Chapter 22, Part I - Climax     

“Well I confess, I don't know what to make from all this mess
Don't have much time for sympathy
But it never happened to me.”

                        - “Seein’ Red,” Unwritten Law


            “The night is still young and the stars are arriving for tonight’s Grammy’s!”

            “Yes, Dave, excitement and anticipation are the primary emotions running high tonight. In fact-”

            She turned the television off, smiling to herself. The idiotic host was right. The night was young, and it was her turn to take back what she deserved. Justin.


*                       *                       *


            “Yes, Dave, excitement and anticipation are the primary emotions running high tonight. In fact, I have word that a very important guest has just arrived. Let’s swing on over to-”

            “Don’t watch this garbage,” Justin reprimanded Lillian, changing the channel to a rerun of an action movie. “This is better. It’ll relax you.”

            Lillian looked at him and smiled. “You look beautiful.”

            Justin flicked a tiny piece of dust off his dark gray tuxedo’s sleeve, laughing. “You know, if I wasn’t so comfortable with my masculinity, I would feel insulted.”

            She wrapped her arms around his waist. “You know what I mean.”

            “Yeah, I do. Thank you.” He kissed her on her forehead. “Now hurry up and get dressed. You still have to stop by Chloe’s room to get your hair and makeup done.”

            She retreated into the bathroom while he sat down on the edge of the bed and watched the movie. He was so nervous. He wanted Lillian to like Britney, and vice versa. He wanted everyone to marvel at his amazing girlfriend. And he didn’t want to screw up the performance. Everything tonight was too important to risk.

            A knock sounded on the door.

            “Come in,” he called out.

            Lance peeked his head in. “Anyone getting undressed?”

            “No, she’s in the bathroom.”

            “Damn,” Joey muttered, pushing Lance into the room and following him. “And we hurried and everything.”

            They joined Justin on the bed. “Whatcha watching?” Joey asked.

            “I don’t know. Some Van Damme movie. It’s pretty bad,” Justin answered. “I just figured it’s better than watching those pre-Grammy shows.”

            “I’m going to throw up,” Lance stated, staring dazedly at his polished shoes.

            “I hear ya,” Joey agreed. “Whose idea was it to stake our reputations on this stupid performance?”


            Joey glared at Lance. “Well, next time someone should talk us out of it.”

            There was another knock, and this time Chris wandered in. “Where’d you all run off to?” he demanded. “One second Chloe was fixing my hair and the next everyone was gone.”

            “How’d you find us?” Joey asked.

            Chris pointed at the television. “I followed the bad acting.”

            Lance laughed. “Ouch.”

            Justin pointed at Lance. “Yeah, like you’re one to talk. I recall a little movie last year, what was it called again? ‘On the’ something?”

            Lance threw a pillow at him. “I hate you.”

            The door opened again and the last NSYNC member came in.

            “Is everyone ready yet?” JC asked, approaching the bed just as Justin swung the pillow into Lance’s face. “Hey, none of that, guys. You’re gonna mess up your clothes.”

            He sat down on the other double bed. “Why are you watching a Van Damme movie? It’s just one step up from Steven Segal on the scale of suck.”

            Chris began giggling to himself. “You said ‘suck.’”

            “Shut up, Chris!” Justin exclaimed. “Let’s not start that again.”

            Chris laughed and turned back to the television, but not without muttering something under his breath. “Where’s your mom on the scale of suck?”

            “What was that?” Justin demanded, narrowing his eyes.

            “I said, Boy, I’d like a side of duck,” he replied innocently. “Peking duck, that is.” 

            “I’m ready now,” Lillian called out, opening the bathroom door and interrupting any chance of a fight.

            The five tuxedo-clad men on the beds stared at her. She stared back.

            “You look amazing!” Lillian and JC declared simultaneously. They both laughed.

            “You really do,” JC whispered as he hugged his ‘lil sis’.

            She smiled brilliantly. “So do you. So do all of you,” she exclaimed, looking at them all. “This is like a teenybopper’s ultimate fantasy, right here.”

            “You’re my ultimate fantasy!” Joey burst out, smiling to show he was joking.

            Justin shoved his shoulder in a mock threat. He stood up and appraised Lillian’s appearance. Her dress was floor length and made of a dark lavender silk. It contrasted incredibly with her dark hair and light complexion. And it was so simply elegant that he wanted to get his hands on her and muss it up a little bit.

            Lillian looked at his mischievous grin. “No, Justin, don’t come any closer,” she warned, recognizing his expression. “I need to look nice tonight, remember?”

            He grabbed her around the waist and swung her around. “Mission accomplished, Princess. You’re gonna make all the other girls jealous. And all the guys will be jealous of me.”

            “Yeah, you’d hate that,” JC joked. “Now let’s hurry up or Johnny’s going to have our butts.”

            Justin held onto Lillian’s wrist, letting the others go first. “You need to put a necklace on. It’ll look great.”

            He went over to bag and began rummaging through it. “Didn’t you bring the necklace I sent you in the mail? The silver one with the pearl teardrop.”

            Lillian shifted her weight uncomfortably. She had never received a necklace. Only those creepy notes. But she couldn’t tell him that.

            “I must have forgotten it. It’s okay, Justin, I don’t need a necklace.”

            “I knew you would say that. That’s why I brought this.” He pulled a black jewelry box out of the inside pocket of his tux. “Go on, open it.”

            She obeyed, and stared in wonder at the necklace. It was silver, or platinum, she couldn’t tell, and was not a simple chain and pendant. Instead, the necklace looked like many tiny silver strands intertwined in a complex pattern, like lace. And at the bottom a light blue jewel was set.

            “Justin, it’s beautiful,” she breathed in awe.

            “I got it specially made. That’s a blue diamond, not a sapphire. Sapphires don’t come in that light color,” he explained, smiling at her reaction. “I wanted it to remind you of me.”

            She stared at the necklace, back at him, and back again to the necklace. The gem was almost exactly matched the shade of his eyes when he was happy. “I don’t know what to say.”

            “Don’t say anything, then. Just put it on,” he prompted, watching her with adoring eyes. “Here, turn around.”

            He picked the necklace up and fastened it around her neck as she lifted her hair out of the way. “I’m so proud of you,” he murmured, kissing the nape of her neck. “Now I’m going to make you proud.”

            She turned around and flung herself against him, not caring about wrinkling her dress anymore. “I’m already proud of you, Justin. I love you.”

            “Hey, does anyone get the feeling we’re missing someone?” Lance asked, turning around. He walked down the hall and back to Lillian’s room, opening the door and peering inside. He whistled under his breath and went to catch up with his friends.

            “What are they doing?” Chris asked.

            Lance laughed. “If I told you, we wouldn’t be able to stop Joey from running back in there.”


*                       *                       *


            JC’s smile was brittle as he stood beside Justin and Lillian. The lights of the cameras were blinding, and he couldn’t even tell which media personality was asking the question.

            “So who’s this lovely young lady you’re standing with?”

            Justin slid his arm around Lillian’s waist and pulled her alongside him. “This is Lillian. My girlfriend.”

            He and JC both braced themselves for the reaction that they had seen several times already, as they had made their way down the line of reporters. The backlash was immediate.

            “Girlfriend? For how long now?”

            “How old?”

            “What does she do?”

            “What about Britney?”

            “And the rumors about you and the backup dancer? Any truth in that?”

            Lillian felt Justin’s arm stiffen, along with his whole body. She gently and discreetly kneaded the small of his back, feeling the tension slowly dissipate. Justin smiled down at her, then turned back to the cameras with renewed patience.

            “I can promise you that all the rumors are rumors. This is the real thing. And if you have any questions about Lily, you can ask her.”

            The reporters, as one, began shouting their questions at Lillian. Before she could open her mouth and respond, though, JC stepped forward.

            “Sorry to interrupt, but we really have to go inside and find our seats now.” He pushed his two friends ahead of him, ignoring the continued questions.

            “Where are the other guys?” Lillian asked, looking up at him.

            JC grimaced. “Joan Rivers got her claws into Lance. They’re all probably fighting their way through now.”

            She turned to regard Justin. “So was I okay?”

            He beamed at her with pride. “Better than okay. Perfect. Beautiful. Stunning.” He leaned down and punctuated each compliment with a kiss. “Elegant. Amazing. And all mine.”

            JC averted his gaze from the couple, but he still heard Lillian’s delighted laughter and Justin’s mischievous chuckles. He wanted what they had. He needed it. And it seemed like every time he was getting close to true happiness, something was flung in his way. God, why can’t I have what Justin has? What am I doing that is so wrong? He frowned. Maybe he didn’t deserve it.

            After the confrontation with Hannah yesterday, he felt like he was undeserving of anything good. He didn’t know how, but she had managed to make him feel like the biggest bastard on earth. And the antagonism between them wasn’t even all his fault. 

            He was angry at her too. How could he have known she felt that way? She had never said anything, or even hinted. But maybe she did, and I was just being so obtuse that I missed the signals. Still, he wasn’t a mind reader. And he wasn’t famous for being perceptive.

            “It’s not my fault,” he muttered to himself.

            “What?” Lillian asked, glancing at him.

            “Nothing,” he immediately said. He couldn’t dwell on Hannah now. The performance tonight was more important. But that thought inexplicably brought him back to yesterday, and how Hannah had said she was always last on his list. She said that she was never important to him, even though she had been there since the beginning.

            He knew that was the truth. He had known Hannah since before Lindsey, before Bobbie, before anyone. Hell, Hannah had been there before the music.

            Now he was completely lost. His conviction was that he hadn’t done anything wrong, but he was convincing himself that his conviction was wrong, so that meant Hannah was right. But his conviction since they were kids was that Hannah was always the wrong one.

            A light punch on his shoulder brought him back to reality. He looked at Joey.

            “You okay, Jace? Seemed kinda lost there.”

            “No, man, I’m fine.”

            “Well, sit down then. These are our seats.”

            JC obeyed, ignoring the concerned gaze Joey continued to direct at him.


*                       *                       *


             “My tie is not tying!” Chris screeched, yanking at the piece of cloth frustratingly. He ran over to one of Trish’s assistants. “Help me!”

            She took the cloth away. “That’s a scarf.”


            Shaking her head, she produced the tie, seemingly out of nowhere. Chris stood obediently as she made the knots. “And you call yourself a fashion designer.”

            “Twenty minutes!”

            Trish looked up at the backstage call. She finished fixing the creases on Lance’s pants and stood up. “Status check,” she shouted.

            “Chris is done,” her assistant reported, putting the finishing touches on the silk tie.

            “I’m ready,” Lance said calmly, settling down into an available chair.

            “Joey’s missing a shoelace,” another assistant called back.

            Trish rolled her eyes. “How does someone lose a shoelace that was laced in the shoe an hour ago?!” She stormed off to find it, muttering under her breath all the while.

            The dressing room chaos continued around her as she searched, and finally she found it in Justin’s shoebox, of all places.

            “Here,” she said, handing it to the assistant.

            “Are you about done?” she asked JC, who was getting pomade put through his hair.

            He nodded. “After this, I’m set. Don’t worry, Trish.”

            “I’m not worrying, I’m fretting. It’s entirely different.”

            She looked around the crowded room, surveying the scene and mentally checking items off her ‘last minute crunch’ list.

            “Ten minutes!” came the next backstage call.

            “Where the hell is Justin?!” Trish burst out, realizing that her tallest and most ill-behaved client had vanished.

            “He was sitting here a second ago,” JC offered, pointing to the chair in front of the opposite vanity mirror.

            “No one leave this room,” she commanded. “I’m going to look for him. And I’ll beat his handsome face to a pulp for stressing me out.”

            “Take it easy, I’ll find him,” Lonnie said, standing up from his seat next to the door. “You have enough things to do.”

            She smiled at him in thanks and turned back to the other guys. “Joey, what the hell are you doing? Start with the laces in!”


*                       *                       *


            Justin looked back and forth between the two people in front of him, anxious and concerned and giddy all at the same time. He was intensely aware of the interested gazes the other people backstage were giving them.

            “It’s nice to finally meet you,” Lillian said, breaking the short but awkward silence. She stuck her hand out.

            Britney smiled at her. “I feel the same way.” She shook hands with her ex-boyfriend’s girlfriend.

            Lillian studied the figure in front of her. It was surreal, almost, to see her as a person and not as a head on a television screen. She and Britney were around the same height, even though the other woman’s heels gave her more leverage. Looking carefully at Britney’s expression, she was relieved to find no malice or jealousy. Only some curiosity.

            She looked to Justin, wondering what he was thinking now that he saw the two girls face-to-face, in a side-by-side comparison. Even though she knew it was wrong, she wondered if he regretted anything. She was scared that maybe she couldn’t compare. But when Justin looked at her, all she saw in his eyes were acceptance and love. No doubts.

            Justin regarded them as they made small talk. Lillian was thinner and not as curvy as Britney. Brit was much more tan, and carried herself with the knowledge and confidence of a true celebrity. But Lily looked undeniably graceful and slender where Britney was striking and robust. Lily looked smarter. And he hated to think it, but Britney looked a little…gaudy. The two were so different, but he wasn’t sorry for his decision. He would always be friends with Britney, but he and his Princess were made for each other.

            “Yo, J!”

            He turned around at the shout and saw Lonnie striding towards them.

            “You better get your butt back to the dressing room before Trish decides to come looking for you herself,” Lonnie warned.

            Justin sighed. “I’m coming, I’m coming. See you later, Brit.” She smiled, waved at Lillian and Lonnie, and moved off to talk to someone else nearby. He grinned at Lillian. “Give me some good luck.”

            She reached up, wrapping her arms around his neck, and pulled his face down toward her own. Then, forgetting all the pressures of the night and all the events that were soon to come, she kissed him deeply, with all the love she had for him. She couldn’t describe it any other way- she was abandoning herself in the moment. Ending the kiss, she stepped back and blushed.

            “Sweetheart, only you could kiss someone like that and then blush,” he joked softly, stroking her hair. She turned a deeper shade of red at his words. “You’ll be watching backstage, right?”

            Lillian nodded. “And I’ll wait for you afterwards.”

            He smiled, letting out an anxious breath. “Okay then. Show time.” He winked at her before sprinting off to the dressing room.

            Lonnie didn’t follow him, and instead approached her. “Don’t worry. You know the plan. Everything will be fine.”

            She nodded again, reminded of what she still had to do tonight. “I know, Lonnie. But I can’t help worrying anyway. I’m so scared I want to throw up.”

            He took her arm gently and led her away. “That’s what happens when you love someone like that.”

            “It’ll be alright,” she said, partly to assure her own nerves.

            “Of course.”


*                       *                       *


            “Well, gang, here we are. I don’t know how many clichéd sentiments I can throw at you right now. This is the seventh game of the World Series, the last inning, bases loaded, and all those other trite sayings.” Sondheim paused, looking around at the large group of anxious faces surrounding him. “I’m not an athlete. I’m guessing that most of you don’t know what it’s like to be in that kind of high-pressure moment.

            “But I do know that you are all professionals. This is your job, your hobby, your love, your passion. We are all here for the music, bottom line. You’ve worked hard. You’ve been shouted at, glared at, and your fingers and vocal cords have ached more in these past weeks than you ever thought possible. I know most of you hate me. It’s because I’ve pushed you hard. I expect some results. I will see those results tonight. You need to go out on that stage and show everyone why this was worth the effort and the time and the stress. I am relinquishing all my control. This night, this moment, they belong to you now.”

            He finished speaking and let his words sink in. Then he smiled reassuringly. “And remember to have fun.”

            An assistant stage manager began ushering the musicians onstage, quickly and efficiently, so that when the commercial break was over they would be ready. Sondheim took the opportunity to speak to the five singers privately.

            “Someone tell me, what is this song about?” he questioned, examining their tense demeanors.

            JC looked at him incredulously. “You don’t know what the song is about?”

            “No, I do. I just wanted to make sure you did, too.”

            “It’s about love and remembering someone close,” Joey answered. “What else could it be about?”

            “Well, Joseph, you’re right. On a certain level. It’s also about loss. ‘And you, my past, lie buried behind me, the sadness escapes memory because I won’t ever forget,’” he quoted. “That’s about someone dying. The whole song recounts this person’s experience with love, but it’s bittersweet because as the listener is caught up in all these happy recollections, he suddenly realizes that whoever she is, is gone forever. First the lovers split apart, and then one dies. They can never be reunited now.

            “Take that emotion and put it in your singing. I know you’ve all experienced loss, it doesn’t matter what kind. And if you haven’t, sing as if you know you’re going to die in twenty-four hours, and this is your last breath to the entire world. What do you want them to know?”

            He observed them, and apparently finding something he approved of, nodded. “This is it, boys.”

            Justin watched him saunter away to take his place at the podium. “I hate how he just does that.”

            “I guess he’s right, though, like always,” Lance commented. “We’ve all wanted this. Now we can take it.”

            They said a quick group prayer together, then rushed onstage to get in their positions in front of the orchestra. As the black curtain in front of them lifted, each was thinking their own deeply personal thoughts.

            Lance counted the beat in this head, then began singing his single note. The others joined in as the orchestra remained silent. They held their respective notes for a full measure before Justin started his verse with the accompaniment of the instruments. There could be no inhibitions now. The performance had begun.


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