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“I don’t know about this,” I mumbled gloomily as we stood backstage. The microphone in my hand was warm and slightly clammy because of my sweaty hands. “How do you guys always remember those steps? I’m totally going to mess up, I can feel it.”

“If you wanted to complain, Howie, you should have done so years ago,” Nick’s voice resounded from the very end of the line. He didn’t sound annoyed or accusing, but rather cheerful. He knew I was going to mess up one way or another, and it didn’t seem to bother him at all. I sighed, a bit relieved. In the past, even the tiniest of mistakes would have been picked apart and scolded for all eternity. We would totally fall over who stepped wrong where, who forgot his line where and who didn’t change his clothes on time where. No wonder we needed a break.

I felt a bit better, knowing that I could rely on my intuition and memory to get the steps right. Even if I screwed up, nobody in the crowd would really notice until one of the other guys would put emphasis on it - which they would totally do, of course- and then it would just turn into something we would laugh about and forget after a day. It didn’t really matter.

I frowned slightly as my gaze drifted to my left.

Brian was frantically hopping from one foot to another and if I had to guess, I would assume he desperately needed to pee.

He probably did.

Nerves do funny things to a man’s bladder. And Brian tended to take nervousness to the extreme. If I was worried about getting some steps wrong or not standing in the position that I should be standing in, I couldn’t imagine what would be going through Brian’s head at this very moment. Everything about him seemed tensed and if he could, I know he would be hiding somewhere in a bathroom right now until the show was over. I wanted to go over to him and tell him that it was just two songs; that it would be over before he knew it, but I knew that it wouldn’t help. In fact, I think he would snap at me if I even so much as pretended to comfort him. Instead I just stood there and watched, hoping that he wouldn’t go into complete panic mode until after we had done our job.

I remember the cocky teenager with that unreal thick accent that had joined the group years and years ago. We’d already heard a great deal about him from Kevin and by the time Brian came to the band house, I had pictured a large, dark haired young man with a deep voice. Kinda like Kevin himself. They were family after all.

The moment I came back to the apartment, on my way home from college, everybody was already there. They were gushing and smiling and curiously, I went to see what they were so happy about. I was sort of stunned when I learnt Brian was as tall as me, blond and barely looked his age. Kevin said he had recently turned eighteen, but when I looked at him, I would barely give him sixteen. Maybe even fifteen. Certainly not three years over AJ. He’d had kind of a charm about him though when he introduced himself. The ice broke with that warm, twangy accent of his and I asked him what his experiences in singing and dancing were. Turned out that aside from church and school choirs, he didn’t know a whole lot about singing. I had questioningly turned to Kevin, wondering what had convinced him to bring Brian all the way over here. Kevin just winked at me. I’m sure Brian had my uncertainty, because he had raised his eyebrows and smiled, “Oh don’t worry,” he had said innocently, “Kevin says I’ll do background.”

My uneasiness didn’t go away. Don’t get me wrong, I loved that we had finally found the missing piece, but it seemed a little too good to be true, know what I mean? When we finally came around to singing together for the very first time, my suspicion that Brian had a similar range to mine was confirmed. Nevertheless, the mixture of voices sounded close to perfection on the first try. Despite his lack of experience, Brian had known exactly which melody to follow, how to manage his volume and how to expertly weave his voice around those of ours.

He was a natural.

We needed a natural.

I don’t remember if I realized it then or not, but at one point, I knew Brian would one day come in and take the spot on the foreground that had previously been reserved for me. And I was right. The first two years or so, Brian remained in the background, and he seemed to be just fine with it. Kevin, me and AJ had taken most of the leads and that had gone on until we at last got our record deal and went to Sweden. It was then that I realized just how inexperienced we all really were. We went into that studio and completely gave up control. Producers knew what was best for us. And they didn’t want the Howie D sound for this group.

They wanted a natural.

I am not afraid to admit I was jealous when Brian went in for those solos and absolutely killed them. My pride black and blue when I heard the producers and executives talking like they had found the rough diamond they’d been forever looking for. I was tossed aside, not very much a part of the preset formula that was the very start of the Backstreet Sound. We were all not very surprised when the final cut of that first album was mostly Brian and AJ, with a little Nick thrown into the mix. Kevin fulfilled most of the low notes in melodies and I did my best to be heard on the high notes.

It took me a long time to get used to it. The next albums were made of the same formula, the safest bet, they would say. What worked in the past; continues to work in the present. He didn’t admit it until years and years later, but producers and other rich people had offered Brian his own solo album from the very start. I remained jealous of him for a very long time, until the moment I came to see what the pressure to succeed was doing to him. He changed. The stress and pressure he put on himself was noticeable as early as two albums in. And with it came the nerves and the anxiety. He was easily put off, would sometimes snap out of nowhere and would be absolutely terrified when something didn’t go as well as he had imagined.

And over time I realized, that although naturals had a miraculous sound about them, they also lacked proper techniques and exercise. Brian’s accent had faded in time, and so had his voice.

He shot me a horrified look when the signal to go onto the stage was heard. I shrugged, feeling my heartstrings tug at the panic in his eyes. Then I nodded and winked, as if telling him not to worry, I got this. His eyes followed me insecurely as we walked onto the stage. He had lost weight, I noticed, as I purposely messed up all the dance steps I could get away with. Better put emphasis and attention on something that can easily be corrected, I thought, than to force that attention on something that does not seem to want to go away.