, a staffer for the Senate Transportation Committee, along to see that Amtrak stays straight. Y'all, these are my folks, my sister Stacy, and my brother in law Ford Lofton.'
'"Straight" may not be the right word,' Luke grinned. 'Dimi and I have signed every confidentiality clause known to man, and besides, I'm gay myself. So it's not as if we'll talk.'
'I didn't mean that,' James Senior said. 'It's just ... I was thinking family, but Lance, if you want this hashed out here, you have that right.'
'I'm not happy about any of this,' Ford growled.
His mother in law looked sternly at him. 'Ford, light somewhere and shush up. You're part of this family "for better or for worse" and you will behave yourself. We all will. I'm not jumping for joy myself. But family sticks together.'
A glimmer of hope shone in Lance's eyes. 'Momma?'
'Honey ... calm down. We.... I'm not going to pretend this is a total shock. I'm also not going to pretend I had hoped I was wrong. You are still the little boy I carried and nursed and the little boy your Daddy played catch with and took fishing and the baby brother Stacy always tried to carry and always dropped - oh don't look at me like that, I was always there to catch you. And I still am.'
Lance had told himself he wouldn't cry. He was steeled against any storm of condemnation. What he had not defended against was love. Tears began to spill from his eyes, and Josh didn't even think or hesitate before pulling him into an embrace that said everything.
'Lance, honey. We are going to have to work this through. You know as well as I do that it goes against everything we believe. We did our best to teach you -'
'And you did a fine job, ma'am.' Jake and I had reached the suite. 'Not least in instilling in him a deep-rooted honesty.'
The Basses and Loftons stood and faced me.
'Miz Diane, Mister Jimmy. Mister and Miz Lofton. I'd like to speak with you in the hallway, please.'
Before they could ask, Lance answered. 'Momma, Daddy. This is Major Lee, of Virginia.'
It embarrasses me, most of the time, the way almost every Southerner braces to attention, Lord help us, when someone says something like that. But for James Lance Bass's sake, and Josh's, I would use every weapon in my arsenal. The Basses and Loftons joined me outside, Ford looking stonily at the door as it closed on Josh kissing Lansten on the temple.
'Well,' Diane said, with a glint of humor. 'Major Lee-of-Virginia. I take it that means....'
'I am one of those Lees. Yes ma'am.'
'And you're - okay with this?' Ford was truculent.
'Does it matter? I am, as it happens. But it's hardly my business. Any more, sir, than it is yours.'
'The Word of God -'
'Mr Lofton, I'm sure you're a well-read man and a good Christian. But I'm willing to bet I know more about the aorist tense in New Testament Greek than you do. We'll leave the Old Testament out of this, since, last I looked, y'all weren't Hasidic Jews. Ham or bacon this morning for breakfast?'
'That's not the same -'
'Sure it is. Same part of the Torah, the Holiness Code in the Five Books of Moses. Y'all cain't pick and choose. Not on this.'
'You're probably not a Baptist,' James Senior said with some humor.
I nodded. 'Anglican, of course. Ford, do you drink?'
'Wh- wait a minute, this ain't about me -'
'Son, it sure as shooting is. Your wife and your in-laws are looking for reassurance. You're the one spoiling for a fight.'
'Damn it - sorry, Stace, Diane - it's just wrong.'
'Why? Because of Leviticus? Christ came to fulfill the law. You're in the same boat, if that's what you're relying on, as the early Church faction that wanted Gentile converts to Christianity to get circumcised and keep kosher, and you know what happened with that: Paul said no and Peter had a vision that said no.'
'What about what Paul said about men lying with men?'
'How good is your Greek?'
'I'm talking about the King James version -'
'Paul didn't write in English. I swear, I will never understand y'all. Y'all act as if every word - in Jacobean English - was dictated verbatim ... right until you get to the Miracle at the Wedding at Cana or St Paul tellin' Timothy to drink some wine "for his stomach's sake," at which point you stop being literalists. If you can pick and choose, so can anyone else. I tell you, though, St Thomas Aquinas was dead right. The plain meaning of Scripture is fine when it is plain. When it isn't, reason is king. And when it appears to contradict established fact, that means the meaning has been misinterpreted. Truth is indivisible and God cannot, as a matter of definition and logic, be a liar. All Scripture has to be interpreted and understood in light of those principles. You cannot possibly disagree with that?'
Ford shook his head.
'All right then. What do we know? We know that being gay, like being an alcoholic, is genetically predisposed. More to the point, we know some other things - a lot of them from Paul. We know that "nothing can separate us from the love of God." We know that "he who loves another fulfilleth the Law." We know that we should "owe no man anything but love." We know that we are to set an example and to let the world know we are Christians, not by bumper stickers or pestering people, but by the example of our love. And if there's any principle the Protestant Reformation stands for, it's that the individual conscience, not central authority, is the Prot's guide to religion, ethics, and morality, so on y'all's own terms, you have only to ask yourself if Lance's conscience is worth trusting.' I turned to Diane, Jim, and Stacy. 'Is it?'
'Lord, yes. He's always been the best young man....'
'He still is, ma'am. And his conscience is clear. So's Josh's.'
'JC is a good man,' Jim mused.
'Do you feel better now?'
'So do I.'
'I'm taking it on trust, Major.'
'That will suffice. Accept him, love him, be there for him. He's still that young man you love.'
'It's just hard to take the finality....'
'When he was dating girls ... was that -'
'It was honest. I don't think there are labels for him or Josh. They just happen to be each other's life-loves and soulmates, gender being an accident.'
'He's always been honest, that's true....'
'He still is. Mister Jim.... I am a widower. My wife died in childbirth, and my son a-borning. Do you think I wouldn't give all I have to have a son like Lance, regardless of who he loves?'
The Basses winced, and Diane hugged me as Jim awkwardly patted my shoulder. 'Thank you,' she said softly. 'You're a dear man.'
We walked back in, and the Basses and Loftons just spread their arms wide as Lance came forward. Stacy broke out long enough to grab Josh and pull him into the hugging.
When they broke, everyone was grinning.
'I was so scared I nearly ralphed,' Chris said. He meant it, too.
'That's because y'all are bigots,' I grinned. They all looked at me. 'Straight, bi, gay: all y'all are prejudiced.'
'Y'all have this idea that just because we're Southerners we're savage backwoods hicks. All the South-bashing in this country.... You think, honestly, you'd have been as worried if the Basses were Congregationalists from Vermont?'
It was a red letter day. I'd done the impossible. Not a damn one of them had a comeback. I high-fived James Senior, James, and a sheepishly grinning Ford as the others gaped.
Join us next time for another thrilling installment of Sentimental Journey. What new dangers are lurking within the rolls of Lou Pearlman's fat? Is Ford squared away? Who knows what evil lurks - um, never mind. This exciting drama is brought to you by the St Louis Browns Baseball Club. We now return you to our studios for a concert of popular music by Count Basie and his Orchestra.