One Dark Night

Chapter Seventeen: Mending the Fences

Jerrica and I sent the others ahead to Celia's while we waited for Kimber and J.B. Joey seemed a tad reluctant at first about leaving me behind, but I assured him that, with Jerrica by my side and M.F. not far away, it was highly unlikely Johnny would try anything with me. He had glanced over at Jerrica, burst out laughing, and then went to go get in Mandy's car. As we watched them drive away, I turned to Jerrica and said, "Remember when life used to be normal?"

Jerrica cocked her head to one side and said, "Define normal."

"Any time before last week," I said with a laugh. "Before these five guys suddenly appeared."

"Do you have any regrets about any of this?" Jerrica asked candidly.

"Not a one," I said automatically. "I wish things had worked themselves out differently, but since it's too late for that, I might as well just go with the flow."

"I think you've taken this pretty well, all things considered," Jerrica said thoughtfully. "You have a tendency to flip out when you're not in control."

"What? Are you saying I'm a control freak?" I asked.

"Pretty much," Jerrica said. "You know as well as I do that if you don't have some sort of control over what is happening, you practically have an aneurysm."

"That is so not true!" I said loudly.

"Yes it is!" Jerrica said firmly.

The two of us began to squabble, which, as everyone knows by now, is nothing new, and we were only interrupted by the sound of Kimber clearing her throat. "Sorry for the interruption, but leaving right now might be a good idea."

"I take it things didn't go well with Johnny inside," I said.

"That's putting it mildly," J.B. said as she went to get in the car.

"Let's go," I said as I opened the car door and climbed into the driver's seat.

As soon as we were all in and had our seatbelts on, Kimber asked, "Do you two fight like that often?"

Jerrica and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. "That was minor," Jerrica said. "You should see us when we really go at it."

When I saw Kimber's eyebrows rise quickly, I said, "Don't worry. We're tame. We're also incredibly loud, but it's all bark. We do this a lot, and if you learn to ignore us sooner rather than later, you'll save your sanity."

Kimber looked over at J.B. and said, "What did we get ourselves into?"

Jerrica and I laughed as I turned the car on and shifted into reverse. The car had moved maybe all of ten feet when, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted someone running toward us. Turning my head so I could see more clearly, I realized it was not Johnny, as I had started to fear, but Justin, whom I had momentarily forgotten had come in with Johnny earlier. "What is that boy up to now?" I muttered under my breath. Stopping the car, I rolled down the window when Justin approached and asked, "What's up?"

"Uh," Justin began, fidgeting, "do you mind if I ride with you guys?"

I glanced over at Jerrica, who rolled her eyes and looked away from me. She knew I would never say no, so even if she objected—and she probably did—it was pointless to say anything. "Get in," I said at last. "Kimber? Do you mind scooting over? I'm sorry it's going to be a little cramped with the three of you back there, but fortunately it's a very short ride to Mama Celia's."

Kimber grumbled a little as she moved over so Justin could get in and sit down. As soon as he was in and the door was shut, I continued to back the car out of its spot before shifting into drive and leaving the parking lot. I had just turned out of the lot onto the street when Jerrica, God love her, asked the question that was foremost on my mind. "Justin, what the hell are you doing here?"

"Huh?" Justin asked eloquently.

"Clean out your ears and pay attention," Jerrica snapped. "I asked you what you were doing here. If memory serves, you were supposed to be going to Orlando." Jerrica was still quite upset with Justin over what had happened the day before, and it was obvious from her tone of voice that she was in no mood to play any games with him.

"I did go to Orlando," Justin said slowly, "but apparently that plane was turning around and coming to Baltimore. I walked off the plane and had gone no more than ten steps into the terminal when Johnny grabbed me. He was heading up here and decided that I should come too, so he had me get a ticket and come with him. I didn't want to, but Johnny doesn't take 'no' very easily for an answer."

"You're telling me," I muttered.

"So he strong-armed you into coming," Jerrica said, voicing her thoughts out loud. "Does he know anything about what transpired yesterday?"

"No," Justin replied adamantly. "Once I had bought the ticket and he made sure I was on the plane, I've been ignoring him ever since."

"Well, at least you have some semblance of brains," Jerrica said. "The less Johnny knows about anything, the better off we are, I think." Glancing over at me, she asked, "Couldn't we just have Johnny killed or something?"

"Jerrica!" I shouted, glaring at her out of the corner of my eye.

"It was just a thought!" Jerrica said. "It would make all our lives easier."

"No! You can not have him killed."


"That one's debatable," I said with a small smirk. "Get back to me later on that."

"Uh, you two aren't serious, are you?" J.B. asked.

"Me? No. Jerrica? You probably don't want to know," I said with a grin.

J.B. looked over at Kimber and said, "I don't know what we got ourselves into, but I think I can be well assured that our lives will never be dull."

All five of us laughed before falling silent the rest of the way to Celia's. Once in the parking lot, we got out and went inside. Celia greeted us the moment we walked in the door. "It is about time you decided to show your face," she said warmly, giving me a hug. "Mister Joey, Miss Mandy, Miss Karri, and the others have been waiting for you."

I noticed once again that we were the only ones in the restaurant, which was highly unusual for that time of day. "Mama Celia? Where is everyone else?"

"What do you mean, my child?" Celia asked.

"There's no one here but us. Where are your other customers?"

"I closed the restaurant at two o'clock, and I will not reopen until four," she said proudly. "That will give all of you some privacy. I know it is hard for Mister Joey and his friends to be able to sit down and eat a nice meal without, um, interruptions."

"Oh, Celia, you shouldn't have," I said lightly. "We're going to cost you so much money if you keep doing this. It's okay. We'll manage somehow."

"I am happy to do it," Celia said, "and I am not worried. Two times will not hurt me, and besides, just remember to leave a good tip before you leave." Celia winked at us and started to laugh. There were times when I was never sure whether I should take her seriously or not.

"Thank you Mama Celia," I said, giving her another hug. "Again, you didn't have to, but I appreciate the fact that you did."

"I know. Now, I think there is someone over there who would like you to stop talking to me and start talking to him instead."

I glanced over at Joey, who just sort of waved at me from a couple of tables over. "Hint taken." Jerrica had already gone to sit with Chris, so turning to Kimber and J.B., I said, "I'm going to sit with Joe. You are welcome to join us, if you like, or else you can sit anywhere you want. It appears the restaurant is ours for a while."

"We'll give you some time to yourselves," Kimber said, "but we do need to all talk later. Oh, and I need Jerrica to re-sign her form. Johnny tore hers up back at the dance studio."

"What did he do that for?" I asked.

"Long story. I'll tell you later," Kimber said quietly. "Now go have lunch with Joey."

I smiled at Kimber and then went to go sit with Joey. Karri and Mandy were already sitting there across from him, so I took the seat next to him. I had barely sat down three seconds when Joey leaned over and kissed me square on the mouth. It surprised me, so the wide-eyed look on my face must have been what caused Mandy and Karri to burst out laughing. From the next table, Chris said, "You know, there are people trying to eat over here!"

Breaking Joey's kiss, I turned around, glared at Chris, and said, "I could fix that, you know."

Chris arched an eyebrow and said, "Just what is that supposed to mean?"

"Hell hath no fury like that of a vengeful redhead," I said with a twinkle in my eye. "If you think Jerrica's bad, where do you think she gets it from?"

"Yeah, right," Chris said, but there was a tiny bit of uncertainty in his voice.

I shrugged my shoulders and said, "All right Chris. I accept your challenge." I then turned away from him and muttered to Joey, "Unless I miss my guess, he's going to go nuts waiting for me to do something."

"You're bad," Joey said, "and I like that."

With a sly grin, Karri said, "Okay, we don't need to get into any kinky stuff here."

That statement wiped any traces of a smile off my face completely. "Okay, Chris second. Karri first!" I yelled as I reached for her across the table.

"Down boy!" Mandy said, blocking Karri from my advance. "Well! Someone's got a temper, doesn't he?"

"You have no idea," Jerrica called from her seat next to Chris.

Thankfully, the conversation didn't continue any longer because Celia brought the food to our table. We all hungrily dove into the plates of food and ignored any commentary from the next table. I had eaten no more than one or two bites when I noticed Tom walk in the door.

"Oh good," I said. "I'm glad someone thought to tell Tom to come with us."

"Of course," Mandy said. "Since we're a group now, it's not like we're going to exclude him."

"Uh, did someone think to tell Mama Celia he was coming?" I asked, noting that Celia had gone over to him and the two were having a discussion of some sort.

"Whoops!" Mandy said. "No! I didn't!"

"I'll be right back!" I said, hopping up from my seat. I dashed to the front of the restaurant and, out of breath, gasped, "He's with us, Mama Celia."

"Oh, all right," Celia said. "Sorry sir. I did not know."

"It's okay, ma'am," Tom said. " Ná habair é."

Both Celia and I shot Tom a confused look. "Say what?" I asked.

"Oh. Sorry. That's Gaelic for 'don't mention it.' Every now and then I slip by accident. It's a bad habit from when I lived in Ireland."

"And I thought I was the only one who did that!" I said with a laugh. When Tom looked at me with a questioning glance, I said, "I do the same thing, but in French instead of Gaelic." Tom smiled brightly at me, and I think it was at that moment when the two of us started to become fast friends. "Well, why don't you come sit with us?" I asked.

"Uh, okay," Tom said hesitantly.

I led him to our table and, after grabbing an empty chair from another table and having Tom sit first, I sat back down in my chair. Celia brought us another plate for Tom, and I motioned him toward the food. "Please help yourself to anything here on the table, and if you want something else, just let Mama Celia know."

"No, this all looks great," Tom said. "It's been a long time since I've had Italian food and it smells wonderful."

"Tastes pretty darn good too," Karri said between bites of lasagna.

"Ditto," said Mandy as she ate a bite of manicotti.

I rolled my eyes. "Didn't your mothers ever teach you to not talk with your mouths full?"

Karri swallowed and said, "Yes, but then how would we annoy you?"

"You really have been talking to Jerrica, haven't you?" I said with a groan. Turning to Tom, I said, "They're all out to get me. Every last one of them."

Before Tom could say anything, Joey said, "Don't worry Jamesy. I'll protect you."

"Thanks JoJo," I said with a wink.

"Jamesy? JoJo? What's this all about?" Mandy asked.

"I plead the Fifth," I said quickly, "and any other amendments as necessary to get my rear end out of this one."

"No chance," Karri said. "Tell us!"

"They're just nicknames we gave each other, much to the other's dismay," Joey noted. "However, I think both names are slowly growing on us."

"You two are too much," Mandy said. "Barely more than a week passes and they've got nicknames for each other."

"I think it's cute," Karri said. "I wish I had a boyfriend who did that. Actually, I wish I had a boyfriend period."

By now, the lights were starting to come on in Tom's head. "Wait a second," Tom said. "Maybe I'm just a bit gone in the head, or I'm just really knackered from dancing, but is it my imagination or is Joey Will's fella?"

"Gone in the head?" Karri asked.

"Knackered?" asked Mandy.

"Fella?" I asked. "Actually, that one I can probably figure out on my own."

I looked at Joey and shrugged my shoulders. After all, he started it. Joey understood my silent question and said, "No Tom, you're not nuts. Will and I are together. I hope that's not a problem for you."

Tom sat silently for a moment, apparently processing this information in his head. After a minute or so, he said, "Doesn't bother me a bit. Could you pass the lasagna over?"

"Wow. He took that well," Joey said in surprise.

Tom was now ignoring us completely and was most intent on filling his plate. "Tom? Is everything all right?" I asked.

"Everything's grand," Tom replied, now completely absorbed in the food in front of him.

I glanced over at Joey and slowly shook my head. Everything was not all right, and I could tell Tom was feeling rather troubled. I wasn't going to push him to talk in front of the others, but it seemed there was meddling to be done, and as usual, I was going to do it. Instead of continuing that conversation, or maybe I was trying to find a way to prevent that from happening, I quickly changed the subject to the upcoming performance we had on Saturday. Tom's face immediately brightened and soon the five of us were talking and laughing as if that moment of tense quiet had never occurred.

At one point during the meal, Joey put his hand on my leg. After a minute or two, he leaned over and whispered in my ear, "You're worrying too much and you're making yourself tense. Just calm down and relax."

I glanced at him out of the corner my eye and nodded. I knew I was either somehow making it possible for Joey to feel my emotional state, or he had gotten really, really good at reading my moods. I presumed it was the first one, which made me a bit determined to figure out some way to keep all of my feelings neatly bottled up inside my own body. It was bad enough I could read other people's emotions; they didn't need to be subjected to mine, especially Joey. It's too bad it was easier said than done.

We continued to eat until we could eat no more, and then Celia brought out some desserts, so we had to gorge ourselves on those. Once I was done and feeling horribly fat, I excused myself to go to the bathroom. I stared at myself in the mirror and grabbed one of the quickly developing rolls of fat around my waist. Sighing, I leaned against the wall and closed my eyes. What on earth was I thinking, allowing myself to get dragged into this mess? I slowly slid my back against the wall until I was sitting, and I sat there for a couple of moments, a little lost in thought. Karri wasn't kidding when she said things were moving really quickly—almost too quickly for my taste. However, here I was, stuck in a situation I couldn't get myself out of, and I was doing my best to maintain an appearance that everything was okay. Inside, I could feel the waves of panic, fear, and dread growing larger, and were it not for Joey and Jerrica, I'd be an absolute wreck.

After taking a few deep breaths, I stood up and went over to use the toilet, as the pressure on my bladder was starting to become intense. I flushed and went over to the sink to wash my hands. I then splashed some water on my face, hoping that it would somehow wash away any signs of the feelings I had inside. I dried my face and hands and had barely taken a step when the door opened. Tom walked in and, spotting me, said, "Sorry. Didn't realize someone was in here."

"I'm done," I said, tossing the paper towel into the trash. As I went to walk past him out the door, I said, "Tom, I know we don't know each other very well, and I'm hoping that will change quickly. The rest of those guys out there are a great bunch of people, and I'm sure you'll find they can be a wonderful group of friends." Tom looked like he was about to say something, but I cut him off. "I also know that there's something wrong. You're worried about someone or something, and whatever it is has caused you a bit of distress. Now, I'm not going to force you to tell me what's going on, but when and if you decide you want to talk to someone, come find me."

Tom spluttered, "How...How..."

I smiled at him and said, "You've got your secrets and I've got mine. One day we'll have to sit down and swap stories sometime." I then gave him a wink and a small smile before waltzing out the door. "I am so bad," I said to myself as I walked back to the table.

I sat down and smiled at everyone. Joey immediately picked up on my change in mood and said, "You seem to be in a good mood."

I nodded at him and smiled widely. "I am. Right now, there's no drama, no one yelling at someone, nothing. It's just a calm, relaxing moment."

Joey grinned, but it didn't last very long because when Tom came up to the table, he had a bewildered expression on his face. "Will, how..." He paused for a moment, glancing at all the faces sitting at the table, and then said, "Never mind."

As Tom walked away, Joey stared at me for a second and then said, "What did you do to him?"

"Moi? Je n'ai aucune idée de ce que tu parles," I said. Joey rolled his eyes and then resumed staring at me. I was intentionally being annoying, but I was forgetting that my audience was Joey, not Jerrica, and that it would be lost on him. "I have no idea what you're talking about," I translated.

"Uh huh," Joey grunted in disbelief.

"Let's just say I have my mother's talent for shocking the heck out of people," I said at last, and after a brief moment, Joey understood what I meant.

"You didn't."

I shrugged my shoulders and said, "I have to get him to talk somehow."

Karri and Mandy, who were listening to our conversation in silence, could keep their curiosity at bay no more. "What on earth are you two going on about?" Karri asked.

"It's rather complicated and would take too long to explain," I said, the expression on my face clearly indicating that I was not about to let them badger me into budging on this topic.

"But..." Mandy began, but I held up my hand to stop her.

"Mandy. Don't."

"Fine! Fine! Have your secrets. See if I care," Mandy said with a pout. I rolled my eyes and then diverted my attention to the person walking in the door.

"Uh oh," I said, gesturing toward our new arrival. "Looks like we've got company, and I'm not talking about the good kind."

Joey and the girls looked in the direction I was pointing and their faces fell when they saw who had come in. "What's he doing here?" Karri asked.

"Search me," Joey said evenly, "but I bet we'll find out soon enough."

And find out we did. Spotting us at our table, he brushed past Celia, who had gone to intercept him, and headed right for us. "You!" he shouted at me. "You horrible, despicable, no good..."

As soon as the name-calling began, everyone stopped eating and stood up, moving closer to the action. "That's enough Johnny," Chris said, folding his arms over his chest.

Chris is defending me? I thought as a smile crept onto my face. Okay, he's earned one more point toward getting back in my good graces.

"Kirkpatrick, this doesn't concern you," Johnny said, "so stay out of it."

"Anything that concerns our friends concerns us," Justin piped up. Except Johnny, who continued to stare at me, the rest of us turned to look at Justin with a bit of surprise. While Justin had explained his presence to everyone there, he had not been completely forgiven by his bandmates for his actions the day before as well as the trouble he had been causing Joey and me ever since they arrived. Jerrica thought calling me his friend was a bit of a stretch in her book, but she knew that if I hadn't already forgiven Justin for the whole mess, I would soon enough. Besides, Johnny didn't need to know about any of the messes that went on within our little group. That was just handing him ammunition to use against us later.

"You know, were it not for my concern about these guys' happiness, I would have knocked your block off by now," Johnny muttered.

"Were it not for these guys, you would have never even known I existed," I pointed out, "and you probably wouldn't be as well off as you are."

"You're quite the smart aleck, aren't you?" Johnny growled.

I ignored his question and followed up with one of my own. "What do you want Johnny?"

"You know, your little stunt has already cost me quite a bit of money, and I'm here to make sure it doesn't cost me more. We've already set way too many plans in motion for you to blow this for me, so..." He glanced at the sea of faces and sighed heavily. "...I'm here to concede. We're too far along, and we've wasted too much time putting everything in place. I need to talk to that manager lady of yours..."

"Kimber," I filled in.

"Yes. Kimber," Johnny said with a hard edge to his voice. "I need to speak with Kimber so we can finally get this deal done and over with so we can all get back to work!"

"Kimber and J.B. are over there," I said, pointing toward the other side of the restaurant. "I'm sure they'll be happy to discuss anything with you."

Johnny glared at me. "One of these days, I'll..."

By this point, Joey had now had enough of Johnny's antics, and he was starting to have trouble restraining himself from decking the man. "You'll do what?" Joey said with an equally cold glare as he put one hand on my shoulder and clenched the other into a fist. I found the anger building inside him a bit unsettling, but I knew he was just reacting emotionally to the way Johnny was treating me, and the fact that he was jumping to my defense made me feel that much more secure and protected. It's not like I needed reminding, but it was times like these when Joey subtly reinforced to me how much he loved me. It's a wonderful feeling.

Johnny glanced between me and Joey a few times, and then looked at the others who were staring at him with their arms crossed. It was nine against one, as Tom was talking with J.B. at the time, and Johnny knew that he was only one step from crossing the line, so he decided not to say anything more, lest he push his luck too far. "Uh, nothing. If you'll excuse me, I have some business to attend to," Johnny said as he turned and walked away quickly.

As soon as he was out of earshot, I let out the breath I had been holding. "That was fun," I said sarcastically.

"Exactly who is he, anyway?" Mandy asked.

"He's our manager, although if he keeps acting like this, we may have to make some decisions about that," Lance said bitterly.

That Lance was the one to say it startled me—only for a moment—but I quickly let it pass so I could focus on other things. "Thank God for Kimber and J.B.," I said, "because, no offense guys, the idea of signing any contract with Johnny makes me nauseous."

"No worries Will," Justin said as he grabbed a chair and pulled it up next to me. He placed a hand on my shoulder and said, "I think we were all a bit surprised to find him treating you like this."

I bet they were, I thought. Had my attention not been diverted by the reappearance of Tom as he walked toward us, I would have seen Joey grab Justin's arm, move it off my shoulder, and then stare him down with an icy glare. While I had forgiven Justin, no one else knew that. I presumed Justin knew—something I couldn't be completely sure of since I think he was still asleep when I said it to him—and his actions indicated he did. Josh, Lance, and Chris were more likely to forgive him first. Considering last night's near-catastrophic disaster, I figured it would take Justin a long time to get back into Joey or Jerrica's good graces.

"Hey Tom," I said as he approached the table. "Miss us?"

Tom laughed. "Well, I saw that git you were arguing with back at the hall, so I decided it might be best to make myself scarce."

"That was probably a wise idea," I said. "Something tells me that whatever happens over there will not be pleasant for anyone involved."

'Not pleasant' was a major understatement. Johnny marched up to Kimber and J.B., who had just barely finished eating, and he had a fiery look in his eyes that indicated he was not about to play games. "All right," he said after staring at the two women for a minute, "it's obvious you've got me backed into a corner here. I have no choice but to give in and start talking."

"I think that's a great idea," J.B. said. Motioning to the seat vacated by Tom only moments before, she said, "Please, have a seat."

"Isn't there any place a little more private in this hovel? Uh, I mean, fine establishment," he said as he turned only to find himself face to face with Celia.

"I am sorry, but what is 'hovel?'" Celia asked. Kimber and J.B. were trying as hard as they could to stifle their laughter, but they weren't faring well.

"Never mind," Johnny said, turning a little red. "Is there anywhere here where we can sit and have a business discussion without the possibility of interruptions?"

"Yes, of course," Celia said. She walked over to the wall about a third of the way from the back of the restaurant and grabbed a small handle. Slowly, she pulled a folding wall from its hiding place until it formed a solid wall across the restaurant. Opening the door in the wall, she said, "We have this when people request parties during dinner hours."

"How nice," Johnny said, his tone dripping with disdain. Looking at Kimber and J.B., he said, "Well ladies, let's get this over with."

Kimber and J.B. exchanged looks before wordlessly standing up and walking past Johnny into the newly created room. Once they were inside, Johnny said, "Please make sure we are not disturbed." He then walked into the room and closed the door behind him.

Celia stared at the now closed door for a moment before shaking her head. Walking over to us, she said plainly, "I do not like that man."

"We don't either, but at the moment, we're kind of stuck with him," Joey said with a sigh.

"Mister Joey, I do not trust that man, and you would be wise to be careful around him. I see nothing but deception in his eyes."

"If he's not careful, he and his little sidekick Eric are going to be dealing with my fist pretty soon," Jerrica snarled as she cracked her knuckles.

I chuckled slightly, in an effort to relieve my own tension, because I was not one to put it past Jerrica to follow through on that threat. "Well, we'll do the best we can, and we'll take whatever Johnny throws at us as it comes," I said.

"I am so happy that you all have each other," Celia said softly, "because friendships as strong as yours seem to be able to last through anything. Just remember to not let problems, no matter how big they might be, get in your way." She glanced over at Justin and gave him a wink. I noticed this and wondered if somehow, in some, unexplainable way, she knew that there was a problem and that Justin was the source.

"Don't worry Mama Celia," I said after a moment of silence. "I think we're smart enough to not let things stand in the way of our friendships, to not hold grudges, and forgive others for their faults." I stressed the word 'forgive' and looked at each of the *Nsync guys, including Joey, and hoped that they understood my unspoken hint.

"Good!" Celia said, returning to her usual booming voice. "Mister Will, might I ask you a question?" she asked after a moment. When I nodded, she asked, "What is a 'hovel?'"

My eyes widened when she said that. "Where on earth did you hear that?" I inquired.

"That man said my restaurant was a 'hovel.' Am I right that this is not a good thing?" she asked.

I sighed. It was bad enough that Johnny was taking his frustrations out on the others—after all, I was the root cause of his problems—but Celia certainly didn't deserve to be treated that way.

"No Celia," I said with a sigh. "It's not a good thing. In fact, it's quite the opposite. A hovel is like a small shack or other establishment that most people would not consider fit for living."

Celia's face turned bright red. "HOW DARE HE..."

Mandy, Karri, and I jumped up and pulled Celia into a hug. "It's okay Mama Celia. We love your restaurant just the way it is, and so do your other loyal customers. Don't let the words of one bastard make you think any less of this place," Karri said.

"Yeah, we love this place. It feels like coming home twice a week," Mandy said.

Everyone else chimed in agreement, even Tom who, as far as I knew, was coming to Celia's for the first time. "Thank you, my children," Celia said with a small smile, "but after today, that man is no longer welcome here!" Celia turned on her heel and stalked off to the kitchen.

"Looks like Johnny has another enemy," I said, stifling a giggle, "and the sad thing is, he has no idea what kind of hell can come from that woman."

We all burst into laughter, and once again the tension that had settled into the air broke. Things were starting to feel like they had only a few days ago, when everyone was friends with everyone and life was good.

We sat around for another forty-five minutes or so in a large circle of chairs, just chatting amongst ourselves on a variety of random topics. I had lain my head on Joey's shoulder, as I was starting to feel a bit tired, and the surprised looks coming from the other guys about my action prompted me to tell them that Tom knew about, and was okay with, my relationship with Joey. As I told them, I once again saw a brief flash of pain cross Tom's eyes, which renewed my resolve to find out what was going on. As the unofficial therapist to this group, I had made it my job to meddle in everyone's lives, whether they liked it or not. If Tom was going to hang around us, it was something he was going to have to learn to get used to.

"So now that you're going to be a group, have you all thought about what you're going to call yourselves?" Lance asked at one point.

I shrugged. "I don't know. At some point we'll have to actually take some time and discuss it."

"No time like the present," Josh noted.

"Are you going to perform as Will or Robért-James?" Joey asked thoughtfully.

"Uh, I hadn't thought about that either," I admitted. "If I want to maintain any potential level of privacy, it might be easier if I perform under Robbie Williamson, since that's how I publish. Besides, it'll drive Tony Sanderson nuts if we develop a fan base and the fans figure out that I'm also Robbie Williamson the author, because my guess is that sales will probably go up. It's too bad we had to tell him ahead of time. I would have loved to have seen the look on his face if my book sales mysteriously started going up without any explanation."

Mandy and Karri glanced at each other, trying to recall what I was talking about. They had been there during the whole mail fiasco, so some of this was ringing a bell in their heads, but it was a bit muddled in their minds. They would have to remember to ask me later to clarify the parts that they didn't remember. Neither had read any of the books I wrote, to my knowledge, nor did I discuss that side of my life with them at all.

"So anyway, y'all need a name," Lance said in that cute southern drawl of his.

"Anyone have any ideas?" Josh asked.

We all sat silently for a minute, trying to rack our brains for something decent. "Well, since it's kind of Will's group, how about something like Robbie and the Rockers?" Justin suggested.

I burst out laughing. "Let me rephrase that," Josh said. "Does anyone have any good ideas?"

Justin glared at Josh for a moment and then hung his head. Once again, as Justin had said to me days earlier, his bandmates had a tendency to reject ideas from him. The need to protect him overwhelming my desire to still somehow be angry with him, I jumped in and said, "Hey! Any idea is a good idea! Whether it gets used or not is another story." Justin looked up at me and I gave him a wink. His face lit up into a smile and he sat back comfortably in his chair. He knew that while I may not be particularly thrilled with him at the moment, I wouldn't let the others rag on him. "Anyway, sorry Justin, but I'm going to have to nix that one, but I have an idea. How about Robbie and the Rockettes? The girls could dress up in some tights and skimpy dresses, and..."

"NO!" shouted Jerrica, Mandy, and Karri in unison. All the guys burst into uproarious laughter. The mental images were too funny for words, especially considering one of the girls was Jerrica after all, and anything extraordinarily feminine seemed to be contrary to her nature.

"Sorry," I said with a chuckle. "I couldn't help myself."

We continued to throw out possible names, some of them more ludicrous than others, until I spotted Kimber coming our way. "Robért-James? Can I talk to you for a second?"

I looked at the others and half-shrugged my shoulders. "Uh, sure," I said hesitantly, standing up. I glanced over at Joey nervously, wondering what this was all about. The fact that Kimber hadn't called me Will—something she had been doing quite well recently—didn't go unnoticed by me. Something, I presume from her meeting with Johnny, must have distracted her enough to go with what was automatic in her head when she looked at me.

Kimber seemed to pick up on my hesitation and said, "Bring Joey along with you. I'd like his input on some things."

Joey and I exchanged a look as he stood up and walked beside me while we followed Kimber toward the back of the dining room. She sat down at a table and motioned for us to have a seat. "I'm going to cut to the chase guys," she said after a moment's silence. "Negotiations are not going very well. That obnoxious, overbearing jerk is making our lives as difficult as possible." She glanced up and saw Celia standing nearby. "Could I get a glass of water please?" Kimber asked, causing Celia to scamper for one in the kitchen.

Celia promptly returned with a glass of water for Kimber and a Diet Coke for me. "Here you go," she said as she set the glasses down. "Would Mister Joey like something?"

"Uh, Coke would be fine," Joey said softly. As Celia ran back to the kitchen, he said, "She even knows what you drink."

I burst out laughing. "Joey, everyone knows what I drink."

"Anyway," Kimber said, pulling our attention back to her, "this is where we're at right now. Johnny knows we have him over a bit of a barrel, but he still holds the trump card, namely the two of you." It was remarkable at times how much Kimber and I were alike. I had said those exact same words to Justin last Friday when we had our little discussion behind the restaurant. "He knows he can't do this without you, Robért-James, but he's going to be an arrogant pest about everything!"

I ignored Kimber's continued reference to me by my birth name and said, "So, other than the fact that he's being an ass, what's the deal?"

"Well, there were some points we were able to agree on easily, like scheduling. That one's pretty cut and dry. We have to follow their tour schedule," she said, pointing at Joey.

"What were the problems?" I asked.

"The others, for one," Kimber said. "Johnny insists that they can't come because they weren't part of the deal."

"Well, how can we make them part of the deal?"

"Since Johnny refuses to pay anything for them, we can't."

I thought about this for a moment until an idea struck me. "Then tell him my price went up."

Joey, who had been sitting silent the entire time, finally spoke up. "Will, what are you talking about?"

"Just curious. How much is he offering for this contract?" I asked.

Kimber wrote down a figure on a piece of paper and my eyes widened. "That quite a chunk of change. Do you think you might be able to negotiate it higher?"

Kimber looked at me in surprise. "Higher?"

"It doesn't have to be too much higher, I don't think," I said, trying to do math in my head. "It just needs to be enough to cover our expenses and then divide the remaining balance by four to cut decent sized paychecks."

Joey started nodding, the businessman in him starting to follow my train of thought when, suddenly, he said loudly, "Four? Uh, Will, there's five of you."

"I'm aware of that," I said quietly. "I wouldn't be taking a paycheck."

"But that's hardly fair," Joey protested. "My guess is, from what Kimber said, you're going to be doing the bulk of the work."

"I know, Joe," I said, trying to piece my thoughts into a coherent statement, "but I've just asked four people to basically drop their whole lives to do this, all because of me. Therefore, I think it's only fair to make sure they are adequately compensated. Besides, my new book is going to release soon, and if it does well, I should be able to make do without too much difficulty. I'm rather accustomed to living frugally. That, and in the odd event that there happens to be money left over, I would think I would get some of it, right Kimber?"

Kimber nodded. "Of course, but are you sure about this?"

"Yeah, I'm sure," I said at last. "I just want the two of you to promise me that you will not tell anyone at all about this arrangement. I don't want anyone feeling like a charity case, and I certainly don't want people making this out to be any more than it is."

"But what about my sister?" Kimber asked.

"Yes, you can tell J.B.," I said in slight annoyance. "I wasn't counting her."

Kimber and I went on to discuss other things while Joey tuned us out. He's acted selflessly on more than one occasion, but this is getting a bit absurd, he thought. Performing without pay? I don't even think I would agree to that. He knew better than to argue it too much with me, because once I stuck my mind to it, I wasn't budging. I just hope he knows what he's getting into.

"...and finally, there is the issue of your appearance," Kimber was saying when Joey tuned back into the conversation.

"My appearance? What about it?" I asked.

"Well, for one, he thinks it is best for you to always be clean-shaven. You look really young anyway, and he thinks that, considering the dynamics of the *Nsync fan base, that you will appeal more to that group if you appear closer to their age."

"I suppose I can handle that, as much as I hate shaving," I said, rubbing my hand over the days worth of growth on my face. Since my facial hair always grew in really slowly, and it was incredibly light given my complexion, I could usually let it go for four or five days before it was noticeable.

"He also said that he wants you to drop forty pounds, quickly," Kimber said with a slight cringe.

I had been taking a sip of Diet Coke and nearly spat it out. "What?"

This infuriated Joey. "Has that man looked in a mirror lately?"

"That's ridiculous," I said. "I am who I am. If he wants me that badly, he can take me like this or not at all."

"He seemed fairly adamant about it. I know image is everything, and I think you would do fine just the way you are, but since we are in part dealing with his demands instead of just what we would do at Starlight Music, I don't know what else to say."

My mind reeled as I tried to come up with a reasonable solution, but I kept coming to a dead end. Finally, I said, "If he agrees to the higher budget, then I'll agree to this. I don't quite know how I'll pull it off, but I'll find some way to do it."

Kimber made a few notes on her sheet, stood up, and said, "Okay. I'll take him the news and see what happens."

As Kimber walked away, I put my elbows on the table and cupped my face in my hands. "What the hell am I doing?"

Joey put an arm around my shoulder and said, "Are you really sure about doing this?"

"Joey, I'm not really sure about anything at this point, except you," I said with a half-smile. "I know that if I turn him down, he'll do everything he can to break us up, and he might even do it at the expense of your careers. He's enough of a big shot now that he can probably afford to do without you, so his entire livelihood isn't contingent on you. I'd rather do anything than risk the chance of losing you, or worse, hurting your ability to do what you love. Besides, the tour only runs through August, right?"

"Yeah, I think so," Joey said.

"Well, if I can put up with Jerrica for ten years, I can probably handle dealing with Johnny for three months."

Joey burst out laughing. "When you put it that way..."

When Joey stopped laughing, I said, "It's going to be an interesting few months, and I just hope I haven't made a major mistake by getting those four involved in this."

Joey leaned over and gave me a kiss on the cheek. "You did what you thought was best at the time, based on the information you had available to you. No one can expect you to do anything other than that."

I turned in my chair so I was facing Joey, a look of amusement on my face. "It's scary. You're starting to sound like me more and more every day."

"Is that a bad thing?" Joey asked.

"As far as I'm concerned, no. As far as Jerrica is concerned, absolutely."

J.B. and Kimber came out about half an hour later, holding the door open for a rather upset Johnny Wright. He paid no attention to us as he stormed out the door of the restaurant. "I wonder if that's a good or bad thing?" I whispered to Joey.

"If Johnny has left the building, that's always a good thing as far as I'm concerned," Joey retorted. The disgust Joey had developed for Johnny over the past week and a half was nothing short of amazing. I guess, until now, Joey had never had much of an occasion to see Johnny in this type of light before.

"So J.B.? How did it go?" Tom asked.

"Well, we've got a contract," J.B. said with a sigh.

"You make that sound like a bad thing," Tom said slowly.

"It is, and it's not. It's rather complicated, but it was at least something we could agree to."

"Why did Johnny storm out of here like he did?" Lance asked.

"There were some small issues that he wasn't fond of, but we weren't going to budge on them, so he finally gave in, and he wasn't happy about it."

"If he keeps acting like this, we may end up giving him some news he won't be happy with either," Lance muttered.

"So what's next?" Jerrica asked.

"First, I need you to resign your form," J.B. said. "Johnny ripped yours up thinking it was Will's."

"And all this time I thought those guys over there loved me," Jerrica said with a fake sniffle as she reached for the paper J.B. had extended toward her.

"Yeah, Eric loves you about as much as, well, I can't think of anything he hates more than you at the moment," Chris said.

"Good. Let's keep it that way," Jerrica growled.

"Second, we need a name for you all. Have you come up with anything?" J.B. asked.

"Not really," I said. "We've had a lot of suggestions, but nothing that seems to fit."

"Hmmm. We need something that would fit your group's image," Kimber said. "You've got that Irish dancing thing, which is really cool. Maybe something to go along with that?"

We dwelled on it for a moment until an idea came to me. "How about Eire 5?"

"Ire?" Chris said. "Sounds perfect for Jerrica."

We all got a good laugh at Jerrica's expense, and while at first she looked angry, she eventually swatted the back of Chris' head and burst into laughter herself.

"Wrong kind of Eire," I said, "although the other does in fact fit Jerrica rather well."

"Why I ought to..." Jerrica started, but Joey clamped a hand on her shoulder, halting her tirade. "Oh sure. Now you've got Joey fighting your fights?"

"Jerrica..." I said in a menacing voice. "Careful."

Jerrica stared at me for a moment and then said, "Man. I need a chill pill or something." She took a seat, glanced over at me, and said, "Resume."

"Anyway, like I was starting to say, 'Eire' is the Irish word for Ireland, and since there are five of us..." I trailed off, not sure what else to say. "Well, it was an idea anyway."

"It's not bad, actually," Karri said.

"I can live with it," Mandy said.

"Fine by me," said Tom.

We all looked over at Jerrica, who rolled her eyes and said, "What? Like I'm going to come up with anything better? It'll work. I just hope you all don't expect me to learn how to dance like you do."

Karri, Mandy, Tom, and I exchanged a knowing look and burst out laughing. "Yep, we do," Tom said.

"And you'll start tomorrow," Kimber interjected. "You're due for a class with Ms. Brannigan at seven o'clock in the morning."

The five of us groaned. "You mean I have to see M.F. three days in a row? So this is what hell is like," Mandy said as she slumped down in her chair.

"You'll be seeing her more than that. She's going to be your choreographer," J.B. said with a small smile.

"AAAAHHH!!! No! Not that! Please! Anything but that!" Karri said, falling to her knees and clutching J.B.'s pant leg.

By now, the five *Nsync guys were rolling with laughter. Kimber let them have a moment, and then said, "Yes. You are in dance rehearsal from seven until two-thirty, and then the *Nsync guys are in practice from three-thirty until six-thirty."

"Say what?" Justin said loudly.

"Ms. Brannigan was part of our deal. Apparently Johnny likes her methods and style, so we agreed to share the cost of using her as a dance instructor and choreographer while you're in Baltimore."

"Oh man!" Joey groaned.

"Bummer," said Chris.

"At least you don't have her for seven hours," Mandy said gruffly.

"They don't have as much to learn as you do," Kimber said gently. "You're starting a show from scratch, and apparently, you only have three weeks to put it together. Your first scheduled date is in Charlotte, which is on the eighth of June."

"Wait. That's only two and a half weeks," I said. "You mean we have to put together an entire opening act in under three weeks?"

"Yeah. That's about right," Kimber said.

It's impossible, I thought. There's no way. With a sigh, I said, "Well, I guess we better get started then. We have dance moves to learn, songs to learn, and... Wait. What exactly are we supposed to sing?"

"We're working on that," Kimber said, "although I was thinking you could use some of our songs."

"You know, that gives me an idea," I said. "I've got some songs I wrote with Jerrica a few years ago, and maybe, just maybe, we could make this a production like no one has ever seen before!"

"Settle down Will," J.B. said with a laugh. "Why don't you fill us in on your idea?"

"Okay, here are my thoughts," I began as I started to fill them in on my idea.

As soon as I finished, the looks in the eyes of my new bandmates lit up. "Cool!" Mandy and Karri said,

"It's definitely unique," Joey said, beaming at me with pride. "I think it'll make an interesting contrast to our show."

"Do you have copies of our songs at your house?" Jerrica asked.

"I think so," I replied, racking my brain trying to figure out where they might be.

"If you can't find them, I know where mine are. I can have my mom send it down to us."

"Well, folks, it looks like we might be in business," I said with a smile.

"Wait a second," Mandy said. "With a name like Eire 5, wouldn't people expect to hear mostly Irish music?"

"Ooh. Good point," Tom said. "While I could see us doing some stuff, if we're also going to use Will's idea, then I don't think it's completely appropriate."

"Great," Karri muttered. "Back to the drawing board."

"I've got it!" Mandy said after a moment of thought. "Change the word 'Eire' to 'Charm,' as in 'Charm City.' That is Baltimore's nickname, isn't it?"

"True," I said slowly, "and it does have a nice ring to it, although if we're going to do that, then let's drop the number. I mean, after thinking about it, it's rather obvious that there are five of us."

"Oh thank goodness," Jerrica said. "I was afraid that we were actually going to keep that other name for a minute."

"I thought you liked it?" Karri asked.

"I said it would work. I never said I liked it," Jerrica said. "Besides, I think Charm is better. The other name was obviously leading to way too many jokes about me." Jerrica glared at Chris, who had an extremely guilty look on his face.

"Then is this matter settled?" Kimber asked.

"I'm good," Tom said.

"Ditto," said Karri and Mandy.

"I'll go with this one," Jerrica said.

I hadn't said anything, as I was still mulling it over in my head. It was only when the others began to stare at me that I realized a question had been asked. "What?"

"I asked you if this matter was settled," Kimber said.

"Oh! Uh, yeah. I'm good," I said quickly.

"Very well then. Charm it is," Kimber said, making some notes on her papers.

Behind me, Joey came up and whispered in my ear, "Charm? I bet Mandy really came up with that name because of you. After all, you're the most charming guy I know." I turned my head away so he couldn't see me blush, but the others did.

"Hey! Are you two getting frisky over there?" Karri asked.

I glared at her while it was Joey's turn to blush. "A proper gentleman never tells," I said.

"And the day you're a proper gentleman is the day I win the award for Miss Congeniality," Jerrica said as she rolled her eyes.

"Jerrica!" Joey yelled. "Knock it off!"

"Ouch. Tough crowd," Jerrica said with a sigh. "Okay. Anyway…"

"So seven o'clock tomorrow, is it?" I asked, trying to take some heat off Jerrica. Kimber nodded, and I lay back against Joey and muttered, "Great. Just great."

Having, in my opinion, overstayed our welcome at Celia's, we slowly filed out of the restaurant, saying our goodbyes and paying our bills. I slipped Celia a twenty dollar bill before I left, and apparently, as I found out later, so did Joey, Josh, and Lance. That made me feel a little less guilty about her closing the restaurant, but only a little. We shuffled people around in the cars again, so now Joey was riding with myself and the Benton sisters while Jerrica went to ride with Chris, Lance, and Josh. Justin, who was still feeling a little out of place as his bandmates kept shooting him dirty looks every now and again, asked Mandy if she could take him back to my house, and she was more than happy to oblige.

As our little caravan started heading south on the Harrisburg Expressway back toward Maryland, Joey broke the silence by saying, "So, exactly what did Mr. Wright have problems with?"

"He didn't want to agree to the higher budget, and when we eventually told him why you were pushing for it, he didn't want to budge at all," Kimber said.

"But he did budge finally?" I asked.

"Yeah, because of two things. The first being the issue you discussed with Kimber earlier," J.B. said, which caused me to roll my eyes, "and second because I just happened to mention that the guys were voicing some concerns about their representation, which caused Johnny to become a little pale and very agreeable after that point. I never said that we were even thinking about the possibility of having *Nsync sign with Starlight Music when their current contract is up, but I planted the idea in his head nonetheless."

"That's not a bad idea," Joey said. "In fact, that's quite clever, and the way things are going, I think the band would be open to consider it."

"Whoa Joey!" J.B. said. "That's not an offer or a request. It was just a method to get Johnny to cooperate. Now, when your contract is ready to expire, and you guys want to consider signing with us, then we'll discuss it at that time. Right now, I don't want him getting any ideas you might be actively considering it. He might decide to try to cut his losses early and make your lives miserable."

"Point taken," Joey said, "but when we're due, I think we'll have a long, detailed discussion about that. In fact, we might even want to tell some of Johnny's other clients...when the time comes."

"Just keep that idea under wraps for right now," J.B. said. "When is your contract due up, anyway, if I may ask?"

"Heck if I know," Joey said. "You'd have to ask Lance that."

"Do you all mind if we change the subject?" I asked quietly. "I've had enough business talk today to last me a couple of lifetimes."

"Sure, no problem," J.B. said before the car went completely quiet.

"So how long are you staying?" I asked.

"I'm leaving tomorrow evening," J.B. said.

"And since I'm now your manager, I'll be staying behind with you guys to make sure everything goes according to plan," said Kimber.

"Uh oh. Two more bodies to find room for, at least for tonight. Well, Jerrica can come crash in our room on the floor. I've got an inflatable mattress in the closet. Or, she could always go stay with Mandy or Karri. I'm sure they'd love the company, along with the ability to plot nasty things to do to me behind my back."

"She wouldn't do that," Joey said.

"Wanna bet?" I said with a smirk. "It's no big deal. I'll probably be doing the same with you guys later tonight, as long as Chris isn't around. He'd probably spill the beans to her." I glanced over at Joey, who had a bewildered expression on his face. "Don't worry. It's all in fun. Uh, never mind." I flushed a little. "Sorry to be talking about Jerrica so much. It's just that she's been such an integral part of my life that we've kind of become a package deal. You can't get one of us without the other."

"Well, I admit it was a bit of a surprise to fully understand how close you are, but it doesn't bother me. I just wish I had a friend I was that close to," Joey admitted.

"You've got me, for starters," I said, "and the other guys. Oh, and if you want her, you can have Jerrica as well. As a matter of fact, you can keep her."

Joey burst out laughing. "I'd rather have you over her any day."

"Some days I'd rather have anyone over her, but in the end, I'm thankful she's my friend, and I'm thankful I have you as well. I don't know how I'd get through all of this without you two."

"Awwww!" said J.B. and Kimber from the backseat.

Joey and I both blushed heavily, and I decided to ignore them so I could pay attention to the road in front of me. I started to yawn, trying to mask it from the others. "And to think my day is only half over."

"Half over?" Kimber asked as we crossed the state line back into Maryland.

"Yeah. Karri, Mandy, and I still have to go to work tonight."

"Bummer," Kimber said. "Can't you, like, call out sick or something?"

I started laughing. "Call out sick? At Northern Skies? Ha! If you call out sick, you had better be close to death and it had better be for at least two to three days. Besides, I called out one day last week, and I've been off since Saturday. It would look incredibly suspicious."

"True," Kimber said with a sigh. "You had better be careful, or you'll run yourself ragged."

"The joys of the working world," I said sarcastically. Somewhere, in the back of my head, I realized between my work schedule and my newly added rehearsal schedule, I wasn't going to be getting much sleep anymore.

Meanwhile, in Mandy's car there was a strained silence. Mandy knew that something was amiss with Justin, but she wasn't sure how far she should pry. At last, she decided to throw caution to the wind and ask what was on her mind. "Okay, Justin, what's up? In the few times I've met you, you've never been this quiet."

"I don't want to talk about it," Justin said as he stared out the window.

"It's obvious something's bothering you, and unless you tell me what it is, it makes it very difficult for me to help you."

Justin laughed. "You sound like Will."

"I've been hanging around him long enough; I suppose it was bound to happen eventually. So, come on. Out with it."

"I don't know if you'd be able to understand."

"Try me."

"I got into an argument with Will over something stupid and now the rest of the guys hate me because of it," Justin said quickly.

"Oh. I see. What was the fight about?"

"Um, I called Will a liar, which he wasn't, but at the time I thought he was. I guess I was just seeing things from the wrong perspective."

"Misunderstandings happen all the time. Did you tell the others it was a misunderstanding?"

"I've tried to, but they don't want to listen to me. I think Will has forgiven me, but he's the only one."

Mandy thought about this for a moment before saying, "Did anything else happen besides this?"

"What makes you ask that?"

"I admit I haven't known you very long, but from what I've seen and read in interviews about you guys, you seem to have a very close camaraderie, but since the first day I met you all I've noticed this incredible tension between y'all, especially between you and Joey."

"Yeah. Things between Joey and I have been kind of bad lately."

"How come?"

"It's hard to explain, but I don't think things between Joey and I are going to get better any time soon. What I did is kind of unforgivable."

"Unforgivable? What did you do? Try to steal Will away from him or something?" Mandy said with a laugh.

"Uh, yeah," Justin said quietly.

Mandy's eyes nearly bugged out of her head and she slammed on the brakes. Were it not for the fact they were both wearing seatbelts, they might have been thrown through the windshield. Mandy pulled off to the side of the road, threw the car in park, turned to face Justin, and said, "Please tell me you're not serious."

Justin turned away from Mandy and sighed. "I shouldn't have told you. Now you hate me as well. You probably want me to get out, right?"

Mandy wasn't sure what to say. Her first impulse was to be extremely angry with Justin. Mandy loved me like family, and she took an instant liking to Joey, yet there was something in Justin's voice that made it hard for her to be upset with him. Unless she was mistaken, the rest of *Nsync was aware of his actions and were already pissed off at him, and for good reason. However, what Justin needed was someone on his side—not to justify his actions, but to be supportive of him. "No, Justin. I don't want you to get out, although I admit that was one of my first thoughts." She was about to say something more when she saw my car pull off the road in front of her, and a moment later her cell phone rang. "This is Mandy," she said, answering the phone.

"You okay back there?" I asked.

"Yeah. I, uh, thought I forgot something back at the hall, but I found it."

"Oh, all right," I said suspiciously. The hesitation in Mandy's voice indicated she was lying, but for what reason I couldn't be sure. "I'll see you at the house."

"Okay, bye Will," Mandy said as she hung up. "Damn."

"What's wrong?" Justin asked.

"I hate talking to him sometimes," Mandy said. "Even on the phone, he can tell when I'm lying. I could hear the suspicion in his voice."

"The joy of having a friend who's empathic," Justin said as he rolled his eyes.

"He's what?" Mandy asked, her eyes widening.

"Oops," Justin said as he smacked his forehead.

"Let me get back on to the highway before Will starts freaking out, and then Lucy, you've got some 'splainin' to do!" Mandy exclaimed, imitating Desi Arnaz from I Love Lucy.

"Oh joy," Justin mumbled as Mandy navigated the car back onto the highway.

They had gone about a mile before Mandy said, "Okay Justin, spill it. All of it."

Justin, who had felt the need to get some of this stuff off of his chest for some time, took Mandy's invitation and began to recant everything that had happened in the past week and a half. As he talked, he felt a weight slowly rising from his shoulders. It felt good to talk to someone who wasn't involved in the mess, although considering that Mandy was a very close friend of mine, Justin wondered about how smart it was to tell her everything, but he had to talk to someone, and since Joey nor Jerrica would probably let Justin anywhere near me anytime soon, especially alone, Mandy would have to do.

Mandy listened to Justin's tale, and at times she felt herself starting to get a bit annoyed with the young singer. And he wonders why everyone is pissed off at him? Mandy thought. It's not like he didn't know Will was involved with Joey.

Justin continued to tell Mandy his story, and finished by saying, "I know they're upset with me over all of this, but Jerrica and Joey have been really cold to me lately, and I just don't get it. I know it wasn't a smart thing to do and all, but the other guys aren't being so down on me like they are."

"Well, it could be for a couple of reasons. Joey and Jerrica are a lot closer to Will than the others. Maybe they've taken it more personally than the rest did. Either that, or maybe something else happened that you all aren't aware of."

"I suppose," Justin said. The two fell silent for a moment before Justin said, "Thanks for listening Mandy. I know I'm probably not your favorite person at the moment, but I'm glad you were at least willing to listen to everything."

"Of course Justin," Mandy said with a smile. "I admit, I'm rather annoyed at you over the stunt you tried to pull, but that will pass, and eventually no one will even think twice about it. Although, I'm curious. Are you, in fact, gay?"

Justin sighed. "I don't know, Mandy. I never thought about having a relationship with another guy before I met Will. There's a part of me that's intrigued by it, and there's a part of me that's turned off by it."

"Oh," Mandy said. "Well, I guess the first thing you need to figure out is what you want before you try to pursue a relationship with anyone else. Otherwise, you might find it's a pointless endeavor if your partner is, shall we say, packing the wrong equipment?"

Justin began to blush profusely. "Okay, can we please change the subject?"

"Fine, fine," Mandy said with a grin. "You know, you're cute when you blush." This prompted Justin to blush even more, and the two eventually burst into laughter. Justin flipped on the radio and the two began to sing along the rest of the way to my house.

I had just sat down in the loveseat in the living room and was debating over taking a quick catnap before going to work when the kitchen door burst open. Jerrica, Josh, Lance, and Chris came in, howling with laughter over something. They wandered into the living room and sat down, making themselves comfortable.

"So, where are Joey and the others?" Jerrica asked.

"Karri and Tom went to their homes," I said, "and Joey is upstairs helping Kimber and J.B. unpack. By the way, you're staying with Joey and I in our room until Sunday, unless you want to stay with Karri or Mandy, provided they have room."

"What?" Jerrica screeched. "Why do I have to move?"

"Because it's easier to move you than to try to shuffle the others around," I said.

"Lovely," Jerrica mumbled as Joey walked in. "Maybe I will go stay with one of the girls. It makes it easier for me to plot nasty things to do to you if you're not around."

The look on Joey's face was priceless. "See! Didn't I tell you?" I said to Joey with a big grin.

"I hoped you were kidding," Joey said as he rolled his eyes. "Just remember you have to go through me to get to him."

"My hero," I said, standing up so I could give Joey a kiss on the cheek. At that moment, I heard a car door slam. "Ah, and there's Mandy and Justin."

"Justin?" Jerrica moaned. "Now I know I'm definitely leaving if he's going to be here."

"Jerrica, be nice," I said, but my words were lost on her.

"After what that fool did to you? After what almost happened down by the lake? No way! He'll be lucky if I don't kill him."

"What happened down by the lake?" Josh asked.

"Nothing," I said quickly. "Besides, it's past history now and doesn't matter. Jerrica, promise me you'll behave."

"I'll try," she said gruffly, "but even one slip up out of him, and I can not be held liable for my actions."

"I suppose that's all I can ask," I said, wondering how long Jerrica would be able to compose herself.

"Hey everyone! We're here!" Mandy called as they walked in the kitchen door.

"We're in the living room!" I called back.

Justin and Mandy walked in, and it felt like the temperature in the room went down twenty degrees. "Hi all!" Mandy said cheerfully, taking a seat on the couch.

"Hey Mandy," everyone said in response, ignoring Justin.

"Is...everything all right?" Mandy asked.

"As far as I know, although I suppose I could ask you the same thing," I said pointedly. "What was that all about on the side of the road earlier?"

Mandy said, "Good grief. I can't hide anything from you, can I?" Looking over at Justin, she continued, "I guess what Justin said about you being empathic was right."

"JUSTIN!!!" everyone yelled, turning to look at Justin, who had now shrunk back into the corner.

"It kind of slipped out," Justin said meekly. "Besides, Will probably would have told her anyway."

I laid my forehead against my hand and started to shake my head. What on earth am I going to do with him? I wondered.

I wasn't able to dwell on that for long when I suddenly heard Jerrica yell, "That's it!" I had this gut feeling I knew what she was going to do, but I was too slow to stop her. She marched over to Justin and slapped him hard across his left cheek. "That's for the mess you caused yesterday." She then slapped him again, this time across the right cheek. "And that's for being a general idiot." Turning to me, she said, "I'm sorry, but I told you one more slip out of him..." Growling at Justin, she said, "I won't make good on my other threat this time, but next time you won't be so lucky. Now, if you all will excuse me, I'm going to go upstairs and lie down. Don't even try to talk to me right now, Robért-James, because I'm not in the mood!" Jerrica then stalked out of the room and up the stairs. Moments later, we heard my door slam.

And the drama is back again! I thought glumly. Justin was crouched in the corner, tears starting to stream from his eyes. My heart sank as I watched this normally outgoing, incredibly happy guy reduced to such misery. Quietly, I said, "Would you all excuse me a moment?" I walked over to Justin and grabbed his hand, but he yanked it away from me and tried to press himself even further into the corner.

"Will, what are you doing?" Joey asked.

"Joey, would you go out to the backyard and wait for me? Please?"


"Please don't ask me to explain right this second. I will explain in a moment, I promise."

"O...kay," Joey said, glaring at Justin as he walked past him.

"Justin, come with me. I think it's time we had a little talk."

"No. I'll just screw everything up again," Justin said timidly.

"No, you won't, and it wasn't a request. Come on," I said directly, grabbing his arm and pulling him behind me. "I shall return," I called over my shoulder.

"What do you think he's going to do?" Lance asked to no one in particular.

"I don't know," Josh said with a sigh, "but whatever he does, I hope it works. We go back on tour Sunday, and we can't have the group at odds like this."

"If anyone can fix this, Will can," Chris said with conviction, "and if he can't, then we are in some serious trouble."

I dragged Justin behind me to the picnic table in the backyard, where Joey was already sitting. When Joey spotted me, he started to smile, but the sight of Justin caused the same smile to vanish instantly. "What's he doing here?" Joey asked brusquely as he started to stand up.

"Joe, no offense, but sit down and don't say anything until I'm done. Same goes for you, Justin," I said, forcibly sitting him down on the picnic table bench opposite Joey. "I want you two to listen to what I have to say, not interrupt me, and for heaven sakes listen to each other!" I started to pace back and forth in front of them, trying to collect my thoughts and explain to them how I was feeling. Before I could even realize what I was doing, I began to sing.

Everything's going in circles.
Everyone's so intense.
All of it seems so mysterious,
And none of it makes any sense.

This must be a nightmare!
Nightmare, I'm goin' through.
A nightmare!
What am I gonna do?

I glanced at Joey and Justin, who both looked at me like I had completely lost it. I knew they had issues with each other, but I wondered if they stopped to think for one second what impact this mess might be having on me.

I'm stuck in a time warp.
How did I go astray?
Baby, the matter is serious.
Won't somebody show me the way?

I walked over to Joey and started singing to him.

This must be a nightmare!
When's it gonna end?
A nightmare!
Lost without a friend.</div

I pointed at Justin after singing the last line, and then walked back around the table so I was standing in front of them. Up on the balcony of Jerrica's room, Kimber and J.B. watched intently. Josh, Chris, Lance, and Mandy did the same from the back door leading from the dining room.

A nightmare!
The world's so unkind.
A nightmare!
Have I lost my mind?

I stopped singing, crossed my arms over my chest, and stared at the two men, a term I was using loosely at the moment, in front of me. "Sorry. I don't know where that came from, but it brought up an excellent point. I feel like I'm going out of my mind!" I sat down next to Justin and said, "Look. I can't solve your problems for you. The two of you have to decide how you're going to work through this, and you do have to work through this. Joey, as I told you before, no one, not even me, is worth destroying a friendship over. If the two of you don't want to be friends anymore, make sure it's for the right reasons. Don't let a little squabble ruin things. As for Jerrica hitting you Justin, that was uncalled for, and I have a few choice words to say to her about that. In the meantime, I suggest the two of you stay far away from each other." Taking a deep breath, I said, "I'm done."

Joey jumped in first. "This is hardly a little squabble, Will. Justin went behind my back and tried to take you from me, and then he caused you to become so depressed and mixed up after his accusation that you tried to kill yourself by throwing yourself into the lake!" Joey was nearly shouting, and I really wished he hadn't, because now everyone in the house knew everything about what transpired down by the lake, and I was hoping to keep that little incident under wraps.

Justin turned a deathly shade of pale. " tried to kill yourself? Because of me?" Justin asked, his voice trembling.

"No Justin," I said firmly. "Not just because of you. You were one of many small factors that cumulated into one big mess. There was the episode with my grandmother, for one, and just my general insecurities mostly. The argument with you was just what triggered it. It was just bad timing, as far as you're concerned, and highlighted some of my more troublesome internal issues as well. However, I have Joey, and Jerrica, and Mandy and Karri, and the rest of you guys to help me work through that stuff."

"I just feel like I've let you all down," Justin admitted. "Everything I do is one big mistake. Maybe I'm just one big mistake."

"That's not true," Joey said in a calm voice. "Yes, you've done something I consider nearly unforgivable, and made a lot of other blunders along the way, but if Will can forgive you, in time I can too."

"You forgive me?" Justin asked.

"Of course," I said, giving him a hug. "Now, I'm not going to say what you put me through is okay, and I wouldn't like to go through it again, but I'm sure I can count on both of you to help put this behind all of us. No hard feelings, all right?"

"Okay," Justin said, giving me a hug back. Turning to Joey, he said, "Joey, I know that no amount of apologizing will ever make up for what I've done. I just hope that I can somehow earn your trust in me back. You're one of my best friends, and I don't want to lose that."

Joey smiled. "Give it some time, Curly. Time heals all wounds, or so the saying goes." He went over and gave Justin a small hug.

"It's nice to see my two favorite guys getting along again," I said happily.

"I don't..." Joey started to say, but I cut him off.

"Joe, don't ruin it. Just enjoy the moment, okay?" I said as I joined their little hug. "And we will work through this. All of us."

Seeing how I had maybe forty minutes or so before I had to leave for work, I went to the kitchen to fix myself some lunch for later. Since everyone was ignoring me—in fact, they seemed to be going to great lengths to give me as much room as possible—I just set about my task and then went upstairs to my bedroom. I knocked lightly on the door, and when I received no answer, I let myself in. Jerrica was lying on the bed, facing the door, her eyes wide open. I could feel her eyes on me as I went to the closet to get a change of clothes.

"I didn't really mean to hit him like that," Jerrica said softly.

I didn't turn around. As I continued to rummage through my closet, I asked, "Why did you then?"

"I don't know. It's just, like, everything boiled to the surface, and I didn't know what else to do!"

"And hitting him made everything better?"

"Don't patronize me," Jerrica said accusingly. "Of course not. It just feels like every time he's around, something bad happens to you. You've already been hurt badly by Allison, and even though you're not dating Justin, I refuse to let him hurt you!"

"Right now I think Justin is more of a danger to himself than to me," I said quietly.

"Well, he did a fine job of hurting you last night," Jerrica said vehemently. "Rob, you're my best friend. You're like a brother to me, and the fact that I could have possibly lost you..."

At that point I turned around and went to swoop Jerrica in a large hug. "I'm sorry I scared you, but that wasn't all Justin's fault. My grandmother didn't help any, for one, and second, some of that was residual stuff from back when I had that mess with...Allison." I gulped a little as I said her name. I still had difficulty, even now, saying it, as if her name were some sort of harbinger of evil. "Look, I'm not going to ask you to try and be friends with him, or to even like him, but you have to be able to get along with him. After all, you're going to be seeing him a lot on tour, and he is a friend of your boyfriend. Any animosity between you and Justin will probably have an impact on your relationship with Chris."

"I know, I know," Jerrica admitted. "I just seem to have so much trouble letting this anger and frustration go."

"Then find an outlet, other than Justin's face, to release it. Write something down. Go for a run. Do what I do, which is sing. You're going to drive yourself nuts if you keep all that anger bottled up."

"I know. I'll think of something."

"Good. Now I have to go. We'll talk later. Are you going to stay here, or are you going to see if you can stay with Mandy?"

"Would you see if I can stay with Mandy? I don't feel like facing anyone at the moment," Jerrica said sheepishly.

"Can do. Catch you later," I said as I walked out the door, closing it behind me.

As soon as Jerrica thought I was out of hearing range, she went out onto the balcony. After all, I hadn't forbidden her from going out there. "Maybe singing would help," she said quietly. "It's worth a shot. I haven't had much luck with anything else, except Chris." Jerrica smiled briefly. "That is, if he doesn't think I'm worthless after that little stunt downstairs." Jerrica sighed and said, "I've got to find a way to show them I'm not just Rob's overly dramatic, ill-tempered friend. Well here goes nothing."

I'm gonna change my luck.
I'm gonna change my luck somehow!
I'm gonna find another connection,
And take a whole new direction!
I'm gonna change my luck right now!

I'm gonna change my life. (Yeah!)
I'm gonna change my life some way.
I'll leave my troubles behind me.
Up in the sky, you will find me!
I'm gonna change my life today!

I've had enough of being poor miss number two!
Time things were rearranged,
A change is overdue!

I'm gonna change you'll see,
And when I change you'll be impressed!
I'm gonna re-write my story,
Win all the prizes and all the glory!
I'm gonna change you'll see and be the best!

After Jerrica stopped singing, she took a deep breath and said, "You know what? I do feel better. Wow. Even he has good ideas now and then," she said with a smirk. "What are the odds?"

Jerrica came back inside and sat down on the bed. She was determined to keep herself in check a little more, if not for everyone else's sake, but her own as well.

After a brief chat with Mandy, who agreed to take Jerrica in while I had the guys plus the Benton sisters at my house, I ran back upstairs to let Jerrica know and get her packed. Mandy was going to take Jerrica to her house before heading to the office, which was the direction I was eventually going to have to head in as well. Once I was sure Jerrica and Mandy were all set, I went to find Joey, who had taken up residence in our bedroom once Jerrica had vacated it.

"You okay, Joe?" I asked.

Joey was lying on my bed, staring at the ceiling. "Yeah. Just thinking about some things."

"Oh? Like what?" I pressed gently.

"Justin mostly," Joey said. "I guess it never occurred to me how he might feel at times. There was a brief moment where he started to scare me a little. I heard the same tone in his voice I heard in yours, right before you... Well, you know what almost happened."

"I did too. That's why I was so happy to see you jump in there and rescue him, just like you did with me," I said, leaning over and giving him a kiss on the lips. "I love both of you guys, and I can't bear the thought of you two being at odds with one another."

"A point you made well, even in song," Joey said with a small grin.

"Hey! We all have our methods! That just happened to be mine at the moment. Now, if you will excuse me," I said as I made my way for the door, "duty calls. I'll be home before four."

"Okay Will. I'll try to be awake, but don't count on it."

"Love ya JoJo."

"Love ya Jamesy. Have a good night."

I suppose 'good' is all in the eye of the beholder, and my night was neither good nor bad. It was just monotonously dull. Maybe it was because I had gotten so caught up in the continuous 'on-the-go' mentality I'd been in since Saturday that I had momentarily forgotten what my real life was like. However, it all came flooding back to me in a hurry as soon as I sat down and took my first phone call of the night. Oh yeah, this place, I thought sullenly as I half-listened to the passenger in my ear yammer on and on about something. I was a bit distracted—considering the events earlier that day I would have to be slightly forgiven for that—and I think it took three explanations of what the passenger wanted before I could finally figure out what they were talking about. I wonder what Joey and the guys are up to? I wondered.

Around eleven, Mandy, Karri, and I took a break and went to a table in the corner of the break room. "Well, guess we won't be seeing too much more of this place," Karri said before taking a sip of her Sprite.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Well, once we, you know, go on tour. It's not like we can rush back here to work a shift."

"Why not? That's what flight benefits are all about," I said with a laugh.

"Will, the tour is for three months!" Mandy hissed. "There's no way we're going to be able to continue working during that time!"

"I guess it will depend on what the tour schedule looks like," I said. "Besides, we all have quite a bit of vacation time, and I heard they're planning on offering some leave during some of the slower weeks of summer, and beyond that, I may have to call in a ton of favors. Otherwise, any night I can swing coming back here, I probably will. Besides, it gives me a great excuse to check up on the house and the cats. I figure I can probably leave them alone for maybe a little over a week without too much difficulty as long as I put out enough food, water, and two or three litter boxes."

"Oh, that's a good point. I wonder what I'm going to do with Sassy," Mandy said, referring to her five year old collie. "It's not like I can take her with me, and I can't bear the thought of kenneling her for that long."

"Is there anyone she can stay with? Friend? Relative?" Karri asked.

Mandy shook her head. "I don't know that many people around here, and the family is back in Arizona. Besides, I don't know if they would be willing to take her. My family and I aren't exactly on the best of terms at the moment, remember?"

"Right. I forgot," Karri said. Mandy's family had been most displeased when she decided to go work for Northern Skies in Tucson as a reservations agent, and they were further annoyed when that office closed two years ago and she decided to relocate here in Maryland.

"Wonder if the moms would be adverse to taking in a few pets for a couple of months," I said, thinking aloud. "I kind of hate the idea of leaving the cats alone, even though I know they'll be fine."

"'The moms?'" Karri asked.

"Mom and Kate," I clarified. "I sometimes call them that when I'm being lazy and short on words."

"If you take the cats up to them, then there is no reason for you to come back here," Mandy pointed out.

"I'm not giving up my job for some flight of fancy opportunity. There's not one shred of evidence that points to us having any sort of success."

"You mean besides opening for one of the largest, most popular acts of this century?" Karri asked dryly.

"Just because we open for them still doesn't mean that they'll like us," I pointed out. "I don't know about you two, but I'm going to hang onto this job as long as I can until I'm absolutely certain things are going to go well. After that, I'll reassess. Besides, it's hard to give up flight benefits, you know?"

"Good grief Will. With the type of money we could be making as performers, just buy a stinking ticket and forget the hassles! You'd rather mess around with a Kansas City Crab or a Detroit Diva," Mandy said, referring to the popular nicknames for some of the snootier, long time agents at the Northern Skies hub airports, "trying to go standby than just buy a ticket and not worry about it? You're nuts."

I shrugged my shoulders. "I'll make it work. Now, on to more important things, like praying for an early out tonight. Seven o'clock in the morning comes really fast when you don't get home until almost four."

"Amen!" Karri and Mandy said in unison, and we all burst into laughter before heading back to the phones.

It wasn't to be. I don't have that kind of luck. I walked out the door right at three o'clock, and the idea of driving home, getting an hour and a half's worth of sleep, and then going to York was a bit daunting. "I wonder if I should even bother going to sleep," I wondered aloud as I drove home.

As I pulled into my drive I could feel the effects of serious fatigue setting in. I had only had a couple hours of sleep between the time we arrived back at my house from Montréal until we had to leave to go to York. I shut the car off and wandered into the house, being careful to not wake up Josh and presumably Justin, who were probably asleep on the sofabed. I went to the refrigerator and grabbed a can of Diet Coke, as the need for caffeine, in whatever form I could get at the moment, was bordering on critical. I sat at the table, sipping my drink and listening to the sounds of the quiet house. Once I had finished my drink, I tossed the can in the recycling bin and headed upstairs.

Easing quietly into the bedroom, I took a seat in the office chair and watched Joey sleep. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed it was quarter after four. Considering I would have to leave the house by six—six-fifteen at the latest—I saw very little point in going to sleep now. Meandering through my room, I found my bag with my writing materials and slung it over my shoulder. I crept alongside the bed and stared down at Joey's sleeping form. A small smile crossed my face as I bent down to give him a small kiss on the top of his head.

"Mmmm...just five more minutes," Joey mumbled before turning over.

"Take all the time you want," I said quietly before exiting the room. I went back downstairs into the kitchen. I figured the chances that the light from the kitchen being noticeable to those in the living room was slight, and would therefore be less likely to disturb anyone's slumber.

I pulled out my notes and tried to do some more writing. After an hour and a half, my brain was completely fried. I could barely concentrate, and my interest was starting to wane. I decided, having nothing better to do, I might as well just go to the dance hall early. Hopefully, I would find my second wind somewhere between here and there. I pulled out a fresh piece of paper and left Joey and the guys a quick note.


I decided to go to dance class early, since I had nothing better to do. I know this is a bit of an imposition, but would you mind taking J.B. and Kimber to York for me? The keys to Jerrica's car are hanging on the hook—they're the ones with the red rabbit's foot. I don't know what that's all about, so don't ask me. If you have any problems, give me a call. Since you all aren't due there until a little after three, I don't expect you to stay. I'll bring Kimber and J.B. back with me, since I have to drop J.B. at the airport before going to work.

Have a great morning, a good day, and I'll see you later.


P.S. If any of you other guys get to this note before Joey, stop rolling your eyes and make sure he gets it. This means you Chris!

Chuckling to myself, I left the note on the dining room table and walked out the door. I had to really concentrate on what I was doing as I drove to York. Being as tired as I was, I could feel myself continually trying to drift off as I drove. I rolled the windows down, opened the sunroof, and cranked the radio up. I was listening to Cruel Summer by Bananarama, an up-tempo relic from the eighties. It had a catchy beat and was enough of a distraction from my fatigue to keep me on the road.

I arrived at the dance hall and was surprised to find the door unlocked at six-thirty in the morning. I went in and discovered M.F. already in her office. "I see you're up bright and early this morning," I remarked as I stuck my head in her office.

"Mr. Robertson, good morning to you," M.F. replied. "You're here early."

"Well, I didn't see any point in going to bed, and there's not much I can do at home with everyone else asleep, so I decided to come in."

"You haven't been to bed?" M.F. asked.

"No. I don't get out of work until three in the morning, and by the time I do the forty-five minute drive home, it seems kind of pointless to lie down for an hour and a half. I think I would be more tired doing that than not going to bed at all. Besides, I didn't want to run the risk of oversleeping and being late. I don't think I could handle the punishment tape today."

M.F. laughed. "Well, I'll see what I can do about ending practice early, but part of that is going to be dependent on the others."

"Karri and Mandy are probably going to be zombies as well, since they're in the same boat I'm in. Hopefully we'll manage okay. At least they're off for the next two days."

"All right. Well, practice begins at seven. I'll see you on the floor."

"Okay, M.F. I'm going to take a shower to try to wake me up some more. I'll see you later." I headed for the locker room, quickly disrobed, and went into the showers. After a quick, five-minute cold shower, I actually felt much better and more awake. I changed into some dance clothes and went out to the floor.

I went over to the radio and inserted a CD into the player. I might as well limber up the muscles and the vocal cords before we start, I thought.

As I was preparing myself for a small warm-up, Tom, Karri, Joey, J.B., and Kimber all arrived within moments of each other. They let themselves in and started to wander down the hall when the sound of faint music reached their ears. "I wonder what that is?" Tom asked.

"It might be Will. He came early," Joey said. They made their way to the door to the dance hall and opened it. Sure enough, there I was lost in my own little world, doing an impromptu dance of my own creation to the music as I sang.

When I take the floor
As I've often done before.
I feel a change come over me.
I get such a thrill
It feels like time is standing still,
And starlight is the only thing I see.

When it's only me and the music,
I leave the world behind.
When it's only me and the music
I am free!
I am poetry in motion,
When it's only me and the music

My heart starts to race.
I go soaring into space,
And music is the only thing I hear.

When it's only me and the music,
I leave the world behind.
When it's only me and the music
I am free!
I am poetry in motion
When it's only me and the music.

I snapped out of my stupor to the sound of clapping coming from the other end of the room. I blushed heavily and raced to turn off the CD player. "Uh, I was just, um, warming up a little," I said hesitantly, a little embarrassed about being caught like that.

"Now I've heard everything," Tom said with a big grin on his face. "That was quite impressive, especially for a guy."

"And you haven't heard anything yet," Joey said proudly. I blushed again at the compliment, but Joey was right, of course.

"Scary how much he sounds like, uh, Jem, isn't it?" Kimber whispered to J.B.

"You're telling me," J.B. said, shaking her head.

Kimber and J.B. went to go track down M.F. while Tom and Karri went to go get ready. As this left just a couple of minutes of alone time for me and Joey, we took advantage of it. As soon as the others were gone, Joey swooped me up in a bear hug and gave me a long passionate kiss. "I was hoping you might wake me up when you got home."

"Nah. I couldn't do that. You looked too peaceful. I did give you a kiss on the top of your head, and you mumbled something about five more minutes, but then you went right back to sleep."

"I did? Don't remember that. Oh well. Do you want me to stay through practice?" Joey asked.

"I'd think you'd be incredibly bored if you did. It's not like we're going to be able to talk much. Actually, we're not going to see much of each other the rest of the time you're here. If I'm not in rehearsal, you are, and then I'm off to work."

"Yeah, that sucks big time, but we'll be with each other all the time once you join the tour," Joey said brightly.

"Always the optimist, aren't we?" I said. "You're right, and this is the price we're paying now for that later. Well, I don't want to keep you. You might as well go home and get another couple hours of sleep, if not for you, then for me. I'm exhausted."

Joey looked at me with concern. "You didn't sleep last night, did you?"

I shook my head. "No. I'll try to catch a nap before going to work tonight."

"Please be careful Will. I don't like the idea of you driving between here and the house with no sleep."

"I'll be fine. I promise. Now go on. We're going to get started soon."

"All right. I'll see you later on. Be careful."

"I will! Now go!" I prodded.

Joey left as Tom and Karri walked in. "Ready to get to work?" Tom asked.

"No!" Karri and I said in unison.

"I'm exhausted. I got maybe an hour's worth of sleep," Karri noted as she slumped into a chair.

"Welcome to the club," I said as I joined her in an adjoining chair.

"Oh that's right. You both work late, don't you?" Tom asked. The two of us just nodded and groaned as we started to use each other for a pillow.

"Okay, let's get moving!" called M.F. as she walked in. "Where are Miss Reinhardt and Miss Andrews?"

"Mandy probably overslept. I understand she is hard to wake, and if Jerrica didn't have an alarm clock, she's probably asleep too. I know she doesn't move well in the morning."

"Well, the longer we wait, the longer your practice runs. I am not going to compromise our rehearsal time due to tardiness," M.F. said, causing Karri and I to groan loudly.

We sat for about five minutes when Mandy and Jerrica burst into the room. "Sorry we're late," Mandy said, nearly out of breath. "I accidentally shut off the alarm."

"I will forgive it this time, Miss Reinhardt, but next time, you know what happens," M.F. said reproachfully. "Now, let's get started."

The tyrant let us go a little after one o'clock. I was thrilled. That was an extra hour and a half of sleep for me! As soon as M.F. released us, I carted J.B. and Kimber out the door. I have no idea how M.F. managed to come up with so many routine ideas in such a short span of time, but I was duly impressed. Nonetheless, I was incredibly exhausted by the end of the time, and it was a shortened day to boot. I had J.B. drive us back as I was not really in any condition to drive. I told her that if she needed directions, just to let me know. We had barely left the parking lot before I fell asleep.

I was shaken awake about half an hour later, as J.B. needed help getting from the highway to the house, especially since Briar's Run isn't signposted at the intersection and is easy to miss. I managed to stay awake long enough to guide her home, and then I made a beeline for the house. I waved to the guys, who were in the process of getting ready to leave themselves, and bolted upstairs. For my sanity, J.B. changed her reservations to fly out early the following morning so I didn't have to worry about wasting necessary sleep time in taking her to the airport—a very considerate gesture on her part.

I walked into my room to find Joey had made the bed, lain some sleepwear out for me, and had folded the covers back on my side of the bed. He had turned on some soothing music on the radio and had even set my alarm for five o'clock. I was so incredibly floored by such a simple, yet sweet, action that I didn't know what to say. Joey came up behind me and handed me a single red rose. "Come here," he said, guiding me to the bed.

He sat me down and proceeded to take off my shoes and socks. He then had me stand up so he could take off my shirt and pants. I felt a little silly having him undress me like this, but I wasn't going to argue. It was truly the nicest thing anyone had done for me in years. Once I was down to my boxers, Joey rubbed his hands over my shoulders and proceeded to kiss me deeply and passionately. I was willing to let that go on forever, but Joey broke the kiss off and had me get dressed in the t-shirt and sweats he had lain out. He then had me crawl into bed and tucked me in. "Get some sleep," Joey said quietly before he pulled the curtains across the windows. He sat my cell phone on the nightstand next to the bed and said, "I'll try to call at five minutes after five, just to make sure you're awake."

I never heard him. I was already asleep.

To Be Continued...

So what did you think? Things are falling into place and the wheels are turning. The group is slowly coming back together, although slowly. Joey is on his way to forgiving Justin for his actions, but will their friendship ever recover? Will Jerrica ever be able to let this go and forgive Justin once and for all? If not, how will the group manage to survive with each other for three months on the road? What is going on with Tom, and can Will get to the bottom of it? More importantly, should he? Did Will win this round with Johnny, did Johnny win, or do you think it was a draw? What else is in store for our groups? Please, drop me a line and let me know your thoughts.

Another chapter done! Isn't it great? Oh, and I didn't even leave it as a cliffhanger this time! Also, for those that are interested, I have started a second story, called The Glamorous Life, which I am co-writing with a very talented author.  

Thanks to everyone who has written to me!! A special thanks goes out to my editors, Mandy and Dreamy, who keep me in line.

Extra disclaimers: Song lyrics for "Nightmare," "I'm Gonna Change," and "When It's Only Me and the Music" are protected under copyright by the original author and its recording label.
No attempt to infringe on this copyright should be assumed or implied.
The characters Kimber Benton, Jerrica Benton, Aja Leith, Shana Elmsford, and Raya Alonso are creations of Hasbro.