He didn't know what time it was. He didn't know what time they were expecting
him. He didn't know what studio they were in, or how long they had planned to be there.
That particular morning, there
was a lot that he didn't know. He did, however, know one thing with incredible certainty.
His head was killing him.
dull roar had begun as soon as he woke up that morning, and had unfortunately increased whenever he decided to open his eyes.
The early morning sunlight was no better than daggers in his temples, and he had spent the entire drive to the studio thanking
God for sunglasses and coffee. The pot had been full when he sauntered into the kitchen, and he couldn't have been happier.
Of course, hours after stuffing himself full of painkillers, the headache remained.
He heaved a sigh and shoved open
the glass doors to the recording studio. His throat was dry and his vision was blurry and somehow, he knew that he was in
the middle of the worst hangover of his young life. However, he also had a job to do.
He glanced up at the ceiling and said a quick prayer of thanks that
Rhine was the artist du jour. Something warned him that he wouldn't have been able to deal with anyone else that morning.
a curt conversation with the receptionist, he managed to find the right studio. He entered slowly, without knocking, and plopped
down on a nearby chair before looking around.
As was expected, his eyes moved immediately to Rhine. That day, she had
French-braided her long, wavy brown hair into pigtails. Dressed in ripped jeans and a white, long-sleeved tee-shirt, she sat
cross-legged and barefoot in the middle of the studio, idly strumming her guitar while the sound executives buzzed around
her. She looked like the eye of the storm, and he focused on her for a long moment in hopes of receiving some of her peace
before he had to face the rest of his record company.
"Nick! It's about damn time you showed up! This is your project,
you know, and it's always nice to see a decent commitment when one determines that he wants to work with a certain artist..."
or she," came a quiet voice. Nick's attention moved once again to Rhine's tranquil figure.
"He or she,"
she repeated calmly, glancing evenly into the eyes of the perturbed exec. "To use 'he' as a pronoun after using 'one' is considered
sexist. You're supposed to say 'he or she' in order to encompass people of all genders." Her point made, she looked back down
at the fretboard and began to tune the strings.
The executive shook his head and glared at Nick. "Cheeky little thing,
He pressed a hand to his temple. "Look, I'm sorry I'm late. It won't happen again. Now, with all due respect,
get your ass out of my studio. As you so kindly pointed out, Rhine is my project, and therefore I get to handle her demo.
I want the rest of these people out of here."
The executive drew a quick breath, obviously taken aback by Nick's brash
tone. He did, however, know enough to leave the infamous Mr. Carter alone with their charge, and so he left to round up the
rest of the record company drones while Nick made his way over to Rhine.
As the others in the room continued to buzz
around them, Nick sat down next to Rhine and took a long sip of coffee.
She looked up briefly and offered
him a small smile. "Hey."
She shrugged. "Ready as I'll ever be, I guess. The guitar's in tune,
if that's what you mean."
He nodded curtly, wincing at the pounding in his head. "Are you warm?"
"I'm always warm. You can ask my manager, but I'm pretty sure that I sang the whole way over here."
He raised his eyebrows.
"Your own songs?"
She shook her head. "Along to the radio. It gets boring if you're always singing your own music."
that's what we did wrong, then...
She took that opportunity to eye him. "You probably know that, though."
It is WAY too damn early in the morning for this. And it was, but he couldn't seem to stop the confession from spilling
forth. "Yeah. Yeah, I do."
She nodded and stood up before he could continue. "Let's get this show on the road, then."
Dammit, Carter, get your head straight.
"Oh, and Mr. Carter?"
Rhine smiled knowingly.
"I've got some Advil in my purse if you need it."
He chuckled tersely. "Thanks." Bitch.
Rhine's agent walked up before any more words could be exchanged between the two. Nick fought against the headache to answer
the man's questions, but Rhine's smirk wasn't helping matters. Instead, the knowledge that someone else had recognized his
misery heightened his anxiety--he did, after all, have a reputation to keep. With a roll of the eyes and a nod of the head,
he convinced Rhine's agent that the other man didn't need to be a part of the recording session.
"It's just a demo,"
he concluded. "I don't do a lot of studio work, but the work I do tends to be private. I'd really like her to be alone in
the booth without a bunch of supporters for the first take of this. I want a raw copy first, and you'd just be a distraction."
his headache hadn't done much to ease his lack of tact.
The agent had huffed and puffed for a few moments before getting
the okay from Rhine, at which point he haughtily headed out with the excuse that he "expected a phenomenal track by the end
of the day".
As soon as the door slammed behind the man, Nick fell into one of the leather chairs in the room and spun
around to face Rhine. "So, just you and me."
She nodded. "What's the deal for today?"
Nick shrugged. "One song.
You play, you sing, I record."
She took a deep breath. "And if the first take isn't good enough?"
"Then we do
it until it is good enough. You singing that song from the other day?"
She shook her head slowly. "No. I hope that's
okay. I had a different one in mind for today."
He shrugged again, leaning his head back in hopes of easing the pain.
"Fine. Let's do a take and see how it goes. If I like it, we'll keep it. If not, I'll ask you to pick another song." His azure
eyes met hers, and he arched a single eyebrow expectantly. "You do have other songs, right?"
She nodded solemnly. "Absolutely."
Get in the booth, then. Headphones on, mouth fairly close to the netting. When the green light starts shining, that's your
"Seems easy enough."
Finally, he had the common courtesy to chuckle. "Yeah, well...it's, what, nine in
the morning? Just wait a few hours. That opinion will change." He shook his head and allowed himself a few spiteful memories
of his first recording session. "Trust me."
Gracefully, she stood and padded into the glass booth, guitar in hand.
Her expression was one of amazement and childish awe, but her eyes were determined, and he could see the beginning of a dream
come true as she adjusted herself on the stool. Once her headphones were securely in place, he pressed a few buttons and the
green light appeared.
She closed her eyes against the silence and began to strum. He leaned back in the chair, propped
his feet up on the mixing board, laced his fingers together behind his head, and began listening intently to the music that
poured from the speakers.
This is the song I thought I'd never sing
But pulled straight from
This is the melody birthed from the nothing
Embedded in your eyes
This time there are no words to say
No candle for your flame
This time there are no dreams for coming true
And no soul left to tame
singing water, singing rain
I'm singing truth; I'm singing pain
I'm singing broken streetlights, winking knives
hearts and tattered lives
I'm singing notes connected by a thread
I'm singing with the voice inside your head
singing for the twilight in your eyes
Can you feel me now?
As she sat, peaceful and inspired in the recording booth before him, it
was all he could do not to run screaming from the room. Outside, he was cool, calm, and collected--the pinnacle of stoicism
that his job required. Inside, however, his most rational of thoughts were flooded by the torrent of emotion that Rhine's
lyrics had once again produced. Her words and her voice had reached a place that he had long kept locked away, and he was
strangely awed by her gentle presence. The notes of her melody were knocks on a door he'd long kept shut, and he was forced
to close his eyes against the memories that threatened to overtake him.
In his mind's eye, Kevin was seated at a studio
piano, playing what would later become "Back To Your Heart" while AJ hummed along. Howie was seated, casual and cross-legged
on the floor, nodding his head to the beat of the song. On the couch across the way, he and Brian had halted their brawl over
a basketball to listen to the lilting melody in a stunned but reverent silence.
It wasn't until AJ began to sing that
his eyes snapped open, shattering the mood. It was the most he had allowed himself since the group's destruction, and he knew
that he would've spent the rest of the day running from it had Rhine not been five feet away.
These are the words I thought I'd never write
They never had a place
are the wings I never let take flight
But felt in your embrace
This time there is no right and there's no wrong
no path left to take
This time there lies no line for weak or strong
No promises to break
I'm singing water,
I'm singing truth; I'm singing pain
I'm singing broken streetlights, winking knives
and tattered lives
I'm singing notes connected by a thread
I'm singing with the voice inside your head
for the twilight in your eyes
Can you feel me now? *
He could feel her. He could feel her fingers against his rough spots and
the tips of her hair along the edges of his holes. Oddly enough, he didn't mind feeling her, her voice like a prayer for the
life he could've had.
It was the depth at which he felt her that scared him.
* * *
"Shit. I don't even know what to say, and that's a first. What
am I paying you people for, anyway? After that performance, I'm thinking that you ought to be paying me to
listen to this. Dammit!" A sigh. A shake of the head. And another sigh. "What do you want me to say, Aaron? I mean, take your
pick. You've heard it all before, I'm sure. Maybe you didn't notice the big, bold letters at the top of this piece, but the
song is called 'Alive'. 'Alive', not 'Lifeless'! You cannot sing a song about the energy one feels when one is evil if you're
fucking dead! And that, my friend, was a dead performance. I felt none of that. Not the words, not the notes,
not the melody. Not even the fucking character! I don't know what to do, kid. I would ask you what in the hell that was, but
I don't even think you know." Calvert Holland expelled a large breath and glared at his star performer. "Look, I'm
not going to ask. Just do it again. And, while you're in the midst of Frank Wildhorn's beloved number, PLEASE try to remind
me why I thought you could do this!"
From the velvet seats of the auditorium, Cara and Theresa exchanged grimaces.
Cal had never been one to mince words, but that particular attack had been far beyond his usual brutality.
neither girl could say in good conscience that it wasn't deserved.
Aaron's performance that afternoon had indeed lacked
luster. Cal had spent the morning running through the first act, but as soon as the cast arrived at Hyde's riveting first
number, all of the life seemed to fall from Aaron. He had gotten to a point where he was just running through the motions,
and both girls suspected that the lack of energy had something to do with older brother Backstreet. Truth to tell, Aaron hadn't
been himself all morning. Of course, according to Cal, he hadn't been Jekyll or Hyde either.
Cara and Theresa exchanged pained glances before redirecting their attention
to the stage, where the younger Carter brother was taking his pre-performance deep breath.
"He looks like the living
dead," Theresa whispered.
"I doubt he feels much better," Cara returned. "I woke up at three this morning, and he was
still watching TV in the den. I don't think he slept at all."
"Worrying about Nick?" Theresa asked with a frown.
Of course, I think it goes beyond worrying at this point." Cara shook her head as Cal cued the music. "I'm beginning to wish
I knew the whole story behind Nick's sudden change of heart four years ago. Something tells me that Aaron's frustration goes
much deeper than the recent problems, you know?"
"Yeah, I get that feeling too," Theresa agreed.
the only one," Cara admitted with a sigh. "I think the rest of the cast is just as suspicious."
"Cal included," Theresa
added pointedly. "If Aaron's not careful, Cal's going to call him in and demand to know what's going on."
"He might not. Not if the song goes well this time."
"I don't know," Theresa countered. "A's screwed up pretty badly
today. I mean, he kept missing lines during the run-through this morning, and none of the musical numbers have gone well.
His head is somewhere else entirely, and he's making it pretty obvious."
Cara frowned. "Let's see how he does this
time around. Cal might not say anything if the rest of the day goes smoothly."
Thankfully, Aaron's opening notes rang
out before Theresa could object to Cara's eternal optimism.
What is this feeling of power and drive
I've never known--I feel
Where does this feeling of power derive
Making me know why I'm alive
Like the night, it's a secret
dark, and unknown
I do not know what I seek yet
But I'll seek it alone
From the audience, Aaron's performance was devastating, but from Cal's position
downstage and to the right, Aaron simply looked tired. His voice was tired, his movements were tired, and his expressions
were tired. His face, however, was exhausted. His normally brown eyes had turned a distracted black, and though his notes
were on pitch, they lacked the energy that the director was used to seeing from his young lead.
I have a thirst that I cannot deprive
Never have I felt so alive
is no battle I couldn't survive
Feeling like this--feeling alive
Like the moon, an enigma
Lost and alone in the
Damned by some heavenly stigma
But blazing with light!
It's the feeling of being alive
Filled with evil,
but truly alive
It's a truth that cannot be denied
It's the feeling of being Edward Hyde **
The entire venue echoed with the screech of the tape player as Cal rolled
his eyes and slammed his index finger onto the stop button.
"I don't have time for this." That said, he directed his
attention out into the audience, where various cast members were scattered and waiting for their next appearance. "Take five,
okay? I want you all out of here for a moment. Go get a bite to eat, or something." As they began to collect their things,
he turned a steely gaze on Aaron. "You stay here. We need to talk."
Aaron nodded wordlessly. In the front row, he could
see Cara's furrowed brow and inquisitive eyes, but he didn't have anything encouraging to say to her. He knew Cara well enough
to know that she could wait for an explanation. Cal, on the other hand, was an entirely different case.
As the director
continued to chase the cast out of the audience, Aaron sighed. He didn't want to explain any personal problems to Cal, but
it looked as though he had no choice. After all, he had to say something about the reasons behind his lackluster performance.
a heavy sigh and a heavier heart, he fell into a cross-legged position in the middle of the stage. Moments later, Cal vaulted
onto the stage to join him.
"Okay, Carter. I may be a pain in the ass to deal with on a daily basis, but I'd like to
think that I know you pretty well by now. I've seen you day in and day out for at least two months, and you've come a long
way. I know what you can do, and all skepticism aside--you've got a lot of talent. You're a good actor and an even better
Aaron nodded his thanks. Coming from Cal, it was fairly high praise, but both men knew that it wouldn't
be the end of the impromptu conversation.
Sure enough, Cal took a deep breath and continued.
"I also know when
I'm getting your best. Today, to say the absolute least, was not your best. I know that I look like a hostile bastard from
nine to five..."
"Seven to eight," Aaron corrected, and both men shared a tired smile.
"Fine, seven to eight.
I know I look like a hostile bastard, but I really do care about all of you. I make it a point to get to know you all as people,
not just as actors, and I can tell when something goes beyond a bad day." He sighed heavily and eyed Aaron with intensity.
"Kid, this is more than just a bad day. You look like Atlas just asked you to hold the world while he goes for a cigarette
break. Now, why the hell are you ruining my Hyde?!"
Aaron closed his eyes and ran a tired hand across his
face, hoping that the motion would bring about some idea of what he could say to straighten things out. Unfortunately, he
still didn't know where to begin. He didn't know exactly what had brought him to the point of half-assing his character. He
only knew what point he had finally arrived at, and so he decided to start there.
"I can't do it anymore."
Cal furrowed his brow in concern, though, Aaron knew that wasn't near enough.
"What can't you do? The musical?"
laugh was too bitter for a man of eighteen years. "No, not that. It has nothing to do with the musical."
his authoritative tone for once and chuckled. "No, I didn't think it did. So what's this about, then?"
a sigh, knowing internally that there weren't enough sighs in the world to prepare him to tell this particular story. "My
brother. It's about my brother."
"The Backstreet Boy?"
He nodded. "Yeah, the Backstreet Boy." Of course, after
the title came the natural pause, and he had to correct himself. "Well, the former Backstreet Boy. Unfortunately, the damn
group isn't together anymore, so I'm the only one left to deal with him."
Cal asked even though he already knew the
answer. "And why do you have to deal with him?"
Aaron threw his arms up in despair. "Because he's living in my
fucking house, with my fucking roommates, screwing up my fucking life because he can't take care of
himself!" He sighed again and shook his head as though not even he could believe the mess that had arisen. "I honestly
thought we could make him better. I thought that, between Cara and Theresa, something would happen to where he could straighten
himself out. I thought he could solve these problems he's had since that fucking group dissolved. And it was better for awhile,
but now he's just getting worse, and I honestly don't think we can help him anymore. I think he's beyond help." He laughed
again, the bitter laugh that would've made Cara's skin crawl. "Hell, I know he's beyond my help. He's been beyond my help
for the past five years. I really did think that Cara and Terry had a good shot with him, though."
Cal's eyebrow rose.
"And why would they have a good shot with him?"
For the first time all day, Aaron's face showed the first traces of
a small smile. "Because they had a damn good shot with me."
Cal smirked. "So now I know who to thank for the absence
of a pop star's ego among my stage crew."
Aaron's small smile grew. "Yeah, I guess you do. They fixed me up and set
me straight. I thought they could do it for Nick, too, man, but he's a different case altogether. His problems go beyond an
Cal frowned. "How so?"
Aaron shook his head. "Everything, man. He's a lush, first of all. He
drinks all the fucking time, and then he comes home in the wee hours of the morning and gets pissed off when I ask
him what's wrong. I thought I could deal with it, but I'm just too tired. I've got a life to live, dammit! I don't have time
to watch him screw up!"
"So maybe it's not your job."
Another bitter laugh ensued. "Yeah, now you sound like
"She's a smart girl."
Aaron nodded his agreement. "She always was. She's not smart enough to get through
to Nick, though. For a while, she had him going, but then he went right back into the bar. It's like, right when
I think I have a reason to hope that I'm going to get a brother back, he fucks everything up again." He paused a moment to
shake his head again in disbelief. "And I thought I could do it, man. I thought I could be all supportive and shit, but I
can't. I can't watch him throw everything away every night. I know how good he could be if he tried, but he won't even pretend
to try!" Finally at a loss for words, he turned to Cal with a pleading expression. "Have you ever watched someone with incredible
potential just give up?"
Cal locked gazes with Aaron and nodded seriously. "Yeah. Just a few minutes ago."
gaze fell to the floor. "Shit. Look, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to let it get to me like that. He just...he and I got into it
last night, and it hit me that there really isn't anything I can do." He chuckled hollowly and lifted his eyes to meet his
director's. "You get to feeling pretty worthless whenever your older brother slams the door in your face."
Cal sighed. "You keep throwing performances like today in my face, kid,
and you will be worthless." He shook his head in amazement before returning his attention to Aaron. "You're not,
though. Like I said, you're a talented kid. I'd be bullshitting you if I said that stuff like your brother isn't supposed
to hurt, but you can't let it take over. I know that the pop world tells you that glossy, perfect performances are the best,
but the theater world works a bit differently. Here, we let our people have a little pain. We let our people be people, you
know? There's just one condition."
Aaron's expression did little to convey his curiosity, but his tone was eager. "What's
Cal smiled knowingly. "They've got to sing it out. All that pain, all that frustration, all that anguish goes
right into the song. It may not incite a bunch of grins from the audience, but it will get you a few gasps here and
there. It's not easy to let yourself be less than perfect, but it does add a depth to your character. Hyde may be evil, but
there's a passion behind him that makes him worth knowing. When you sing him as someone with a psychotic grin and a few murderous
thoughts, you aren't doing him justice. However, when you get down into your own shit and belt it out for everyone to hear,
then you're making something of him. Hyde kills the members of the board out of love for Jekyll. It's not about evil,
it's about revenge. He's so passionate that reason escapes him, and THAT'S what makes him violent. You, kid--you've got the
ability to show that. You've got the depth and the voice. You've just got to let it out. Don't let your brother tear you up.
Let him give you one more reason to sing."
* * *
As soon as the bright lights and the swirling cigarette smoke surrounded
him, he heaved a deep sigh of relief. His day had been draining at best, and his saving grace had been the reminder that the
mysterious Esmerelda from the previous night had promised him an escape.
Her promise, however, didn't alter his path
from the door to the bar in the slightest, nor did it jar the ease with which he flagged down the bartender and ordered his
first drink of the evening.
"Jack, please. On the rocks."
Mentally, he was patting himself on the back for remembering
his manners. After the grueling afternoon he'd spent in the studio with Rhine, he was impressed that he could even remember
his own name. She's really fucking talented, but shit, does she have a lot to learn...
Still, he couldn't
suppress the smirk that graced his face as he took the drink from the bartender and brought the glass to his lips. She's
definitely a trip, though. That's the first time in a long time that an artist has been so productive on the first day in
He was sure that, had it not been for the pounding bass and addicting techno lilts coming from the
speakers, he would still be humming her song to himself.
Regardless of how bad his headache had been by the close of
the day, he was positive that his new artist would leave his care with a beautiful demo in her hands. Oddly enough, it was
rather satisfying to know that his job had meant something to someone again, even if it was only for less than twenty-four
Before he could become too analytical, though, he felt a tap on his shoulder.
began to turn around with the intention of telling whichever fan had recognized him to fuck off, but his blue eyes caught
sight of Esmerelda's bright ones, and he smiled instead. "Right. Esmerelda?"
She smirked. "Nice to know that my name
will forever register with a superstar. You ready to forget about the real world for awhile?"
For a reason that he
couldn't pinpoint, he was slightly disappointed that she knew who he had been. His eagerness quickly outweighed his disappointment,
though, and he gave her a slight nod. "Ready as I've ever been. Lead the way."
He gasped at the feeling of her long
nails on his wrist and tripped into line behind her, his drink sloshing this way and that until he finally settled into a
quick but steady pace. He scanned the dance floor for the supposed remedy, but Esmerelda continued to weave her way through
the throngs of people. It wasn't long before they reached a winding staircase by the side of the stage that led to a closed
door. One by one they scaled the steps, allowing Nick enough time to contemplate his decision to trust the woman in front
Shit, like I've actually got time to analyze this. Why the hell does it matter? It was a long day.
fingers with crimson nails reached out to turn the handle of the door at the top of the stairs, and the flashing lights faded
into a dark, smoky room with a popular rap tune in heavy rotation. He immediately began to nod his head to the beat as he
took in the new environment. In one corner, a group of scantily clad women were dancing on and around the bar, teasing a bartender
in a black muscle shirt. The opposite side of the room offered a group of overstuffed leather couches and what appeared to
be a coffee table, around which were crowded a number of suspicious-looking people. The two areas were separated by two red
felt pool tables and a number of anxious players tossing money into glasses while they hustled egos onto the tables and into
He took a deep breath, thankful for the return of nicotine into his lungs, and smiled a genuine smile for
the first time in a long time. Now this is what I'm talking about...
"VIP lounge," Esmerelda threw his way
with a smile. "I'm sure you're familiar with places like this."
"More than you know," he returned. "So what's this
escape we were talking about?"
She arched an eyebrow and wagged a coy finger in his direction. "Patience, pop star.
We're getting there."
She sauntered between the pool tables with a coy smile for each player they passed before leading
him over to the set of couches. His eyes moved over each of the suspicious occupants in turn, allowing him to take mental
notes on each of them. The majority were dressed in black, lending each other lights while they blew smoke rings over the
A wave of nostalgia passed over him, but it wasn't enough to coax him into grabbing a cigarette.
any sense of self-satisfaction that knowledge provided vanished the moment he saw the table.
Well, it wasn't so much
the table. It was more the white powder that covered the far right corner of it.
scene was innocent enough, really. Nobody was bent over the stash with a rolled up sheet of paper or a credit card. In fact,
the group on the couch seemed completely oblivious to the fact that illegal drugs were occupying its makeshift ottoman. Instinctively,
though, he knew. Deep down he knew that the offensive white powder was Esmerelda's intended surprise.
Can I really do this?
It had been years since he'd last seen cocaine, and even longer since he'd dealt with the
kind of people that left it lying out on the table. Flashbacks of a pre-rehab AJ danced across his vision, and he cringed
at the memory. There were other memories, though--less painful memories--that added to the appeal.
Dammit. I don't
have enough self-control not to.
Before he could inquire as to whether or not the endless supply of temporary
sanity on the table had to do with Esmerelda's escape, she tugged at his wrist.
"Jason. Come here a sec."
tall, lanky man in black leather pants and a wrinkled chambray shirt shuffled forward with an expectant eyebrow raised. "Yo?"
hand dropped from Esmerelda's as she stepped forward. "I want you to meet someone."
The man dubbed Jason continued
toward them until he was merely two feet from Nick, at which point he gave the blonde the once-over and sighed. "This the
"Former Backstreet Boy," Nick snapped before he could catch himself. "I don't do that shit anymore."
eyed him seriously and shrugged. "Cool with me, man. What's your name?"
To Nick's surprise, Jason held
out a hand. "Nice to meet you, Nick. I'm Jase. Look, Ez here said it's been rough, so I'll give you the hook-up tonight. Tomorrow,
though, if you want it, you're going to have to pay."
Nick nodded his understanding. "Sounds good to me."
shared a sly grin with Esmerelda before returning his attention to the blonde before him. "What'll it be, then? Feeling the
appeal of the stuff on the table?"
It was as though he was watching himself in slow motion from across the room. He
couldn't feel his head as he bobbed it, or his fingers as they formed a cylinder from the sheet of paper that Jason had handed
him. He could feel the heat of Esmerelda's satisfied smirk, but it hardly seemed to be directed at him. As he tucked the excess
hair behind his ear and bent over the table, he could feel a small part of him protesting, but it didn't last long. Soon enough,
all of his nerves were replaced by a sense of power and euphoria.
He couldn't feel the rush of blood to the head or
Esmerelda's skin against his, but he knew that it felt damn good to be that powerful. And, eventually, the sense of power
overshadowed the fact that he couldn't feel himself anymore.