Hero
Chapter Seventeen
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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

You're gonna go to the record store
And you're gonna give `em all your money
Radio plays what they want you to hear
They tell me it's cool
I just don't believe it
Sell out with me (oh, yeah)
Sell out with me tonight
Record company's gonna give me lots of money
And everything's gonna be all right

"Now, they have their press kits, so they're probably going to ask you a few generic introduction questions. However, you are on tour with Nick Carter, so don't be surprised if they start prying into your personal life once they've gotten the general music stuff out of the way. They don't pay radio DJs to be polite, and because you refused to put any questions on the forbidden list, they're probably going to take full advantage of their uncensored air time."

Keelia rolled her eyes. "Dude, she's got it. She's golden. You've already given her this speech four thousand times this week. You're freaking her out, okay?"

Elena sucked in a breath and arched an eyebrow skeptically in her artist's direction. "Are you sure you're cool with this?"

Adia leveled Elena with a serious expression. "I'm fine. If anything bad happens, Nick's going to be there, and he's already agreed to field a question if I freak out over it." Upon seeing the look of panic on her manager's face, she quickly amended the comment. "I won't, of course...but just in case."

"The 'just in case' isn't going to be necessary, though, because Dia's going to kick all kinds of ass," Jason interjected firmly. "She's gonna charm the pants off the DJs just like she charmed the pants off Mr. Hot-shot New Yorker."

"Seriously," Shane agreed. "Hell, 'Lena, she charmed the pants off of you, remember? She's more than capable of handling a five-minute on-air radio interview."

Elena looked at each of the band members in turn and finally expelled a sigh of resignation. "I know." She turned to Adia with a frank countenance. "Look, I know you're a smart cookie, okay? I trust you to handle yourself on air. I just...it's a stress load, and I don't want you to feel like you've bitten off more than you can
chew."

"She hasn't," Shane stated firmly, wrapping an arm around his best friend's younger sister. "Besides, it's not a load she has to shoulder alone. She's got us to lean on if the going gets tough. That's what we're here for. We're the safe haven."

"Yeah, we're the refuge and the peace and yada yada yada," Jason grumbled, waving a hand in dismissal. "Enough of the super-intense Hallmark session, okay? Forget Adia...y'all are starting to freak me out."

"You deserve it," Keelia retorted without batting an eyelash. "He's right, though, Elena. It's going to be fine. Go secure things with the station and leave us alone so we can goof off a little before Adia has to be all professional and shit."

Elena cast them one last uncertain gaze before hurrying off the bus to take care of last-minute arrangements. As soon as the door slid closed behind her, Shane turned paternally to his favorite female musician.

"Okay, now that she's gone...how freaked out are you?"

Adia sighed nervously. "Scale of one to ten?"

Shane nodded, and Adia bit her lip in apprehension. "Eleven," she admitted. "I mean, I've talked to a large group of people live before, but they've always been fans, and...radio? It's going to be broadcast all over the freaking city. If I say something stupid, it'll be immortalized."

Shane rolled his eyes good-naturedly. "Adia, this is you we're talking about. You're not going to say something stupid."

"In fact, you'll probably say something wildly intelligent and impress the hell out of those crackhead DJs," Jason added pointedly. "I mean, that college degree has to be worth something, right?"

Adia sighed heavily. "I guess. It's not that I'm worried about the musical questions--those I can answer. It's the personal questions that are going to render me retarded."

"Just tell them to mind their own fucking business," Keelia muttered.

Adia's eyes widened in horror, and Shane bit his lip to keep from laughing at Keelia's stereotypical reaction. "I think 'no comment' might be the more politically correct option."

Adia smiled uneasily in resignation. "Yeah, that's what Nick said."

Keelia shook her head in mock disgust, but there was a twinkle of amusement in her eye. "That sounds like the Backstreet Boy, all right. He's always got to be so fucking polite..."

Jason and Shane exchanged looks of mild surprise. The comment was caustic enough to be Keelia's, but there was no malice in her tone. Ever since Nick's night on their bus (which had, incidentally, turned into three more random bus sleepovers), Keelia had been much less hostile towards the Backstreet blonde. Nick had begun to spend copious amounts of his free time with Adia, though, and neither Jason nor Shane was sure that a coupling wasn't in the works. The guitarist was the first to indirectly voice his concern.

"What else has Nick been telling you?"

Adia shrugged. "He's just been telling me DJ horror stories for the past few nights, so I'm a little scared that the air staff is going to eat me alive."

Jason rolled his eyes in annoyance. "The Carter kid's been telling you horror stories?"

"He probably has a shitload of them," Keelia pointed out, folding her arms across her chest. "Of course, he's got a reason to collect them. He's hella shy, right? Besides, he spent a lot of time doing radio when he was younger, and he probably couldn't string a fucking sentence together."

"Still, he knows how worried you are, right?" Shane persisted. "He shouldn't be telling you things that are just going to freak you out more."

Adia bit back the amused smile that threatened to surface at Shane's big brother attitude. "I don't think that was his intention, Shay. Quite the contrary, I think he was relating his experiences as assurance that, regardless of the stupid things I might do or say on air, he's got me beat."

"That's his appeal, though, right?" Keelia chuckled. "Cute and stupid?"

Shane was too preoccupied with Adia's reassurances to pick up on the opportunity to tease Keelia, but Jason was far from distracted.

"Cute and stupid, eh? So you think Blondie's cute..."

Keelia rolled her eyes in annoyance. "No. He's neither cute nor stupid. I simply meant that..."

"You meant that he's a freakin' hot tamale," Jason grinned. He playfully began to nudge the bassist with his elbow. "Come on, Keels, admit it. He's melted your lustful lesbian heart. In fact, he's got the kind of dimples that make you want to tongue him up and suck him off."

Keelia groaned in disgust. "Oh, please..."

"I knew it!" Jason crowed. "Just one little joke has you begging for mercy, man! He SO turns you on!"

"Jason, shut up!" Keelia snapped. "Not only is he a Backstreet Boy, but he has a fucking penis! He SO does not turn me on..."

"Oh, he so does," Jason teased mercilessly. "He makes you want to be bad..."

Shane groaned at the reference to the one hit wonder. "Dude, leave Willa Ford out of this."

"No shit," Keelia retorted. "The only thing that sucks more than that song is Willa herself."

"You're just jealous because she was sucking Nicky," Jason taunted gleefully. "Admit it."

Adia was about to come to her bassist's rescue when the back pocket of her jean skirt began to vibrate.

As a precaution, Elena and the ladies of Righteous Babe Records had provided Adia and her band with cell phones. An increase in press inevitably meant more time spent on the phone and at appointments, and Elena wanted a way to reach her favorite musicians at all times. Unfortunately, Adia had yet to familiarize herself with the device--she definitely wasn't used to the feeling of the phone as it vibrated against her butt. God, this is so freaking weird...

She snatched it out of her back pocket and flipped it open immediately with the expectation of Elena's voice in her ear. "Hello?" she asked politely. Mentally, she was rehearsing her apology for her tardiness to the radio gig.

"Hey! How's my favorite radio star?"

Adia's eyes widened in surprise. "Ace!" she squealed delightedly, moving away from her bandmates so she could hear him better. "How the hell did you get this number?"

"Shane sent it to me when he mailed your letter," Ace answered with a grin. "You're sending the No Doubt one to radio, huh?"

"Yeah," Adia admitted sheepishly.

"It sounds like there's a lot of stuff involved in that," Ace commented casually. "Are you cool with everything so far?"

"I think so," Adia agreed. "I'm cool with introducing the music to people--that's why I got into this business in the first place. I'm excited and nervous for people to hear the song, but, unfortunately, I have to do a few radio interviews first so I can get my name out there."

"Sounds like fun," her brother remarked gently.

"I hope so," Adia sighed. "You have, like, the best timing in the world, though. I've got my first on-air interview in about fifteen minutes."

"Yeah, about that timing," Ace chuckled. "I might've had some help with that one."

Adia's gaze drifted to Shane, who was deeply engaged in teasing Keelia, and made a mental note to thank him later.

"I don't care how you got the information, Ace--I'm just glad that you called. I'm totally freaking out over here."

"Aw, sis...there's no reason to freak out. You're the interviewee, okay? They can ask you anything they want, sure, but you have complete and total control of how much information they get. It's like any other conversation, okay? You don't have to tell them anything you don't want them to know."

Upon hearing her brother's reassurances in his calm, gentle baritone, Adia took her first deep breath of the morning. She could immediately feel her muscles relaxing. Like any other conversation. That's easy, right? I can do conversation.

"Thanks, Ace. I think I needed to hear that."

Even over the phone, she could feel his grin. "I know you did. That's why I called you from halfway across the freakin' world to tell you how amazing you are."

Adia's smile bloomed beneath her curtain of brown hair. "I love you, big brother."

He laughed. "I love you too, little sis. Now, tell me more about this Backstreet Boy. I need an update. How are things progressing on that end?"

Adia dropped onto one of the couches in the back of the bus and smiled in relief at the change of subject. "Really well, actually. You know how I told you he'd been interested in one-on-one heart-to-hearts with me?"

"Yeah..." Ace answered tentatively. Ever since his sister's last update, he'd been worried about the Backstreet Boy's intentions. I mean, hell, he says he's shy, but...Dia's amazing, and Nick's a guy. I'm sure he wants a piece of her, and I am SO not okay with that.

"Well, the night the band and I were debating about moving the song to radio, we decided to ask Nick's advice, and we dragged him on the bus with us for the evening." Adia smiled in amusement at the memory of the bumbling Backstreet Boy attempting to get down to business in front of Ani Difranco.

"How'd that go?" Ace inquired with a laugh. "Did Keelia and Jason scare the living fuck out of him?"

"He was really nervous around them at first," Adia acknowledged with a chuckle, "but he managed to hold his own okay. He was actually pretty helpful with the industry advice aspect of our decision-making process."

Ace expelled a quiet sigh of relief. Maybe he is just a nervous musician who admires the band. "That's good. I'm glad to hear that our hooligan friends didn't scare him to death."

"Oh, they scared him," Adia admitted, "but they couldn't have scared him too badly. He's been hanging out with us off and on ever since."

*      *      *      *      *

"I feel like I've entered the fucking Twilight Zone."

On the other end, Howie bit his lip to keep from smiling at the unconventional greeting. "Well, hello to you too, Nicky."

A reluctant sigh ensued. "Hey, Howard. How are you?"

"I'm good," Howie chuckled. "Thanks for asking. Now, why do you feel like you've entered the Twilight Zone? Are you really that surprised that people like your music?"

The joke got a tiny chuckle out of Nick, just like Howie knew it would. "Fuck you! No, seriously, though...D, this tour is fucking nuts. It's weird enough to be out here on my own, but being out here on the road with Adia and her band is just fucking insane."

"Why?"

"Because it is! Fuck, Howie, you know me...I'm just a stupid kid who likes to sing a lot and occasionally picks up a guitar, just for the hell of it. I'm not all that cute, and I'm not all that smart. I'm not the kind of person who says things worth listening to, either."

"Point?" Howie teased, and Nick rolled his eyes in annoyance.

"I'm getting there, asshole."

"Just checking."

Nick sighed heavily. "Yeah, so I'm a moron, but I've suddenly got the insanely talented opening act listening to every damn word I have to say. Hanging on it, even. It's fucking creepin' me out, man!"

Howie's brow furrowed in distaste. He'd originally taken to Nick's Adia because she seemed to be the antithesis of the quintessential Backstreet girl. He was unpleasantly surprised to hear that she'd suddenly begun to worship the ground Nick walked on. Man, he so doesn't need another chick like that. I thought this girl was smart?

"So she finally fell victim to pathetic infatuation, huh?"

Nick's brow knit in confusion as he leaned back against the tour bus's overstuffed leather couch. "What?"

It was Howie's turn to roll his eyes. "She's gone and fallen for you. That's why you're creeped out, right?"

Nick chortled. He couldn't help it. The idea of him with Adia was far too absurd for words. Hell, she could do SO much better than me, and she knows it. She might not be the most beautiful girl in the room, but she's got one hell of a brain. She's so freakin' far out of my league...

"No! God, no. No, she's still focused solely on intellectualism."

Nick's reassurance was enough to redeem Adia in Howie's eyes. "So what's the problem?"

"Well, the intellectualism is the problem, really," Nick sighed. "She...she fuckin' thinks I'm smart, D. She's consistently drawn the attention of the critics at the shows so far, and so Jive is pushing for her to send a single to radio."

"Up the tour publicity," Howie clarified. Nick nodded, grateful for someone else who knew the industry as well as he did. Hell, Howie probably knows a lot more than I do. He actually paid attention when all the shit with Lou went down.

"Yeah. Of course, she's innocent where the industry's concerned, so she and the band didn't bite immediately. Instead, they sat there and weighed pros and cons on their own for awhile."

"For awhile?"

"The night they found out, I dropped by their dressing room to congratulate them on a good show, and they flagged me down and demanded advice."

Howie bit back the smile that threatened to surface at the thought of Adia's coffee shop crew accosting Nick in shy mode. "Did you give it?"

"Not immediately," Nick admitted. "Honestly, they freaked me out. They're...God, Howie, they're so talented, but they're so freaking clueless. They're still at that stage where everything's about the music, and I'm...I'm jealous. They don't know shit about industry politics, but they're a lot more focused as a result. They're not thinking about what is and isn't marketable. In fact, you know what their sole worry was?"

Howie's eyebrows rose in obvious interest. "What's that?"

"They were worried about feeding Adia to the media mutts."

Howie's surprised expression faded to a nostalgic smile. He knew they had been equally as innocent at one point in time, and the thought warmed him. Of course, we're too far down the road to go back now. We know too much. We've been screwed over too many times.

"So what'd you tell them?"

"I'm getting there," Nick groaned. "I tried to tell them that I don't know enough to help them out--I mean, they're light years beyond us and our dance pop crap--but they wouldn't really take no for an answer. They insisted that I join them on their bus for the evening with their manager and--get this--fucking ANI DIFRANCO."

Howie's eyes widened impressionably. "Ani DiFranco? The indie folk-rock queen?"

"None other," Nick affirmed. "She's...God, Howie, she's so freaking personable. She's the fucking head of their label, and she didn't event try to steer them in a direction that they weren't comfortable with. She just sat there and listened while they hashed it out. It was...it was so fucking surreal, man. I'd make some half-assed, inarticulate suggestion about image consultation, and Ani would just kinda nod her head in agreement, and...it was ridiculous. The way they looked at me…unreal, man. Totally fucking unreal."

"You've got experience, Nicky," Howie pointed out gently, drawing a deep, apprehensive breath. More than anyone, the Backstreet peacemaker was aware of his younger brother's fragile emotional state. "I'm sure you were able to provide them with a lot of helpful advice. I mean, we've been through a lot."

"Sure," Nick agreed, "but I don't want them to go down our road, D. They're here for all the right reasons. Jason's there to rap the snare, Keelia's there to slap the bass, Shane's there to shred the melody, and Adia's just there to share her music. Sitting there on that bus, having them stare up at me like they thought I could actually HELP them...that's a lot of fucking pressure, you know? God, How, they're even more innocent than we used to be!"

Howie chuckled lightly, calling to mind the image of a restless blonde thirteen-year-old. "Nicky, I don't think anyone could be more innocent than we used to be. We entered the business in the clutches of Lou Pearlman, for God's sake. It doesn't get much worse than that."

"Exactly!" Nick cried. "We were that innocent, and Lou destroyed any and all na´vetÚ within the first two months. If we had our happy-go-lucky attitudes shoved down our throats that quickly, how long before Adia and them get ass-raped by the assholes in this business? How long before they stop appreciating it? How long before it stops being fun? How long before Adia stops in front of every mirror and sucks her stomach in a little or stops by the catering table and starts taking a mental tally of the calories available?" He paused for breath, suddenly exhausted by his outburst. "Fuck, Howie..."

Howie frowned deeply. "Nicky, calm down, okay? They just asked you to give them advice. It's not like you've agreed to take them under your wing." He swallowed forcefully and decided to drive the point home. "It's not like they've already started calling you Big Poppa or anything."

Nick let out a snort of disgust. "No. Thank God. And I know all of that, it's just...they're sending the single to radio, D. They decided that the pros outweighed the cons, and they're sending the song off." He sucked in a deep breath in hopes of regaining a bit of composure as he struggled to articulate the fears that had formed a malignant mass in the darker recesses of his mind. "I know it's not my career, and I know the decision doesn't mean they'll go our way, but...I don't want her to deal with that, D. Hanging out with her has been like therapy for me. She's got her head on straight, and she doesn't give a shit what people think about her,
and...I don't want to see her lose that. I don't want the scrutiny to get to her the way it's gotten to me."

Howie sucked in a deep breath, considering the weight of Nick's words.

"You were right, D. She...she challenges me. She forces me to think outside the stupid-ass superficial bubble they've forced us all into, and she...she's just so fucking REAL. I don't want her to lose that, you know?"

"For your sake, or for hers?"

Nick cracked a small, sad smile. Fucking Howie. He always knows the right questions to ask. "Both," he admitted quietly. "She reminds me of everything that used to be good about this."

"How so?"

"Like that night, on the bus," Nick began, "their manager, Elena, found this fan site of theirs where some girl's been posting all of their bootlegs. She told them about the site, and they so totally didn't believe her." He laughed, remembering the band's excitement when he'd admitted to having a wireless connection. "They asked me to log onto the internet so they could see for themselves, and they threw a fucking party when they found out that Elena hadn't been kidding. They were SO fucking excited, it just..." He trailed off, unable to find the right words to
describe the moment. Story of my life. I don't ever know the right fucking words. "Do you remember the first time we heard 'Quit Playing Games' on the radio in the US?"

Howie laughed. He remembered the incident like it was yesterday.

"Of course I remember, Nicky. How the hell could I forget something like that?"

They'd been driving in a van together on their way back from the airport. At the time, the group was ridiculously successful in Europe--in fact, they'd just come off the end of a European tour. In America, however, they were entirely unknown. They'd been discussing their mixed feelings about 'no fan land,' the term they'd come to use to describe the states, when manager Johnny Wright turned the radio up and hollered for them to listen.

"Do you remember the feeling that went through you when the DJ said 'Backstreet Boys'?" Nick persisted. Howie shook his head in amazement.

"God, yes. Best feeling in the world."

The van had been silent for a few moments while the sounds coming from the speaker registered. As soon as the Boys recognized the song as their single, they'd made so much noise that the driver had to pull onto the shoulder of the road.

"When we got out of that car and started dancing and singing at the top of our lungs?" Nick continued, laughing openly now, "that's how they were. They were that freaking ecstatic. It was ridiculous."

"But wonderfully so," Howie finished knowingly. "Damn, I'd forgotten about that." He was silent for a moment as he continued to muse over the past. "God, we had fun back in those days."

"Yeah, we did," Nick agreed softly, his serious mood returning. "We had a blast."

Howie hated the sadness in his younger brother's voice. Remembering the past made him smile, but it always led him back to the knowledge that whatever they were doing wasn't fun anymore. That's why we're on hiatus, right? We're supposed to be recharging our batteries.

Howie shook his head in amusement. Only Nick would recharge his batteries by going back out on the road.

"We had a lot of fun, Nicky. Hell, we had five good years before we decided to take a break. That's a long time."

Nick sighed. "I know. I just...I feel like I know how the story ends, and I don't want this to be their ending."

"We didn't end, Nicky," Howie pointed out quietly, but firmly. "Backstreet is not over."

"No, but we're fucking entrenched in industry politics now," Nick grumbled. "Even if we do decide to do another record, we're still stuck with the mainstream title and 'I Want It That Way' and critics that can't wait to write about another trip to rehab and...and...and that stupid fucking Burger King commercial."

"Of course we are," Howie sighed. "We're a band, Nicky. What's more--we're brothers. Be it good or bad or in-between, we've got a history."

Nick rolled his eyes in frustration. "I know. I get that. I just..." He trailed off with a sigh. "I don't know what I'm trying to say anymore."

"You're just worried for them because you remember the pain you've endured," Howie explained eloquently. "There's no shame in wanting to shield your friends from harm."

"It..." Nick heaved another sigh. "It's a little bit selfish, too."

Howie smiled knowingly. Sheepish and tentative. Same old Nick. "I know. You want Adia to stay innocent."

"Thanks for that, Sarah McLachlan," Nick retorted with a roll of his eyes.

"What? It's the truth."

"Yeah, but it's more than that," Nick sighed. "It's...it's purely selfish this time. She's piggybacking my radio slots, D. We're going to be doing interviews together and shit."

"And?" Howie probed, waiting for the punchline.

"And you know me," Nick muttered. "I'm not all that cute, and I'm not all that smart. I'm not the kind of person who says things worth listening to, either."

"But Adia does," Howie finished knowingly.

"Yeah," Nick laughed hollowly. "Yeah, she does, and she's too humble to ever acknowledge it, but because she's amazing, press with her is going to destroy my ego."

Howie felt bad asking, but he knew that his younger brother needed one final prompt. "Why's that, Nicky?"

Nick's sigh bled through the phone slowly, a small stream of static against the uneasy silence. "Because it's just one more way that I'm not good enough."

"Sell Out"
lyrics and music by Reel Big Fish
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