"I can't believe it. I think I'm seriously in shock. I might...hell,
I might stop breathing altogether. You might have to take me to the hospital for resuscitation..."
even try to hide her smile of amusement. "Melodramatic much?"
"Our Theresa?" Aaron teased. "Melodramatic?
"Calvert Holland just gave us the day off!" Theresa shrieked indignantly. "You know, the OCD perfectionist?
The dreaded theatre tyrant? The director with a passion so fierce and frightening that his compliments occur less frequently
than the passing of Haley's comet?" She shook her head incredulously. "This definitely calls for an overreaction.
I mean, hell, it's the day before opening night. I figured he'd work us into the ground until at least eleven o'clock
Aaron chuckled lightly. "I think he's afraid of jinxing everything. You heard him--the run-through
"Besides," Cara added, "despite his tough face and insatiable appetite for perfection, Cal is nothing if
not superstitious. He's a theater person."
"Yeah, well...he's also my hero," Aaron groaned. "I could definitely
use some relaxation time before tomorrow."
"The show's not until tomorrow night," Cara pointed out. "You have
all of tomorrow morning to relax."
"No, I have all of tomorrow morning to freak out," Aaron corrected with a wry smile.
Theresa gasped. "But you're the seasoned performer! The teen idol! You're not allowed to get nervous."
rolled his eyes. "Seriously, T...enough with the 'Days of Our Lives' antics."
Theresa grinned unabashedly.
"Okay, but honestly...you've got more experience than all of us put together, A. You spent almost six years in the solo
artist's spotlight. How the hell is our little Broadway gig going to make you nervous?"
"Two words," Cara muttered
dryly. "Calvert Holland."
"It's not just that," Aaron sighed. "Singing in front of the best Manhattan society
has to offer is quite different than singing to a few thousand screaming teenage girls with my name scrawled across their
"You mean you don't think Manhattan celebrities would show you the same courtesy?" Theresa quipped with
a smirk. Aaron groaned.
"My God, I hope not." He cringed at the thought. "Man...can you imagine how
Cal would react to that?"
"Well...the show would go on," Cara commented, "but we'd certainly hear about it later with
all the indignation one would expect of our dear director."
She glanced up when silence ensued and saw her two companions
looking at her with surprised, skeptical expressions. "What?"
"Cara, hon," Aaron joked, wrapping an arm around
her shoulders amiably, "I think you've spent a little too much time with our nineteenth century musical lately."
kidding," Theresa groaned. "You're starting to sound like a bad gothic fiction heroine."
"And I'd be more than
happy to save you from yourself," Aaron added with a smile, "but I've got somewhere I need to be this afternoon."
Cara inquired with obvious alarm. "Where are you going?"
"To the studio," Aaron grinned proudly.
"Nick and Rhine are recording," he explained with a sigh.
Theresa arched an eyebrow expectantly.
"Well, Nick's been coming by rehearsal almost every afternoon for the past week and a half. I figure it's
my turn to visit him."
Theresa and Cara exchanged small, understanding smiles as Aaron glanced up at the stoplight.
good, A. Tell the brother we said hi."
Aaron winked at both women as he stepped off the curb and into New York
traffic. "Will do. See you guys later!"
* * *
Nick tapped his pen gently against his chin and leaned back in the rolling chair
he'd chosen to occupy for the afternoon. His baby blue eyes bore holes into the carpet of the recording studio as he
chewed noisily on a piece of gum he'd nabbed before heading out of the apartment. At the time, he'd thought that having
something to chew would satisfy the need for a cigarette. Now, the gum was a distraction for his tired mind.
long last, he drew a heavy breath and spun around to face his protégé.
"This album...do you want all of the songs on
it to be yours?"
Rhine's pretty brow furrowed, and she fingered a wavy lock of hair uncertainly. "What do you
"Well, I..." He trailed off and glanced apprehensively at the door. Yup, still closed. No one's
going to hear this. "I think I have a song for you."
"Like a demo?" Rhine queried. Nick coughed nervously.
Sure. Like a demo."
Her eyebrows rose in obvious interest. "Is it something someone sent to the label?"
dipped his chin and stuck the pen in his mouth along with the gum. Unfortunately, he quickly discovered that he couldn't
chew both things at once.
"How'd you get a demo, then? Someone else in the studio?"
Nick exhaled. "So you'd be open to doing someone else's work? Even if it wasn't the folksy stuff you're used to
Rhine shrugged. "I guess so. I mean, I'd have to hear the song, but as long as it's something
that people could relate to..."
Nick chuckled tersely.
He sucked in a breath. "Nothing.
I just...I'm not sure how great this thing is."
Her brow wrinkled in confusion. "What do you mean? You
haven't heard it yet?"
"No!" Nick replied quickly. "No. I...give you something I haven't heard? I
wouldn't do that to you. I'm not that kind of producer. I don't have that kind of time. I..."
Rhine arched a single eyebrow in amusement, trying unsuccessfully to hide her smile as he prattled nervously on. The
longer she spent with Mr. Carter, the more she realized that his frightful disposition was nothing but a grand façade.
sigh was so heavy that she almost thought he'd deflated.
"I...I kind of wrote it," Nick muttered hastily.
eyes widened delightedly. "You 'kind of' wrote it?" she teased, her eyes sparkling.
Nick rolled his eyes in annoyance,
but he couldn't conceal the small smile on amusement that surfaced. "I wrote it," he amended, "and it might be complete
and total crap, because it's been years since I've written anything, but...I was sitting around a couple of nights ago and
this one came to me, so I jotted it down. I wasn't going to use it for anything, but I got to thinking about your album,
and I'd really like to put something on there that allows you to breathe through different genres..." He paused to take
a breath. "Anyway, I remembered my song and figured that, while it was a long shot, it IS a jazz song, so..."
grinned. "Backstreet's Back, all right?"
It was Nick's turn to be surprised.
The casual, flippant way
the words passed her lips--straight down to the catchy falsetto of "all right"--made his chest constrict with longing.
Despite his best attempts to keep a rein on his emotions, tears began to pool in the corners of his eyes as he glanced forlornly
around the studio. If things had been different, if I had been good...it wouldn't just be me in the studio.
Kevin would be at the boards and AJ would be drumming against the tabletop and Brian would be in the soundbooth, crooning
into the microphone with his eyes closed while Howie spun around in one of the chairs. I wouldn't be here with Rhine,
and I wouldn't be fighting with Aaron, and Backstreet... His thoughts trailed off for a moment as he
the lump that formed in his throat at the very word. Backstreet would be back. Hell, we'd be cracking that very
In his mind's eye, he was staging a Backstreet studio reunion, and the image caused just enough pain
to propel him forward. With a heavy sigh and a heavier heart, he lifted his eyes to meet Rhine's cheerful gaze.
no Backstreet," he lamented with a small smile. "Just me this time."
Rhine's eager smile was slightly more subdued
when she responded. "That works too. May I hear the song?"
In his head, her voice was Kevin's.
gulped. "Um...sure. It...it's not going to be real pretty, because I haven't done a whole hell of a lot to preserve
my voice, so the notes might be out of tune a little and it might sound rough, but...focus on the lyrics and the mood and
the tone and stuff and tell me what you think."
Rhine nodded her agreement and leaned back against the leather cushions
of the overstuffed couch. Nick glanced apprehensively in her direction before closing his eyes and taking a deep, preparatory
breath. It's nothing. Nothing. Pretend it's the guys. Pretend you really are back together and
this is just another presentation of a rough song idea. No pressure.
He recalled each of their faces one
by one, and the pain in his voice was unmistakable as he began to sing out the yearning for the better days.
don't think about you anymore
No, I don't think about you anymore
You've crossed my mind every minute since gone
I don't think about you at all
Rhine leaned forward slightly, mesmerized by the sharp-edged
tenor and the gentle rasp that hinted at years and years of personal turmoil. The song seemed to be an anthem of strength,
but the minor key and the excess of blue notes allowed that the declarations of strength were a lie.
looking for you anymore
No, I'm not looking for you anymore
I've looked for your face behind every door
Now I'm done
not looking for you at all
He'd tried to stop looking for them and, for a long time, he'd been successful.
He had forgotten all about the musical catharsis and unconditional love that came with their tightly knit band of brothers.
However, since he'd been at Aaron's, the memories had become inescapable. Just the sight of his brother was enough to
remind him of everything that he'd lost with the group, and the absence of drugs in the recent week had rendered him helpless
to escape or evade his past.
I'm not wanting you close anymore
No, I'm not wanting you close anymore
used to yearn for your hands to explore
Now I'm done
I'm not wanting you close at all
The lie tasted
bitter on his tongue, and the bluesy melody burned the tips of his fingers as he reached out into the darkness for some semblance
of the comfort he'd once found in the arms of his brothers. Before, the pain had been bad, but without them, it was
He'd never felt quite so alone as he did now, singing his song of longing into the silence.
don't dream you'll come back anymore
No, I don't dream you'll come back anymore
I used to plan your return in my mind
I don't dream you'll come back at all
Rhine's eyebrows rose in amazement as she watched her
stern, stoic producer squeeze his eyes shut in agony. His voice was rough, yes, but nothing if not hauntingly human.
Miraculously, the retired Backstreet Boy had managed to stay in tune, but the frayed edges of each note gave the song more
truth than Rhine could ever dream of intimating.
If she had had any doubt about her mentor's talent, it vanished
as she listened carefully to the story between the lines. At the beginning, she'd been skeptical--she was fully aware of her
producer's previous occupation, and she was wary of witnessing the one-man resurrection of a dead teen pop explosion.
However, Nick's painful delivery had her convinced that this song of his was more than a jazzy hook; he was singing about
He cocked his head to the side, his brow furrowed in pain, and Rhine acknowledged that he was
much closer to the song than he'd previously explained.
He wasn't singing to something specific--he was
singing to someone.
* * *
Aaron Carter grinned at the receptionist and gave a brief wave of gratitude as he headed
down the hallway and towards the indicated studio. He wasn't even halfway down the hall when the ragged blue notes of
a jazz song reached his ears.
I've no holes in my heart anymore
No, I've no holes in my heart anymore
Aaron's brow furrowed gently at the contrast between the uplifting lyrics and the minor key. Man, someone's lying
to themselves. That's nowhere close to a happy song.
With a small sigh, he craned his neck towards the music
and continued down the hallway, searching for the door number the receptionist had given him.
You left a void
when you walked out the door
Now it's gone
I've no holes in my heart at all
What had begun as a simple
tune had given way to a number of melismas, and Aaron's eyebrows rose in appreciation at the way the pain-laced tenor soared
up and down the minor scale. Whoever that is, he's talented. He sounds like he's also insanely depressed,
The voice got louder and louder as Aaron ventured closer to his destination. When he reached the
door that was without a doubt the source of the sound, he glanced up at the door number and reeled backwards in shock when
he realized that he'd reached his destination.
Holy shit. I guess Nick's not working with Rhine today...
as much stealth as he could muster, Aaron turned the doorknob and slid into the studio, making as little noise as possible.
He shut the door ever so quietly, the sound of the tenor filling his senses.
I don't hope very much anymore
I don't hope very much anymore
Finally, the lyrics match the mood of the song.
Aaron spun around slowly
to face the source of the voice. When the scene before him registered, his jaw fell open incredulously.
was standing in the center of the room, his forehead scrunched up in pain as he belted the last reluctant notes of a truly
I used to fill myself with hope for love
Now it's gone
He lingered on
the note tentatively at first, then intensely as he built up enough momentum for another ascent up the scale.
couldn't believe it. The raspy voice that had given him chills only a few months prior was gone; replaced by the rough-edged
voice of experience. It was the voice of a man who had fought deep adversity countless times--and won.
don't hope very much at all *
Nick held the note for a brief moment before allowing it to fade away, and
the brunette on the couch in front of him burst into excited applause.
Aaron would've joined her, but he couldn't
move. His throat was swollen with something like pride, and his heart was thumping painfully against the confines of
his ribcage. Tears pooled slowly in the corners of his eyes as he stared at his older brother with something that felt
strangely like admiration.
He felt like he was thirteen again. For a brief moment, the cocaine, the alcohol,
the months spent in dramatic limbo, and the accompanying pain--none of it mattered anymore. Aaron was staring wide-eyed
at the boy he'd spent his life looking up to, and Nick was singing from his heart with the voice Aaron remembered.
do it," the girl on the couch declared seriously around the grin that threatened to split her cheeks.
nervously and ran a hand over his hair self- consciously. "Really?"
"Really," the brunette reiterated with a
smile. From his corner of the room, Aaron was almost positive that he could see his older brother blushing.
it doesn't suck, then?"
Aaron coughed pointedly, drawing attention to himself for the first time since his entrance.
When Nick and his female friend turned to face him, Aaron's chin dipped seriously. "No, it doesn't suck."
eyes grew saucer-wide with obvious surprise. "How long have you been standing there?" he demanded incredulously.
The younger Carter smirked delightedly.
"Long enough," Aaron responded cryptically. He arched a single eyebrow
expectantly, but his voice was a good deal softer when he continued. "You didn't tell me you could still sing like that."
what?" Nick muttered doubtfully.
"Like my older brother."
A gasp of recognition escaped the hippie chick on
the couch, and Nick spun around again, oddly surprised to see his protégé. When he caught the look of complete and total
awe on Rhine's face, Nick's frozen features relaxed into a small smile.
"Rhine, I'd like you to meet my younger brother
Aaron." Nick turned back to Aaron with a curious grin. "Aaron, this is Rhine, the only talented artist left at
Aaron leveled the folksy beauty with the trademark Carter grin.and shook her outstretched hand.
"It's great to finally meet you," he teased. "Nick's told us quite a bit about your adventures in the studio."
good things, I hope," Rhine laughed.
"Nothing but," Aaron assured her with a wink. "He's actually quite taken
with your musical ability."
As Nick watched the scene unfolding before him, the feeling of disbelief returned full
force. "What the hell are you doing here?"
Oh, way to go, Carter. That wasn't offensive at all.
grin allowed that he wasn't bothered by the frankness of the question. "Well, you've been coming by the venue almost
every afternoon, and Cal gave us the rest of the day off, so...I figured I'd return the favor and pay you a visit."
eyebrows rose. "Seriously?"
"No, I'm lying to you," Aaron retorted with a grin. Rhine, recognizing the
moment as a brief stint of male bonding, excused herself to go to the restroom. Nick waved her off with a grin before
turning back to Aaron, his smile uncertain.
"I can't believe you're here," Nick chuckled. "Hell, I can't believe
you heard that."
"It sounded good, man," Aaron replied honestly. "It's...it's a fucking sad song, but you did
it a lot of justice."
Nick arched a skeptical eyebrow, and Aaron shook his head good-naturedly.
bro! I could hear you all the way down the hall, and I was totally impressed. In fact, I'd been planning to poke
my head in on the performer whenever it was done to congratulate them on a great hook." He laughed lightly. "I
couldn't believe the music was coming from your studio."
Nick's smile brightened, but he blushed modestly at his brother's
unexpected praise. I can't believe it. He came by the studio to visit me. He likes the song I wrote.
And, my God, he just called me "bro." I don't know what the hell is going on with him today, but I hope it doesn't change.
glad you liked it."
"'Course. It's awesome." Aaron flopped into one of the rolling chairs and began spinning
idly. "Who wrote it?"
Nick cleared his throat and followed Aaron's lead, dropping into another rolling chair.
Aaron smiled subconsciously at the old nickname. For some reason, ever
since he'd entered the studio, he'd felt at ease in his brother's presence. This Nick--the singing, smiling, passionate
man that worked the boards with bright eyes and good humor--was the brother that he remembered from the early days of Backstreet.
With the music, they were on common ground again--ground that was strangely untainted by addiction and betrayal.
that thought, Aaron decided to forgo the small talk and flattery in which he would usually engage his brother. "When
did you write it?"
"A couple nights ago," Nick admitted with a sigh. "I was up late, thinking about shit, and...next
thing I knew, I had a sheet of paper full of song lyrics lying in my lap."
Aaron allowed himself a small smile of understanding.
He'd always loved to sing, but he'd never been able to write the way his brother did. Nice to know that there's
still reason for me to look up to him.
"What's it called?"
Nick glanced up at his brother, and blue eyes
met brown in a moment of brutal honesty as the older Carter smiled ironically. "Denial."
"Fitting title," Aaron
chuckled. He spun around in the chair a few times before glancing back to Nick with a serious expression. "Have
you ever thought about calling them?"
Nick closed his eyes for a moment, willing away the tears that threatened to
surface. Fuck. Even after all these years, he still knows me well enough to cut through all the bullshit.
He thought about denying it. He thought about playing dumb. It would've been easy enough. While he was grateful
for his brother's insight, he hated the pain that always came with thoughts of his surrogate older
look at Aaron, however, and he knew that he couldn't jeopardize the relationship that they were slowly rebuilding.
thought about it," he sighed. "I just...I don't know if I could do it, man. I don't think they'd want to hear
from me. Not after all the shit I put them through."
Aaron kicked lightly at the wheels of Nick's chair.
"I doubt they'd want to talk to Nick the addict," Aaron agreed gently, "but...you're not that guy anymore, bro."
kind of you," Nick snorted. "I mean...I'm trying to be better, AC, but we both know that I'm a far cry from the kid
they used to love."
"I don't think so," Aaron countered pointedly with a piercingly serious gaze. "That guy that
was singing that song a second ago--you know, the one who was shaking his fist in the air and scrunching his eyes up with
more drama than a daytime soap--that guy was pretty damn close to the kid that used to belt out the bridge of 'I Want It That
Way.'" He paused for a moment to let his words sink in. "And Nick?"
Nick glanced up with guarded eyes,
but Aaron could still see the hope in his brother's heart.
"I think they'd want to talk to that guy."
solitary tear slid down Nick's tan, rugged cheek, but he brushed it angrily away as soon as the door to the studio creaked
open again. Rhine entered quickly, but not before Aaron could drive his point home.
"Just...just think about
it, man," he said quietly. "If they're anything like me, they've missed you more than they'd mind."