She looked out the window. It was a perfectly nice day outside – the sun was shining and there wasn't much in the way of wind. It was quite different when she actually surveyed the area through the window.
Her fingers dug into the pleather seats as she watched. There were some people scattered on their properties still cleaning up. It had been two weeks since the earthquake – one of the most devastating to hit California. Malibu had been hit the hardest, and though Brittany lived halfway across the world the news couldn't be escaped.
And though she hadn't been back to Malibu since before the birth of her first child, she figured she should at least go see how the house she still owned was holding up.
As she pulled up in front of it, she grimaced. Maybe “up” wasn't the right term.
She paid the driver, leaving a generous tip before getting out. After punching in the familiar gate code, she walked up a little bit closer.
It didn't look anything like she remembered it. Of course, the last time she'd been there had been a week before her wedding – ten years prior.
Brittany dug her feet into the sand and twisted the ring on her finger. She just watched and listened as the waves crashed up onto the shore.
No one knew she was there and it was sort of comforting.
It wasn't as though she'd run off – she hadn't. She'd just gone out for a drive and ended up...
Well, she'd ended up going to visit Nick as best she could.
“This sucks,” she muttered aloud, falling onto her back and looking up at the sky. At first she'd felt weird about talking to Nick, but she'd done it so much that it was just a comfort now.
Never when anyone else could listen, though. Much like their friendship had, these conversations involved only the two of them.
“Not that I don't want to get married,” she clarified, because she could almost see Nick raise his eyebrow and ask her if this was what she really wanted. Letter or no letter, she knew that her fiancee wasn't Nick's favourite person. If nothing else, had he been alive he likely would have made multiple jokes about her being a runaway bride.
“I really do,” she sighed with an easy smile as she stared at the stars above her. “It's just...I don't know. Maybe you know, since you're probably all-knowing or whatever.”
She laughed against the backdrop of the waves. “No, of course not. I hope you're not all-knowing. I hope you're still you, up there.”
She walked past the house and out towards the beach behind it. Not only did she have no desire to go inside and revisit any memories that lived in there – it also didn't look safe. The roof was practically caved in.
Instead she sat down on the beach and looked out at the water. It wasn't dark like it usually was when she sat out there, but that was alright. She checked her watch. It was just past 2 in the afternoon.
She sighed and stood up. Along with surveying the damage, her trip back to America was about to serve another purpose. One that she wasn't looking forward to at all.
LA wasn't Brittany's favourite place. And sitting at what used to be one of her favourite lunch spots only solidified her feelings that she just didn't belong there anymore. The food was the same, the atmosphere was the same. The only difference was that the man sitting across from her was much older than when she'd seen him last.
She couldn't even really remember that. It had definitely been before she'd moved to London – probably at the same time she'd sold her condo and was working on getting all of her legal stuff out of the way. And that included singing into a new record contract with Howie, who had been left Kaotic when Nick died.
“You haven't released an album since you were twenty-five,” he said, looking at her from across the way.
Brittany shuffled uncomfortably in her seat. She was well aware of that. But her time as a teen idol had expired, and she wasn't exactly interested in making a comeback as a washed up singer.
She liked her life in London. It was hardly low-key. It couldn't be, and it never would be. But she had settled into a routine with her husband and two kids. There were no more world tours, no more album releases, no more long days of promotional interviews.
It was just the four of them, and even if there was the occasional photographer or fan outside their house, it was still better than what she remembered.
“I know,” she said.
“You could,” Howie said to her, nodding a little bit. “You could go back to the studio and write about whatever you wanted.”
She shook her head. She wouldn't even know where to begin. The last time she'd been in the studio had been with Nick.
“You shouldn't let your talent and your passion go to waste,” he said to her.
“It's going to waste,” Nick said, pushing the sheets of lyrics off of the table. “It's fucking bullshit if you think that you'll have control over your own career. That's what they do, Brittany. They make you think you have it all, but you don't. Not until you reach out and take it. This,” he said, picking up a copy of her first album. “Is fucking bullshit. But it can be better. We can make it better.”
“It's not going to waste,” she said stubbornly. “I did it all already. It's finished. That part of my life is done.”
But Howie just shook his head.
“I'm not a commodity,” she said, almost through gritted teeth. She didn't even know why she'd agreed to meet with him. She knew it was just going to be about her recording a new album. And she supposed that was even fair – they hadn't had any contact for years. He'd left her alone to do her own thing and as far as she was concerned she was going to keep doing it.
“I didn't say you were,” he said gently. “But don't you want to do this? Wasn't this your whole world at one point?”
She looked at her glass of water, not really wanting to meet Howie's eyes. How could she even begin to think about going through all of that all over again? It wasn't like she could go back to how things were.
“You can do this without him,” he said slowly, and Brittany had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from crying.
She didn't have a lot of time to think about it. She spent the rest of her trip to America dealing with the legalities of her property – which included signing off on getting the house torn down.
She did have a ten hour flight back to London, and while that did leave her with some time to be introspective, she spent the better part of it knocked out on account of the two sleeping pills she'd taken as soon as the plane left the runway.
All these years, and she still couldn't manage to keep herself awake for an entire flight.
It wasn't until she was back in her house that she actually spoke about her meeting. The words left her mouth unintentionally, like they were there all along and waiting for the right person to hear them.
“I had a meeting with Howie,” she said slowly, sitting up in bed as she watched Niall pull a t-shirt over his head. She had to smile at it, because it was old and one of many that were sitting in piled up boxes in their storage room.
He looked back at her, waiting for her to continue.
“He wants me to record another album,” she said as though she was talking about something much more mundane than rebooting her career.
He looked back at her and moved to sit down on the bed.
“And?” he asked, putting his hand on her shoulder and brushing her hair away slightly.
She shrugged, looking down at the bedspread. “I don't know. It'd change our whole life.”
“Do you want to?” he asked, ignoring her statement.
She shrugged again. She sort of did, but the thought of it scared her so much that it was easier to just say she wasn't interested and be done with it. “You're not recording anything,” she pointed out.
“That's because I can't,” he said. “The others aren't interested in doing it, and contractually I can't record a solo album.”
She nodded sheepishly. She knew that – and she also knew how much it was probably killing him to not be able to go into the studio and create. To not be able to branch out on his own and try something new because of being constantly held back by a stupid contract he'd signed at just seventeen.
“I don't think I can either,” she said sadly. It sounded stupid because she very much could – the opportunity was being dropped in her lap.
But Niall knew what she meant. He always did. “You can,” he said seriously, but then his expression softened. “You can do it without Nick.”
Brittany shook her head, and the tears are starting to brim in her eyes again. Moving to London and abandoning everything about her old life had been vital in moving on after Nick's death. Falling face first back into everything she'd known before was dredging everything back up again.
“He did everything,” she nearly sobbed, fiddling with her hands as she kept looking down. “I'd be so lost without him.”
“He didn't,” Niall said shortly, and Brittany rolled her eyes because his opinion of Nick holds no weight with her. The only time the two of them had ever spoken was when they were arguing. “Did he go on tour with you? Did he close out the AMAs? Did he have multiple number one singles?”
She nodded, even though she knew full well what he meant.
“You did all of those things. Yeah, you two probably created magic in the studio. But you were one half of that.”
She shrugged, still not really buying it. “He was the better half,” she said in a small voice.
“No,” Niall said to her firmly. “You built that career, and you had it before he showed up. Don't forget about that. Fuck, Brittany,” he said, putting his head in his hands for a moment. “Don't you want to take this opportunity? Don't you want to look at this as a way to see what you can do on your own?”
“That's what it was with Nick,” she said, getting annoyed now. “That was the whole point of me signing with him, so I could control my own career.”
“But you didn't, did you?” he said with exasperation. “You just said yourself that you depended on him and that he did most of the work in the studio. So you didn't go off on your own, you just moved onto working with him and he was the one controlling your career. He used your fame and your success to get his washed-up face back out there.”
She glared at him, stunned and unable to speak.
“I'm sorry,” he said, still looking annoyed. “I didn't mean -”
“Don't,” she said, her breathing heavy and her face hot. Long ago she had trained herself not to blow up at him. The last thing she wanted was to wake her kids up by way of screaming at their dad. It was rare that they fought, but when they did it was awful – and it was usually because of the way their personalities clashed. Her aggressive one against his passive one.
Him calling her out like that was nearly unprecedented.
“Britt,” he pleaded, moving in closer to her and falling back into his old way of doing things.
But she just laid down, faced away from him and closed her eyes until she fell asleep.
The next morning, Brittany woke up early. Her body was still not quite adjusted to the time change, so she didn't feel overly rested.
She rolled over and nearly rolled her eyes. Here was Niall sitting cross legged on the bed, his guitar in his lap. He just smiled at her and strummed it easily.
“'Cause I am hanging on every word you're saying. Even if you don't wanna speak tonight, that's alright, alright with me. 'Cause I want nothing more than to sit outside heaven's door, and listen to you breathing,” he sang softly.
“What's that?” she asked, her annoyance with him lowering with every note he hit.
He shrugged, setting his guitar down at the base of their bed. “Just something I wrote this morning.”
“You could have it,” he said softly, smiling and looking down at her. “Use it on your album.”
“I'm not,” she began to protest, but she was cut off.
“Stop it Brittany,” he said, shaking his head. “We both know that you are.”
She spent a solid two months in the recording studio. She didn't leave London – not eager to pick her kids up and transplant them to another country. So with the help of Niall (who, despite her constant asking, only contributed the one songwriting credit), Howie and a couple other producers back in the day, she was able to cut an album she was proud of.
“It's not right,” she said, looking over the tracklist late one Friday night.
“It's perfect,” Niall said to her. “We've gone over it dozens of times.”
“I feel weird about it,” she said, looking over all of the songs. Some of them were upbeat, most of them weren't. All of them had her name in the writing credits – something none of her previous albums had.
None of them listed N. Carter as a writing credit. And that's what seemed so wrong about all of this.
He took the paper from her hand and read over it again. “Is there something else you want? Do you want to change the order?”
She shook her head.
“Something you want to take off, then?”
Again, she shook her head.
He sighed. “Something you want to add.”
She pressed her lips together. That was the problem. There was nothing to add. Nothing that could fix what was painfully missing. There was nothing new that was going to come from Nick and land in her arsenal. The only thing she had left were songs that had been written and recorded years ago.
“I want to do a cover,” she said suddenly, and Niall sighed.
“You're not covering a Backstreet Boys song, Brittany.”
But she just shook her head. “One of Nick's songs,” she said, and Niall gave her a look. “I'm not, I didn't...” she protested, knowing exactly what he was probably thinking.
He looks at her sadly, and she can't really read him. “You must have a little bit,” he said finally, and she could feel her heart breaking as he watched her. “But it's alright.”
Despite Brittany's best efforts over the years, she had never learned how to play the guitar.
That was why at the end of her set of her first show, Niall joined her out on stage. He sat down on a stool beside her, grinning the whole time. It's was the first time they'd ever actually shared the true spotlight.
Her tour wasn't huge – just a month of dates along the west coast over the summer. It hadn't been easy, dropping her kids off to stay with Niall's mum while they were away, but as soon as she was back out on stage it made it easier.
She'd forgotten how comfortable she'd felt up there.
She looked over at her husband and smiled. His musical accompaniment was much needed, but it wasn't the only reason he was sitting up there with her.
“Um,” she said into the mic, looking out at the crowd who had only started screaming louder when Niall showed up. “This song isn't one of mine, and it's kind of old, but it's important to me. And the person who wrote it is important to me too.”
She looked over at Niall again at he just smiled at her, dipping his head down as he picked at the strings.
“People tell me you stay where you belong, but all my life I've tried to prove them wrong.”
It wasn't an easy choice, picking which of Nick's songs to cover. He had a lot of them – five solo album's worth. Falling Down had been her first choice. It had always been one of her favourites, but it was too dark and far too difficult for her to even listen to, let alone perform.
There were others, but only one was the clear winner.
“It's funny how life can take new meaning,” she sang, opening up her eyes and looking out at the crowd. After all this time, it amazed her that people were still there supporting her. That she still had an audience for her shows and that she could still fill an arena such as this one.
She looked over at Niall who was obviously in his element, but trying to contain himself because this wasn't his show. At least this way she could get him back on stage. She could help him get back some of that attention he'd passed on to her when she'd first been starting out.
“The world on the outside's trying to pull me in,” she kept singing, still looking at him. He must have felt her eyes on him, because he looked up at her and grinned.
“They can't touch me, cause I've got you...”