by Ian McDuff
Cheers and jeers - and suggestions I may or may not take - gladly accepted at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
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 - to the fiction, people: not any real persons, bands, logos, &c - 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: Chapter Twenty-One
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. Now, a group meeting of rare intensity has been ratcheted up a notch by the appearance of Lou Pearlman downstairs - and the unexpected arrival of Lance's family, to whom he is on the verge of coming out:
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?'
And now, Today's Episode:
They were in Ashtabula, Ohio. It was a cold evening, with winds off Lake Erie rattling the windows. It served to underline how snug James and Josh were, propped in bed, cocooned in one another, pleasantly tired from that afternoon's whistlestop performance. They were reading, James deep in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Josh absorbed in The Writing Life: thanks to the Major - and the maple key - both were now devoted converts to Annie Dillard's writing.
They both reached the end of a chapter, simultaneously, and exchanged a tender glance. Books and eyeglasses soon found themselves on nightstands, and the two cuddled closer.
Wheeling, Akron, Lima, Toledo, and now Ashtabula were behind them, and the shows had been superb. But the days since that long, white night in Pittsburgh had been memorable for more than just the fans' excitement.
'Though I bet it burns that fat bastard to a crisp to see that we still have it,' Josh mused.
'Let's not talk about him,' James said. 'This is a happy time.'
'Anytime I spend with you is.'
'Yep. And you love it.'
They kissed, smiling.
'I surely do, stud. I surely do.' James settled in closer still to his fiancé. 'It's been something, hasn't it.'
They thought back to the intense finality of that Pittsburgh session, with Lou Pearlman looming over their newfound freedom with all the darkness of the past, with Justin's raw and bloody soul-baring, and with the Basses and the Loftons facing an unexpected future....
'I am fine with it,' Jim Bass had said slowly. 'And then again, I'm not. I'm fine with it because I love you, son, and I trust you, and I have to believe that even now, "all things work together for them that love the Lord, and are called according to His purpose." And Josh, sonny, if James - if I have to face the fact that Diane and I are going to have two sons-in-law and never a daughter-in-law to spoil, well, if it had to be anyone, I'd as soon it be you. You're a good boy, and you've always meant a lot to, well, all of us.
'Same token ... this is a lot to deal with. Right now ... son, like your Momma said, we suspected - I'll be blunt, son, right or wrong we feared - that you might, uh, be ... gay ... and right now I think we're too numb ... it was still a shock, after all....'
'You have a hard row to hoe,' the Major had said quietly. 'Just as James and Josh do. After all, for the same reasons they have to hide, y'all can't very well start going to PFLAG meetings. Y'all also are going to have to deal with this without resort to the usual supports.'
Ford had winced, and James had looked stricken. 'Momma, Daddy, I never thought this would put y'all in a closet too -'
'Shush,' Diane had said. 'You have to worry about you, and Josh. Not us. If you think we'd ever put our own comfort above your needs and your life and your love, hon, well, I'd want to know where we went wrong, raisin' you.'
'I still wonder that,' Jim had said. James stiffened, then. 'Now hear me out, son. I mean ... why did you not trust us with this? Have we been such terrible parents you feared us?'
'Jim! That's -'
'Now, Miz Diane,' the Major had said. 'It's natural, expected, and par for the course. You'll feel - all y'all - worse about this tomorrow, startin' with a panic attack about 0200 overnight, and then after hittin' bottom over the next couple days, y'all will all get back to acceptance and love, and move on. It's the standard etiology.'
'Custis, do you want to swap jobs?' Colonel Keyes had asked. 'You're right, of course, even if unqualified to opine.' He had winked when he said that, though.
There in the Ashtabula hotel suite, snug against each other, James and Josh cuddled against the gale, thinking back to the storms just past and those on the horizon.
'Happy time or not,' Josh murmured, hesitant to raise a storm of his own, but determined: 'happy time or not, babe, I'm worried shitless about Juju.'
'It does you credit,' James sighed. 'I am too.'
I had been unable to read Justin's face or posture, which was unusual, in that the boy tended to broadcast his every feeling. The Basses and Stace and Ford were still with us, slowly getting used to the idea of Jamesanjosh (TM). Everyone else had spilled their guts before the alarums and excursions of the past hour ... except Justin. His affect was flat, all shields up. Dr Keyes and I exchanged a glance.
'Justin?' Keyes was in charge: I let him go forward, though I was of two minds about the timing. 'You haven't spoken yet for yourself.'
Justin hung his head and slowly shook it in a tight, bare negative.
Diane stood. 'If y'all still have matters to discuss -'
'Stay,' Justin whispered. 'Please.'
James and Josh exchanged an uneasy glance. So did D and Howie, and Bri and Kev. It was the latter twain who spoke up.
'Kev and I -'
'Cuz there and I haven't yet -'
Justin slumped in his chair, gracelessly: a mode unexpected and worrisome: save perhaps Josh, no one had ever seen Justin so defeated as to lose his inherent and unthinking bodily grace.
Dr Keyes looked over towards the Kentucky cousins, his glasses flashing, lenses briefly opaque and reflective of light, unreadable. 'But is there truly anything you two have to tell us?'
'Umm ... I'm preachy and hot-tempered, and Kev can be an anal-retentive asshole?'
Kev leaned over and flicked his cousin's ear with a finger, hard.
'Guys....' Justin's voice was ragged. 'Nice try, but ... you've had your says. You can't shield me here, and I can't keep putting this off.'
'Why'd you try to shield Justin, anyway?' Dr Keyes asked the Kentucky Cousins, insinuatingly.
'Because it's what I do,' Kevin blurted. 'This damned, damnable business has soiled all of us so much, and I feel a lot of guilt that guys I'm responsible for and care about and was s'posed to lead got spattered with the filth. That's why I'm - the way I get, sometimes.'
'And I was raised that same way,' Brian added. 'Plus we're supposed to look out for each other, the Good Lord says so, and ... well. Train ain't the only one feels big-brother-y at times, okay?'
'That ... that is ... God,' Justin choked, 'and all this time we've been at each other's throats and here y'all are being family to me almost like my bros over here -' and he lurched over and threw an uncoordinated arm around their necks.
'Like I said,' Kevin said, and his eyes weren't dry either, 'family, here on out.'
James held a slumbrous Josh against his chest, and gazed at and through the window that looked out upon Lake Erie, and that bowed a little in the gales lashing Ashtabula.
'Right now, what with the end of the suit, and starting over, and the Major around and all, we're all of us more open, and more vulnerable, and more nigh to honest. It's when things get back to -' he snorted to underline the sarcasm - 'back to "normal" that I worry about most, with Just, with BSB, and, hell, with ever'thing 'cept us. When the masks get cemented back into place and we forget our real faces....'
We waited, tensely, as Justin sank back into his seat, into himself, into a lanky, coltish ball of misery. Once again the Basses and the Loftons started to slip out, to keep from intruding, and once again Justin waved them down.
'Y'all are important to me,' he said. 'I need y'all here.'
'We're here, then, for you, no matter what,' Diane told him, laying a motherly hand on his arm.
He sniffled, but managed not to break at that.
'I don't know who I am anymore.'
A few mouths around the circle opened to speak, but thought better of it; a few shoulders shrugged: they all knew what that was like.
'No, y'all, not like that. I mean really. Not the way - the way we all get in this damn business. But ... I've lost myself. I know what the fans know: the favorite color, breakfast cereal, canned freakin' answers to every question from shoe size to that damn unending "boxers-or-briefs" - I swear some day I want to go commando and when they ask that live, just drop trou and flash the world.'
'That'll help sales,' Chris quipped, irrepressibly. Colonel Keyes cut him off with a look.
'Yeah,' Justin said, 'and that's just it, we're pieces of meat now. I know who Justin Timberlake, Pop Star, is. I miss me. I don't even know who that fucking is anymore.'
I looked over at the Basses, who were wide-eyed, at least partly by hearing this sort of language from the Infant of 'N Sync, and pled wordlessly with them to stay cool.
'Is it the curly-headed freak who makes a damn fool of himself tryin' to be ghetto? Didn't start as a freak, man: I mean - I meant - it about music bringing us together and I think I used to have something there, I think Real Justin really did like R&B and hip-hop and really did think we could get over all the racist bullshit if we all just had a common language of music. If I knew where to find Real Justin anymore, if he even exists, I'd ask him 'bout that.
'Is Real Justin that boy any longer? Or is he some freak who just has a bad case of "jungle fever" and gets off on "dippin' it in the chocolate" and all that stuff people say about me? And they say that because they can, because there's someone inside this head of mine who is all about that, who has a thang for it and wants him some Black booty.
'But - what about the others in here, huh? Was Real Justin the boy who grew up singing Amazing Grace and Rock of Ages and The Old Rugged Cross and had preachers in his family and wore a "WWJD" bracelet and got scared when there wasn't anything around that reminded him of home and greens and grits and ham and really loved Britney and wanted to wait and got so fucking sick of it when people mocked her and him and the things he and she'd both been raised to believe in? 'Cause if that's Real Justin I want to find him and ask him a lot of questions. Startin' with where the fuck has he been and why did he leave and run out on me.'
By now, Justin was in a fetal position in his seat, face hidden, what little of his flesh that was visible being cherry red with anguish and humiliation.
'Maybe, though, Real Justin is the scared-shitless boy who ... who even when he's freaking with a hottie or getting down with a sistah or just wishing he was somewhere normal where a Justin and a Britney would go out for ice cream and hold hands and agonize over whether or not to "go all the way" ... who even then is wondering, thinking, tryin' not to wonder or think, about ... about what C's ... about ... oh fuck it ... wondering about what C's mouth would taste like, what C's cock would taste like, or Brian's, or AJ's, what it would feel like to have Joe wrapped around me or Lansten or Kev or Custis pounding my ass deep or blowin' D or Howie or takin' it both ways from Chris and Dimi or - or sixty-nining with Luke, man! Oh, God,' he moaned, and tumbled out of his seat to sprint for the latrine.
Josh, stricken, started to stand as the sound of retching reached us. I waved him down.
'My duty,' I said grimly. As I started for the door, I tried not to look at the group, but failed. Josh's pallor rivaled James's usual skin tone, and James was flushed red as fire. Chris was hyperventilating and Joe was patting his back absently, not focusing on anything, and green with guilt and shame. AJ had sunk down against the leg of a chair, eyes screwed shut and tears seeping from them even so. Brian had buried his face in his hands and was clearly wrestling in prayer, Kevin was blanched and shaking, Dimi's face was twisted with sympathy and shared pain. Luke had staggered to the draped window and had his back turned, trembling, looking fixedly at nothing; Lenore was brushing away tears. Jake and Big John were tense with fatherly concern and aching to give in to paternal instinct; Howie's expression mirrored AJ's, and he was holding and rocking a silently weeping Nick. Even Dr Keyes was, unprofessionally, moved.
The Basses and Loftons were dumbfounded, but I read distaste in Ford's face, pure embarrassment in Jim's and Stace's, and a steely determination to mother the living hell out of the hurt lamb in Diane's.
I took all that in in a glance, and marched into the latrine.
Justin had thrown up everything he could, and was hunched over the bowl, blood-red from tears and mortification, snot-nosed and disheveled. I knelt next to him, careless of his condition, and ran a soothing hand down his spine, soothing him as I would a horse. I dropped a light kiss on the top of his head, and his blush redoubled; then I stood, knees creaking, and handed him my handkerchief. When he had wiped his eyes and blown his nose, he stood, unsteadily, bracing himself against the sink. I ran cold water into it and took a washcloth to his face.
I hugged him then, and supported him as he staggered back out to face - or not face, as he could not look anyone in the eye - his friends and family.
I stopped in the middle of the circle, and put a firm hand under his chin. 'Look at me, son. Look at me.' I had to force his chin up, and it was touch and go whether he would force his eyes open. When at last he did, they were still suffused with tears, and bloodshot as a basset hound's, and as sad.
'Justin. That's you. You. The "real Justin Timberlake" is right here, with us, with his family and friends, surrounded by nothing -' I looked levelly over at Ford - 'nothing but love and support and caring. The real Justin is all those facets you mentioned, and a hundred you did not: jewels, rare and precious gems, have a lot of facets, after all. The real Justin is the young man who comprehends and contains all those aspects you mentioned, plus a voice and a soul, a talent and a sense of humor, a taste for cereal and a hell of a jump shot, a longing for home and a love of the spotlight, and half a hundred other things that sound like contradictions but are not, because they are all a part of you. And that real Justin is bigger and stronger and deeper and a right smart nicer than the Pop Star that shares that name, so long as you keep it real. Now look up, and around, and see the faces around you all of whom love you for you.'
Like a condemned man being made to face his executioners, he slowly took his gaze from mine, and looked around. The minute he did, Josh, and James, and then all the others in a jumbled mass, moved in, hands outstretched.
He wasn't ready for this, seeing threats where only love was, and panicked, startling, poised to fight and flee. I grabbed him and pinioned him and we were both borne down in a group hug that he suddenly relaxed into with a sob.
When they all let him go, James and Josh and D and Howie still, with me and - oddly - Luke, holding and supporting him, he looked shamefacedly at the Basses and Loftons.
'You poor thing,' was all Diane had to say before he crumpled, and she moved in to hold and mother him as we all stepped back. 'Now, now, hon, it's all goin' to be just fine....'
Join us next time for another thrilling installment of Sentimental Journey. What will the Major do to Lou? Will Justin come up heads or tails? Who knows what evil lurks - um, never mind. This exciting drama is brought to you by the Bundles for Britain Committee. We now return you to our studios for the Burns and Allen Show. 'Say "goodnight," Gracie....'