Chapter 21

“I can't be held responsible
'Cause she was touching her face.
I won't be held responsible
She fell in love in the first place.”

                        - “The Freshman,” The Verve Pipe



            “No, no, no!” Sondheim dropped his baton onto his conductor’s stand before he accidentally broke it. “I don’t know what’s happened to make you so horrible, but I want it resolved. Now.”

            He glared at the entire orchestra, letting his iron gaze concentrate on everyone. The musicians shifted uncomfortably. Finally, he looked at the singers.

            “And you. Apparently, you’ve forgotten how to carry a tune. My whistling is better than your singing right now!” He marched over to where they were assembled in a line at the front of the stage.

            “Mr. Kirkpatrick, next time I see you I expect real footwear,” Sondheim commented, pointing at Chris’s sneakers that stood out brightly against the black of his tuxedo. 

            Joey snickered, and Sondheim’s wrath turned on him. “And Joseph, you may think this is a joke but your credibility is riding on this performance. You should be taking this more seriously than I am.

            “Lance, practice those high notes. You won’t be able to fake them when you’re live and singing a capella.

            “Justin, stop straining so hard. You sound too stressed out, too eager, and altogether bad.”

            Sondheim had worked his way down the line, and now stood in front of JC. “Ah, Mr. Chasez. What are you trying to prove with this performance? Well?”

            JC cleared his throat at Sondheim’s prodding. “Our credibility. We want to prove our credibility.”

            “Is that all? What else do you want?”

            JC glanced at his friends but they didn’t jump in to help with the answer. He looked back at Sondheim. “Respect. Approval. Status.”

            “So you want respect and approval. And real status. How do you expect to get these things when you look and act like all the other no-talent boy bands?” Sondheim demanded. “Real talent, real credibility, and real status aren’t traits you acquire just by singing a damn slow song. You have to show the audience that you’re going to be here for a long time, whether they like it or not. You have to act like men on this stage. You need to charm every single person in the audience and sing like you’re in love with each one of them, and most of all you need to have presence.”

            Sondheim turned back around to address everyone in front of him. “I want silence in this room when you’re done performing. Everyone- you, the audience, the people backstage- should have goosebumps on their arms. I expect one or two ladies in the crowd to be sobbing. I want to see a standing ovation.

            “And at that moment, I’ll know, and everyone will know, that you deserve respect and approval and status. So until you get your acts together, I don’t want to see any of you. Tomorrow night is the last rehearsal, and it better be seamless.”

            He nodded curtly to the orchestra and band and left the stage, Johnny trailing behind him and whispering in his ear.

            Hannah folded up her music, stunned. She looked around and saw that the musicians around her were in a similar stupor. He’s pompous, but his speeches are amazing, I’ll give him that.

            “Does anyone else feel like they’ve just gone ten rounds with Tyson?” Justin asked, trying to laugh but ending up with a sigh.

            “Well, he was right,” JC grumbled. “And that’s the part that pisses me off the most.”

            “Tell me about it,” Joey agreed. “We have to work for respect? That sucks.”

            “Work is the word. We’re not going to be perfect tomorrow if we go back to the hotels now. We need more practice,” JC said, frustrated.

            “And how will we do that? Our conductor is gone,” Lance pointed out.

            Hannah slipped into the conversation, coming to stand next to the huddled group. “You can ask the orchestra to stay for a little longer. We’re all perfectionists.”

            “No offense, Hannah, but it’s already eleven-thirty. I think everyone’s tired enough as it is,” JC answered.

            “Then you’re ready to give up?” Hannah asked him, raising an eyebrow in challenge.

            “No, I’m not going to give up!” JC snapped back. “But it’s impossible.”

            “Why don’t you just ask them?”

            Justin turned to the musicians, who were sitting in their concert attire and quietly talking amongst themselves. They hadn’t all left yet, which was a good sign. “Is anyone interested in rehearsing another half hour? We have to show Sondheim that he’s underestimated all of us. And we won’t get any better by leaving.”

            “Plus, we’ll buy everyone some Starbucks coffee,” Lance added. “We know you’re tired.”

            After some more persuading, the orchestra agreed.
            “All right, let’s take our positions,” JC said. He began counting out the meter. “And…one, two, three, four, one, two, three -”

            Lance began with his deep voice, and the others one by one joined in.


*                       *                       *


            Hannah narrowed her eyes at Joey. “You wouldn’t.”

            “I would,” he retorted, holding his ground.

            “You couldn’t.”

            “I so could.”

            “Then do it,” she challenged. “When I say go.”

            Joey poised himself, getting ready.

            “Ready, get set…go!”

            Joey jumped into action, popping the tab on the Red Bull can before guzzling its contents. He looked up at Hannah. “Count ‘em out!”

            “One,” she called out obediently.

            He grabbed another Red Bull from the mini-fridge and chugged it down.


            He threw the empty can down and reached for another one. “I’m going for the record, baby.”

            The hotel room door opened as Hannah was in the midst of keeping count. “Three!”

            “What the hell is going on?” JC demanded, taking in the sight of Joey sitting in front of Lance’s open mini-fridge and raiding its contents. His gaze swung over to the nearby bed, where Hannah was fairly bouncing up and down with enthusiasm.

            “Four!” She turned to look at him. “Now I know why Chris likes daring him so much.”

            “Brat! We have a performance tomorrow, do I have to remind you? That means Joey can’t have ten gallons of Red Bull running through his system!”

            “Five!” she exclaimed, her laughter making it difficult to get the word out.

            “Where’s Lance?” he asked, but either no one heard him or they were too preoccupied to answer. He shook his head and left the room, deciding to find his blonde friend himself.

            Minutes later he came back, with not only Lance but also Justin and Chris in tow.

            “What are you doing?!” Lance yelled, seeing the havoc that his two friends were wreaking in the room. With his Red Bull.

            “Eleven!” Hannah cried out. She smiled at the newcomers. “Don’t worry, Lance, I think he’s getting tired now.”

            “Not if I can help it!” Chris shouted, bounding over to Joey. “Come on, man, twenty bucks says you can’t make it to twenty cans.”

            “Don’t encourage him!” JC argued, grabbing Chris and pulling the money out of his hand. “You’re going to make him sick.”

            “Hannah started it,” Chris pointed out, whining.

            Justin had a funny look on his face. “You know,” he began, speaking for the first time since entering the room, “I read that Red Bull has bull urine in it. Wait, I can’t remember, it was either urine or sperm.”

            All heads turned to see Joey pause in the middle of drinking his thirteenth can. His eyes bulged out before he dropped the drink and spit out what was left in his mouth. He began gagging. “I just drank twelve cans of bull urine?!” he screamed.

            “Or bull sperm,” Justin quickly corrected.

            “And it was twelve and a half cans,” Chris added helpfully.

            Joey bolted into the bathroom, knocking JC into the wall in his haste to find relief. JC didn’t mind, he was laughing too hard.

            “Lance, you should really start paying attention to what’s in your fridge,” Hannah commented. “First frozen mayo, and now bull urine. That’s kinda sick.”

            He glared at her. “Who started this, you or Joey?”

            “For the sake of my innocence, let’s go with Joey,” she decided, climbing off the bed and edging towards the open door. As soon as he leaned down to pick up one of the empty cans, she slipped out silently.

            Lance stood back up. “Hey! Where’d Hannah go? Who’s going to clean this up?”

            Justin, Chris, and JC looked at each other, then back at Lance. They began backing away.

            “Don’t you even try-” Lance threatened.

            The door slammed shut behind them.



*                       *                       *


            “Brat, if that wasn’t so funny you’d be in big trouble right now,” JC called down the hallway.

            Hannah laughed, waiting for him to catch up as she made her way back to her own room. “I’m not worried. Chris does it all the time and all Lance does is talk.”

            JC shrugged. “True. But I don’t know. One day, that boy is going to snap.”

            She glanced at his face. “Chris or Lance?”

            “Lance. Chris went crazy a while back,” he joked, laughing and hearing her join in.

            “So,” she began after they had both stopped laughing and the usual silence came back. That’s what their conversations were usually like- either arguments or awkward silence. “What’s next for NSYNC after the Grammy’s?”

            He shrugged again. “Maybe we’ll work on getting one of our own, instead of just performing at the ceremony.” Then he let out a harsh laugh. “But knowing the critics, that will never happen. Not while we’re alive.”

            “But isn’t that what the performance is for? Making a step in the right direction?”

            “A step isn’t the end of the struggle,” he answered. “We’re still going to have to do something amazing.”

            Her gray eyes brightened. “I know; you can show everyone that you’re not the usual pop boy-band!”

            “Well, that’s kind of the purpose, Brat,” he pointed out dryly.

            She let the nickname roll off her again, too caught up in her revelation. “What I mean is, really branch out. You should make an entire album of your own music, written only by NSYNC. And instead of all those synthesizers and other glitzy producing stuff, just use real instruments and real musicians. It can be like an extension of your performance tomorrow.”

            “I really doubt that that’s possible,” he replied, shaking his head.

            “And it could be live!” she continued, ignoring his response. “A live studio NSYNC album. That’d be interesting, right?”

            She looked at him eagerly as they stopped in front of her door, waiting for a positive reaction, but he just ruffled her hair.

            “Maybe you’ve been drinking some Red Bull, too,” he commented before walking down the hall alone.

            She stared after him, all of her enthusiasm suddenly deflated. I was serious.


*                       *                       *


            “Did you ever feel it was pointless to love Justin?” Hannah asked, watching Lillian as she typed on her laptop.

            Lillian looked at her friend sitting at the foot of the bed. “Of course. He was so perfect, and I never was. I know I shouldn’t be down on myself, but that was how I felt. Also, we didn’t always get along so well. Why do you ask?”

            Hannah shrugged. “Curious, I guess.”

            “Is it JC? Did he do something?”

            Hannah knew that Lillian would pick up quickly. “He doesn’t do anything. That’s the problem. And I was just thinking, because after the Grammy’s I’ll go back to D.C. and he’ll do whatever it is that NSYNC does next, that maybe it’s time for me to find closure.”

            “Hannah, maybe you shouldn’t give up. I know that you two have had some good times together.”

            “Too few. I don’t want to chase after something that will never happen. And I don’t think I can live with his constant mood swings. Understanding one moment, and childish the next. It’s like whenever we get within five feet of each other one of us snaps.  I’m afraid that all I’ve been hoping for and waiting for is a stupid pipe dream.” She gazed deeply at Lillian. “How did you know that what you had with Justin was right? Weren’t you ever scared?”

            A pall fell over Lillian’s face and she abruptly turned back to her laptop. “I still am.”


*                       *                       *


            “What are you doing?”

            Lillian looked up at JC. “Going over the technical cues for Grammy night. They have to be submitted in time for the last dress rehearsal tonight.”

            JC smiled. “So I guess Johnny’s just giving you all the odd jobs, huh?”

            She gave a small laugh. “Yeah, there really isn’t much for me to do when you guys aren’t on tour. I think Johnny’s just letting me stick around because Justin keeps bothering him about it.”

            JC studied the faint bags under her eyes. “You look tired.”

            “I am.”

            “What’s wrong?”

            The question was very astute of JC, she mused. Any other person would have credited her fatigue with staring at pages and pages of tiny print. But, because it was him, he had immediately noticed it was something deeper. Now she had to decide whether to lie or just wheedle out of answering altogether.

            She chose to take the latter route.

            “How did your late-night rehearsal go?”

            “Fine. So what’s troubling you?” he persisted, not being distracted for a moment. He could tell she was more than simply tired by the way she refused to meet his gaze.

            Sighing, she flipped the packet of papers closed. Now she had to lie, and she hated deceiving him. “Nothing is wrong. I have to go see Johnny now.”

            “Lily, you know you can’t avoid me forever.”

            She ignored the reminder and left the conference room. I can try.

            JC sighed and sat back in the large rolling chair at the head of the conference room’s large table. Everyone was tense today. Justin had been more than usually grumpy in the morning and had disappeared into the exercise room after breakfast. Lance and Joey got into a spat over who had lost the room key and they had both turned on Chris when he tried to mediate. And now Lily, who he depended on to be unfailingly calm, was bothered by who knew what.

            And there were two hours left until the last rehearsal. Which meant there were twenty-six hours before the Grammy’s.

            He needed a distraction.

            The door to the conference room opened and Hannah came halfway in, her foot propping the door open. “Have you seen Lillian?”

            Perfect. Brat always managed to amuse him.

            “You just missed her. She went to talk to Johnny.”

            “Oh. Alright, thanks.” Hannah began backing out of the room but JC stopped her.

            “Hey, Brat, let’s go do something,” he offered, standing up.

            She watched him warily as he approached. “Why?”

            “Because I’m bored and you’re convenient.”

            Letting out an angry breath, she spun around. The heavy door shut on his face.

            “Hannah, come on!” he entreated, yanking it open and quickly following her down the hall towards the main lobby.

            “You are a jerk,” she said stiffly, not slowing down to let him catch up. “You’re bored out of your simple mind and I’m convenient, so we can be less bored together? Sorry, Josh, but I have things to do, unlike you. Besides, why would I even want to spend time with someone who always manages to make me feel so -”

            “I was just joking,” he interrupted her, laughing. He pulled her to a standstill. “You’re so predictable.”

            “You’re so idiotic.”

            “What do you have to do?”

            “Practice. The last rehearsal is tonight, remember. I don’t want Sondheim to blow up at you again.”

            “Aw, Hannah, I’m so glad you care,” he drawled sarcastically.

            She glared at him. “I care about getting paid for a job. Not about you. NSYNC’s credibility is not high on my list of priorities right now.”

            “You don’t mean that,” he said matter-of-factly. “You’re friends with us.”

            “Actually, Josh, I’m friends with Lance, Joey, Justin, and Chris. Not with you. I don’t think that could ever happen.”

            “Why?” he asked, genuinely curious.

            She looked at him incredulously. Did he not even realize how he treated her? “Why? Because you only talk to me when you have nothing else to do. Because as soon as something faintly more interesting comes up, you leave. You treat me as if I never grew up. But I have. And I’m sick of waiting for you to realize that!”

            “That’s not true,” he immediately refuted, although he knew he was guilty of more than one of her accusations. “I don’t treat you like that.”

            “It is and you do,” she argued. “I’m always second-best when it comes to you. Actually, scratch that. I’m not even second, or third. I’m last. Ever since we were kids, I was last.”

            “Why are you being so melodramatic,” he demanded, feeling insulted. She was making him out to be a monster. He regretted even pursuing her down the hall in the first place.

            “I’m not. Remember when you won that talent contest? After, you promised that we’d go see a movie to celebrate. But you abandoned me for Lindsay as soon as she smiled at you! And then you left.

            “You didn’t even tell me you were going to leave. I couldn’t say goodbye. I admired you so much, Josh. I would have done anything to see you again. And I did. That was the reason I began the cello in the first place.”

            She stared at his face, wanting to see his reaction. But he was looking beyond her, at a random spot on the wall behind her. She forged on, letting her long pent-up emotions take reign. I wanted closure. This is a step in the right direction.

            “You have shaped so many aspects of my life. If you hadn’t been nice to me on occasion, or if you never loved music, I wouldn’t have even looked at a cello. I would not be standing here right now talking to you. But I think I’m realizing more and more that if I dropped out of your life, you wouldn’t even blink.”

            “Hannah, I-”

            “Don’t talk. I will not let you talk. I always listen to you, Josh. I have always cared about what you said and how you felt. Remember how in New York, you went to that backstage music room and sat there and played the piano? I knew that you did that more than once. I could tell you were sad. And I wanted to help you so badly.”

            JC glanced up at her, surprised. He assumed no one had known about that. He thought he had been alone. “Hannah…” he urged, reaching out his hand, trying this time to physically stop the tirade of words.

            But she slapped his hand away.

            “I do not want to hear any of your excuses. It’s my turn to talk. Don’t you understand how lonely I felt, watching you have so much fun with your friends? And when Bobbie hurt you, I hurt, too. I thought that maybe now that we’re older, more mature, we could be actual friends. I wanted you to share your dreams with me, and I wanted to share my dreams with you.

            “But it’s like I was never there. You just complained and vented because I was convenient. Don’t deny it, you said it yourself. As soon as we started having actual conversations, you got scared or something. I guess it’s more comfortable for you to insult me. I don’t know why. I offered you my friendship, and you never cared. You don’t respect me or my idea, and I’ve had enough. Before Lindsey even looked at you and Bobbie lied to you, I was there and waiting for you. But I’m tired now. I’m tired of hoping you’ll actually see me and be nice to me.”

            Her voice broke on her last word, and she took a quick breath, overwhelmed at what she had just said. The pause was a useless effort to calm down.

            JC took advantage of the momentary silence. “But we did things together, too. We went to Litz’s, and shopped with Lance, and saw that movie.”

            “That’s not enough!” Hannah burst out. “You didn’t want to see the movie. Lance invited me to go shopping, not you. And we got into an argument that day, too. I don’t even know why you’re fighting with me now, Josh. This is what you want, isn’t it? You never wanted me in your life in the first place, and you were less than thrilled when I showed up again. This time you don’t have to leave. I will.”

            He tried to see her face, but she had turned so that her hair masked any expression. Her voice sounded odd.

            She began walking away from him then. He grabbed her arm and pulled her back towards him, pushing her hair away and exposing her face.

            “You’re crying,” he observed softly, staring at the brightness of her gray eyes and the shine of tears on her cheek.

            She pushed him away, so hard that he fell against the wall. “The last time I cried was when you left twelve years ago without even telling me you were going.” Raising her arm, she rubbed the tears off her face with the back of her knuckles, in the process pushing her glasses askew. The gesture struck him as naïve and childlike. “I am not going to cry now,” Hannah continued, even though her appearance blatantly belied her words. “This should be a happy occasion. You’re getting what you want. I’ll be gone soon.”

            He shook his head, trying to prod his mind into following her words. He was still preoccupied by her tears, and the way she had rubbed her eyes. It was almost…endearing. “Wait, wait. You keep saying you’re going to leave. When? Where?”

            “I’m only here for the Grammy performance. After tomorrow night, I’m going home. You should celebrate. Finally, the Brat’s out of your life forever.”

            She stalked off again, and this time he didn’t move.


*                       *                       *


            Lillian slammed the phone down. Then for good measure, she picked it up and slammed it again.

            She sat down on the bed, trying to think. There was an insistent droning in her head, and it drowned out any sensible thoughts.

            She picked the phone up and dialed the front desk. “This is Lillian Oswald from room 927. Hold all my calls, please.”

            That would hopefully stop any more threatening calls. She hadn’t recognized the voice from the last one, and she couldn’t even tell if it was a man or woman. On top of all her worries about the Grammy’s, now she had to deal with these stupid crank calls. She was ready to break down under the constantly building pressure.

            But she couldn’t. She had to be strong for Justin, like he was always strong for her. She would stand with him in front of the reporters, meet Britney for him, and support him during the band’s performance. And above all, she would save him.

            ‘Weren’t you ever scared?’

            She could have laughed at the irony of the question. The irony of the whole situation.

            I’m scared all the time.


*                       *                       *


            Hannah zipped her suitcase shut. She stretched her tired back and lied down on the other bed. All her clothes, with the exception of her performance dress, were folded and packed. The only things left in the bathroom were her toothbrush and toothpaste. She could leave for the airport as soon as the performance was over.

            But she didn’t want to leave. At least, her heart didn’t. Her mind couldn’t wait to be gone.

            Why can’t I give it one more chance? Just one more.

            That was stupid, though. It was always just one more. She had to accept the fact that this time, it was the end. She could move on with her life.

            But what kind of life will that be?

            She frowned. It wouldn’t be horrible. But it wouldn’t have Josh, either. It wouldn’t have love. Well, love was overrated.

            How would you know? You’ve never experienced it.

            Reaching out, she fumbled for the light switch and turned the bedside lamp off. The dark didn’t soothe her as she had hoped it would. Instead, she stared at the ceiling and remembered how they did have fun, sometimes. How close they had come to…to finding rightness in each other. And she could picture, almost perfectly, the way he had looked at her at Sarah’s house. There was a painful hollowness in her chest as she remembered how overwhelmed and flushed she had felt, and the other emotions she hadn’t expressed. The emotions that neither had taken the chance to express.

            She loved him. She was in love with him, even though it was near impossible to be in love with someone who didn’t return the feeling. But she was. And she wanted another chance to be happy. She just didn’t think she could handle it if Josh didn’t respond again.

            I need a sign that this is right or wrong. Please just give me a sign.


Author’s Note: Regarding the Red Bull rumor- I read it in a newspaper but it’s just a rumor, as far as I know.



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