One Dark Night

Chapter Nineteen: The Story of Dani

I went to work. I did my job. I went home. The three basic rules I live by in the working world. Now, if that was how it actually happened, that would have been nice, however, my night wasn't nearly so cut and dry. I'll save you from the whole story and skip ahead to the parts of minor interest. Truth be told, the night itself was fairly boring, for the most part.

First, and foremost, I was late, which ticked me off greatly. I knew it was my own dumb fault, but that didn't preclude me from being incredibly annoyed with myself because of it. Then, my manager called me in to let me know that I was late, and I had to bite my tongue in order to prevent myself from saying, "Gee, you think? I would have never guessed that coming in at six thirty-five meant I was late!" Sarcasm, as Jerrica loves to remind me, is often my forte.

Second, Mandy and Karri, who were kicking themselves already for having picked up a shift that night, were rather grumpy because they were still lacking seriously in the sleep department, as was I, and their grumpiness just exacerbated mine. All I wanted to do was go home, jump into bed, and cuddle up next to Joey. Instead, I was at work trying my hardest not to tell some passenger off for, quite frankly, being an idiot. These days, I've found my patience with people seems to be dwindling more and more. Common sense is becoming almost non-existent, and I've about had it. I mentioned this fact to Karri during our lunch break, and her reply was simply, "Well, you can always quit. It's not like any of us are really going to need this job in a couple of weeks."

"Shh! Keep your voice down," I said quickly, rebuking her. "I know where you're going, and we've already had this conversation once before. Let's not go there again. Besides, I don't recall either of you submitting your resignation papers to Northern Skies any time recently."

Both of them looked down and studied their lunches intensely. Finally, Mandy said, "Fine, Will. You're right. You made a valid point, and considering the current job market, I don't want to screw myself over. I put in for a lot of unpaid leave and vacation time, and now I'm just hoping it all will clear. Otherwise, I may have a problem."

"Ditto," Karri said. "I did the same thing."

"So did I. I dropped my forms after my little meeting with Scott," I said, referring to my earlier conversation with my manager.

"I know they are supposed to be clearing a whole bunch of weeks shortly, but what do we do if something doesn't clear?" Karri asked.

"Then we call in every single favor we have and then some," I replied. "I should ask Lance to give me a copy of the tour schedule so we can see if there are any gaps in there we can take advantage of."

"Good idea, although the thought of having to fly back and forth to come to work doesn't appeal to me much," Mandy noted with a sigh.

"Me either, but a guy has to do what a guy has to do. Or girl," I said quickly, noting the frown on Karri's face. "Besides, maybe we'll get lucky, everything will work out perfectly, and we can quit later," I said with a hint of optimism.

"I think that's the most sense I've heard out of you all week!" Karri said with a laugh. "Besides, I've had it with the travel industry. After September eleventh, it's just not been the same. Add in this so-called recession, and that makes it even worse."

"Yeah," Mandy and I said quietly in unison. "Well, this is depressing," I continued. "I'm sure we can find a happier subject."

I don't think we ever found a 'happier' subject, but we moved on from that one and talked about other things. We soon finished lunch and headed back to work. On the bright side, we all were able to leave an hour and a half early, and I dare say that I think all of us were doing at least eighty or more miles per hour all the way home.

I burst through the door a little after two, having made great time on the highway. I was incredibly thankful that there hadn't been any police out that night, for I highly doubt that any cop would have been lenient with me doing, on average, twenty-five to thirty miles per hour over the speed limit. I crept through the house, trying to avoid waking anyone up. Jerrica was still staying with Mandy for the time being and Kimber was in the room that Jerrica normally used. Chris was downstairs with Josh, since Josh and Justin were suddenly having issues with one another, it seemed. I wouldn't find out until later what that was about, but I'll save that for when that time comes. That, of course, meant Lance and Justin were now sharing the other room upstairs, and Joey was in my, well, our room. I cringed when some of the stairs squeaked while I made my way up them, and I was never so happy to enter our bedroom in my life. I was well past exhaustion, and all I wanted to do was pass out right into bed. I shed my clothes and crawled under the covers. It took no more than thirty seconds for Joey to roll over and wrap his arm around me. I smiled as I drifted off to sleep, knowing full well that this was the first night I was going to get adequate sleep in a number of nights. Thankfully, it hadn't occurred to me yet that this was also the last night that Joey and I would be together at my house before the tour resumed. They would leave for Richmond the following night.

The alarm went off at eight-thirty, and I rolled over to whack the alarm. "It can't possibly be time to get up," I grumbled.

"What time is it?" came Joey's sleepy voice.

I stared at the clock, waiting for my eyes to come into full focus. "Eight-thirty. We have to get up. We have to leave by nine so we can get there by ten. I am not dealing with a ten-minute punishment from M.F. today. No way!" I exclaimed as I got out of bed.

"Oh, right. I remember her saying that on Wednesday, and I now know M.F. too well to not think that she wouldn't stick to her threat either. Well, go get ready. I'll drag myself out of bed in a minute."

"Oh no, you don't!" I said as I grabbed Joey's arms and hauled him into a sitting position. "You are not going back to sleep. If I can't, you can't."

"That doesn't seem very fair," Joey complained. "It's not like I have to be there."

"Fine. Don't go. Stay in bed. I'll see you when I get back," I said in annoyance.

"All right, I'm up!" Joey said, swinging his legs so they hung over the side of the bed. "That was harsh."

"Not harsh. Honest. You don't have to go Joe. I guess I assumed you would want to. However, it's not like you haven't already seen it a couple of times in rehearsal anyway."

"I do want to go. I'm just being ornery."

"You and me both. I don't do mornings well. Actually, I try not to do mornings period."

"Well, you and I are going to do just wonderfully, aren't we, if we are both this irritable every morning?"

"Uh..." I didn't know what to say, because admitting that as fact would mean pointing out a potential flaw in our relationship, one that sometimes seemed to be riddled with them, and to ignore it would be interpreted as a silent admission of the same fact. Talk about a Catch-22, I thought. "We are going to do wonderfully," I said at last, "because we are willing to work through my idiosyncrasies, including the ones that may rub off on you."

"Hey, I like your idiosyncrasies," Joey said. "They make you so darn adorable."

I turned beet red. "Um, I'm, uh, going to, um, go get ready now," I stuttered as I backed out the bedroom door. Once I pulled it shut behind me, I heard Joey burst into laughter. "Darn him," I muttered under my breath before a smile broke out on my face. Joey may be a goofy, crazy guy, but he's my goofy, crazy guy, and I wouldn't trade him for anyone or anything.

As I headed for the bathroom, I noticed the door to Justin and Lance's room open and a head peek out. As Justin and I made eye contact with each other, we both glanced at the open bathroom door and took off. Making it to the bathroom first, I ducked in and slammed the door in Justin's face. "Will!" he yelled as he pounded on the door. "That's not fair!"

"There's one downstairs!" I yelled through the door. "Use it!"

"But I have to go!" he yelled.

"Well, the longer you stand here and argue with me, the less chance you have of making it downstairs. Furthermore, if you have an accident, I'm not cleaning it up!"

"Fine!" I heard him grumble outside the door.

Chuckling to myself, I did the seemingly standard five-minute run through in the bathroom that was now becoming common these days. After all, we had six guys to shuttle through two bathrooms in thirty minutes. When I opened the door, I was a bit surprised to see Lance standing there waiting instead of Justin. I had half expected Justin to be waiting there ready to lay into me about running in before him.

"Morning Lance," I said brightly as I exited the bathroom.

Lance yawned. "Uh huh," he grunted as he brushed past me.

"Hmmm. Guess he's not a morning person either," I said aloud before heading back to my room. As I walked in, I found Joey in the middle of getting dressed. Not one to let an opportunity pass by, I whistled loudly. Joey jumped, started to turn, caught his foot in the bedspread, and fell face first onto the bed.

Completely flushed--half in embarrassment, half in annoyance for making him fall--he glared at my quickly reddening face before starting to laugh. "Looking for a show, are we?" he asked with a sly smile.

There were only two directions to go with that statement, so I went with the most annoying one. "Nope. I'm already going to be in a show today. I don't think I have enough stamina for a second one."

Joey rolled his eyes, grabbed a pillow, and chucked it at me. "Ha ha. Funny," he said dryly.

"Mais bien sûr! Je suis si drôle," I said. Before Joey could get that odd look on his face that occurs every time I lapse into French--intentionally or not--I translated, "But of course! I am quite funny."

"Says who?"

"Says you, apparently," I remarked, "and I couldn't agree more."

Rolling his eyes yet again, Joey said, "Okay, funny man, can I please finish getting dressed now?"

I scratched my chin and said, "I don't know. I kind of like you this way."

Joey laughed. "Wow. Déjà vu. Where have I heard this before?"

"Beats me," I said with a grin, "but enough fun. You need to get ready and I need to make sure the rest of the troops that are going are up and moving."

"Yes, sir!" Joey said, giving me a feeble salute before standing back up.

"Boys," I muttered as I started to head back out the door.

"Don't forget that you're one too!" Joey called after me.

"No comment!" I called back through the door as I headed for the stairs. I had a snappier comeback than that, but I figured that it was just better left unsaid.

Downstairs I found Chris and Josh ready to go, which surprised me. From what I had gathered and seen over the past couple of weeks, Josh was the least likely to be an early riser, so to see him bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at nearly nine in the morning was a bit of a shock. The two of them must have somehow read my mind, or maybe merely my facial expression, and figured out its source, because Chris burst out laughing and Josh turned a nice shade of pink.

Deciding I couldn't let this pass, I said politely, "I see we're up and moving well this morning."

Chris started to laugh even harder as Josh turned a brighter shade of red. "Just because I don't like to get up early doesn't mean I can't," Josh said crossly.

"I never said you couldn't," I replied sweetly, but neither seemed to be buying that. "I may have thought it, but I never said it! There is a difference!"

"Yeah, yeah. Whatever," Josh grumbled, but the small smile on his face could not be missed.

It wasn't too long before the rest of the guys made their way downstairs. Kimber had been downstairs for quite a while and had made herself some breakfast. It was too bad that I had prioritized sleep over food, because I was going to have just enough time to toast a piece of bread before herding everyone out the door. Such is life, I suppose.

As we all started for the door, I noticed Joey and Josh heading for the garage while the rest headed for the front door. Feeling a--hopefully--bright idea coming on, I managed to grab Justin's arm before he walked out the door. "Come on," I said, yanking him back. "You're riding with me."

"Uh, Will, I-I don't know if that's, um, such a good idea," Justin stammered. "Maybe I should go with Chris and Lance." He attempted to pull away from me, but I didn't lessen my grip on his arm.

"Nonsense," I said firmly. "Besides, it wasn't a request."

"In other words, you're not giving me a choice in the matter."

"Ding ding ding! We have a winner!" I said, a smirk appearing on my face. "Now let's move it, mister!"

Sighing to himself, he said, "So this is what it feels like when you're about to walk to the execution chair. Man, I didn't even get a last meal!"

"Justin, you're being overly dramatic," I chastised. "Do you honestly think they are going to do anything to you with me in the car?"

Justin glanced sideways at me and said, "I don't know. Joey, probably not, but what does Josh have to lose?"

"Lose? I don't know exactly what he would have to lose, besides my patience with him, but he would also gain a serious earful out of me, and I've been told--by Jerrica, no less--that it is a fate worse than death. Hyperbole aside, I can certainly make someone's life unpleasant if I want to."

"Fine. Just for the record, I'm doing this under severe protest."

"Noted. Now get your protesting butt in the car, because if I'm late, so help me not even God himself will be able to save your sorry butt." Justin's eyes widened before he dashed for the car. Chuckling to myself, I said quietly, "It's all in the way you present it."

I would like to say major breakthroughs were made on our little journey to York, but I'd be kidding myself if I thought for one second that even I could completely repair the damage that had been done to the friendships between Justin and Joey or Justin and Josh. I would like to think I made some progress, but I suppose that is open to one's interpretation of the scene. For sake of argument, I'll just tell you what happened.

I was practically on Justin's heels as we went into the garage, however, I hadn't turned the corner yet when I heard the shouts. As I had expected, to some degree or another, neither of the car's current occupants--Joey and Josh--were all too pleased to see that Justin was intending on getting in the same car with them.

"Just what the hell do you think you're doing?" I heard Josh hiss at him.

"I'm going to York to watch Will, Tom, and the girls do their show," Justin said as he plunked himself down in the backseat next to Josh.

"Not next to me, you aren't," Josh snapped. "I can't deal with you right now."

"Me either," Joey agreed.

"Well, you don't get much choice in the matter," I said definitively through the open driver's side window. "Joe, would you mind switching places with Justin and letting him sit in the front seat? I would prefer to arrive in York with three living, undamaged people, thank you very much, and I don't think having Justin sitting next to either of you will permit that."

"So what's the alternative?" Josh asked, a slight grimace appearing on his face.

"Stay here, most likely by yourself unless Joe wants to join you, knowing full well that you will have to deal with me sooner or later," I said, glaring at Josh. "Oh, and I should tell you that the longer I stew on something, the worse it gets."

"Okay! Okay! Point made!" Josh said. "Let's just get going, all right?"

"Good. Now that that's settled," I said as I opened the car door and took a seat inside. I looked over at Joey, who was still sitting in the passenger seat, and I could feel the waves of annoyance coming from him. It unsettled me a little, but I shook it off. I knew that this would happen, but that didn't make me feel any better. I just hoped I knew what I was doing. And after this, I am done meddling in other people's lives, I thought to myself.

Miles away, in Mandy's car, Jerrica burst out laughing for no known reason... Nah, I'm just kidding. As close as we are, and as often as we seem to operate on the same wavelength, we're nowhere near psychic, telepathic, or anything else like that. After all, isn't being empathic bad enough? I grumbled internally.

Joey finally turned to face me, and as he looked into my eyes, I could almost hear his voice in my head. I know what you're up to, and I'm not playing today.

That's what you think, I thought, and when Joey's eyebrows shot up to his hairline, it almost made me wonder how we seemed to be able to do this non-verbal communication thing.

Joey opened his door and got out, allowing Justin to take a seat next to me. Joey then climbed into the back seat behind me and shut his door. With all persons inside and accounted for, I started the car, backed out of the garage, and then made haste for the highway. We were running slightly behind, and I was not doing punishment today!

I had just turned off of Briar's Run onto the main road leading to the highway and decided it was time to bite the bullet. "So who wants to go first?" I asked lightly. When no one answered, I said, "If you think we're going to play the silent game all the way to York, you're fooling yourselves. You know me better than that. Now, hopefully, I won't have to repeat myself a third time. Who wants to go first?" I heard a noise come from behind Justin, so I said, "Thank you Josh for volunteering."

"But I didn't..." Josh started to say, but I cut him off with a wave of my hand. "Fine. What do you want me to say? 'Justin, I'm sorry for thinking you're not the person I thought you were? I'm sorry that you decided to do some incredibly dumb things that have led me to feel like I, nor anyone else, can trust you?' Is that what you want me to say?"

"Well, I suppose that's a start. Not quite what I was looking for, but we can work with that," I replied. "Look, I know I've thrown you all on the spot here, but you have to resolve some of this stuff today. I can't..." I dreaded saying the words that were to come, because I didn't want to admit the truth behind them. "I can't have you guys leave my house with unresolved issues."

"Oh, man. I forgot we were leaving today," I heard Joey mumble behind me as he reached around the seat and put his arm on my shoulder.

"Yeah. It's the day I've been dreading. The day you leave. I mean, it's not like I didn't know it was coming, and it's not like it didn't almost happen once already with our little trip to Mickeyworld, but..." With a bit of hesitation in my voice, I continued. "I really didn't want to admit myself it would truly happen, especially sooner than I wanted it to."

"We know Will," Josh said warmly. "There's a part of us that doesn't want to leave either."

"I know, I know. It's not like I can be selfish and keep you away from your fans or the rest of your lives. After all, my little world is only a small part of the bigger picture."

"Hey, life's not that bad in your little world," Justin said quietly.

"You've only seen a small part of it, and you certainly haven't had to live the whole thing. However, we're getting off-topic here. Josh," I said, glancing at him in the rearview mirror, "I know right now you're watching what has happened with Justin, Joe, and myself, and I don't blame you for thinking that he's somehow different, but you know that's not true. Besides, we all have facets of ourselves that come out when we least expect them to, and usually at the worst possible moment."

"So your point is what?" Josh asked, crossing his arms.

"First, uncross your arms," I said.

"What?" Josh asked in surprise. "Why?"

"Because it's a defensive mannerism, and I don't want anyone feeling defensive. We're not here to defend anyone's actions, including our own. The point of this discussion is to find out how to fix the problems we have somehow gotten ourselves into."

"Anyone feel like they've gotten dragged kicking and screaming into therapy?" Josh mumbled as he uncrossed his arms.

"I heard that," I said, glaring at him again in the rearview mirror, "and if I recall correctly, you did have the option of staying back at the house."

"Yeah, but..."

"Uh-uh," I said. "No buts. Now, what is the deal here? You and Justin were, so I'm told, best friends. What happened to shake that up? After all, didn't you jump to his defense in some way that night we were in Montréal, after I had my little mini-rampage of the night?"

"How did you know about that?" Josh asked.

"If I told you all my secrets, then what would I have left?" I asked with a small smile on my face. Noting that it wasn't going over well with the others, I said, "Okay, Chris told me."

Josh mumbled something inaudible, and I hoped that Chris wasn't going to catch too much hell. Of course, if things got dicey, his girlfriend could always step in and protect him, I thought with a smirk.

"Anyway, you were saying?" I prompted, trying to get the answers I was looking for.

"It's just that..." Josh began, but his eye caught mine in the rearview mirror, causing him to pause.

"Just what?" I prompted again.

"It's just, well, after what happened between you, Justin, and Joey, it's hard for me to see Justin the way I always have," Josh explained. He then went into more detail, and as he did, I watched Justin's shoulders begun to slump. However, he didn't seem surprised by this news, so I had to assume that he was not hearing this for the first time.

"Okay," I said once the car had gone silent. "I suppose I can understand why you're upset, Josh, but have you and Justin actually sat down and talked to one another about this?"

"Not really," Josh said.

"Not at all," Justin muttered.

"I thought not. Besides, I don't understand why you're holding a grudge over something that didn't really involve you," I said, a little puzzled. "I mean, I appreciate you sticking up for Joe, but this grudge isn't going to get you anywhere."

"My point," Josh stressed heavily, "is that if he could do this to you and Joey, what's to say he wouldn't do something like that to me?"

I could see Justin starting to get really upset, so I put a hand on his shoulder and rubbed it until I felt his shoulders start to become less tense. "Josh, I see your point, but a person should never be judged by one action alone. Are you telling me that he has never done right by you once in his life?"

"Well, no. Actually, he's always got my back, especially when the others are ragging on me," Josh said.

"And..." I prompted, hoping that we were finally going to start putting an end to this whole disaster once and for all.

"And he's one of the best people I know," Josh continued, "even if he does blunder majorly."

"Hey!" Justin shouted, but I couldn't help but notice the hint of a smile on his face.

"Look, I'm sorry Justin. With everything that happened, I guess I kinda freaked. I'm sorry I lost faith in you."

"Uh huh," Justin said.

"Justin!" I growled, glaring at him out of the corner of my eye.

"All right, all right!" Justin said, rolling his eyes. "Apology accepted, and I really am sorry about everything that has happened, Will." I coughed and arched my head back at Joey. "Oh, and you too Joey. Especially you."

I heard Joey sigh behind me, and I could the conflict battling inside him. Let the anger go, Joe, I thought to myself. Just let it go.

It was then that things got weird. As soon as I thought it, it was almost as if Joey had heard my thoughts, because I could feel the anger in him subsiding. That's kind of weird, I mused. Maybe I was pushing a 'forgiveness vibe' on him or something? I still had no idea how this whole empathic thing worked, and to be honest, there were times when it was starting to creep me out. This was no exception.

We arrived in York with a little time to spare. The tense feeling in the car had been shattered, and I was hopeful that things were starting to mend between all involved. I certainly didn't begrudge anyone, even Justin, and I was ready for this nonsense to stop. Maybe it was the stress of everything that was leading to the nightmares I had been having. I'd had the same dreams the last night as well, but I managed to conveniently forget to mention it to Joey, lest I upset him. The mess by the lake in Montréal had really shaken him up, so he was watching me with much scrutiny. I suppose he was afraid that I might suddenly have another meltdown, but I had already resolved to ensure that didn't happen again. Therefore, I decided to keep quiet about the nightmares, at least for now.

We filed into the hall and I made my way to the locker room to get changed while the others went to find seats in the audience. While my fellow dancers had become accustomed to seeing the guys at rehearsals and such, today was a different story as the general public at-large had been invited, which meant the guys had to try their hardest to blend in and not be recognized.

Meanwhile, I was still on my emotional high, feeling great now that things between Joey, Josh, and Justin were slowly mending themselves back together. Unfortunately, it was not to last, for when I entered the locker room, I turned the corner and literally ran right into Sam.

"Oh, it's you," Sam said coldly as he finished getting dressed.

"Well, good morning to you too, Sam," I said brightly, trying hard to ignore the anger being directed at me. "What's wrong?"

"Like you'd care," Sam retorted as he took a couple of things out of the locker before slamming it hard.

"What is that supposed to mean?" I asked. "Besides, how do you know whether I'd care or not unless you tell me what the problem is?"

"That whole audition thing was just a trick, wasn't it? It was all fake, and I know it!" Sam yelled. He turned toward me, and the fury in his eyes could hardly be missed.

"Uh... wha?" I stuttered, rather taken aback. "What are you talking about Sam?"

"Will, don't play games with me. I saw you, Tom, and those other girls practicing something when I came in early yesterday. I didn't think much of it until I saw that record lady in there with you."

BUSTED! I thought glumly to myself. As I stared at Sam, I looked past the anger and saw the sadness and the hurt. Taking a deep breath, I said, "You're right."

Sam took a step back, completely in shock. "I am?"

I nodded. "You are. It wasn't my idea, and I don't like the way it was handled, but other people thought it was the only way to talk to Tom without scaring him. However, I didn't do anything to stop it, so I suppose I'm just as guilty."

Sam crossed his arms and blew a puff of air toward his hair. "Does anyone else know?"

I shook my head. "No. I was hoping never to have this conversation with anyone, especially the other ones who tried out. So," I continued, "now that you know the truth, what are you going to do?"

Sam sat down on the bench and stared at his shoes, which he had yet to tie. "I don't know. A part of me says I shouldn't care and just let it go."

"And there's a part of you that thinks that everyone should be told the truth," I finished. "I don't blame you, and I know you're upset, but before you do anything, let me tell you the whole story. When I'm done, you can do whatever you think is right, and I'll support you the whole way."

"Really?" Sam asked. "I'm...shocked."

"Sam, one of the first things you should know about me is that I always try to do right by people," I said. Unlike some, I thought, thinking about the whole reason I was doing this in the first place. It was then that a horribly wicked idea hit me. I always try to do right by people, but Johnny's not 'people,' he's slime, so he doesn't count! "So anyway, let me tell you how it happened..."

I should have felt guilty. I really, really should have felt guilty, but all things considered, I was able to put those feelings past me, just this once. In brief, detail, since we didn't have much time, I told Sam the truth--mostly. Oh, the basic premise was there, but I changed some of the story around to protect the guilty and implicate the innocent--Johnny Wright. You want to play games, bucko? We'll play games, I thought smugly to myself as Sam and I made our way to the backstage area.

We had barely made our entrance when I was nearly tackled by Mandy. "Dude! There you are!" she yelled. "I was starting to get worried that you wouldn't make it here on time."

"You think for one second that I would allow myself to end up with a ten-minute punishment from M.F.?" I asked. "You must be trippin' on something good this morning!"

"Trippin'?" Mandy echoed. "Whoa. You've obviously been hanging around boy-band members for too long. Next thing you know, you'll be listening to rap."

"Not a chance in hell," I said, glaring at her, "and shame on you for even thinking that! Rap? Good God, no!" I faked some gagging sounds, which only elicited a round of eye-rolling from Mandy.

"Whatever. Anyway, M.F. will be around in a moment, and I don't think today is a day you want to get on her bad side."

"You mean there's a good day for doing that?" I asked jokingly, but again, the comment didn't go over well.

"Well, sounds like someone is in a good mood," Karri said as she walked up to us.

"I finally got half a night of sleep!" I exclaimed. "That's more than I've gotten in a long time."

"Tell me about it," Karri muttered darkly. Turning to Mandy, she said, "Tell me again why we thought this was a good idea?"

"Beats the heck out of me," Mandy replied. "Too late to do anything about it now. Besides, it'll be fun once we get past this stuff...I hope."

"Morning ladies!" Tom said brightly as he bounded into the room. He grabbed Karri and Mandy each in one arm and pulled them close to him in a hug. "And how are we doing this fine morning?"

Squirming out of his grip, Mandy turned to look at him, a dark look on her face. "Dude, you are way too cheerful, and how do you manage to look so good this early in the morning?"

"Mandy, it's after ten o'clock," Tom noted, looking at his watch.

"And for me, that's the middle of the night," Mandy groaned.

Karri, in a low voice, said to Tom, "You're absolutely sure you're gay?" A surprised look crossed Tom's face, wondering what on earth had prompted that question to come out of nowhere, and when Tom slowly nodded, Karri sighed and said, "Too bad."

I tried hard to maintain my composure, and aside from a couple of quiet snorts and titters, I managed to rein my laughter in quite well. Poor Tom, however, had turned bright red. Deciding to save the guy from being tormented further by the duo, I grabbed his arm and pulled him away.

"Thanks Will," Tom said gratefully.

"Trust me when I tell you that those two are not the least of your worries for today, although, if I played my cards right, I've fixed the situation as best as can possibly be done."

"Dare I even ask?"

"Well, I suppose you don't have to, but I'm going to tell you anyway," I replied before giving Tom a glossed-over account of what happened between Sam and I just a few minutes earlier.

"So this means...?" Tom asked.

I shrugged my shoulders. "To be honest, I don't know. It might blow over, and it might explode. To be honest, I'm hoping for the latter."

"And how would that be a good thing?"

"Because the only way it could explode is if it went public, and the only press that would bother with such things are the tabloids and their ilk. Of course, most people don't take them seriously to begin with, and the ones who do will help make Johnny's life as miserable as possible. I gave Sam just enough information to be credible without giving him the complete story, and yes, I made everyone else look completely innocent, especially you." I paused for a moment, trying to decide if there was anything else I wanted to say. "Oh, and Sam doesn't hate you anymore. I told him none of this was your fault."

"He hated me?" Tom asked in shock.

I nodded. "Originally, out of jealously, and then when he discovered that he had been, in a sense, defrauded, that made it worse. Then I gave him the story and made it all better. At least, I hope I did."

Tom sighed and pushed a strand of hair out of his face. "What in the hell am I getting myself into here?" he asked aloud, shaking his head.

Before I could even attempt to answer what was probably a rhetorical question, M.F. came into the room and grabbed our attention. "Okay people!" she yelled. "Come into the practice room off stage left so we can go over a few things."

There was some minor grumbling from the ranks as they followed M.F. Tom and I glanced at each other and rolled our eyes as we too followed behind the others. I was starting to get a little anxious because I was about to perform in front of an audience, but at least they didn't have to hear me sing and I could try to blend in with the others as much as possible. However, in two weeks time, things were going to be very different.

The show went perfectly. In other words, I didn't forget my steps and I didn't fall down. I considered that to be a major accomplishment. When the show ended, Mandy, Karri, Tom, and I made our way to the back of the hall to where Jerrica, Kimber, and the guys were kind of huddled in a corner.

"You know, I think you draw more attention to yourselves over here in the corner than you would have in the middle of the room," I commented.

"Like you're a good judge," Chris said with a smirk. "Wherever Joey is, your attention is there too."

I turned bright red. Oh yeah. Somehow, I'll get him, I thought. "Well, I'm glad that's over." Turning to Joey, I said, "You guys ought to head back. You have a long day ahead of yourselves tomorrow."

"Can you believe it's been two weeks already?" Josh asked. "It seems like it was only yesterday the accident happened."

"Yeah. It's going to be weird not being at Will's tonight," Lance said, and as he turned to look at me, all he could see was my back as I walked away. "Where's he going?"

Everyone shrugged. "Beats me," Justin said. "Maybe he decided to go talk to M.F. or Kimber or something?"

"No, Kimber and M.F. are over there," Mandy said, pointing in the opposite direction.

"He's sad," Joey said suddenly.

"Well, you can't hardly blame him," Jerrica said. "You guys are leaving tonight."

"Yeah," Chris said, looking forlornly at Jerrica. "Tonight Joey and I have to leave both of you behind, but don't forget," he continued, grabbing her hand, "you guys will be back with us in a couple of weeks. It's not that long."

"Yeah, we'll survive," Jerrica said. "Just wish me luck while I put up with Rob for the next..." Jerrica was cut off when she heard a yell behind her.


Jerrica's eyes went wide and her face paled as she whirled around. "Oh, no," she said.

The group followed Jerrica's gaze as she watched me tearing across the room toward a woman who was yelling at a small, blonde girl. "What the...?" Joey asked aloud.

"Rob! Will! Whatever! Stop!" Jerrica yelled as she ran, hoping to intercept me. She watched as the woman struck the child--she presumed this was not the first time that the woman had done this, which is probably what set me off--and she momentarily debated about letting me do whatever I was going to do, but then she thought better of herself and continued toward me. "Stop right there!" she yelled again as she took a flying leap in my direction and crashed into me, knocking us both to the floor.

"Jerrica, let me go," I growled. "I have to save Dani."

"Rob, what are you talking about? That's not Dani. Dani's gone, remember?"

Almost immediately, she could see the confusion clear from my eyes. "Don't you think I know that?" I snapped. I spun on my heel and stormed out the side door, leaving a rather stunned Jerrica in my wake.

Behind her, Joey walked up and asked, "What was that all about?"

Sighing, Jerrica said, "A very long story that I think even I don't know all the details of."

"I'm going to go find him," Joey said after a moment's silence.

"Why don't you give him a few moments to calm down?" Jerrica suggested.

"I don't think leaving him alone is a good idea," Joey countered.

"He's perfectly capable of taking care of himself," Jerrica argued. "Just leave him alone."

"Oh, like he tried to 'take care of himself' back in Montreal? I don't think so."

"What?!" Jerrica shrieked. "Like you've never had a really bad moment in your life? He doesn't need you to guard him every single second of the day. He's not made of porcelain. He's not some fragile doll that could break at any second."

"He's already under enough stress as it is," Joey shot back, "and you can't blame me for being worried that he might crack again."

"Chill you two," Mandy said as she ran up to them, attempting to intervene into the argument.

"Shut up Mandy!" Jerrica and Joey yelled in unison before turning their attentions back to each other.

"Well!" Mandy huffed before stalking off in the other direction.

"Look, Rob is my best friend and I think I know what is best for him," Jerrica said in a low voice. "I've known him for almost half of his life, and you've known him for what? Two weeks? I hardly think you can consider yourself an authority on how best to deal with him."

Joey took a step back and glared at Jerrica. "Excuse me?" Joey growled. "I can't believe you just said that!"

"I'd think by now you'd know that when it comes to Rob, I'm not going to hold back when you're being an idiot."

"I'm not an idiot, although I'm seriously beginning to think you are. Why the hell he stays friends with you is beyond me, and his name is now Will, remember?"

Jerrica stared Joey down and said in a low, almost inaudible whisper, "Well, just because I don't want to screw him..."

Joey's eyes nearly bugged out of his head before, without thinking, he reached out, smacked Jerrica across her face, and stalked off.

From across the room, Mandy and the others watched in dismay. "Does anyone else think this is going to go horribly, horribly bad?" The others nodded, prompting Mandy to say, "I was afraid of that."

Outside, I was sitting against the side of the building, deep in thought. My behavior was becoming more and more erratic these days, and as if I didn't have enough to worry about with my current state of affairs, now my past was really starting to catch up with me. I sat there, puzzled, wondering how I could have ever thought I was seeing Dani again. It had been years since Dani died... Wait a second! I thought. That must be the funeral I've been dreaming about, but why am I suddenly thinking about Dani now?

I continued to sit there, adrift in my thoughts, when I heard a voice above me. "How's it going?"

I looked up to see Joey's concerned face staring back at me. "Perfect. Just perfect," I said sarcastically before burying my face into my knees.

Joey took a seat next to me and asked, "Want to talk about it?"

"Not particularly," I replied. "Besides, being around me is probably not a good idea. I'm a bit fou at the moment, and who knows what I'll do next."

"Fou?" Joey asked.

"Crazy. Nuts. Loco," I translated.

"No, you're not," Joey said. "Jerrica, however, is a complete freak."

I slowly turned my head to look at Joey, and I could feel a mix of embarrassment and anger coming from him. "What did you do?"

"What do you mean?" Joey asked.

"You and Jerrica had a fight, didn't you?"

"She was trying to tell me what to do, and then she made a rather nasty comment, so I kind of, um, well, smacked her."

I was so taken aback--not so much that Joey had smacked Jerrica but that Joey was still alive to tell the tale--I couldn't think of anything to say. Finally, I uttered, "Wow." After a second or two of silence, I asked, "What was the argument about, or can I probably guess?" Joey turned his head away from me, which could only mean the obvious. "Me, right?"

Joey nodded. "I didn't think you should be left alone, but Jerrica said you should, and then it kind of escalated from there."

"I appreciate the thought, Joe, but I'm okay alone. I've gotten used to it over the years."

"But you don't have to be alone anymore Will. You have me."

"Something I am thankful for every day, but you needn't worry about me so much. I won't break, at least not very easily."

"Ooh. Déjà vu. Jerrica said the same thing."

"I'm not surprised. We tend to operate on the same wavelength most of the time," I said. "By the way, you and her are going to have to sort yourselves out at some point."

"I'll apologize when she does," Joey said adamantly.

"You actually think hell is going to freeze over, do you?"

Before Joey could answer, the side door burst open and out streamed the rest of our group--Mandy taking the lead and Jerrica bringing up the rear. "All right," Mandy said, pointing at Joey and Jerrica, "you two need to get your acts together. I am not putting up with your crap. You two need to kiss and make up or else I am going to make someone's life completely miserable."

I glanced over at Jerrica and burst out laughing. "I see someone has been taking lessons from you, Jerrica."

"When one is around the master, it eventually rubs off," Jerrica said with a laugh.

"Okay, okay! Enough of this!" Karri yelled. "I think some people have some apologizing to do to each other, and then someone else has some explaining to do."

Jerrica and Joey both stared at their own feet, refusing to say anything. "Joey, come on man," Josh said. "Let it go."

"Jerrica," I said menacingly. "Tell Joe you're sorry for, well, whatever it is you said or did."

"He started it," Jerrica said with a pout.

"Oh good grief Jerrica," I said. "Come on! You're not four years old."

"Are you sure about that?" Joey muttered.

"Come on you two. Do you have any idea how crazy this will drive me with my boyfriend and best friend fighting?"

"See. I told you it was all her fault," Joey said.

"All right, fine. Until you two reconcile with each other, I'm not speaking to either of you," I said definitively, which caused Joey to gasp, "and I'll call Alex and tell him where you are, Jerrica."

Jerrica's eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. "You wouldn't."

"You want to push me?" I threatened.

"Fine! I'm sorry Joey."

"Wow. Has hell frozen over already?" Joey asked with a grin. When I shot him a dirty look, his face sobered quickly. "I'm sorry too. Apology accepted."

"Thank you!" I shouted. "Good grief. I wonder if it is possible to go one day without someone fighting with someone else around here?"

"NO!" everyone else shouted, which caused us all to break into fits of laughter.

"Well, we're going to be a bunch of fun on the road, now aren't we?" I asked.

"But of course," Mandy said between giggles.

"Look, I know we're going to have arguments, but we have to learn not to let them get out of hand," I said. "Agreed?"

"Agreed," the others said in unison.

"Well, now that that's settled," Chris said, "there's just one thing I want to know." Chris looked over at me and asked quietly, "Who's Dani?"

I felt a pit open wide in my stomach as my shoulders slumped. "I don't want to talk about her," I said quietly.

"Why? Was she a girlfriend? I thought Allison was the only one?" Justin asked.

"I said I don't want to talk about Dani!" I yelled. "What part of that are you having trouble with?"

"But Will..." Justin started to say, but he stopped when I leapt to my feet and started to walk away.

I felt someone grab my arm and start to tug on it, but I tried to ignore them and kept walking. It was when the pulling got harder that I finally stopped and turned around. "You're going to have to tell them sooner or later, you know," Jerrica said.

"Jerrica, there are some things that are better just left alone," I said.

"Why? Are you ashamed of Dani or something?"

"Absolutely not! Dani did nothing wrong. I did. I let her down."

"She accidentally took some wrong pills! That's not your fault," Jerrica said.

"Jerrica, I have to live with that every day of my life, and right now I really don't want to relive it," I protested, but my resolve was starting to weaken.

"I hate to sound like a broken record," Chris said, "but all this is starting to drive me a little nuts. Could someone please kindly fill us in on what you two are talking about?"

Taking a big breath, I said flatly, "Dani is a girl I used to know many years ago."

"Uh, that was kind of obvious Will," Justin said. "Care to be more specific?"

"Justin, I ought to..." Jerrica began, but the sharp glare coming from me reeled her back.

Joey came over and started to put a hand on my shoulder, but I shook my head and took a step back. "We're outside," I said quietly. Joey frowned and took a step away from me. Even though he knew I was right, he was determined to show that he was not happy about it.

"Uh, right," Joey said, trying to look as if nothing had almost happened and regain an aura of seriousness about him. "So," Joey continued slowly, "I'm guessing you and Dani were close?"

"You could say that," I said. "I loved Dani. Losing her was one of the worst moments of my life."

"So Dani was your girlfriend," Joey said quietly.

I looked over at Joey, who had a pained look in his eyes, and mustered a half smile. "No, Joe. Dani wasn't my girlfriend. She was more to me than that."

Now everyone, aside from Jerrica of course, looked incredibly confused. I admit I was being a little dramatic, but they had coerced me into this, so they were going to have to wait until it played out. I was just trying to decide how much I was willing to reveal.

"Don't tell me you married her or something?" Justin said aloud.

"Get real Justin," Lance said before I could. "He or Jerrica or someone--I don't remember whom--said Will never dated after Allison, and since they dated in high school, when would Will have gotten married? Kindergarten?"

"Whoa! Chill you two!" I shouted. "Calm down and I'll tell you. Let me start from here. Josh, does the name Danielle Evans ring a bell to you?"

Josh cocked his head to one side, trying to think where he might have seen or heard the name before. After a moment or two passed, he slowly shook his head. "Can't say that it does. Should it?"

"It ought to, since it's on the dedication page of every book I've ever written, and on the following page..."

" something about a percentage of the sales going to the Danielle Evans Foundation," Josh said, his eyes lighting up, "but that still doesn't explain whom she is."

"Dani," I began, looking at Joey intently, "was a little girl I used to watch when I was younger. She lived across the street from me, and she was like my little sister."

I watched as the breath Joey had been holding in slowly came back out. He was relieved to find out that Dani wasn't a past girlfriend that he had to somehow measure up against, but he still wondered why I was reluctant to talk about her. So what if she was a little girl I used to take care of? What did that have to do with anything?

Everyone stared at me silently, waiting for me to continue. Just when I had about found the words I wanted to use, Tom, who I had hardly even noticed was there, said, "Wait, Will. You said Dani was a little girl you used to watch? Am I correct, judging by the fact that she has a foundation named after her, that she is no longer alive?"

I nodded sadly. "Yes. Dani died when she was eight. Jerrica, hand me my wallet, will you?" I had asked Jerrica to hold my wallet and keys during the performance since we didn't normally put locks on the lockers in the locker rooms. If someone wanted to steal my clothes--no big crisis--but my wallet? No way, Jose. Besides, who in their right mind would try and tangle with Jerrica?

She handed my wallet over and I opened it up, flipping through some things until I found what I was looking for. I pulled out a small picture and handed it to Joey. "That's Dani and I at Potter Park Zoo in Lansing. She adored the penguins and I thought they were kind of cute as well. She was about seven in that picture."

Joey took the picture and studied it. I didn't look much different at fourteen, the age I was in the picture, than I did now. Dani, however, was quite a surprise. She almost looked like a younger version of Jerrica. He looked up at Jerrica and the two met eye to eye. "Yeah, I know," she said. "Everyone always thought she was my little sister."

"So what happened to her?" Joey asked. "You said something about pills. Was she sick?" Joey turned to me and saw that my eyes had completely lost their sparkle and were growing cloudier by the second. There was obviously a storm brewing behind them, and the only question he had was how much I would really let on.

"No, she wasn't sick," I said. "Her mother was."

"Her mother?" Lance asked. "What do you mean?"

"Her mother was an alcoholic, for one. I think she had a drug problem too, though I could never prove that," I said fiercely.

"So what does that have to do with Dani?" Justin prodded.

"Dani died from a blow to the head from falling down the stairs," I said.

"And...?" Tom asked.

"Her mother pushed her," I finished, "although threw her is probably more accurate."

The group let out a collective gasp, with many mouths hanging open. The silence wasn't broken until Jerrica said, "What are you talking about? I thought she died from an overdose of pills she found?"

"I lied," I said flatly. "That it happened was bad enough. I didn't want you to have to deal with the truth."

"You could have told me, you know," Jerrica said. Reflecting in her memory, she said, "In that case, the mortuary did a great job on her, considering how much bruising there probably was."

"You have no idea," I said. "Who do you think found her?"

"Oh my God, Will," Karri said. "That had to be horrible."

"It was, but at least I knew from then on that Dani would be in a much safer place in heaven than she was here on Earth. Dani used to get beaten by her mother often," I began, and then said something that I hadn't even told Jerrica, "and if I tried to protect her, she would beat me instead."

"Say what?" Joey and Jerrica screeched in unison.

"Why didn't you just tell Anne-Marie what was going on?" Jerrica asked.

"I probably would have the first time Bonnie, Dani's mother, whomped on me, but then she threatened to do major harm to Dani if I did. At the time I was twelve and scared out of my mind. I could at least partially hold my own at that age, but Dani was only five. Instead of risk it, I just took my lumps when they came. What's sad is that I called protective services a number of times on her, and every time she managed to slide through without them doing anything to her. I think she figured out it was me because the next time I had to go over, if she was hitting Dani she'd stop and start hitting me."

"And your mother never figured it out?" Chris asked, rather puzzled. "You'd think she'd have picked up on that, all things considered."

"I've gotten good at hiding things over the years," I said, "and that one was important."

"Well, that explains why you went off when that lady starting hitting her kid," Josh said.

"Yeah. Sorry for being such a spaz," I said. "There are times where I wonder if I should ever be allowed near people. My emotions get so out of whack sometimes, and one of these days I'm going to end up hurting somebody."

"Stop that," Joey said firmly. "No one expects you to be perfect, and so what if you have stuff to deal with? We all do. It's just that some of your stuff is going to take a little more work. Now, just calm down and..."

Joey was cut off when the door burst open. M.F. walked out into the bright sunlight and said, "There you are! Get inside!"

"Why? Is something wrong?" Karri asked.

"No, but I've been looking everywhere for you. It's time to start rehearsals."

"But we just finished our performance!" Mandy whined. "What could we possibly have to rehearse for?"

"Wrong performance," M.F. said with a frustrated sigh.

"Oh, right," Mandy said. "That one. I was hoping we'd get a break today."

"Absolutely not. You don't have that much time, you know. Besides, I am revising the practice schedule. You will practice tonight until five o'clock and then..."

"Wait!" I said loudly. "Karri, Mandy, and I have to be at work by..."

"I am quite well aware of your schedule, Mr. Robertson, which is why you are leaving at five today. That gives you enough time to drive back to Baltimore to go to work. Tomorrow, practice will begin at six and run until four. Beginning on Monday, practice will begin at four-thirty and run until five." Turning to Mandy, Karri, and I, she said, "If you can arrange for time off from work, now would be a good time to figure that out, because otherwise, you are going to hate these next two weeks. There will be no excuses tolerated. Now, I want you inside in two minutes!" She spun on her heel and walked back inside the door.

"So this is good-bye then?" Justin asked.

"For now," Joey said with a smile. "It's only temporary. Besides, we'll see Will and Jerrica tomorrow at the concert."

"You will?" I asked. "How? In your dreams? I wasn't able to get tickets."

"No. We arranged for two tickets and backstage passes for you the first day we came to your house. It was supposed to be a way of saying thank you for everything you had done, but now, it's just because we want you there."

"Wish we could go," Mandy said glumly to Karri, "but we have to work."

"Me too," Tom said. "We're always slammed on Sundays."

I had felt a little guilty about Joey only getting two tickets, but when the others opted themselves out, I felt much better. "Sounds great. What time is it at?"

Everyone turned to look at Lance. "You know, one of these days you all are going to have to remember this stuff so I don't have to," he griped. "Concert begins at eight with the opening act, and then we go on about nine. Concert lasts until about eleven."

"You'll pick up your stuff at the box office, and then come around to the back. We'll let security know to expect you."

Jerrica and I shrugged our shoulders in unison. "Whatever," we said.

"It ought to at least be interesting," I said with a smile.

"Which one do you think will fall on their face first?" Jerrica asked with a bemused look on her face.

We glanced back over at each other again and said together, "Lance!"

Lance pouted. "Come on! That's not nice."

The two of us laughed and then started herding everyone inside. The dance hall was deserted except for M.F. and Kimber, who were talking in the corner.

"Well, let's get this good-bye thing over with," I said, "before I start the waterworks. Okay, group hug everyone!"

All ten of us--the five from *Nsync and the five from Charm--came together to make one big group hug. Joey and I had positioned ourselves next to one another and were pushing tightly against each other. It wasn't exactly the type of hug I was going for, but in this instance it would have to do.

"Well, let's get going then," Chris said at last. "We have to get back to Will's house, pack, and then find a way to get ourselves back to our tour bus. Hopefully, Johnny won't be there this time."

"Adios everyone!" Lance said as he made his way to the door.

"Bye Will! Bye Tom! Bye girls!" Justin called.

"You guys are fabulous! See you in a couple weeks!" Josh said. "Bye Will! Bye Tom! Uh, bye ladies!"

Joey hadn't left my side yet, and I could see the pained look in his eye. Just as he made a motion to hug me, the door to the hall opened as some girl ran in, grabbed something, and then stared at us. Turning to Jerrica, I sighed and said quietly, "Would you give Joey a hug for me?"

"Sure," Jerrica replied before giving Joey the hardest, bone-crushing hug she could muster.

"That's from me, although I would be a bit gentler about it. At some point I'll be able to do that in person."

"I think it's worth the wait," Joey said. Then he turned away from Jerrica and I and followed his group, calling good-byes over his shoulder. The next thing I knew, Joey had turned the corner and they were gone.

"Well, that's depressing," I said.

"If you think that's bad, just wait till you see what, or should I say whom, is coming this way?" Jerrica said, pointing at M.F. who was coming in our direction.

"I guess we better get started," I replied. "The sooner we start, the sooner we finish, I hope."

Truth be told, we were in for a very long day.

"You okay, Joey?" Justin asked as they climbed into the car.

"Yeah. Peachy," Joey muttered as he stared out the window. "Can we just go now?"

"You'll see him tomorrow," Josh said.

"Can we not have this discussion please?" Joey pleaded. "I don't feel much like talking."

Justin, who was driving, turned and caught Josh's eye. The two grinned at each other. Joey definitely had it bad. He was head over heels in love.

Kimber had called our attention and passed out a copy of the tour schedule. It was going to be a very busy three months. There were a couple of gaps here and there, but there wasn't much room for maneuverability. Mandy, Karri, and I glanced at each other and sighed. We didn't have a whole lot of time to make this work, but we were going to have to do our best. There was too much riding on this to screw it all up now.

"So, what are we doing today?" I asked. "More dancing, I'm assuming?"

"Possibly, but today will primarily be a singing day. You have a lot of songs to learn and not much time to do it in," Kimber replied. "So, here's the sheet music to look over, and while you're doing that, I have a surprise for you!"

"A surprise?" Mandy asked. "A good surprise?"

"Um, I suppose that depends on your definition," Kimber said with a grin. "May I present two members of your band and your fashion designer? Oh ladies!"

The door burst open and in walked Aja, Raya, and Shana. "Oh my God!" I screeched as I jumped up and ran toward them. "What are you doing here? Wait, I know why you're here, but I can't believe you're here!" I continued to babble for a moment before Aja cut me off.

"Whoa buddy!" Aja exclaimed. "Who spiked your juice with extra sugar today?"

"I'm just happy to see you," I said, giving her a hug before I moved on to Raya and Shana. "All of you. What's this about a band, though?"

Aja looked at me as if I was completely stupid. "Uh, hello?" she said. "Remember? Going on tour? That's the reason you came out to Los Angeles!"

"I know that, but how do you factor into it?" I asked, a little confused.

"We're going to be in your band," Raya said quietly, "that is, if you want us."

"Want you? Of course, I do! Well, that is if the others are okay with it, but for some reason, I thought we were using *Nsync's band?"

Kimber answered that for me. "Johnny wouldn't allow it, of course. That would be too easy."

"So we're going to have our own band?" I heard Mandy squeal behind me. "That is so cool!"

I had actually forgotten they were there for a moment. Turning around, I said, "How rude of me. Let me make some introductions. The members of The Holograms you haven't met: Aja, Raya, and Shana, these are Jerrica, Mandy, Tom, and Karri."

"Hi," said everyone.

"So we have Aja on guitar, Raya on drums, and who else?" I asked.

"We're working on that," Kimber said. "Until we can find a keyboardist, I'll fill in."

"And of course, if we ever need a flute player, I can cover that," Mandy said.

"And me on trumpet," Jerrica said.

"I've got the sax and guitar covered as well," I said.

"Of course, I've got the fiddle, violin, bass... Well, if it's got strings, I can play it," Tom said.

"I'd play the keyboards, but that would probably be a little difficult if I'm supposed to dance at the same time," Karri said.

"No, you're not expected to play the keyboards for us Karri, nor are any of you expected to play anything either, although if you want to, we might be able to find a way to work it in," Kimber said. "Actually, it's a rather interesting concept, but for now, we'll just stick to vocals and dancing, okay?"

"Let's get to work!" M.F. bellowed as she passed out the sheet music. The five of us glanced at each other and groaned. The day had barely started and it was going downhill fast.

"If I have to sing one more note, I think my voice will give out," Mandy said.

"Well, considering how much singing you and Will are doing, I'm not surprised," Karri said.

"What are you saying?" Mandy asked.

"Just that you two seem to have more solo time than the rest of us. I mean, Will I understand, but you?" Karri said.

"Are you jealous?"

"No, it's just that it seems a little out of balance, that's all."

"Uh, we haven't gone through all the songs," I said, coming up behind them. "Actually, we only went through, like, six of them."

"It was more like ten, but who's counting?" Karri said. "Anyway, whatever."

"Well, if you'd rather not do this," I began, "you can always leave. Contract isn't final yet."

"Nah. Don't mind me. I'm just having a moment. You understand what it's like, right Will?"

"And that's supposed to mean what?" I asked.

"Uh, nothing. I mean, um, well, just that--oh, forget it! Man, are we all uptight today or what?"

"Nope. Just you," Mandy said before stalking off.

I sighed. "We've barely started and we're already fighting. This is so not good."

So what did you think? Tensions are running high. Will Charm ever get off the ground, or will are quintet self-destruct before they ever see their first gig? How will Joey and Will cope with their first "real" separation, considering that this is only one night? After that, it's going to be a long two weeks! How does Dani's story fit into Will's future, and is it possible that her spirit is trying to contact Will in his dreams? Will the group find someone to fill the empty spots in the band in time for their first concert? Will Sam let his issue die, or is this not the last we've heard from him? Please, drop me a line and let me know your thoughts.

Another chapter done! Isn't it great? Sorry about seemingly falling off the face of the planet, and I promise the next chapter will be forthcoming much more quickly than this one! (I know I've said that before too!) 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.

The characters Kimber Benton, Jerrica Benton, Aja Leith, Shana Elmsford, and Raya Alonso are creations of Hasbro.