Cara smiled into the sunshine as the wind whipped through her hair. It was
a beautiful day, and she was far enough away from the city that she could actually see the clouds and the sun. She had the
day off, and she was perfectly content. She loved the weather because the entire week had been rainy, and she was thrilled
to see the clouds disappear. She loved the car, because she had been cramped up in the apartment for the entire week and needed
the freedom that it provided when she left the top down. With a reflective sigh, she reached a hand down to turn up the radio.
She loved the song as well, and she was only minutes away from singing along. Her smile grew when she passed the sign she
had been waiting for. She loved driving out of the city, even for awhile, because it reminded her of going home. She loved
home. She loved her family, and she missed them dearly, but she couldn't help loving her roommates also. She'd grown to enjoy
each and every moment with Aaron and Theresa, and she definitely loved working with them. Even though Cal had been practically
unbearable of late, she loved her job as well. However, she loved relaxing even more. She loved driving.
when you smile like that, I really can't see any trace of those horns. You should do that more often..."
She did NOT,
however, love her traveling companion. The smile vanished and she rolled her eyes.
"You know, when you open your mouth,
all of my reasons for smiling seem to go right out the window..."
Nick winced. "Ouch! Jeez, girl, hostile much? What's
your deal, anyway?"
She arched an eyebrow pointedly at him. "You have to ask?"
He held up his hands in surrender.
"Okay, no complaining from you. I'm letting you listen to this song without throwing a hissy fit, so you should be eternally
grateful." He made a face. "Damn, I didn't even know that people listened to crap like this any more..."
Just to spite
him, she rolled the knob on the radio until the entire countryside seemed to echo with *NSYNC's "God Must Have Spent A Little
More Time On You". Nick groaned loudly and grabbed the knob, prepared to turn it down, but Cara intercepted him.
not mess with a woman's radio, Carter."
Nick's face contorted as though he were in physical pain. "Come on, this is
torture! Do you know how corny this song is? This is worse than that God-awful Celine Dion song from Titanic! This is worse
than that 'Hero' song by Enrique Iglasias from way back when. This is even worse than that 'Loverboy' song they made us sing
way back in 1993, dammit."
Cara gave him a pointed look. "Is it worse than that horrific 'Like Wow' song that your
Nick opened his mouth to protest, but shut it just as quickly. "Well, no, but...good God, Cara,
it's freaking *NSYNC! And the fact that they added Alabama to this song makes me want to crawl behind a rock and hide in case
they get any more ideas..." He moaned again as Justin began singing. "Okay, don't you have any Backstreet CD's hidden away
in here? Or you know what? You could play me some of that Christian stuff you were listening to this morning. I don't care.
ANYTHING is better than this."
She rolled her eyes at his dramatic whining and tossed the CD case at him. "You can
look in there forever, Nick, but you're not going to find a Backstreet Boys CD. The closest you'd probably come is O-Town..."
Nick covered his ears as his face contorted. "I did NOT just hear you compare me to those lip-syncing, sex-crazed
Cara's eyes brightened with the knowledge that she'd found a way to annoy him. It only seemed fair, after
all. He had spent the past week taking jabs at her opinions, making fun of her loves, and teasing her incessantly. She'd been
even more thrilled for Sunday's arrival because it had meant that she'd finally have a break from Nick, but then Aaron had
announced that Nick needed to make a short trip to a little New York suburb outside of NYC. Unfortunately, only Cara knew
the way, so she was stuck taking Nick on a road trip and praying that he might somehow fall silent before she caved into temptation
and left him on the side of the road or strapped him to the underside of the car. She loved Aaron, and she hated the thought
of angering him by maiming his brother, but Nick hadn't been the most pleasant of company recently. However, one look at his
pained expression inspired her, and her eyes glinted mischievously at the thought of payback as she began singing loudly and
"'Cause I want it all...Or nothing at all...There's nowhere left to fall...When you reach the bottom, it's
now or never...Is it all...Or are we just friends?...Is this how it ends, with a simple telephone call...You leave me here...With
nothing at all..."
Nick looked purely and utterly disgusted. "I can't believe you know all the words." His gaze fell
to the case in his lap. "I can't believe you own the fucking CD. How can you call yourself a music lover?"
at him. "I suppose you've got a better alternative?"
Nick rolled his eyes and began switching stations at will until
he came to a classic rock station that was playing an old Bon Jovi song. "Yeah, this is better."
Cara listened carefully
to the words before nodding her agreement. "Yup, it's all about drinking, sex, and drugs. It definitely fits you."
stared at her open-mouthed, shocked by the harshness of her words. "It's all about love! Pure, unadultered..."
eyebrows rose. "Whoa, big words...I'm impressed, Nick."
He frowned lightly, trying to remind himself that what she
was saying didn't matter. It had been longer than a week since his talk with Theresa, and he still hadn't found any evidence
that her words rang true. "Aw, come on, Cara...you were a fan. You know I'm not stupid."
Cara rolled her eyes. "You
totally could've fooled me."
Nick waved a hand dismissively. "Okay, truth time. If you could have any of us lay you
down on a bed of roses, who would it be?"
Cara's glare sent a shiver down his spine. "Were you completely trashed
when I told you that I became a fan for the music and not for the looks?"
Nick winked at her. "If I say yes, will
you answer my question?"
Cara's gaze traveled heavenward. "Oh, for the love of..."
"Backstreet!" Nick interrupted
cheerfully. "Come on, Cara, you had to like one. Which one did you like?"
Cara eyed him doubtfully. "If you're fishing
for compliments and flattery, Carter, you'd better go find yourself another ocean."
Nick smiled. "I like this one
even more." He grinned. "I can't help but hang around such a charming woman, Cara."
She rolled her eyes again. "You
know what? If that's the best you can come up with, then maybe I ought to be thankful you guys didn't write all of your own
Nick's eyes widened at the venom in the insult, and he was surprised to find that it actually hurt to think
that one of their fans could say things like that. He shook his head quickly as if to clear it and ploughed on, hoping to
get another rise out of her. After all, she'd sung the O-Town song.
"Cara...tell you what. If you tell me which one
of us you fancied, I'll..."
Cara sighed. "Look, Nick, if you're that interested, why don't you ask me what my favorite
song was? 'Cause, truth to tell, I honestly don't find you all that attractive, and your buddies are probably less adorable
than you are."
Nick caught the insult, but he was too pleased with the opening in her wall to pay it any heed. "Okay,
then, Cara. What was your favorite Backstreet song?"
Cara replied without missing a beat. " 'No One Else Comes Close'."
Nick's entire face lit up in his famous grin. "Aw, Cara, that's so sweet! No one else comes close to me, huh? Gee,
girl, I didn't know you cared so much. I mean, 'No One Else Comes Close'?"
Cara fixed him with a steely scowl. "Yeah,
that's right, Nick. No one else comes close to annoying the hell out of me like you do. You make me grateful that Justin Timberlake
graced the earth..."
Nick grunted in annoyance. "Okay, you know what? I'm not hearing you anymore." He focused his
attention on the radio instead, switching the station until he elicited a groan from Cara.
"I really, really hate
this song, Nick. Change it before I go postal on you."
Nick's eyes lit up mischievously, and instead of obliging his
companion, he turned the volume up and began bobbing his head to the beat. It had been forever since he'd heard the song,
and it was one of the many that he actually enjoyed listening to. He closed his eyes and lost himself in the sounds of Aerosmith's
"Crazy" for a few moments before he began singing along with the song, quietly at first, and then more loudly as it progressed.
It was already loud enough, but it definitely annoyed Cara. Of course, he was too into the music to care anymore. He was enjoying
He was enjoying himself so much that he was willing to pretend that he hadn't heard her pleading
with him to shut up.
He closed his eyes more tightly and continued to sing. He didn't even care
about shooting a retort back at her.
"Nick, STOP SINGING!"
Cara's shout jolted him out of his musical reverie,
and his eyes snapped open when he heard the song fading away. She was turning down the volume. He turned towards her, ready
to protest, when he caught the oddly pained and seriously annoyed look on her face. As soon as she caught his eye, her expression
registered faint disgust.
"You know, Carter, if you weren't Aaron's brother, I would seriously wonder if you weren't
put on this earth specifically to see how long I can go annoyed without completely freaking out."
And, suddenly, he
was tired. Tired of the lies, tired of the snappish comments, tired of trying to front that he didn't care at all about what
Theresa had said when really it was eating him inside. He was tired of fighting with Cara because it wasn't playful anymore,
and he was tired of watching Aaron avoid him. He was just really, really tired, and his hushed tone conveyed just that as
he spoke to her.
"Why do you hate me so much?"
Cara was about to retort, but she turned just in time to see
the pain in his eyes, and instinct made her pull over to the side of the road so that she could look him in the eyes. She
removed her sunglasses and studied him for a long while, eyebrows furrowed in concentration as she took him in. For some reason,
his features looked softer than they had when she had first met him, and she began to wonder if he wasn't the person he appeared
to be. He looked small and anxious for affection, and she cursed herself for making him feel insecure. She took a deep breath
and finally looked away from the sea of blue in his eyes, trying to compose herself. Her voice was soft when she spoke.
I don't hate you. You just...you get to me sometimes."
Nick looked dejectedly down at the floor of the car. "Yeah,
that's what Theresa said too."
Cara looked up inquisitively, and her tone held no menace, for once. "When did you
talk to Theresa?"
Something in her voice made Nick look up to meet her gaze. "About a week ago. We...we don't exactly
get along, and I wanted to know why you didn't like me."
Cara sighed and ran a hand through her hair. "What all did
Nick shrugged. "Just that I got to you, and that you used to be a big fan."
Cara gave a small laugh
then, and Nick looked up at her with uncertainty at the light-hearted tone she was using. All of a sudden, Cara seemed shy,
and he was intrigued by the change in character.
Cara shook her head slightly. "I did used to be a
Nick frowned. "But you aren't now..."
Cara shook her head again. "No, I'm not. I wasn't for a little
while before you all broke up."
Nick winced at the casual tone with which she used the phrase "broke up". She made
it sound so trivial, when really it was so much more complicated. But he couldn't think about that anymore without hurting.
"Why did you stop being a fan?"
Cara chose that moment to look him straight in the eyes, and Nick found himself lost
in a sea of brown-tinged sincerity. "I told you; I became a fan for the music. You guys all sang so beautifully, and you all
cared so much about the music itself. None of you seemed to get caught up in the fame aspect of the business because you cared
so much for what you were doing. You were always smiling, always real...and when you performed, you just radiated this love
of anything musical." She sighed. "It went on that way for awhile, too. You guys cared about nothing but your product. But
then there was AJ and rehab, and I began to wonder exactly how you saw yourselves. He pulled out of rehab just fine, got his
life back on track--I was totally convinced that your brotherhood and the music had pulled him back together. After he got
help, he sounded better than ever, you know? He sounded so much more mature, so much more soulful..."
Nick gave her
a small smile--a more sincere smile than she had ever seen from him--and chuckled lightly. "I'm sensing a 'but' in the near
Cara blushed sheepishly. "Yeah. AJ got better, but you got worse. All of a sudden, it was like you couldn't
sing with the same passion anymore. You tried, but the ability wasn't there. You wore the sunglasses to hide from the fans,
you started making comments about your newfound maturity in interviews, and your humble appeal was replaced by this really
cocky air that hadn't been there before. Of course, I could've dealt with that had the music not changed, but..." she paused
to offer a small smile. "It did. Nick, whether you realize it or not, it got to the point that you weren't really singing
anymore--you were rasping or screaming, and it hurt to listen to that. I couldn't look at you all the same way, because the
music wasn't there anymore." She blew out a stream of air. "So, one day, I just couldn't stand to listen to the music you
guys had once made because it made me think of what had become of it, and then I ended up crying instead of smiling. That's
not what the music's supposed to be about."
He was hardly hearing her anymore over the ringing in his ears. Hearing
about his past, hearing about how prevalent his own problems had been, was almost too much to bear. As he examined his life
for signs of change, he realized there were none, and he paled. How the hell did I get caught in such a downward spiral?
He could hear the guys warning him, he could hear Kevin nagging him during vocal warm-ups because he wasn't at his best--but
he'd only been having fun. It wasn't supposed to go so far, but it had. It had gone too far. He closed his eyes against the
realization and cringed at his own faults. So I took the music away? I made it hard to listen to? Just by trying to get
It didn't make much sense, but then it did. He sighed heavily as he absorbed the information, both
grateful for the truth and resentful for what it entailed. His voice was barely more than a whisper when he spoke to Cara.
"No, it isn't what the music's supposed to be about."
Cara cast a nervous glance in his direction. "Nick,
I'm not trying to offend you; I'm trying to be honest. I figure I owe you that much."
Nick gave a bitter chuckle as
Theresa's words from the previous week ran through his head. "Yeah, well, someone certainly does."
Her voice was small
and her brown eyes sad when she looked at him imploringly. "I'm sorry."
He shook his head, unable to acknowledge the
apology, because he was sorrier. "Just..why did you ask me to stop singing earlier, then? Was it because it reminded you of
that, or..." He caught her apprehensive look and his tone grew firm. "What? Be honest, Cara."
She looked up at him
timidly, and he began to see her in the light in which Theresa had described her. "Nick...you were cracking. Did you not notice?
You weren't hitting the pitches, and you were rasping more so than you used to, and..." She shook her head. "It just wasn't
the same. I don't know if you guys ever sat and listened to yourselves sing, Nick, but you had a beautiful voice once upon
a time. You had this incredible ability to sing emotions the way that other people feel them, and you had me completely mesmerized.
I loved the soul in AJ's voice, and I loved the pain in yours. It sounds weird, but your voice had this kind of hope beneath
all the pain that isn't there anymore, and the absence of hope was enough to make me beg you to stop." She bit her lip and
looked up at him cautiously. "You're not a bad singer, Nick--far from it, actually. I just know what you used to sound like."
His thoughts froze upon the realization that he knew too. He could remember, but he didn't want to. He hadn't remembered
for ages, because remembering the music meant remembering the people and the places and the paradise it had once been, and
"Could I ever sound like I used to?"
His voice was small and childlike, and the sound itself broke
Cara's heart. "Nick...I'm sure you could, under certain circumstances, maybe. I don't know."
He nodded, knowing he
wasn't going to get much more of an answer from her. With a sigh, he decided to take advantage of Cara's honesty and ask the
question that had been plaguing him since his talk with Theresa. "Cara?"
He swallowed forcefully.
"Does Aaron hate me as much as you do?"
Cara's features softened immediately, and Nick saw a compassion there that
he hadn't seen in Theresa bright blue eyes. "Nick...Aaron doesn't hate you. He may be wary of the person you've become, but
he definitely doesn't hate you. If anything, I think he worries about you hating him, and he worries about you getting into
trouble. He's concerned about your health and your history." Cara's voice was softly southern as she divulged the last of
the truth. "He worries that you'll never change back to the brother that he remembers. He doesn't hate you, though." She shook
her head at him, her brow knitting in concern. "Nick, I don't hate you either. I worry about you."
Nick gave her a
half-smile accompanied by a bitter laugh. "Yeah, sometimes I think I worry about me too."
Cara's smile was understanding.
"I think you have reason to."
Nick sighed and ran a hand through his own hair, frowning when he felt its length behind
him. For some odd reason, he had been expecting the shorter cut of the Backstreet era. "I wish I didn't have reason to. I
mean, as much as I complained about it, I really am glad that you all made me quit smoking because I had intended to do it
anyway." He pursed his lips. "I'm not a smoker. I'm not a drinker, either, but...sometimes you get caught up in things that
you wouldn't necessarily get caught up in because it's easier than facing yourself, you know?"
Cara nodded. "Yeah,
I know. You may not believe me, but I do know."
Nick gave her a small smile. "You mean Saint Cara has screwed up?"
Cara laughed. "Honestly? I can't drive for crap. I totaled three cars in a year, and then I moved to New York City
with Theresa. We were friends in high school, and I kinda got stuck in her crowd way back when." She made a face. "You've
probably noticed, but Terry and I aren't exactly alike. That wasn't the crowd for me, and I did a lot of things that I'm not
proud of. I just needed a change of pace and a change of scenery, so I left."
Nick sighed. "Maybe I needed a change
Cara gave him a friendly smile. "Well, fate must be on your side, Mr. Carter."
"What do you mean by that?"
She winked at him. "You're here, aren't you?"
Nick sucked in a breath at the underlying
meaning in her words. Suddenly, he didn't want to worry about himself anymore. He didn't want Aaron to worry about him, and
he didn't want to keep making music that made people cry. He was shocked at the discovery that he didn't really want to be
She looked up at him, eyebrows raised expectantly. "Yeah?"
heavily, trying to muster enough courage to swallow his pride. When he finally spoke, his voice tumbled out in a hoarse, stuttering
mess. "Could you help me face myself again?"
Cara frowned lightly. "What exactly are you asking me to do?"
bit the corner of his bottom lip. "I think I'm ready to try and be that person that Aaron thinks I might be. I think I need
a friend, and you've been honest with me. Besides, I don't want to fight with you anymore."
Cara laughed. "Nick, for
what it's worth, I don't want to fight with you either. I never wanted to fight with you."
Nick's eyes lit up slightly,
and Cara warmed at the sight. "So does that mean that you'll help me?"
Cara sighed solemnly. "Yes, but on three conditions."
Nick nodded. "Shoot."
"A, you start on some chores at the house so that you can get a grip on reality. B,
you quit bugging me about how cute you were as a Backstreet Boy. C..." Her voice trailed off and her mock solemnity faded
to a sincere seriousness. "C, you've got to start being aware of those times that you beat Aaron down because he's looking
out for you. If you want to repair you relationship with him, Nick, you've got a long way to go."
Nick sighed. "I
know. I just want to get back to where we were before, I guess." He looked up at her with sad eyes. "I don't want to make
people cry anymore, Cara."
She smiled ruefully. "Nick, I hope you don't."
He looked up timidly. "Will you
help me learn to sing again?"
"As long as you don't start giving me pointers," Cara deadpanned, and Nick blushed a
"Sorry about that..."
She laughed. "It's okay. So we're friends, then?"
Nick nodded with
a genuine grin on his face. "Yeah, we're friends." He held out a hand. "I'm Nick."
Cara rolled her eyes good-naturedly.
"You're goofy is what you are. Now, we'd better get out on the road before this place closes..."
Nick chuckled. "Fine
with me, but...Cara?"
Cara groaned. "What?"
"If we're friends now, then can I ask you a question?"
sighed apprehensively, but Nick could feel her relenting. "Sure, shoot."
Nick's eyes glinted mischievously for the
first time in a long time. "Which Backstreet Boy did you think was the hottest? Was it me?"
Cara moaned loudly at
the question. "Nick! Don't tell me you're going to annoy me about this again, 'cause if you are, then the deal is totally
Nick shook his head fervently with widened eyes. "No! No, no. No, I just want to know, honest. I mean, you said
I was more attractive than the others, right? So who was your favorite?"
Cara laughed. "Okay, okay...my favorite was
Nick's eyes widened further at the newfound information, his surprise evident in his voice. "Honest to God?"
Cara nodded as she slipped her sunglasses on. "Yup. Honest to God. That southern accent totally drew me in."
rolled his eyes. "You suck."
Cara laughed. "Right back atcha, Carter."