Nick was learning to hate each moment he had to spend pretending to be that guy.
This wasn't the way he'd planned it in his head, when this had all begun, when he thought that he'd finally be good enough to be somebody. Now he was a doll, a thing to look at and play with and feel free to abuse because he wasn't real. They could change his hair and change his clothes and change the way he moved and it didn't matter to anyone what he was inside. And if he should break, well, he could always be replaced -- there were a hundred more, who looked just like him.
He flipped another page, compelled to finish looking at the magazine even though it was no different than any of the others. Now AJ's face stared up at him, his dark glasses hiding his eyes, hiding his thoughts. They were probably the same uncharitable ones he shared with the rest of the group only after the photo shoots were over. At least that way he could keep himself intact. Nick felt exposed, every time he went out there for the cameras. Felt like whoever he was had to be hidden deeper and deeper to prevent him from being seen.
He turned the page again to see a picture of the five of them -- and didn't these magazines print pictures of anyone else any more? -- and stared for another moment, unpleased.
"You look cute," said Brian, taking the seat next to him and looking over his shoulder at the magazine. "All bright and shiny and pretty. That was a good shoot." He ruffled Nick's hair and gave him a brotherly smile. Nick just looked at the picture and scowled, then closed the magazine and tossed it away.
"Hey, what'd you do that for?" asked Brian, tickling Nick's side, clearly trying to make him smile. "You look down," he added after a moment, pointing out the painfully obvious. "Come on, I'll get you some ice cream." He tugged on Nick's hand, and Nick obediently followed.
That night, he snuck out of his room and tracked down AJ, and went and got his first tattoo ... at a hole-in-the-wall shop that was just exactly what he'd imagined it would be.
Suddenly, in all the pictures, he was the tallest one, looking like a sweet man-child, staring out at all the adoring fans who bought these kinds of things.
The tallest, yes, but still thin and wiry and boyish and looking slightly -- what was that quaint term Howie used, thinking it sounded cute? -- oh, rakish. Which was always a term that Nick thought applied more to cocky, offbeat, British men, not gangly teens like himself. Besides, they always made him slouch or crouch to make him look smaller anyway. Younger. Prettier.
"You always look so cute in those," said Kevin, looking at the pages in Nick's hands in approval. "No wonder you're the one all the girls scream for out there." He laughed as though he thought that was the most adorable thing, and gave Nick a fatherly hug.
"Yeah, I do," agreed Nick blandly, because he did. His skin was airbrushed to perfection, his hair artfully mussed, his smile brightened. And somehow they managed to add a sparkle to his eyes. If he was a teenage girl, the Nick in these magazines would be his favorite, too, and he'd daydream about meeting that sweet boy, who clearly hadn't let stardom go to his head.
"You should have kept the shirt from that shoot," said Kevin thoughtfully, looking at the magazine again. "It really brought out your eyes."
"Sure did," muttered Nick. It wasn't until Kevin left the room that he dropped the magazine into the trash. It was a token gesture; he knew he would come back later and fish it out and add it to his own growing collection that documented his evolution as a pop icon. Pages and pages of pretty, pretty pictures of him.
He stood up straight and tall as he left the room, not slouching or crouching, his skin imperfect, his hair falling naturally. That was the night he decided to get a shark on his arm. Something with bite. Something that actually meant something, to him if to no one else.
They didn't let him go topless much after that, which suited him just fine, even if it was for the wrong reasons. He started to fill out and suddenly no amount of slouching made him seem like a kid anymore, so they had to change tactics. A new look -- some artfully tousled bedhead and a little less juvenile clothes -- and they were back in business.
He still gave the cameras that sweet, naive smile ... like someone had stopped time when he was 13 and he still liked to just hold a girl's hand and wanted someone with a 'good personality'. Instead of someone who was big enough to hold him down when they fucked, and who liked to be tied up once in a while and kissed so hard they both came away swollen, bruised lips.
He did a little interview on his own with Teen, his keepers hovering nearby to be sure he said all the right things and smiled at the right times and flirted just the tiniest bit with the interviewer so she came away wanting to say charitable things about him even though he didn't look his best, and his very real flaws couldn't be airbrushed away in person. He rather liked it that way, though.
"So what does it feel like to be one of the most popular boys in America?" she asked brightly. Boy. Of course boy, because that was what he was good for. Men weren't cute and cuddly and suitable for dates for freshman dances. A man wouldn't lean against your locker and pick you, out of all your friends, to be his girlfriend.
Nick just chuckled shyly and looked down, knowing how sweet and sincere that made him seem. "I don't think about it much," he lied sweetly. "I'm just a regular guy, you know? And it's pretty hard for me to meet people, anyway, because I'm so busy working all the time."
And that was about the truest thing he'd said in an interview in a long time. Besides which, the people he met he didn't really meet anyway, not in any meaningful sense.
"And of course there's the most important question," she went on, her cheeks flushed with excitement. "Boxers or briefs?"
He wanted to say he wore whatever people wanted him to wear, but knew he couldn't get away with it so he forced a blush and said, bashfully, "Oh, wow, that's private," then chuckled and chewed a fingernail and added, "it used to be briefs but now it's boxers." Which of course it wasn't, it was boxer-briefs when it was anything, but boxers was the right answer to that question.
They wanted pictures before he left -- no, not studio shots, but hug-shots for the walls, which of course he had to be happy to give. Because, after all, that was what he was there for. To be photogenic and sweet and be everything that they'd hoped he would be.
And the very next magazine interview he did, he invited them along when he got his third tattoo. His biggest tattoo. There would be no hiding this one, not this time. There would be no pretending it wasn't there. There would be no denying that there was a real Nick inside the doll.
'They tried to take that away from him, too, suddenly branding him as the young rebel, with that tiny edge of dangerous that sent little thrills through the teenies' bodies. Not dangerous enough to be a threat, just dangerous enough to be more exciting than all the boys in school. Just dangerous enough to make them feel rebellious and special.
His tattoos were tasteful and colorful and innocent. Non-threatening, just like the rest of him. He got to show them off now, especially if he was next to AJ, who made him look like a big, cuddly pussycat.
AJ looked him up and down, smiling at how he looked in the jeans and the wifebeater and the backwards baseball cap. "Put your glasses on and you'll look like a college boy," he teased, grabbing the peak of his hat and twisting it sideways. "Always the dreamboat."
Nick twisted the hat forward and shadowed his face with the peak, pulling it low. "How about now?" he asked, crossing his arms and scowling.
"Ghetto fab," laughed AJ. "If we get you a jersey, though I bet we can make you look all athletic." He examined him again critically, curling the peak of the hat even more. "Yeah, you could pull that off."
"I'm sure I could," mumbled Nick, imagining how 'high school athlete' was probably another big fantasy. Another person he could be with the right clothes and the right expression and a talented photographer. Another pin-up for another wall.
His next tattoos were big and black and ran down his arm and couldn't be easily hidden. They said important things in a way that few of his fans understood.
Then they said all sorts of things about him. That he was fat. That he was dumb. That he was lazy. But he was always popular and he was always pretty and that was the most important thing. All he had to do was be vapid and smile and give the girls a thrill.
Oh, and sing, but that was an afterthought. As, really, it always had been with him. Being able to perform and move his body in the right ways and flirt at just the right times were critical; singing was just an excuse to do everything else.
Howie peeked around Nick's arm to see what he was reading that had put such a foul look on his face, and sighed. "Don't listen to them," he said in his quiet, sincere voice. "They don't know what they're talking about. The don't know the nice guy that the rest of us do.
Nick accepted the hug, even as he entertained the suspicion that if Howie knew a nice guy, then Howie didn't know him all that well either.
He didn't even have a real reason this time, as he snuck out of the hotel and into another hole-in-the-wall tattoo parlor. There was no little thing that set him off, no moment that told him it was time to go seeking this again. The opportunity presented itself and he went with it.
A sun this time, something bright and shiny and stylized -- like he was supposed to be -- but something that maintained a constant burn inside. Something that could change you forever if you got too close, that could burn you out in a second, but could also give you a gentle warmth. Something else that no one but him would understand.
He sat still in the chair and let his mind drift as the artist went to work, and imagined that every stab of the needles returned a tiny bit of his soul.