Chapter 22, Part II – Climax Continued

“I’m finding my way back to sanity again
Though I don't really know what I'm gonna do
When I get there.”

                        - “Breathing,” Lifehouse


            Lillian stood backstage, watching them from around a curtain. Her hand had unconsciously fisted around the cloth as she listened in rapt attention. Her heart lifted as Justin hit every note perfectly during the a capella portion.

            She stayed with her friends during the first part of the performance, but as they were reaching the crescendo she knew she had to leave. It was time to finish the third part of what she had to do tonight.

            Dropping the curtain, she turned around and brushed past the other people milling around busily backstage. She could feel someone watching her. And she knew it wasn’t an innocent gaze.

            Here we go.

            Discreetly, she pulled her cell phone out of her purse and pressed the redial button. All the while, she walked quickly through the labyrinth of hallways backstage, her heartbeat quickening the further she went and the more deserted it got.

            Footsteps sounded behind her, but she forced herself to keep walking and not turn around. She couldn’t let the person realize she knew she was being followed. She turned a corner and began leading her pursuer back towards the NSYNC dressing room. It’ll all be over soon.

            She paused briefly outside the room, waiting until she heard the person coming down the hall, and then she pushed the door open and rushed inside, remembering the close the door behind her.

            Lillian peered around the darkened room, trying to make out the hulking figures inside. She finally saw Mike and Dre and the other members of the security team, with the exception of Lonnie, who was standing guard near the stage. Mike winked at her and held his index finger up to his lips, warning her to be quiet.

            He and Wes were on either side of the door, ready to tackle the next person who came in. Lillian waited in the corner, wanting to see who the person was who had caused her so much worry and self-doubt and fear. And anger too. Don’t forget anger.

            The door opened a moment later, and Mike and Wes pounced on the person, tackling them to the ground. Dre flipped the lights back on as shouts and screams sounded out.

            “Get the fuck off me!” a voice shouted from under Mike and Wes.

            The two bodyguards didn’t relent and subdued the person, while cussing back on their own.

            Lillian stepped closer. “Who is it?” she demanded, letting her anger take over now that she knew everyone was safe.

            “Guess who, bitch,” the person practically spat at her as she approached.

            Lillian stared. Elaine. Her hair was pulled up and wasn’t the eye-catching blonde color it used to be. She was dressed like all the other backstage personnel- black clothes, with a badge hanging around her neck. Lillian shook her head. To be honest, she wasn’t that surprised to see her former coworker and rival. If anyone had ever resented her that much, it was Elaine.

            “I’d shut your mouth if I were you,” Mike snapped, ignoring her struggles and pulling her to a standing position.

            Lillian ignored the other woman’s curses and threats, walking to Wes’s side. “Did she…have anything?”

            Wes nodded, holding out a gun. Lillian couldn’t help but step back at seeing the gleaming black weapon. Suddenly, she was reminded of what could have happened tonight.

            Dre came over and took the gun, then checked the barrel. “One bullet,” he reported gravely. “Shit.”

            Lillian continued to stare at the gun. One bullet. Was it meant for her or Justin? She blinked, trying to get a grasp on the whole situation. She cleared her throat, realizing that it had gone dry. “Is someone going to get the police? Because…” she trailed off, not wanting to say anything else. She was just then reminded of her own mortality, and Justin’s, and those of everyone else she cared about. “Oh my god.”

            “It’s okay,” Dre comforted, looking at her pallid expression. “It didn’t happen, Lillian. Everyone is okay. They’re still singing.”

            She nodded, knowing he was right. But she wanted to see them for herself. She wanted to see Justin and Lance and JC and Chris and Joey in front of her, to assure herself that they really were unharmed. “I need to see them,” she whispered, moving towards the open doorway.

            She was soon blocked, however, as Randy came in, leading two police officers behind him. He pulled her back into the dressing room even though she tried to shrug his hand off.

            “Randy, please, I need to see for myself,” she pleaded, staring into his eyes. “I have to!”

            “Sorry, ma’am,” one of the officers said, “but we need to take your statement first.” 

            She sighed and let Randy lead her to one of the chairs, knowing that the sooner he took her statement the sooner she would see her friends. The officer who had spoken came over to her while the other handcuffed Elaine and took the gun.

            “It started with these pictures in the mail,” she began.


*                       *                       *


            “We did it, we did it, we did it,” Lance repeated over and over, as if in a trance.

            “It’s over!” Joey exclaimed, jumping against him. “We gotta celebrate, man!”

            Chris kept poking JC. “Did I get that high note? Was it right? I couldn’t even tell, I was so nervous. Come on, Jace, was it okay?”

            JC laughed and pushed his hand away. “It was perfect, Chris. I heard it just fine, and it was perfect.”

            Justin was a few yards ahead of the others, thanking the people who congratulated him on their performance absentmindedly. His eyes were searching the backstage area. 

            “J, what are you doing?” JC inquired, drawing even with him.

            “Where’s Lily?” Justin asked, still looking around. “She said she would be waiting backstage after we were done.”

            “She’s probably in the dressing room if she’s not here,” JC offered. “Maybe it was getting too crowded backstage.”

            Justin nodded and they headed towards the dressing room. “I hope she liked it. I hope everyone liked it. I don’t think I’ve been so worried about one performance before. Well, maybe except for our first one.”

            JC smiled. “You and me both, man.”

            The five of them rounded the corner before the dressing room hallway and stopped abruptly.  There were two cops outside the room, blocking the closed door. A small, curious crowd had formed outside the door.

            “What’s going on?” Justin demanded, pushing through the crowd and approaching the door. “What happened?”

            Lance looked at the cops. “Why are you here? Why can’t we go inside?”

            “Please just calm down,” one cop said. “There’s been a small incident.”

            “An incident?” Joey echoed. “What does that mean?” 

            “I can’t disclose that information right now,” was the vague answer.

            “You have to, this is our dressing room!” Justin burst out. “Who’s inside there?”

            “I can’t disclose-”

            “We know, you can’t disclose that information right now,” Lance finished, exasperated. He didn’t know what to do. Justin was panicking because he didn’t know where Lillian was, and could be inside as they were arguing. Joey appeared ready to barrel through the two cops. Chris was looking around for someone to let them in, and JC was trying to calm Justin down.

            “It’s okay, they can go in!” Lonnie shouted, just catching up to his charges and seeing their confusion.

            Justin pushed past the police officers as soon as he heard Lonnie and burst into the room, with the others following closely behind.

            They were stunned at the scene that greeted them.

            A woman was standing next to a cop, her hands cuffed. She was glaring sullenly at the cop who held her still and at the others in the room. The rest of their security team was dispersed throughout the room. Randy and Wes were talking quietly with the other police officer in the room. Todd was on his cell phone, speaking rapidly to whoever was on the other end. The others were either pacing around or sitting in the canvas chairs.

            Justin’s gaze focused on Dre and Mike, because sitting between them was Lillian, looking very distraught. “Princess! What the hell happened?”

            Her head lifted upon hearing his voice but before she could answer he had wrapped her in his arms, holding her so tightly that she was out of breath.

            “You’re safe,” she whispered in his ear, not minding his crushing grip. “You’re all safe.”

            “What happened?” Justin asked again, still not letting her go. He looked over her shoulder at Mike and Dre.

            “Elaine was following you two for weeks now. She was going to make her move tonight,” Mike explained.

            Justin frowned, trying to remember the name. “Elaine? The one who sabotaged our tour?”

            “Yeah, her.”

            “What was she going to do?” JC asked, coming closer.

            “We don’t know. She’s not telling. But Wes found a gun on her. It had a bullet in it,” Dre explained.

            Justin felt himself pale. It didn’t even seem possible to him. Elaine, the girl who used to work in make-up, the girl he had briefly had a fling with, had tried to hurt someone. Maybe even fatally. It could have been any one of the guys, or me. It could have been Lily.

            JC watched his friend turn white in shock, but then moments later the color returned to his face and he looked furious. He supposed he looked the same way.

            Justin released his embrace of Lillian and stood back up, not saying anything. He didn’t know what to say, but at the same time he wanted to say so many things at once. Was anybody hurt? When did it happen? Who stopped Elaine? What if no one had stopped her? What was she going to do?

            He looked at Lillian, who was hugging JC and saying something to him. He couldn’t believe that if things had been a little different, he might not even be looking at her right now. He could be on his way to the hospital, instead. So many things could have happened tonight. He was making himself sick just thinking of the various outcomes.

            “I just needed to see that you’re all safe,” Lillian said, looking at JC. “I was so scared. I wanted to be strong for everyone, but it was so hard.”

            He nodded, stroking her hair. “You did fine, Lily. You are strong.” He led her away from her chair. “Come on, talk to the others.”

            Lance grabbed her up in a bear hug. “God, Lily, you had us so worried.”

            “I didn’t want you to be worried. This was your night,” she explained. “Elaine ruined it for you. I stopped her the best I could.”

            “The night’s not ruined,” Chris soothed her. “Not even she could ruin this for us.”

            “And you did stop her,” Joey pointed out, pulling her into a bear hug of his own. “You were fearless, Lilypad.”

            “Yeah, no guts no glory,” Chris joined in, smiling.

            She couldn’t help but smile back at his impish grin. “I’m glad you’re all safe. I wish I could have seen all of your performance.”

            “I bet all of our moms taped it. We can ask for a copy,” Chris answered. He was trying to keep the conversation light. He could see from across the room that Justin was worrying about the darker side of the situation enough for all of them.

            “Yeah, Lance’s mom is probably making copies of it as we speak,” Joey joked.

            Todd approached the small group and began ushering them out of the room. “I just finished talking to Johnny. He wants you guys to go back to your seats and watch the rest of the show. Act like everything is fine and dandy.”

            JC nodded. It was probably the best course of action to take. There was nothing else they could do in the room, other than get pissed off at the sight of Elaine.

            “Let’s go, Lily.” Lance put a friendly arm around her and guided her out of the room, with Chris and Joey following closely behind.

            JC turned back to look at his youngest friend. Justin was still standing near Dre and Mike, only half-listening to what they were saying.

            “J, come on. Johnny wants us back in the audience,” he prompted.

            Justin glanced at him. “I know. I’ll be there in a second.” He was still trying to deal with the surge of dueling emotions he was feeling. At first there was concern, then fear, then relief at seeing everyone safe, but now rage was taking over. But at the same time, he knew that he had to calm down and be rational. Still, the thought of Elaine threatening Lillian and not him…it was wrong.

            I’m the stronger one. I should be protecting Lillian, and not the other way around. Elaine knew how to get to her. She had played sick little mind games, he realized now. It explained Lillian’s recent behavior. He didn’t even want to imagine what she had felt, knowing she and her friends were in danger, but trying to muster up the strength to defend them anyway.

            “God, Jace, why did she do it this way?” he asked angrily, looking at his friend who hadn’t moved. “What did Lillian do to deserve this? Why couldn’t Elaine have gone after me?”

            He wheeled around and glared at Elaine, who was staring right at him. With a smirk on her face.

            Why?” he demanded, approaching her. “You’re so sick. You took advantage of Lillian, because you were too scared to come after someone who could handle your threats.”

            JC quickly caught up to his friend before Elaine could answer. “Justin, it’s okay. Let’s just go back out and sit down. This isn’t doing anything.”

            “No, you don’t understand,” he replied stubbornly. “She was going to do something. She had a lethal weapon! Don’t you know what one bullet can do? It can kill someone. You, or me, or any of the guys, we could be dead right now. Lily could be dead right now.”

            JC stared evenly at Justin, trying to be reasonable for the both of them. “I do understand, J.” It was like what Sondheim had said before. ‘Sing as if you’re about to die…and this is your last breath to the entire world.’ It could have been true.

            Justin rubbed the back of his neck, at a loss for words. He wanted to scream at Elaine, he wanted to protect Lillian and his friends, and inexplicably, he wanted to cry. “You’re right, man,” he suddenly decided. “This isn’t accomplishing anything.”

            His friend nodded. “Ready to go?”

            “Just one more thing,” Justin said, narrowing his eyes on Elaine, standing three feet away and not looking remorseful at all. It wasn’t her bitter face that caught his attention, though, it was the necklace she was wearing. Silver, with a pearl teardrop. The necklace he had sent Lillian months ago.

            “Where did you get that?” he questioned, pointing at her neck.

            “I’m not saying anything without a lawyer, Justy,” she answered mockingly.

            “What’s the big deal?” JC wanted to know, confused. He looked back and forth between his upset friend and Elaine.

            “I want her to take that off,” Justin demanded. “It’s not hers. I don’t even want her touching it.”

            “It’s just a necklace,” JC soothed.

            “No, it’s Lily’s necklace! Take it off her!”

            JC exchanged a look with the cop holding Elaine, and he unclasped the necklace. “Better, Justin?”

            He nodded, taking the necklace. “Let’s go now.”

            On their way out the door, he threw it into the trashcan.


*                       *                       *


            “You’re not staying?”

            Hannah looked up at the question. “No,” she answered the other cellist, “I have to leave.”

            “Well, you’re going to be missing out,” he said, shrugging and slinging his cello case onto his back. “The rest of the Grammy’s should be something to see.” He gave her a departing wave before leaving through one of the many backstage exits that led back to the audience.

            “I doubt it,” she muttered to herself, finishing cleaning the cello strings. She placed the bow in her case and packed away the rest of her instrument accessories.

            She’d rather not stay and watch the rest of the ceremony and prolong the torture. Her wish had not been granted. There had been no sign for her to stay any longer, to keep hoping. During Sondheim’s little pep talk, Josh had glanced briefly her way, but when she looked back he had turned away. She wanted to scream at him, to force him to respond to her, but he didn’t. They hadn’t exchanged a word since yesterday, in the hotel hallway.

            Immediately after the performance, he and his bandmates had rushed offstage. By the time she was able to push through the crowd of the other musicians, he had disappeared.

            The warm L.A. air enveloped Hannah as she left through one of the heavy backstage exit doors. She admonished herself silently. You shouldn’t have any regrets. You tried, and you told him what you wanted to say. There’s nothing left to do.

            Calling a taxi, she felt an odd combination of relief and regret. The latter, not only for what never materialized, but also for the new friends she was leaving behind without any further words of goodbye. But they were enjoying their night. There was no reason for her to stay. A quick stop at the hotel to grab her luggage and she’d be gone. 


*                       *                       *


            JC listened to the nominees for best album of the year with little interest. He just wanted to get out of the damn place and back to the hotel, where he could think. From the fidgeting of Lance and Chris sitting on either side of him, he could tell he wasn’t the only one thinking that way.

            He leaned back and looked around Lance, at Lillian, who was sitting on his other side. She appeared perfectly calm now, calmer than Justin, at least. Her boyfriend was holding her hand in his lap, clutching it like a lifeline. She didn’t seem to mind. Justin would glance briefly up at the stage every so often before focusing his attention on Lillian again.

            He wanted to care for someone like that. Even more, he wanted someone to care about him in return. It was selfish, he realized, to think about himself after what had happened tonight. But seeing Justin and Lillian’s behavior, and being reminded of their love and how close they came to losing it all…it just reminded him that he didn’t even have anyone to lose.

            And who would miss me? Who would care?

            It was sickening. His morose thoughts, the intense highs and lows of the night, the loneliness, they all made him feel like throwing up. And the seemingly infinite Grammy festivities weren’t helping matters any.

            “Excuse me,” he whispered, getting up from his seat and brushing past Lance, Lillian, and Justin, making an escape to the aisle.

            “Where are you going?” Lillian whispered back, looking at him with concern.

            “The bathroom,” he lied without any guilt. She had enough on her mind right now; he didn’t want to worry her about his troubles.

            She nodded and he discreetly left the auditorium to find someone to drive him back to the hotel. The quicker the better.


*                       *                       *


            “Oh, crap,” Hannah exclaimed, stopping in her tracks. She had just opened the door to the taxi before realizing she’d forgotten to stop by Johnny’s room to pick up her paycheck. Frustrated and annoyed with herself, she slammed the door closed and hurried back into the hotel.

            As she waited at the elevator, she wondered if Johnny would even be in his room right now. He was most likely still at the Grammy’s. Everyone was still there. She was the only one desperate enough to leave immediately after the performance.

            The elevator dinged, announcing its arrival at the lobby floor, but instead of entering it she walked over to the front desk.

            “Hi, I need to leave a message for someone.”

            The receptionist glanced over from where he sat in front of a computer. “Just a minute,” he replied, typing away.

            She sighed, shifting her weight to her other side. The only thing she wanted was to get on that plane as soon as possible, obviously, but fate wasn’t working for her tonight.


*                       *                       *


            JC stared at the red light at the front of the busy intersection, bouncing his knee up and down frenetically.

            Randy glanced over. “Something up, man?”

            He was pulled from his thoughts. “What? Oh, no, nothing’s up. Just a headache, that’s all. Thanks for driving me back.”

            “No problem,” the bodyguard replied before leaving JC to his own silent contemplation. 

            I’m such an asshole. I’m leaving everyone on our biggest night, so I can have my own little pity party. But that was overly harsh. It wasn’t like he didn’t care about what had happened tonight. It’s more like I’m too much of a coward to stay and tough it out like the others.

            He was tired of all the self-recrimination, but that was all he focused on lately. With practically anything that happened, his mind managed to construe the situation to reflect badly on him. Breaking up with Bobbie? He was too gullible. Lily’s ordeal with Elaine? He was too oblivious to notice anything amiss with his ‘lil sis.’ And when he did realize something was wrong, he was too caught up in his own thoughts to delve deeply into the situation. And finally…Hannah’s blowup last night. That just showed he had been dense and idiotic for twelve years and counting.

            Some of the memories she brought up he had completely forgotten. Like how he had promised to take her to the movies but instead went with Lindsey. I didn’t even remember who Lindsey was until Brat mentioned her. And their little chats backstage in New York. He didn’t think of them on a daily basis, but apparently they had been very significant to Hannah. And he finally realized why: away from the influences of Lance or any of the other guys, those were the few times they actually had real conversations. Or, like Hannah said, I talked about myself while she listened.

            God, he was such a jerk. He always had these incredible people around him, but all he ever did was think about his own pitiful troubles and push his friends away in the process. Even now he was alone.     

            “We’re here,” Randy announced, pulling into the fire lane of the hotel.

            JC jumped out of the SUV before it rolled to a complete stop, eager to go back to his room and do something, anything, to distract his thoughts for even an instant.

            He wanted to start over. With everything, including himself. But how could he just forget all that he’d done wrong and expect his friends to do the same? Simple, a voice answered inside of him, they’re your friends. That’s what friends do.

            Would they really do that? He shook his head. It was too much to ask for.

            Sighing, he passed the row of cabs that were ever-present, even at this hour, idling next to the fire lane. Glancing over on a whim, he paused and blinked. No, he wasn’t seeing things.

            “Brat!” he called out, jogging over. He looked curiously at the suitcase she was shoving into the backseat.

            She spotted him approaching but didn’t pause in her task. She wasn’t mad at him or the nickname, not anymore, but that wasn’t the reason she didn’t answer him. It was simply because she had no idea how to respond. It was the first time he had spoken to her in a day. From his expression, she couldn’t decipher any of his feelings.

            “Sorry. Hannah,” he greeted, this time from a couple of feet behind her. “What are you doing back here? Aren’t you supposed to be watching the Grammy’s like everyone else?”

            “Well, I’m not like everyone else,” she replied curtly, letting her old defensive instincts take over the place of intelligent conversation.

            “I know that.”

            “I sincerely doubt it. Why are you here?”

            “I didn’t want to be there anymore.”

            “Well, that’s my reason, too,” she said dismissively. “I guess we have at least one thing in common. Poor you.”

            “What’s wrong?”

            “Uh-uh. I’m not telling you again. You should have been listening yesterday.” Hannah pushed her suitcase harder. The bottom right corner seemed to have jammed against something.

            “Hannah, can you at least stop for a second?” he asked, clasping her shoulder and turning her to face him.

            “No, I really can’t. There’s a plane leaving for D.C. in forty minutes and I intend to be on it.” She shrugged out of his grasp and began adjusting the suitcase so it would slide in without trouble.

            “I’m sorry,” he blurted out. He saw her stiffen but he forged on. It was time to make amends. “About everything. I really mean that. Not just how I’ve treated you here, but also how I took you for granted when we were kids. I just never knew how you felt.”

            She sighed and stopped fiddling with the suitcase. “Do you know now?” she asked, regarding his earnest expression. He nodded. “How do I feel? What do I feel, Josh?”

            He looked at her, his cobalt gaze steady. “Maybe what I’m starting to feel.”

            She lowered her eyes to the concrete ground, not wanting to misinterpret anything or do something hasty and therefore embarrassing. What did he mean by that? It was too vague…but she wanted it to mean what she hoped it meant.

            “You’re going to have to be a little more explicit,” she answered, lifting her head and returning his stare. She wasn’t going to back down now. Not when she was so close.

            Suddenly a sly grin stretched across his face. She marveled at how it transformed his face. “You want explicit?” He took a step forward and she involuntarily leaned back, not used to having him so close to her. His right hand darted up and slid the glasses off her face. His left hand was at the small of her back, pulling her towards him. Before she even realized it, his lips were on hers.

            She had expected fireworks. Heavenly music playing in her ears; a fanfare that announced to the world what she felt. But she was standing in the taxi lane of a hotel at ten-thirty in the night. All she saw was the inside of her eyelids. All she heard was the persistent honking of a nearby cab, the murmur of conversations, and the footsteps of people passing by.

            She kissed him back. It was so much better than she had expected.

            Time passed, and she felt him pulling away. Her eyes blinked open and she stared at his blurry face. I need my glasses, was her only dumbfounded thought.

            “I can get a lot more explicit than that,” he said, slipping the glasses back onto her nose.

            She adjusted them, finally seeing him clearly. The sight made her face heat up. Now I know the definition of sexy.

            “But you’re going to have to stay a little longer,” he continued, noticing her blush but not mentioning it.

            The blush faded. He was right. What was she supposed to do now? Her parents were expecting her to be back in Maryland. Up until five minutes ago, she was expecting to be back in Maryland. I can’t just throw away my responsibilities because of one single kiss. One single, amazing kiss. And it was so amazing.

            She shook her head, prodding herself out of her stupor. How did she even know he was serious? He could be playing another one of his teasing games that meant everything to her and nothing to him. One kiss didn’t mean love. Life went on despite kisses. She was an adult. She would act accordingly.

            “I have to go, Josh. I’m sorry.”

            With one push, the suitcase finally budged and slid to the far side of the backseat. Hannah climbed in beside it, pulling the cab door shut as she did so. If she didn’t, she would have jumped back out and into his arms.

            “Where to?” the cabbie asked, glancing at her in the rearview mirror.

            She looked out the window, meeting Josh’s gaze and trying not to let her own emotions show. ‘Bye,’ she mouthed.

            He didn’t wave back, just simply raised his hand for a second before letting it drop back down to his side.

            “The airport, please.” 


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