The apartment was lit, but oddly quiet when Cara entered that evening. She had left Theresa shortly after Aaron's departure
in order to meet her parents at the airport. She'd spent the afternoon giving them a tour of the city she'd grown to love,
from the twists and turns of Central Park to the best bagel shop on 57th Street. Finally, after hours upon hours of exploration,
her parents had begged to return to the hotel to unpack and unwind. The kindly couple was exhausted, and Cara wasn't feeling
However, as the door creaked to a close behind her, she couldn't help but smile at the thought of her
small southern family. She'd missed her parents a great deal since moving to New York, and the afternoon had been just enough
to soothe the heartache. Not to mention the fact that their presence had provided a welcome distraction from the quickly-approaching
With a sigh, Cara shook her head to will away her nerves and headed into the kitchen to make herself
a cup of tea before bed. To her surprise, Theresa was already home, sitting cross-legged on the kitchen counter in a pair
of Mickey-print pajamas.
"Hey," she greeted with a grin.
"Hey," Cara returned lightly. "Where's Tracy?"
groaned loudly at the mention of her little sister. "Locked in a posh hotel room on the upper west side, I'm sure."
mean she didn't beg and plead to escape the watchful eyes of your two wonderful, doting parents?"
Theresa rolled her
eyes in annoyance. "Oh, she begged. She begged for me to take her out to a club and let her dance the night away--and then
got insanely pissed off when I told her no. Of course, Mom and Dad were standing right there in the hallway--together, amazingly
enough--for the whole conversation, and they were thrilled to bits and pieces that I've finally 'come to the Lord and gained
a sense of responsibility' while living in the world's second greatest city of sin."
Theresa, too, had spent the day
with her family, who had flown up to support her in what they were calling her "first successful endeavor." Unfortunately,
Theresa found in her parents absolutely none of the comfort that Cara found in hers.
Cara arched an unimpressed eyebrow.
"Nice to know you're finally in their good graces."
"Oh, whatever," Theresa grumbled. "I'm just glad they're flying
home after the show ends tomorrow night. I love them and all, but I do have a breaking point."
"Don't we all," Cara
mused with a smirk. "Speaking of family...how do you think Aaron's day in the studio went?"
Before Theresa could speculate
on the dangers of the eldest and youngest Carters spending an afternoon in each other's company, the apartment was filled
with the telltale sounds of a key in the lock.
"I guess we're about to find out."
Sure enough, the door swung
open to reveal two blonde boys in the midst of a very enthusiastic conversation.
"Man, I'm telling you...the song was
great before, but using those brushes on the drums really mellows it out."
"I agree completely. It gives that shuffle
beat a much softer, jazzy feel, which is totally what I was going for."
"Absolutely. And Rhine! She's fucking amazing,
man! The way she was nailing those riffs? It was insane. I can't believe how talented she is."
"Honestly? I can't believe
it either, and I've been working with her for the past month and a half. She's got an incredible vocal technique. I don't
know who trained her, but..."
"Thank the Lord for 'em. The way she's blowing through those verses, you'll have the
song finished by tomorrow."
"Yeah, but only if I can find a cello player. You were right about layering the instrumentation
on a delay. When the song builds on itself orchestrally, it gains all kinds of momentum that it couldn't gain before."
younger Carter had the decency to blush as he made his way into the kitchen. "Thanks, bro. I'm glad I was able to help."
and I both," Nick chuckled, reaching out to clap his younger brother on the shoulder. "You were invaluable in there today.
You sure I can't steal you away from the musical and make you my right-hand man?"
"Nah," Aaron laughed. "As much fun
as I had today, I think C and T would kill me if I abandoned them to play around in the studio."
"I think that's probably
a fair assumption," Theresa agreed with a smirk. "So I take it the afternoon went well?"
Aaron's eyes lit up like a
Christmas tree as he wrapped his arm around Cara's shoulder. "Dude...complete and total understatement. It was amazing. Nick
wrote a song!"
Both girls turned to face their houseguest with raised eyebrows. Cara was the first to speak.
really? What's it about?"
"It's a jazz song," Nick explained, blushing furiously. "It's about...well, I guess it's
about love gone wrong."
"Sounds like a hit to me," Theresa teased. Aaron rolled his eyes in annoyance.
so can't joke about this song. It's fucking amazing. It's this declaration of all kinds of power and independence, right?
But then there's this amazing layer of irony, because he called it 'Denial' and wrote it in a minor key. The juxtaposition
of these powerfully simple lyrics with a hauntingly melancholy tune...it's so freaking effective. I can't explain it." He
turned his gaze on his embarrassed older brother. "Dude, when you and Rhine finish laying down that track, you HAVE to bring
the demo home so the C and T can hear it." He turned excitedly back to his female roommates. "Y'all are going to love it.
Seriously. It's the best thing Nick's ever written."
Nick blushed bashfully at Aaron's unabashed praise, but his smile
belied his pride in his latest piece. "I don't know about that..." he muttered modestly. Inwardly, though, his thoughts
told a different story. God, don't let this end. Please let him keep going. Let him wax poetic about the music until I
fall asleep on that corduroy couch.
"Well, I do," Aaron insisted. "Not that you haven't written amazing songs
before, but this one is different. It's got something special, Nick. It's just...it's so fucking real, you know?"
ought to be," Nick mumbled with a sigh. "Lord knows the inspiration behind it was real enough."
Ten hours ago, he wouldn't
have dreamed of being so honest with his brother. After an afternoon in the studio, though, the quip felt perfectly natural.
Somehow, the music has smoothed things over in a way that words and wit could not. It had been the perfect day.
can fix the situation responsible for that inspiration, though," Aaron pointed out solemnly.
"I don't know," Nick admitted
quietly, casting his brother a look of complete and total despair. "I got lucky with you, AC. You...you've been really, really
patient with me. You've stuck around, you know? You didn't have to, but you stayed by me, and...let's just say that it took
me awhile to respond with the proper amount of
"We're family, Nick," Aaron countered. "It's not about
gratitude, okay? I did what I thought was right. When you get down to it, though, I didn't do anything you wouldn't have done
Nick cast his brother a small, sad smile of thanks.
"Seriously, Nick. We're brothers. That's what brothers
do, right? They have each other's backs."
Nick's weather-worn features hardened slightly, and his blue eyes darkened
as he gazed over Aaron's shoulder, lost for a moment in painful memories.
"Not all brothers," he murmured softly.
and Cara stood silently off to the side, watching the honest, brotherly exchange with disbelief. Only twenty-four hours prior,
the Carter boys had done well to engage in casually personal conversation. To see them trading words of emotional wisdom with
all the ease of two old friends was both surprising and rewarding--especially for Cara, who couldn't seem to wipe the tiny
smile of satisfaction off of her face.
From his perch on the counter, Aaron frowned deeply in concern for his older
His older brother glanced furtively in the direction of the girls. Immediately, he heaved a sigh
and delivered a look that ended the conversation. Aaron wanted badly to press the subject the way he'd done before Rhine had
returned, but he knew better than to push Nick's buttons in public. With a reluctant sigh of his own, he temporarily abandoned
Cara, wanting badly to regain the earlier carefree atmosphere, grabbed a pitcher of sweet tea from the
fridge and poured four glasses.
"I, for one, want to hear more about this song," she remarked, pointedly handing Aaron
a full glass. As if on cue, both Carter boys sprang to life again.
"It was amazing," Aaron reiterated with a grin.
"Rhine...she's fucking fantastic, and Nick's song is beautiful. I'm trying to figure out how I can weasel my way into the
second recording session so I can help with the finished product."
"Bro," Nick admonished, "you know you don't have
to weasel your way in! You're totally welcome, man. Hell, if you didn't have the musical going on, I'd totally hire you for
help. You've got an amazing ear for production."
"I ought to," Aaron laughed bitterly. "I spent my entire childhood
in a studio."
Nick's tone matched his brother's exactly as his expression grew sour. "Yeah, tell me about it."
should I? I might have lived the Lifetime series, but you wrote the fucking book."
Theresa rolled her eyes
in mock annoyance and joined Cara's rally to lighten the mood. "Man, you two are worse than a drama-soaked episode of The
OC. Can we forget your sordid pasts and focus on the victory that is today's musical achievement for a moment?"
grinned gratefully at her best friend. "I concur. In fact...I'd like to propose a toast to Nick and his amazing jazz masterpiece."
hear!" Aaron hollered, lifting his glass. Almost immediately, Nick began blushing furiously.
"Guys, it's just a song.
There's no need for a toast..."
Theresa shot him a smirk. "It's either a toast or a serenade, Pretty Boy. Take your
"A serenade?" Nick repeated doubtfully. "What, you're going to regale me with a chorus of 'For He's A Jolly
Good Fellow' for the whole apartment to hear?"
"Don't count your chickens, Pretty Boy," Theresa retorted. "You've been
better, sure, but we're not about to sing you into a happy ending. I meant that we were going to make you sing your
song for us."
Cara couldn't help but laugh at the degree to which Nick seemed taken aback by the brazen blonde.
"You know, that doesn't sound like a bad idea..."
Nick shook his head in embarrassed amusement and raised his glass.
"No way. Toast away."
"To good music," Theresa offered with a triumphant smile.
"To good friends," Cara added,
upping the stakes.
"To family," Aaron finished meaningfully, locking gazes with his older brother. "Blood or otherwise,
lost or found."
The implications of the statement weren't lost on the eldest Carter child. With a nod of thanks, Nick
smiled softly. "I'll drink to that."
The foursome clinked glasses and, within moments, the seriousness of the moment
had vanished in a sporadic burst of giggles.
"How retarded are we?" Cara marveled, laughing aloud. "I mean, who the
hell toasts anymore?"
Aaron shrugged. "I've seen them do it at weddings before."
"Funerals?" Theresa offered.
Cara rolled her eyes good-naturedly at her friend's predictable cynicism.
"Always the optimist, aren't you?"
stuck out her tongue in reply.
"I've seen them do it at theater openings," Nick interjected, smirking delightedly at
his clever change of topic. "Speaking of which...y'all ready for tomorrow?"
As if on cue, all three cast members groaned
loudly and in harmony.
"Man," Theresa lamented loudly, "I had almost forgotten about that. Damn you, Pretty Boy!"
kidding," Aaron agreed with a groan. "We had a good day, man. Did you have to bring that up?"
Nick snorted. "After
the embarrassment I just had to endure? Yes, I did. Payback's a bitch, bro."
Aaron stuck his tongue out, and Cara shivered
visibly. "You know, I'm trying out this new thing where I pretend that I'm not even in a musical."
"Sounds like a plan
to me," Theresa agreed.
"Well, sure," Nick chuckled, "but is your dreaded director going to like that approach when
you show up for hair and make-up tomorrow evening?"
His reality check was met with a chorus of groans.
what's with you?" Aaron laughed. "Do you want us to start calling you the Grim Reaper?"
"Oh, come on," Nick teased,
a small smile playing on his features. "You can't honestly tell me that you aren't the least bit excited to see all of your
hard work come to fruition tomorrow night. You've been rehearsing your asses off for the past two-three months, right? There
has to be a teeny, tiny part of you that wants to just put everything together for the public already."
part that's excited, sure," Cara agreed, "but there are also ninety-nine parts that are scared to death that all of that hard
work isn't going to pay off at all."
Nick shot her a doubtful look, but Theresa was quick to concur with her friend's
"She's right, man. You know she's right. Don't you remember your first concert with the Backstreet Boys?
How paranoid were you?"
Aaron's gaze immediately flickered fearfully to his brother at the mention of the Backstreet
Boys. While he knew Nick had come a long way in the past week, he wasn't entirely sure that his older brother was ready to
acknowledge all of the pain that came with memories of the men in his past.
Nick could feel Aaron's apprehensive eyes
on him, but he couldn't bring himself to reassure the younger man. He was too busy recreating his first onstage performance
with the boys he would come to call his brothers. In his mind's eye, he wasn't even in the apartment any longer--he was below
the stage at Sea World, dressed to kill in one of five matching track suits and jumping nervously to expel his excess energy.
He could see them surrounding him in the small changing area--Howie doing pull-ups on a nearby beam, AJ bobbing his head to
an unknown beat, Brian taking deep, calming breaths with his eyes closed, and Kevin perched on a discarded amplifier.
Pearlman had given them a fatherly pep talk, and Johnny Wright had been all too happy to encourage them from a business standpoint
by impressing upon them the gravity of the performance. By the time management had finally left them alone, they had been
beyond petrified. Even now, Nick could clearly hear the tremble in Kevin's voice as he raised his gaze and offered them a
"Well, fellas...no matter what happens from here on out, we've always got each other. No matter
what we do--fail, fall, flub a line, or fuck up the whole damn song--at least we'll do it together."
once a beacon of light to Nick in the darkest days of his depression, sounded strangely bittersweet as they echoed against
the silence in his head. Despite his fear of failure, he'd been the eager one of the group during the early stages of their
career. When the others were nervous, he was merely anxious to
perform. The chaos of his daily life was a realm ruled by
the unknown, but the stage was always familiar terrain. Onstage, he and his brothers could band together and use the music
as a way to escape the confusion of their ever-changing career.
Over the years, they had all come to rely on the performances
as their one true thing. Well, the performances and the brotherhood.
For once, the memory didn't pain him.
Instead, it made him wonder if there was more truth to Aaron's reassurances than he'd been willing to acknowledge.
Aaron admonished in a hiss. The glare he shot his friend could've easily burned a hole through her forehead.
okay," Nick assured him with a dismissive wave. His gaze was still fixed on the scene in Sea World's performance prep area.
"She's right," he acknowledged with a small smile. "We were petrified. Hell, I was afraid I was going to wet my pants on the
way to the stage."
"Did you?" Cara asked teasingly, a hesitant smile on her dark features.
Finally, Nick seemed
to return to the present, and his gaze rose to meet Cara's. "No," he laughed. "Thank God. We went onstage, and we sang through
"Without a hitch?" Theresa finished with a skeptical eyebrow arched.
"I'm not sure I'd go that far,"
Nick chuckled. "I'm sure one of us screwed something up over the course of the performance. We did have a lot of fun, though."
He shook his head ever so slightly at the memory, and the others waited in silence for something--anything, really--to break
the spell and uncover the
sullen, angry pop star to which they had become accustomed.
Nothing came except Nick's
"Those were the good days, huh?" he chuckled. "You guys are scared shitless now, but...come tomorrow
night, you're going to be bouncing off the walls with the excitement of having finished a performance in front of a whole
bunch of people." He glanced up shyly and laughed at his own dramatics. "Consider those my words of wisdom, okay? I'm kinda
tired, so...I think I'm going to turn in for the night." He took a few steps forward and wrapped his arms around Aaron, who
returned the hug in bewilderment. "Thanks for all of your help today, bro. You...you made fun something that could've been
really, really painful."
"Sure thing, man," Aaron replied quietly, taken aback by his brother's uncharacteristic display
of emotion. "You know I'll always be here for you."
"Yeah, I do," Nick agreed, "but that goes both ways now." He punctuated
the remark with a sad smile as he released his younger brother and trudged off in the direction of his bedroom. "Ladies, if
I don't see you before tomorrow night's premiere, then break a leg."
"Thanks," Theresa chuckled.
Cara called gently. As soon as the older man's door was closed, she turned to Aaron in shock. "What the hell happened to him
"No shit," Theresa echoed. "He's, like...emotional and good-natured and shit."
me about it," Aaron muttered incredulously. "This whole day has been like something out of the Twilight Zone. I mean, it's
really nice to be able to have real conversations with him and everything, but...it's weird," he fumbled, chuckling nervously.
"I'm so used to protecting him from himself that this new, mature model
kinda freaks me out."
"Why?" Theresa demanded
with a smirk. "Because you feel like the younger brother again?"
"Something like that, yeah," Aaron agreed. "Being
in the studio with him today...it shaved, like, five years off of our relationship."
"That's almost enough to forget
everything, huh?" Cara prompted with a small, understanding smile.
"Almost, yeah," Aaron agreed, pulling her into a
hug. "For a while, at least. I owe you a thank-you, though."
"Oh?" Cara responded, eyebrows high. "Why's that?"
has it you've been teaching Nick to sing again," Aaron answered quietly. "When I walked into the studio, I heard this gorgeous,
rough-edged tenor singing a really sad song about how lonely he wasn't, and I was completely and totally floored when I followed
the sound straight to Nick." He swallowed forcefully, surprised to find tears in his eyes all of a sudden. "It...he sounded
amazing, C. A lot older than he used to, but...all of the passion was still there, and..." He paused to catch his breath as
a sob threatened to escape. "It means a lot to me to know that that Nick still exists."
Cara smiled sadly and reached
up to wipe away the tears that were slowly making their way down her boyfriend's cheeks. "Oh, honey...of course he does. You
always knew that."
"I'd hoped," Aaron corrected pointedly, "but it's not just wishful thinking anymore."
hate to be the bearer of bad news in the midst of an emotional triumph," Theresa began hesitantly, "but he's not exactly out
of the woods yet. He's still got plenty of time to screw up."
"Yeah, he does," Aaron conceded with a small smile, "but
I don't think he will this time."