Chapter Eleven
His Prelude
Her Prelude
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
Chapter Thirteen
Chapter Fourteen
Chapter Fifteen
Chapter Sixteen
Chapter Seventeen
Chapter Eighteen

I'm numb, a shell of empty thoughts
But you glow
You stretch and pull me out
Does that trouble you?
Does that trouble you?
Love me, hate me, let me live again
I need you around
Hurt me, heal me, let me live again
I want you around

"And then she smiled up at me, thanked me for the conversation, and told me that we should make midnight stops a regular thing," Nick paused, attempting to digest it all. "It was seriously one of the weirdest conversations I've ever had in my life."

On the other line, Howie expelled a nervous breath. He'd seen Nick ruin more than one good thing with a girl that made him nervous. "How so?"

"She nailed me, man. She totally fucking nailed me, and it didn't even faze her. It's like she could see right through my soul or something. And you want to know the weird thing?"


"For once, I wasn't uncomfortable with a serious conversation. Shit, Howie, I actually had a decent discussion about music with her. Not just notes and rhythms and tastes, either. We were talking about the shit behind the storyline."

There was a gentle laugh on the other end. "She sounds like a great girl."

Nick sighed heavily. "She is. She seems like it, at least. She's just..." There was a pause. "She's so not like me."

"How so?"

"There's no uncertainty. Nothing. She never second guesses herself."

Howie frowned. "Why is that a bad thing, Nicky?"

"I don't know..." He wormed himself deeper into the couch. "She doesn't give a shit about what other people think."

"Again...why is that a problem?"

Nick furrowed his brow in thought. "Well, she has no fashion sense, for one."

"Neither do you," Howie interjected with a laugh. "Next?"

"She's not pretty."

"She sounds pretty," Howie countered.

"No, she's not conventionally pretty," Nick amended. "She's not...she's not model-beautiful."

"Not everyone can be as beautiful as you are," the older man retorted with a snort. "That's hardly a reason to dismiss her."

"I know," Nick muttered. "That's the problem, Howie. I don't care that she's not pretty. I don't care that she doesn't give a shit about her wardrobe. I don't care that she hides her beautiful eyes under the ugliest glasses known to man. I should, because I usually do, but it doesn't...it just doesn't matter."

"You should because that's the standard by which you've been taught to judge people?" Howie groaned. "That's really obnoxious, Nicky, no offense."

"I know, but I can't help it sometimes," the younger man sighed. "That, and it isn't even an issue with her. It was at first, but now...she seems so far above all of that shit."

Howie burst out laughing.

Nick's frown deepened. "Hey! Why are you laughing at me?"

"Because you crack me up," Howie replied jovially. "Congratulations, Nicky. You've finally found an intellectual connection with a girl."

He groaned. "Fuck."

"No, man, that's a good thing!"

"No, it's not," Nick countered with a sigh. "She's insanely smart, Howie. INSANELY smart. She's also insanely talented. At first, I thought we could definitely swing some kind of friendship because she's not physically intimidating, but she's got a brain bigger than R2D2's. There's no way in hell I'm going to hold her attention."

"You held it well enough last night," Howie pointed out. "I mean, didn't she say she'd love to do it again? She doesn't sound like the type of girl that would just throw those kinds of lines out there."

"No," Nick agreed, "but it was painfully obvious that I'm inadequate."

"Inadequate how?"

"Intellectually," Nick answered pointedly. "I spent the entire conversation stumbling over words and saying the wrong things. Had she been any other girl, she would've been too offended to continue the conversation after the first five minutes."

"But she wasn't."

"No, she wasn't. I don't have any idea why she wasn't, but she wasn't," Nick sighed. "I don't know what I'm trying to say."

"You're trying to get out of another encounter with her because she's a challenge," Howie explained gently. "She pushed you out of your comfort zone."

"She ate two waffles, an order of scrambled eggs, and two pieces of sausage!"

Howie flinched at the volume in Nick's voice. "What the hell does that have to do with anything?"

"It was midnight, man."


"So how's she going to work it off?"

"Maybe she doesn't need to. Some people just have that kind of metabolism," Howie shrugged. "She's not overweight, is she?"

Nick frowned petulantly. "No, but..."

Howie cut him off. "What are you really angry about, Nick?"

He sighed loud and long, expelling a breath that he felt he'd been holding since he began his conversation with Adia over twenty-four hours ago. "She makes me feel stupid."

"How does she make you feel stupid?"

"Things like weight, things like clothes, things like outward appearances...she just doesn't give a shit. She's so focused on what's inside of people, what makes them tick and why they do what they do...she just makes me feel so fucking superficial."

Howie bit back the laugh that threatened to surface. "That's because she's real, Nicky."

Nick jabbed his hand angrily into the back of the couch. "Dammit, I know that! I know she's real, and I know I'm not! I just hate that I notice it so much when she's around."

"So you don't nearly hate her as much as you hate what she makes you realize about yourself."

"It's not even that," Nick mumbled. "I just...I'm jealous of her, I guess. She doesn't care about any of that superficial bullshit because she doesn't HAVE to. No one's depending on her sexuality to sell records. No one's looking to her appearance to determine whether or not her single is ready for airplay. She doesn't have to give a shit because no one else does."

"There's no physical pressure," Howie finished.

"Exactly! No one has their eyes on her, watching her every move and waiting to see when she'll fuck it up."

Howie sighed heavily, recognizing the younger man's insecurity. "Nicky...no one's waiting for you to fuck up."

Nick laughed bitterly. "Yeah they are. The press is. Jive is. Hell, even AJ and Brian are."

"Brian's just upset right now..."

"He's being a jackass," Nick agreed with a hollow chuckle. "But maybe he's right. Maybe I do deserve it. Maybe I am an idiot to be doing this, and maybe I am just going to fail."

"Nick! Cut it out, okay? You're not going to fail! Hell, you've already succeeded! Your video's on TRL, the single is getting airplay, and you have a sold-out tour underway. Granted, you're playing smaller venues, but the shows are getting good reviews." He paused to take a breath. "And Adia agreed, didn't she? You said that she was impressed with 'Do I Have To Cry For You.'"

He was flattered that Adia was familiar enough with his music to quote song titles back to him, but it warmed his heart more to know that Howie had paid attention to his record to the point that he could quote from songs. Initially, there had been a lot of hard feeling over the solo record, and he was glad that Howie had moved beyond that.

"Yeah, she was. She actually managed to justify it, too."

"You mean she had a good reason for being impressed?"

Nick laughed. "She made it sound good. Like I said, she's really intelligent. She knows all these big words and makes me look like a stumbling dumbass."

"Maybe because you ARE a stumbling dumbass," Howie teased with a giggle. "No, seriously, man, she wouldn't have kept talking to you if she wasn't entertained. She doesn't seem like a girl who wastes her time."

Nick rolled his eyes. "Irving would probably tell me I'm wasting MY time."

"Why? Because she's not your normal type?"

"Nah, because she's not the type that's gonna get me publicity," Nick groaned. "Man, some days I wonder why I'm getting publicity. All they pitch me as is a pretty face." He sighed heavily. "Sometimes, I don't feel like I'm much more than that."

"Whatever," Howie muttered. "You can sing your ass off, Nick. You know that."

"Do I? Am I really talented enough to be doing this?"

Howie frowned. "Why are you worrying about this?"

"Because! Think about it, Howie! My opening act is more talented than I am, and fucking Justin Timberlake is blowing me out of the water. Neither AJ nor Brian will support me on this solo thing. Sure the video's on TRL, but what if someone comes along who's prettier, hotter than I am? Will I fall off the countdown?"

"Maybe so," Howie sighed. "But Nicky, that doesn't matter, okay? You shouldn't be doing this for the attention. You should be doing this for you."

Nick sighed heavily, his tone softening with his willpower. "D, how can I not be doing it for the attention? This whole album is geared towards attention. All of the songs that the label picked, all of the video shots, all the interviews...they're never about the music. They're still about my favorite color and what kind of underwear I wear to bed at night."

"Did you tell them that you sleep naked?" Howie piped up.

Nick rolled his eyes. "I'm trying to be serious, How. And, no...I stopped sleeping naked awhile ago."

Howie could feel them venturing into dangerous territory. "Why?"

"I don't like the way I look when I'm naked," Nick admitted with a frown. "It's just easier to cover things up."

"Nicky, are you kidding me? For fuck's sake, you lost twenty pounds before you started promoting this record! That's amazing, and you know it."

Nick flinched. When Howie cursed, things were serious. "Maybe so, but you know as well as I do that I won't be able to keep all that weight off."

It was Howie's turn to roll his eyes. "Nick..."

"What? That's what it's about, and you know it. Don't try to play the good Samaritan here. You know how this business is. You're a fucking part of it, remember? What happens if you gain weight?"

"Nothing," Howie chuckled lightly. "I'm not the cute one."

"Fuck you," Nick snarled.

"Nicky, calm down, okay? I don't know who put these thoughts in your head, but..." Howie stopped. That was a lie. He knew exactly who had put those thoughts in Nick's head, because they were in his head too. He'd just learned to get around them. He knew as well as anyone, though, that Nick's insecurities ran much deeper. "But you should know just as well as I do that Lou Pearlman's a bastard."

"Duh," Nick retorted. "But the Firm is a lot smarter, and they've said the same thing on more than one occasion."


Nick hated the pitying tone in his friend's voice. "That's not the point, Howie. I'm a big boy, and I can handle it. It's just...it's a lot of pressure, you know? And talking to Adia...she doesn't even consider the physical stuff. She's the only girl I've ever met that doesn't look at me like she's trying to figure out how many serving sizes I am."

"No, she measures you in tracks and notes and range," Howie replied pointedly.

"Yeah," Nick agreed, "but that's who I am. Singing is who I am, and she gets it. We've had one fucking conversation, and she already gets more than half the damned fan population." He paused. "I mean, fuck, Howie, she talked to me last night like an equal. That fucking amazing artist talked to me like an equal! Either she's out of her mind, or she's just really polite, but either way...it's the first time since this whole Backstreet fiasco that I've had someone treat me like I had enough talent to get by without the looks."

"You ever think she was able to do that because she does see you as an equal?" Howie asked.

Nick laughed bitterly. "That's so not possible."

"Maybe it is, kiddo. Maybe you need to spend more time with this girl. She seems like she's good for you."

"Between you and me?" Nick chuckled. "I think she is, and it's scaring the holy hell out of me."

"Live Again"
lyrics and music by Better Than Ezra